The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

Lord bless us! it was a diamond! As large, or nearly, as a plover's egg! The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and shut out the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark.

The Moonstone was my first bookish surprise of 2014 (which bodes well - it's also only the second book I've read so far this year). I never thought I would hate it, and I didn't dread it the way I dread the fifteen or so books I sincerely regret putting on my Classics Club list, but I thought at best I might "quite like it". But no, I loved it very much - it was the only book I read on Saturday and made for a very fun readathon.

Published first in Charles Dickens' magazine 'All the Year Round' in the early part of 1868, then published as a novel in the summer of 1868, it is described by T. S. Eliot as "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels". This is not a genre I favour, which is perhaps why it has sat unread for so long on my Classics Club list, but it really is very well done indeed. It is essentially an epistolary novel (in this instance based on a series of documents rather than letters or diary entries), so, like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Bram Stoker's Dracula,  and many others, we see a variety of perspectives of one event; in The Moonstone, the very endearing Gabriel Betteredge (who is obsessed with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe), the awful Miss Clack (I believe Miss Clack surpasses any of Dickens' creations in absolute vileness! A very memorable character!), the solicitor Matthew Bruff, our hero Franklin Blake, the very compelling Ezra Jennings, Mr. Candy, and also Sgt. Cuff (another great character, whose analysis I dare say would make for an interesting exploration of the history and role of police detectives in the 19th Century). This construct is perfect for a mystery, and gives the reader a unique advantage; it allows the reader to play detective themselves, piecing together the information and attempting to reach their own conclusion before the mystery is resolved at the end (for what its worth, I managed to piece together some parts but not others, so I was very much hanging on until the end to see if I was right in what I'd guessed, and what actually happened regarding the parts I hadn't managed). 

It tells the story of the missing moonstone, a cursed diamond stolen from a shrine in India to the Hindu god of the moon. It is left to Rachel Verinder by her uncle, Colonel Herncastle, who stole it during the Siege of Seringapatam. Three Hindu priests had been trying to recover it ever since, and by leaving it to Rachel he (deliberately) exposes her to the curse, and to the priests who will, it is said, stop at nothing to retrieve it. She is given the diamond on the night of her eighteenth birthday, and it is stolen the same day. But who by, and why? - there is the mystery! 

The Moonstone has some incredibly well-drawn characters, aside from the ones I mentioned in the second paragraph. Rachel Verinder is of exceptional interest, and I very much enjoyed Collins' challenging of gender roles in his portrayal of her. Rosanna Spearman is another great character, but it is hard to explain why without revealing too much of the mystery. Really, it's hard altogether writing in detail about this book, so I'll have to bring this post to a close. All I will say is it is a truly remarkable book, with very vivid, giant characters. I worried that this novel might be a tad too long, and perhaps my interest would wane, but that was not the case - I couldn't put it down. What makes it so great is that it isn't just the mystery alone that is compelling; the characters and beautiful descriptions throughout make it such a thrilling read. Nothing is as one would expect (perhaps, in some parts, even more so for the 19th Century reader).

I'll end with one of these descriptions, that of the Shivering Sand:
The last of the evening light was fading away; and over all the desolate place there hung a still and awful calm. The heave of the main ocean on the great sandbank out in the bay, was a heave that made no sound. The inner sea lay lost and dim, without a breath of wind to stir it. Patches of nasty ooze floated, yellow-white, on the dead surface of the water. Scum and slime shone faintly in certain places, where the last of the light still caught them on the two great spits of rock jutting out, north and south, into the sea. It was now the time of the turn of the tide: and even as I stood there waiting, the broad brown face of the quicksand began to dimple and quiver—the only moving thing in all the horrid place.

Comments

  1. Oh! I'm so glad you enjoyed this! I have plans to read this later this year!

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    1. I shall look forward to your thoughts!

