Friday, August 29, 2014

I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where - some Moonstone narration

The Moonstone is about the theft of a diamond.  The conceit of the book is that one of the prime suspects, Franklin Blake, has asked the various parties involved to write up their knowledge of the case (“’in the interests of truth,’” Betteredge Ch. 1), just their own point of view, as a narrative.  He then assembles the pieces into the complete narrative.  Collins had employed an identical scheme in The Woman in White eight years earlier.  Like Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, “[h]e do the Police in different voices.”

The conceit is preposterous, really, in the sense that almost no one would write an account the way these characters do, in so much detail, at such length, and so well.  The longest section in The Moonstone comes from Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly house steward at the scene of the crime – Betteredge turns in almost 80,000 words, an entire novel.  “I modestly declared myself to be quite unequal to the task imposed upon me – and I privately felt, all the time, that I was quite clever enough to perform it, if I only gave my own abilities a fair chance.”  Betteredge was just waiting for someone to ask.

The result is outstanding comedy – digressions, prejudices, false starts:

Still, this don't look much like starting the story of the Diamond—does it?  I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where.  We will take a new sheet of paper, if you please, and begin over again, with my best respects to you.  (end of Ch. 1) 

Betteredge is succeeded by the amazing Miss Clack, who ranks with some of Robert Browning’s characters among the greatest unreliable narrators of 19th century fiction. Miss Clack is an evangelical Christian, and a vengeful hypocrite, eager to report on her self-martyring virtues and others’ indulgent vices.  She is writing to settle scores, and also for pay.  And of course, like Blake, who is paying her, the truth:

I deeply feel being obliged to report such language, and to describe such conduct.  But, hemmed in, as I am, between Mr. Franklin Blake's cheque on one side and my own sacred regard for truth on the other, what am I to do?  (Miss Clack, Ch. 2)

“Deeply feel” as in “feel pain,” but of course she loves reporting the immorality of others, particularly if it involves, as it does here, the novel’s heroine flirting with the fellow for whom Miss Clack has sublimated longings.  This is also the passage where Miss Clack calls her aunt old and fat (“at dear Lady Verinder's age, and with dear Lady Verinder's autumnal exuberance of figure”).  Please see Professor Maitzen for more fine examples of Miss Clack.

The Moonstone is not, like The Ring and the Book, the same story told again and again from different angles, but rather one story told in fragments, each character contributing his own little piece, with Miss Clack as the extreme case, since it seems clear enough that she does not quite understand what story she is supposed to tell.  She has been tricked by Franklin Blake, although she does rebel, in the postmodern Chapter 6 of her narrative, which is a series of letters in which Miss Clack argues with her author – I mean with Blake – about what is allowed in her story.

But, no – Miss C. has learnt Perseverance in the School of Adversity.  Her object in writing is to know whether Mr. Blake (who prohibits everything else) prohibits the appearance of the present correspondence in Miss Clack's narrative?  Some explanation of the position in which Mr. Blake's interference has placed her as an authoress, seems due on the ground of common justice.

In a novel written later, much later, this chapter would be called postmodern.

These are fun, right?  Let’s do one more tomorrow.


  1. I enjoyed this one far more than _The Woman in White_, which I must confess, I was unable to finish. _The Moonstone_ is considered by some critics to be the first police procedural novel. It's been a while since I read it, but I think Miss Clark was my favorite character.

  2. I was too young, when I read it, to notice these post-modernities; but I remember liking Betteredge; what was the book he was always reading, Defoe?

  3. Betteredge uses Robinson Crusoe for his Sortes Virgilianane. One of Collins's most brilliant inventions. I was thinking about pursuing the idea - for example, checking the passages in Defoe against Betteredge's interpretation - but was too lazy.

    Fred, if you did not finish TWiW, then you likely missed Count Fosco's confession, the best thing in the novel. One might think it is a problem with a novel if it is so clear that a particular section is the best part (and that it is almost at the end). I address this in the post I just wrote.

    Both of these comments helped me focus my attention, so thanks.

  4. Last year I brought my copy of Robinson Crusoe to class the day we talked about Betteredge, to do a hands-on real live prognostication experiment. A stunt, to be sure (though a pretty tame bookish one) -- but whatever it takes to try to keep them all paying attention. :-)

  5. There is something wonderfully perverse about drafting one of the great texts of the Enlightenment into superstition.

    I love the class activity. No, really, this is what the character is doing.

  6. You are right. I did not get to Fosco's confession. I gave up at the point where the women were trying to get a message out and were being stymied at every turn. They were too stupid to realize that the noises they heard while planning their next attempt were caused by people listening to them--even the footsteps in the hall didn't clue them in.

    I really wasn't that interested and this false note was enough to cause me to close the book for good.

  7. Plotty stuff is so tedious, so often - and Collins is one of the best with the plotty stuff.