The Moonstone: An Intersectional Mystery Novel

Victorian hipster and author of The Moonstone Wilkie Collins.

Victorian hipster and author of The Moonstone Wilkie Collins.

In the years since Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone as a serial novel in 1868, the novel has been called the first and best detective novel ever written, and has been attributed with setting standard mystery novel tropes such as country house robberies, red herrings, and locked-room plot twists.  Collins also used the unreliable narrator to comedic effect with the endearing servant Gabriel Betteredge and absurdly pious Drusilla Clack while telling the story through multiple perspectives, which adds to its appeal and teases the reader’s curiosity.  Collins even weaves in an Austenian love story, creating a narrative that reads like the love child of Agatha Christie and the Bronte sisters.  These qualities aside, the book offers more than light-hearted entertainment: it plays on the reader’s and societal prejudices.  Several characters in the novel are judged based on their appearance, be it visible disabilities, skin colour, or apparent class standing.  Each of these characters, though, prove to undermine the generalizations thrust upon them by others, and through this Collins manages to challenge prejudices based on perceived ability, race, and class, giving the work a depth that allows it to extend beyond the genre it gave birth to.

 

ABLEISM

 

Evalyn Bostock, who played Rosanna Spearman in the 1934 film adaptation of The Moonstone.

Evalyn Bostock, who played Rosanna Spearman in the 1934 film adaptation of The Moonstone.

One of the most progressive elements of the novel is its treatment of ableism.  There are three characters with visible disabilities in the novel: Rosanna Spearman, Lucy Yolland, and ‘Gooseberry’, each of whom serve to humanize those perceived as disabled while challenging ableism. Spearman, who is a servant at the Verinder estate, has a hunchback with makes her either invisible to those around her, or seen as an object of pity.  There is intersectional oppression weighing on Spearman, but it is her appearance and disability that leads Betteredge to refer to her as “monstrous” for having had the audacity to fall in love with Franklin Blake, a ‘gentleman’ and cousin to the Verinder family.  This sentiment seems to be held by most, and Blake himself had not even considered that such a woman would have affection for him as the idea seemed preposterous.  This presumption dehumanizes people with disabilities as it implies that they have no emotive essence, but when Spearman (SPOILER ALERT!!!) commits suicide, she displays the depth of her emotive identity.  As a result, the pity others had felt becomes empathy, as even Betteredge concedes that had his daughter been “tried as Rosanna was”, she “might have lived that miserable life, and died this dreadful death” (158), demonstrating that Betteredge was able to see there was more to Spearman than her disability.  Yolland likewise displays the emotive depth of those with visible disabilities.  Others see Yolland’s disability, and not her, even referring to her as ‘Limping Lucy’.  Betteredge even uses the term a half a dozen times in the space of a few pages (185-188).  However, after Spearman’s death, Yolland makes it clear that she is more than a ‘girl with a limp’, stating the she loved Spearman, and revealing a plan the two had devised to live autonomously in the city.  Yolland makes her affection for Spearman clear, suggesting that Spearman had be “ill-treated” by “vile people” and expressing hope that Spearman “might have been happy with” her (187).  In this way, Yolland transcends her role as the personification of a limp, and assert the depth of her emotive identity.

 

 

A movie poster for the 1934 film adaptation of The Moonstone.

A movie poster for the 1934 film adaptation of The Moonstone.

The novel, though, doesn’t simply humanize people with disabilities; it encourages readers to define them by their abilities and not the barriers they face, most especially through the character nicknamed Gooseberry.  Both Gooseberry’s stature and “ill-secured eyes” (436) cause others to judge him based on his appearance, and hence nickname him based on his appearance.  Though it seems clear that there is an issue with Gooseberry’s eyes, what is also clear is that he is a fully capable person.  Bruff, the family solicitor, expresses his wish that his “clerks who had nicknamed [Gooseberry], were as thoroughly to be depended upon as” him (437), noting that “Two words will do with Gooseberry, where twenty would be wanted with another boy” (437).  When Sargent Cuff, the novel’s celebrated detective, sees Gooseberry’s investigative work, he pays the young boy a compliment and suggests that he has a bright future in investigative work (444).  The quality of Gooseberry’s work is magnified when juxtaposed to both Blake and Bruff, who also attempt to follow a suspect, but fail to pick the correct one, whilst Gooseberry discerns the correct suspect.  In this way, Gooseberry demonstrates that people with perceived disabilities can not only be as competent as able-bodied persons, but even more effective at their jobs in many cases.  In this way, Collins encourages readers to see, not disabilities, but capabilities in the face of barriers.

