Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Moonstone - a Master-Class in Fiction.

Wilkie Collins's (1824-1889) The Moonstone (1868) continues to give much pleasure to its readers. Why exactly is this? Romance, crime and mystery are audience-pleasing topics. The exotic invasion of an English country house by “A devilish Indian Diamond” (The Moonstone, Period 1, Chapter 5) and its symbolic link to a young woman’s sexuality, spark interesting ideas. And yet, as so many Victorian sensation novels vividly demonstrate, exciting and sensational subject matter does not guarantee an exciting and sensational tale. Interesting social and psychological themes are not on their own sufficient to make an interesting story. Literary craftsmanship is needed to create a narrative with lasting appeal.

In his Preface to The Moonstone, Collins writes that he was going to attempt something new and different: “The attempt made, here, is to trace the influence of character on circumstances.” The conduct of the characters, right or wrong, would direct the course of events. This does not mean that Collins planned The Moonstone to be full of well-rounded characters with finely-nuanced internal lives. Whatever Collins’s plans, The Moonstone is still very much a plot-driven novel, but the main force shaping and driving the plot is the characters’ conduct based on their psychological make-up. Fundamentally, the mystery of the diamond’s disappearance is created and sustained by two young women’s (Rosanna Spearman’s and Rachel Verinder’s) feelings for one young man (Franklin Blake). If Rosanna had been any less hostile to the world around her, or Rachel any less firm in her sense of righteousness, The Moonstone would have been a much shorter novel. The stubbornness of these women is essential to the plot.

Characterization in The Moonstone is not brilliant. Miss Clack is a stereotype; Gabriel Betteredge is a bore. Rosanna Spearman, Limping Lucy Yolland and Ezra Jennings are tragic cases of melodramatic misery. The Moonstone shows that it is not necessary for a skilful narrative to depict interesting internal lives of characters as long as they have the essential quality of consistency. In The Moonstone, each character ‘stays in character.’ Gabriel Betteredge is boring throughout, Franklin Blake is fidgety and Godfrey Ablewhite charming from the beginning to the end. The characters in The Moonstone have plausible backstories, even if they are sometimes partial or only implied. When we consider Collins’s treatment of life’s underdogs, Rosanna, Lucy and Ezra, the narrative offers explanations for their odd-ball demeanour. It makes it possible for the reader to accept why Rosanna might hate the world and why Lucy might rage against men and why Ezra might find Franklin and Rachel’s love for each other so compelling. The characters are not only consistent in their conduct throughout the novel; they are also consistent in terms of their (fictional) lives.

The Moonstone, like The Woman in White (1859), employs the technique of multiple narratives. Franklin Blake, in some point in the future, is collating statements from eye-witnesses for the benefit of the family archives. The chosen method, by necessity, introduces several points of view for the narrative and this makes the story more interesting. It divides the long novel into smaller pieces, with each new voice revitalizing the story for the reader. Collins handles his narrative method well; he avoids describing the same events from different angles, but he does use his method to provide several angles (like the reflecting facets of a diamond) to the main characters. Miss Clack’s views on Rachel, Franklin and Godfrey Ablewhite differ significantly from those of Mr. Bruff. Despite this, the central characters maintain their consistency: they are viewed differently but they do not become different. Where Rachel’s stubbornness is insolent, foolish selfishness to Miss Clack, it is admirable firmness of principle to Mr Bruff, and incomprehensible cruelty to Franklin Blake.

Stylistically, Collins does not entirely succeed. The voices telling the story should be individual and different. Collins contrasts Miss Clack’s fervent piousness with Mr. Bruff’s dry style. Gabriel Betteredge’s voice makes slow progress and rambles, and Ezra Jennings shifts between romantic melodrama and scientific precision. But many of the characters share Collins’s verbal mannerism of a distinct sentence structure. It starts with Gabriel Betteredge: “He had kept the Diamond, in flat defiance of assassination, in India. He kept the Diamond, in flat defiance of public opinion, in England.” (The Moonstone, 1st period, Chapter 5) A similar coupling of repetitive openings of sentences spreads to Mr Bruff: “Here was another of the marked peculiarities in her character disclosing itself to me without reserve. Here was her sensitive horror of the bare contact with anything mean …” (The Moonstone 2nd Period, 2nd Narrative, Chapter 1). It is picked up by Franklin Blake: “I knew that the Diamond was at the bottom of it, last year, and I know that the Diamond is at the bottom of it now.” (The Moonstone, 2nd period, 3rd Narrative, Chapter 2) It is found in Ezra Jennings’s diary: “Here, again, there is a motive under the surface; and, here again, I fancy that I can find it out.” (The Moonstone, 2nd period, 4th Narrative) This mannerism of repetition for effect, is present in Collins’s other novels, too. Although it gives his prose an identifiable, typical lilt, it does a disservice in a story with multiple narrators.

