Arion Lyre

95. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, with illustrations by Stan Washburn

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, with illustrations by Stan Washburn, September 2012.


Although many people assume that Edgar Alan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” of 1841, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” of 1842, and “The Purloined Letter” of 1844, all featuring C. Auguste Dupin as the amateur detective, are the progenitors of the detective novel, these were short stories, not lengthy and elaborately structured novels. Nor did they have the features, brilliantly deployed in The Moonstone, which were to become the signature traits of twentieth-century detective fiction. We begin this novel with a satisfying sense of entering familiar fictional territory, then marvel that it was written in 1868.

The story begins with the disappearance of a priceless diamond, the Moonstone of the title, late at night after a party in an English country house. It is the eighteenth birthday of the beautiful and intelligent heiress Rachel Verinder. On hand are her rival suitors, Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite, the servants of the house, and a traveling troupe of Indian jugglers. Why the presence of Indian characters in the English countryside? The Moonstone is no ordinary birthday trinket. It is a legendary sacred gem, originally set in the forehead of a statue of an Indian deity, but stolen by Rachel’s uncle during a brutal military incursion against the natives. A gift to his niece, it also brings a curse and disturbing reminders of the legacy of colonialism.

Rachel’s family employs a famous professional detective, the police inspector Sergeant Cuff, to solve the mystery of the missing jewel. But it is one of Collins’ most effective strategies that nearly all of his characters act at one time or another in the role of detective. Collins tells his story through a succession of separate narrators, each of whom possesses slightly different facts, as well as plausible motives for stealing the diamond themselves.

“No English novel has a narrative better adapted to its end: that of lending variety and amplitude to a story the mainspring of which has to be a sustained interest in the elucidation of a single mysterious event,” writes J. I. M. Stewart, editor of the first Penguin edition. “This is why T. S. Eliot called the Moonstone ‘the best of modern English detective novels’, … for once a story has unmasked itself as preponderantly concerned with solving a mystery, or hunting down a quarry, extraordinary skill is required if the reader is to be pleasurably beguiled by any lingering along the way.”

To achieve this, Collins uses his arsenal of outstanding creative abilities, among them skills as a nature writer, cultivated under the influence of his father, a successful English landscape painter who had initially assumed that his son, too, would pursue a career as an artist. For example, in The Moonstone, the ominous presence of the sea is powerfully evoked, as in this description of the Shivering Sand: “The heave of the main ocean on the great sand-bank out in the bay, was a heave that made no sound. The inner sea lay lost and dim, without a breath of wind to stir it. Patches of nasty ooze floated, yellow white on the dead surface of the water.”

Another of Collins’ talents is for forceful portraiture, similar to his friend Dickens’ gift for making a character unforgettable in just a few sentences. Although Collins pioneered the careful research methods of later detective writers, basing events and personae upon his study of actual Victorian-era crimes, he manages to give us the immensely life-like Sergeant Cuff. The police detective with the “steely light-grey eyes”, humanized by his quest to grow the perfect rose, remains memorable today, although he has been followed by hundreds of fictional detectives drawn from the same basic real-life model.

The author’s own experiences, as a politically aware artist who lived outside society’s conventions, allowed him to portray semi-marginalized characters—servants, women, and colonial peoples, in particular, the Indian characters—with insight, or at least without the standard Victorian condescension. The characters actions under the influence of opium in the story are not just tricks to cover gaps in the plot; Collins himself became addicted while suffering from the gout that left him crippled and in pain during this last decades. The women in The Moonstone, from the heiress Rachel Verinder and the servant Rosanna Spearman to the religious fanatic Miss Clack, although portrayed from a distance, are articulate and original people. Those resembling stock literary characters, such as the loyal family retainer Betteredge and the gruff policeman Cuff, transcend cliché and continue to surprise the reader. Collins also wrote for the theater, often working with Dickens. The conversations between The Moonstone’s characters have the sparkle of good stage dialogue.


William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was born in London, the son of William Collins, a landscape painter and member of the Royal Academy. His godfather was David Wilkie, the portraitist and history painter. As a boy of fourteen and fifteen, the author traveled in Europe and lived in Italy with his parents. Showing little interest in painting as a profession, he studied law at his father’s insistence, to ensure a steady income, and was admitted to the bar in 1851, but never practiced. That year he met Charles Dickens and they became fast friends. Dickens was a strong influence on Collins and furthered his career. Collins acted in and wrote plays for Dickens’ theatricals, melodramas put on as benefits for worthy causes, often attended by royalty. As with Dickens, Collins’ way of life bore little resemblance to the family-centered ideal promoted in Victorian fiction.

A prolific author, Collins wrote thirty novels, more than sixty short stories, and some fourteen or more plays. He was one of the best-paid fiction writers of the Victorian era. He never married but lived with two women (with one under the name of William Dawson) and had several children. His most significant production was in the decade between the first installment of his novel The Woman in White in November 1859 and 1870, the year Dickens died. During this decade, he published his four major novels, The Moonstone being “the most nearly perfect”.


Stan Washburn is a novelist and teacher of writing as well as a painter and printmaker. His work is in the collections of the Chicago Art Institute and Philadelphia Art Museum, among other institutions. A solo exhibition of his prints was held at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1978. His novels Into Thin Air and Intent to Harm are set in Berkeley, where he has lived since 1958. This is the fourth book he has illustrated for Arion Press, following Sam Shepard’s, A Lie of the Mind (1993), Arthur Miller’s, The Price (1999), and Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells (2008). In 2012 he was a guest of honor at the Grabhorn Institute Spring Benefit Dinner at Arion Press and was celebrated with an exhibition of his paintings in the gallery. Stan Washburn is represented by ArtZone 461 Gallery in San Francisco.

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