 

PERCEIVED RACE

 

A pulp-era printing of the novel.

A pulp-era printing of the novel.

Just as Collins challenges ableist notions, he likewise challenges notions of perceived race.  Ezra Jennings, for instance, whose narrative could also be framed as a challenge to ableism, perhaps more importantly demonstrates the flaws of prejudging a person based on their skin colour.  When Jennings is first seen, Blake observes that his “complexion was of gipsy darkness” and states that he had “thick closely-curling hair” (325), and Betteredge reaffirms this perception, saying that the poor get their doctoring from the man with “the gipsy complexion”, going onto note that Jennings is unpopular due to his appearance (326).  In the same conversation, Betteredge states that without Jennings, the poor would receive no medical care, so the fact that Jennings seems so disliked, despite the fact he is providing an important service to a marginalized group seems odd and suggest that be is being judged by his appearance, and not by his actions.  It is clear that it is his perceived race, then, that inspires the collective dislike of the man.  Jennings, like Gooseberry, not only proves himself an equal to those who have prejudged him, but even demonstrates superior skill.  When his advocate, Dr. Candy, takes ill, it is Jennings who cures him after local Caucasian doctors mistreat him, and when Bruff and Betteredge disapprove of an experiment Jennings is conducting to prove Blake’s innocent, he proves again that his reasoning is above standard.  Given that he also assists Blake out of loyalty to Dr. Candy, and because it is the moral thing to do, Jennings also demonstrates that the mistrust others have offered him due to his ‘swarthy’ appearance is unfounded, has he possesses virtues like loyalty and humanity. Jennings, therefore, challenges prejudices based on perceived race.

 

 

The most obvious example of perceived race is the three ‘Indian jugglers’ who are in search of the titular MacGuffin.  The Indians arrive in England in search of the moonstone, which had been violently and unlawfully removed from a religious temple in their homeland.  Though they are viewed as antagonists, they are also clever, having been able to track the moonstone to the Verinder household, and again tracking it to London, even when investigators, both celebrated and incompetent, could not.  The novel also demonstrates how police employed racial profiling, locking up the three Indian men despite having no evidence, a scenario that plays out again later in the novel as Bruff and Blake see a man with a dark complexion and mistakenly, without evidence, assume that he is in league with the Indians based on nothing more than the man’s skin colour.  In each instance, these presumptions lead the investigators down the wrong path, highlighting the flaw of such bigotry and suggesting that conclusions ought to be based on evidence and not prejudice.  Coupled with this, Collins portrays the goals of the Indian men as legitimate, ending the narrative by restoring the moonstone to the religious temple in India, and framing its theft as an unlawful act, and so their quest as one of justice, not criminality. The long-standing dedication of the men also demonstrates their fortitude and resilience, as well as the strength of their personal faith.  By providing this context, and demonstrating virtues like intelligence, resilience, and faith, Collins employs the barest of character sketches to demonstrate how it is the Western perspective that colours the ‘other’ as morally inferior, not the content of their character.

 

CLASS

 

Keeley Hawes, who plays Rachel Verinder (the love interest of bot Blake and Ablewhite) in the 1997 film adaptation.

Keeley Hawes, who plays Rachel Verinder (the love interest of bot Blake and Ablewhite) in the 1997 film adaptation.