The overall plot of The Moonstone is simple and clearly divided between its four sections: “The Prologue,” “The Loss of the Diamond (1848), “The Discovery of the Truth (1848-1849) and “Epilogue: the Finding of the Diamond.” We are introduced to the Diamond; then it disappears from Rachel Verinder’s Indian cabinet. All the clues to resolve the mystery of its disappearance are given up front. And they all seem to support Sergeant Cuff’s conclusions. The second half of the novel works its way back from these erroneous conclusions as the investigation by the family forces reveals the truth.

Within this wider structure, the unravelling of the mystery proceeds through a series of minor mysteries, mostly created by Rosanna’s and Rachel’s unusual behaviour, but also involving others, even minor characters like Mr Luker and the Indian jugglers. Collins uses this classic mode of plot progression so superbly because he does not under-estimate his reader’s intelligence. In a mystery story, there is nothing worse than for the reader to figure out the solution early on and then having to hang around until the narrative catches up.

The reader is very much inscribed in the novel. Gabriel Betteredge addresses the reader directly, assuring her that “we shall be in the thick of mystery soon” (The Moonstone, 2st Period, Chapter 4) and warning her to “Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad when we get deeper into the story.” (Ibid.). There is a clear assumption that the reader’s interest is in resolving the mystery and she, too, is suffering from ‘detective-fever.’ At any new clue or turn of events, the novel expects that the reader will draw conclusions relating to the mystery of the Diamond. And as soon as the novel expects a reader has solved a problem, it gives the answer.

For example, When Miss Clack Mr Bruff analyze the case, Miss Clack vouches for the innocence of Godfrey Ablewhite and Mr Bruff declares Rachel Verinder honest. An attentive and engaged reader automatically considers the possible guilt of the third central character: Franklin Blake. Miss Clack suggests this next: “surely there is a conjecture to make which has not occurred to us yet. … Mr. Franklin Blake was also at the house the time ….” In order for Mr Bruff to explain why Franklin is innocent, too. (The Moonstone, 2nd Period, 1st Narrative, Chapter 3). Similarly, when Miss Clack tells how Mr Bruff takes Rachel for a walk and soon afterwards Rachel breaks her engagement, the reader assumes that there is a connection between the two events. This connection is revealed in the following narrative by Mr Bruff. 

A slightly different example of how Collins respects his reader’s intelligence is when Rosanna buys “an old japanned tin pan” and “a dog-chain” from Mrs Yolland (The Moonstone, 1st Period, Chapter 15). Sergeant Cuff immediately realizes how Rosanna was going to use these items: “All perfectly plain, so far. ... the mystery is – what the devil has she hidden in the tin case?” (Ibid.) The next step in the reasoning follows: it must be the stained article of clothing she has hidden but why hide it and not just destroy it? Cuff admits: “I have let Rosanna Spearman puzzle me.” (Ibid.) Collins here has presented a small puzzle, the odd items Rosanna acquired, but instead of leaving the reader to with this easy puzzle, in a short space he develops it into a more interesting mystery that is linked to Rosanna’s character. There is no period in the novel, where the reader thinks she knows the solution but the narrative assumes she does not. Even if the reader draws the conclusion that only Rosanna’s passion for Franklin could have led her to hide the stained clothing, and the clothing must therefore be linked to Franklin, the narrative still hides how the Diamond came to be stolen. The central mystery in The Moonstone is a carefully guarded secret; other smaller mysteries are solved with a perfect timing for keeping the reader hooked.
The Moonstone is an extremely well constructed novel. I think it is a master class in the mechanics of writing good fiction. On this score, it is not perfect, but it is about as close to perfection as any novel I have ever come across - including works by Mr Charles Dickens.