Sunday, February 26, 2017

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone


Opening Passage: From the prologue, giving the backstory of the diamond:
I address these lines--written in India-- to my relatives in England.

My object is to explain the motive which has induced me to refuse the right hand of friendship to my cousin, John Herncastle.

Summary: In 1798, Napoleon landed in Egypt, and one of his goals was to disrupt the British possessions in India. He found a very willing ally to this end in Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Msyore right in the heart of South India, who had been engaging in an ongoing struggle with the East India Company, and wanted to reclaim territory previously lost after a humiliating defeat in the Third Anglo-Mysore War. The result of Tipu's willingness to ally with France was inevitable, given British worries about the French: another war. And the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War was a brutal one. The British, allied with the Marathas Confederacy and the Hyderabad State, marched into Mysore and rolled over everything Mysore had; Tipu Sultan was besieged in his fortress of Srirangaptna, also known by its Anglicized name of Seringapatam. British artillery smashed through the walls, and Tipu Sultan himself was killed.

And, according to our story, in the looting of Seringapatam that followed a young and ruthless John Herncastle seized one of Tipu Sultan's treasures, the Moonstone, a fabulous yellow diamond, very large with a small flaw in the center. How Tipu Sultan had come to it, we do not know exactly, but it was after a long line of thefts and lootings already. The Moonstone had originally belonged to the people of Somnauth, which had been destroyed centuries before, and had been part of their religious devotion to the moon god; but generation after generation three priests charged with guarding the stone had followed it, unable to retrieve it because of the force of arms around it, and yet always watching. With the death of John Herncastle, who wills it to a relative, Rachel Verinder, India comes to England. But the thefts of the precious stone are not yet done.

The structure of The Moonstone is in many ways an odd one; the actual strict puzzle-story at its center is not essential to the broader context, nor is the broader context essential to the (fairly interesting) puzzle-story beyond providing some obfuscation throughout and some partial resolution toward the end. The puzzle is not solved by any one person; the solution is not integral to the plot but episodic, so that the key to its solution within the story itself is getting the views of the right people at the right time. This actually fits very nicely with its multiperspectival approach to narrative -- we get eleven different narrators through different parts of the tale -- so there's nothing to complain about, but it very definitely is a novel structured by characters more than by the actual detective-puzzle at its heart, which mostly serves just to create miscommunication among the characters.

The real detective of The Moonstone is, in a sense, the reader; it is the reader who is the one person who is constantly throughout the story piecing together what must have happened and why on the basis of the different documents provided. This is done quite well, and, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the high praise for the novel throughout the years. No one character solves this detective story; no one character manages to put it all together. But the reader is in the position to do so, through the many twists of the story, and it is the fact that we ourselves are participants in trying to piece together the story that makes it work, even despite the fact that a few of the twists are a little strained and implausible in themselves.

Given the novel's setting, it inevitably touches on issues of both British imperialism and the class system. The class system causes one death and a lot of drama by the end of the story; the lower classes are very definitely not invisible or mere background in this tale. And Collins plays carefully off the exotic character of the Indian priests while at the same time conveying the general sense that their claim to the Moonstone is in some sense the right claim, despite the long centuries since their actual possession of it. When one considers that this was written ten years after the Sepoy Mutiny, the sympathy of the tale for the people of India is notable.

I also listened to both the Suspense and The Weird Circle adaptations of the tale. The two-part Suspense version (35 and 36 here) was less good than I was expecting; I think Peter Lawford was perhaps not the best casting choice for Franklin Blake here, particularly given that cutting The Moonstone down requires that Blake have a much larger role, in terms of proportion, than he does in the novel. The first part was thus slow-moving, although the second went much more swiftly. The Weird Circle single-episode version (67 here) was certainly much swifter. Unsurprisingly, Weird Circle plays up the supernatural legend of the Moonstone considerably more than either the novel or the Suspense version, to the point of committing to the truth of it, which Collins very carefully does not do. As such it turns the story, while still recognizable into a tale of Westerners messing with ancient powers they do not understand, which is a twist.

Both radio series end up cutting out the multiperspectival storytelling almost completely; this makes the stories easier to follow, but also much less rich. All in all, while the Weird Circle version was good and the Suspense version OK, this is not a story easily adaptable to radio. One reason I often do the radio adaptations when I can is that they bring out features of the original by their shifts. (The most dramatic so far has been Dracula, in which the radio adaptation, by cutting down on the communal character of the victory, made clear just how important to the original that communal character was, because tampering with it changes the tenor of the story considerably.) And I think what's brought out here is that the multiperspectival storytelling is not a mere means of structuring the novel; in some sense it is the novel, and the plot is just a way to thread it together. Take out the divergent perspectives and you have something very different. The story also becomes less funny; Betteredge and Miss Clack are humorous narrative voices whose absence is felt.

Favorite Passage:

I felt another pull at my coattails. Gooseberry had not done with me yet.

"Robbery!" whispered the boy, pointing, in high delight, to the empty box."

"You were told to wait downstairs," I said. "Go away!"

"And Murder!" added Gooseberry, pointing, with a keener relish still, to the man on the bed.

Recommendation: Recommended.

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