Sometime during the 1860s, young Rachel Verinder turns eighteen and for her birthday, receives a large diamond named The Moonstone. It is priceless and the guests at her birthday party revel in its opulence before retiring for the night. As they wake up the next morning, the Moonstone has vanished. Did one of the guests take it? One of the staff members? Why does Rachel refuse to cooperate in the investigation? Why is housemaid Rosanna Spearman suddenly so secretive? And what do the three Indian men who show up in the sleepy village have to do with anything?
The Victorians are, generally speaking, not my jam. Too pathetic, too many MEN torn up by their inner EMOTIONS as they protect fainting waifs and suffer the wrath of vengeful crones. The Moonstone, in that regard, feels surprisingly fresh. Though the novel carries many common aspects of Victorian literature there is a lot to enjoy that has dated very well.
Take, for example, the female characters, of which there are quite a few. None of them fall squarely within the strictly Victorian mould, no matter what the men in their lives might think of them. Julia Verinder, lady of the house, is capable and businesslike; her daughter Rachel is headstrong and passionate and makes no apologies for this. Housemaid Rosanna is occasionally irrational, but courageous and bright. The one who comes closest to a walking Victorian cliché is the insufferable cousin, Drusilla Clack, but more in the sense that she’s clearly meant as a caricature. It works; The Clack is a hoot.
The Moonstone is an epistolary novel. The first – and largest – section is told from the perspective of Gabriel Betteredge, the curmudgeonly but loyal head servant. Betteredge is full of opinions and falls square into the myth of the benevolent aristocracy, but there’s something endearing about him as well. He is kind to Rosanna in spite of her troubled past, and despite their bickering and his insistence that his late wife was a stupid woman, he has a healthy and loving bond with his daughter.
The mystery itself is complex, a bit too long and occasionally convoluted, though Collins does manage to put the reader on the wrong track a fair amount of times. The denouement is surprisingly postcolonial. The novel strikes a good balance between being enthralling and very funny, which is refreshing. But what always strikes me most is just how much Collins, when compared to his contemporaries, was ahead of his time. Arthur Conan Doyle might have perfected the detective genre, but Collins was the first to try his hand at it, and he does so with aplomb and with rich characters. He definitely deserves to be read more. The Moonstone isn’t perfect (and I actually preferred The Woman in White) but it’s very well done and has aged like fine wine.