Being an English novel, there is or course commentary on class coupled with the colonial conquests alluded to through the narrative of the Indian jugglers, and as he does with ableism and perceived race, Collins is sure to challenge the conventions of class as well.  The pretense in Victorian England seemed to be that the landed gentry and aristocracy were above the working class, most especially in terms of virtue, and there was no character whose virtue was held higher in The Moonstone than Godfrey Ablewhite.  The comically devout Drusilla Clack expresses such an unhealthy admiration for Ablewhite’s virtues that one might assume that the sight of Ablewhite might cause Clack’s chastity to be exposed to elements that might rust it, and upon his visit to the Verinder home, everybody boasts about Ablewhite’s charity work.  Ablewhite seems the template for aristocratic virtue, but it is revealed that he has not only taken on extensive debts with his spending and gambling, but that he has also stolen an estate he was executor of until the inheritor was to come of age, and had a kept woman on the side.  He even tries to marry two women for their money.  For shame!  It eventually comes to light that (SPOILER ALERT!!!!!) Ablewhite is the thief who has stolen the moonstone.  Though the servant class, and Spearman specifically, are suspects early in the novel, Ablewhite is assumed to be beyond reproach, and so the investigation goes off course immediately.  The plot point therefore encourages the reader to question assumptions made in regards to class.  It could likewise be argued Ablewhite’s guilt challenges assumptions about ableism and perceived race as well.  As for ableism, Ablewhite’s name is comprised of the word ‘able’, highlighting his ability in comparison to Spearman, one of the first suspects.  As to perceived race, Ablewhite’s name also includes the word ‘white’, which contrasts the skin colour of the other primary suspects: the Indian jugglers.  In this way, Ablewhite links together all three intersectional forms of oppression that are alluded to in the novel and challenges prejudices based on each category.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins

Some may argue that The Moonstone is simple a mystery novel, and that these social themes are only there as a matter of coincidence or chance, but such an argument fails to recognize the skill displayed by Collins.  During an investigation, personal perspectives, partiality, prejudices and preconceptions will shape the course of the investigation, and Collin draws on the typical assumptions and stereotypes that people embraces as a means to misdirect the reader and the narrative’s investigators, both professional and amateur.  Playing on and calling attention to these prejudices is how the mystery is maintained and the suspense fulfilled.  It is how Collins misdirects the readers and keeps the secret of the mystery shrouded until the final act.  Perhaps the reveal of the climax was not intended to challenge social conventions and was only employed to shock the readers, but whether intentional or occidental accidental, the reveal causes the reader to question their own personal biases as they relate to ableism, perceived race, and class.  The Moonstone not only invented the genre of the mystery novel, but it set a standard that has yet to be surpassed and offers a template for author who seek to find a median between a style that satiates readers in search of escapism, and also those who expect literature to engage in meaningful discourses.

 

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Works Cited:

Collins, Wilkie.  The Moonstone. New York: Random House.  1992.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Julie Meko says:

    Excellent analysis of Collins’ social criticism. Amid all the fun of the novel, the author manages, as you say, to slip in condemnations of the prejudices of his time. He also subtly draws our attention to the plight of all the little ragamuffins roaming the streets and countryside by including no fewer that three little boys used in various ways by adults in exchange for food and/or pay. And as you have said, he even conveys a rare (for his time) objectivity and respect toward the Indians and their culture. It is telling that Murthwaite, one of the sanest and most intelligent characters, turns his back on England for a life as a seeker in Asia and is pleased to pass as something other than an Englishman in those foreign parts. Fittingly, Murthwaite gets the last word in the novel, and the last word is that there is a mysterious beauty to Hindu culture, and that (spoiler alert) the moonstone belongs at its point of origin, in the statue of the moon god.

    As progressive as Collins was, though, I do notice some misogyny in the hilarious portrayal of Miss Clack. Yes, she is an obnoxious religious fanatic, but what was there for a spinster in the 1840s with no financial resources to do with her life? Other than proselytizing and charity work, what avenues were open to an intelligent and ambitious woman? Ridiculing such women seems rather cruel under the circumstances. Perhaps this is a small quibble about a very fine work, though.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! You have managed to make me far more sympathetic to Miss Clack than I could have ever imagined I could possibly be! lol

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