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  2. Okay, now I'm curious as to the 15 books you regret putting on your Classics list. And which ones you regret that you've already read and which one you regret that you haven't read yet ………

    I've only read Collins The Woman in White but he must like the epistolary style because he used the same form in this novel. Collins certainly is able to keep one breathless with uncertainty! And his descriptions are bar-none as exemplified in the example you posted of The Shivering Sands. I can't wait to get to it!

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    1. I've read The Woman in White but I'm ashamed to say I hardly remember it. Perhaps it would be a good autumn read :)

      As for the 15 or so... Let's see....

      1) Blackmore , R. D. - Lorna Doone. I can't get into it.
      2) Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans. Everyone seems to hate it.
      3) James, Henry - The Wings of the Dove. I was really let down by Portrait of a Lady.
      4) Stevenson, Robert Louis - Kidnapped. Not sure why I don't want to read it, I just don't!
      5) Amis, Martin - London Fields. No idea at all why I felt the need to put it on the list. Is it even a classic?!
      6) Fowles, John - The Magus. Someone told me this book destroyed his life. A melodramtic bloke, yes, but I added it because I was curious and now I'm scared of it.
      7) Lawrence, D.H. - Sons and Lovers. Because I hated Women in Love. That said, I'm looking forward to The Rainbow. Sort of.
      8) Rushdie, Salman - The Satanic Verses. Hated Midnight's Children.
      9) Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr - August 1914. Very scared of it!

      Well, there's less than I thought! As for the ones I've already read: I regret how quickly I read In Search of Lost Time. It was a fruitless endeavour and I'm no further forward having read it! Going to re-read it in the summer :)

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    2. I really loved the first three-quarters of The Woman in White but I think it dragged on a wee bit too long. I was wondering what else could possibly happen!

      I can understand your feelings about every single book on that list. The only one that draws me is Solzhenitsyn. Now that I/you mentioned it, I should add one of his works for my Russian challenge.

      Good for you though, to add books to your list that you're scared of. I tend to avoid certain 19th/20th century American authors and I really have to get over it and take the plunge. A Hemingway won't kill me, right? ;-)

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  3. Of course it is only the first, longest, etc. detective novel in retrospect. Later writers thought "Hey, that was great, I will write a book like that" and now we are buried in them.

    It really is a special book - so many great characters.

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    1. It is indeed. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the best of its kind, although I'm certainly not qualified to make that judgement :)

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  4. I read The Moonstone recently during a readalong, and loved it too, although not as much as The Woman in White. I think Wilkie's strength are definitely characters. Clack was my favourite of the bunch.

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    1. Clack is the ultimate 'love to hate' character. She is my favourite horror :)

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  5. I'm so pleased you enjoyed this! I'm still surprised I managed to read this over a month instead of one day. Wilkie has such a talent for creating memorable characters and he does some very interesting things with female characters although, according to Peter Ackroyd's biography, he definitely did not consider himself a feminist.

    I am really looking forward to reading the entirety of his works. I'm thinking of moving on to No Name next...

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    1. I'm definitely going to re-read The Woman in White. I don't have No Name yet, but I do have Basil, so I may move on to that fairly soon :)

      Will check out Peter Ackroyd's biography, glad you mentioned it :)

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  6. I remember taking the book with me when I moved out for university and being kind of tired on my first day because I just had to finish the book at night! Betteredge is one of my favorite characters of his (Marian from Woman in White is definitely first runner up).

    I read that you did not look forward to the Satanic Verses (which I haven't read yet) but I highly recommend you The ground beneath her feet (if you haven't read it already).

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    1. Just looked that up - it does look interesting, I'll see if I can get a hold of a copy. Thanks! :)

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  7. Great! I loved this book as I've loved every single Collins book I've read so far:)

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    1. So have I, but I've only read the two :) Looking forward to starting Basil in the next few weeks!

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  8. Reading all the love flowing for this book again lately, makes me want to reread it. Just to enjoy the sheer pleasure of it again :-)

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    1. I feel the same way about The Woman in White - there's a lot of love for that in the blogosphere right now! :)

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  9. I also loved it. I did not expect it to be this good.

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    1. Yes, I started off reading it more out of duty than anything! :)

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