“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneA few weeks ago, my friend Vallery suggested I read  The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first full-length detective novel (Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short-story mysteries in the 1840s). “If you have not read The Moonstone then that should be your first book of 2018. My all time favorite. Up there with Sherlock and Marlowe. Reread it recently in a book group and we all agreed that it reads well, and is surprisingly current.”

Well, I had never read The Moonstone, so I checked it out of the library at the end of December, thinking that I would indeed make it my first review of the new year. That obviously didn’t happen, partly because The Moonstone is very long: over 400 pages of small print. Many were the nights I fell asleep reading the novel; I finally downloaded the Kindle version (free!) and finished it while I was on vacation in late January.

This is not to say that The Moonstone isn’t a good book; I just found it a little tough going at times. The novel opens with the theft of the legendary yellow diamond, which was purloined by an English soldier during a battle between Southern Indians and the British East India Company. The soldier—a cruel and rapacious man—dies years later, leaving the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her eighteenth birthday, and that night, it vanishes from her room in the posh Verinder estate. In an attempt to get at the truth, numerous guests who were present for Rachel’s birthday are asked to write down their personal accounts of what they witnessed.

The first narrator is Gabriel Betteredge, “house-steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder” (Rachel’s mother). Betteredge is a man in his 70s and completely devoted to his employer. He is an astute and often funny narrator, and I found him to be exceedingly good company; his section was my favorite one of the book, and I was a bit disappointed when, after 170 pages, Drusilla Clack took over. (Fortunately, Betteredge does return as an important character later on.) A poor relation of the wealthy Verinder family, Miss Clack is a Christian who feels it is her duty to evangelize to everyone she meets. She is also a faithful member of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, which rescues “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent… abridg[es] them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.”

I was curious about whether or not pawning clothes was a common thing, and it turns out that it was! According to this article, in Victorian times, “Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.” Whether anything like the Conversion Society ever existed is hard to say, but I did appreciate Collins’ satire of both Evangelicals and do-gooders. However, Miss Clack’s prose is rather turgid and overly formal, despite the occasional gem (one of her favorite tracts, on “the sinfulness of dress,” is titled “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons”).

After Miss Clack, we hear from Matthew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest; Ezra Jennings, assistant to a physician; and Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective called in from London to find the missing diamond. Cuff’s arrival is a big deal (“If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unraveling a mystery, there isn’t the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!” exclaims Franklin Blake), though when he shows up, he seems more interested in the estate’s rose garden than in the crime; it’s not difficult to see Cuff as the prototype for every eccentric detective in the annals of mystery fiction.

Considering that it took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish The Moonstone vs. about four hours to polish off current best-seller The Woman in the Window, I can’t say that I’m eager to jump right back into the world of Victorian fiction. But reading The Moonstone in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by how sympathetic Collins was to some of the “underdog” characters in the book, like the odd-looking, racially-ambiguous Ezra Jennings, thief-turned-housemaid Rosanna Spearman, and even the Indian men pursuing their lost treasure (intimating that the diamond should have stayed in India rather than be plundered by a greedy, unpleasant Englishman was probably a pretty progressive stance in the 1860s). The prose can be a bit tough going for someone not used to 19th-century novels, but in general, I agree that The Moonstone does hold up and is well worth reading 150 years after its debut.

Note: If you’re not familiar with Collins’ personal life, read this review for a taste of just how unconventional he was.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.