Saturday, August 30, 2014

You have learnt to talk nonsense seriously - deconstructing The Moonstone

If you agree, as is only sensible, because it is true, that the best parts – best written, the most alive – of The Moonstone are the sections narrated by Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack, and that the best sections of The Woman in White are those narrated by “Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle,” in other words that the best parts of the novels are those narrated by oddballs with strong voices rather than those parts narrated by conventional figures of the ordinary fiction of their time, the dreary, dullish heroes and heroines who would be just as much at home in a thousand other forgotten novels, then you might ask why an author like Collins would not want to write a novel which is narrated only by the lively strong-voiced weirdos.  That is such a good question!  I was wondering the same thing.

Now, in The Moonstone, Betteredge and Clack between them fill well over half of the book, which is a lot.  Add in the short sections contributed by lawyers and policemen and so on, information-packed plot advancers that may be dull to provide a supposedly “realistic” foil for the wackier characters, and then also add in the late section narrated by Ezra Jennings, which I fear is a failed attempt at a more interesting voice, and most of The Moonstone is covered.  It is only a hundred page stretch by the hero, Franklin Blake, that is nothing special but maybe could be.

Blake’s section, to be clear, is interestingThe Moonstone is a mystery novel; the sections advances and deepens the mystery.  But it is not a distinguished piece of prose writing.  It’s all right.

Remember that Franklin Blake is the character who has commissioned and organized the narratives that make up the book, not the novel but the non-fiction book.  Why does he do this?  As Rohan Maitzen asks her students:

Also, how far can we trust the story we think we know by the end, given the doubts Collins’s narrative technique has so effectively raised about first-person testimony?  Do his multiple narrators cumulatively overcome the presumption of unreliability?

Blake was a prime suspect in the theft of the diamond, a suspect for good reason.  By the end of the narrative (but before any of the “documents” are written), he has been cleared of the crime.  The guilty party has been found; the fate of the diamond is known; Blake is suspected of the theft by no one, no one at all.  Yet he goes to the trouble and expense of creating this book, this supposed true story, proving that he is not guilty.  Which is just what he would do if he were, in fact, guilty, if he were trying to prove not just his own innocence but that the case was impossible to reopen.

In this case, the section he wrote becomes the most interesting section of all.  I did not read it this way, because I did not realize that he was the master thief until I had finished the novel.  Next time I read it, I will blow the lid off Blake’s crime.

This will mean nothing to people who have not read the book, but I want to address those who have:  the misdirection is aimed at the Indians.  If Blake wants the diamond for himself, he has to convince the Indians that someone else has it.

Just a few weeks into the serialization of Barnaby Rudge (1841), Edgar Allan Poe wrote a magazine piece solving the mystery of the novel.  In an important sense, this was Poe's second detective story (he was the detective) after "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," published a few months earlier.  Dickens was, of course, not writing detective fiction, so he did not follow Poe’s predicted story at all, but as a mystery Poe’s idea was far better.  Even as a Dickens novel, Dickens’s idea was pretty poor, but that’s another issue.

I have no doubt that most of Collins readers, and Collins himself, answered Maitzen’s questions in the affirmative, but the important thing for later writers, of mysteries or otherwise, was that the questions now had to be asked, and if in this particular novel the answer was “yes,” one could imagine – and some people could actually write – novels with different answers.

The title is from Miss Clack’s narration, Ch. 2, where it does not refer to the content of this post.


  1. "That is such a good question!"

    It really is. Perhaps he felt the need to balance the quirkiness with normalcy. Too much weirdness and it becomes insipid; the calmer bits heighten the stranger ones?

  2. Your explanation is a good one. Lack of inspiration is possible. Or a failure to imagine an alternative to the kinds of heroes and heroines so common in Victorian novels. A genius on the level of Dickens had trouble with this.

  3. Actually, Collins goes to some trouble--maybe you've already talked about this (shall look!)--to declare how different Franklin Blake is from others of his usual-Victorian-hero kind because of his mixed-up education. So he attempted to make an acceptably-different (proper class and so forth, but colored by his many non-English residences) character of him. It does make him appear whimsical and unsteady to Betteredge. So I think the creation of Franklin Blake is an attempt to break free from the conventional.

    I love that reading of the book with Blake as successful purloiner (super-successful, as he redeems himself in the eyes of all), but it seems a reading that we could not find until fairly recently. On the other hand, think of Wilkie Collins and the juggling act of having two partners and families--the strangeness of keeping a great, sinful secret and fooling everyone by being two things! There's a parallel. I can see Collins enjoying his little book-secret as well...

    I adore Gabriel Betteredge.

  4. "Declare," "attempt" - those are the right words. Betteredge makes Blake into something different. It is very promising. And then when Blake takes over the narration himself, he falls back into the usual hero business, with the exception of a couple of passages which he uses to argue with Betteredge about how different he is! No, Blake insists, not me, I'm a regular fellow, all English.

    Thus, more clues that he is hiding something. Betteredge's perceptions are right.

    Ha ha ha ha!