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Review: The Moonstone

By pcurd

The Moonstone
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading this book for a while now (Kindle says I started in August last year! 8 months!) but I haven’t been reading every week, or even every month. That’s not because it’s a bad story, far from it, or because it’s not a compelling tale, it is, but because I have been pretty deep in a series of audio books and found myself filling time that way. However, the last 40% or so of the story really pick up the engagement, the framing changes, the narrator changes (it’s an epistolary), and suddenly I had to finish it.

The story is considered the first full length detective novel written in English and as a fan of the genre, I was keen to see where it had started. The contemporary setting of the 1840-60s is not a period I know well. Around that time I believe the only authors active in that time from whom I’ve read more than one book are: Oscar Wilde (mostly later (1880-90s)), Jane Austin (earlier (she died in 1817)), Edgar Allan Poe (died in 1849), Jules Verne, and Charles Dickens. I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy, nor any Robert Louis Stevenson, and only one Lewis Carroll. Perhaps this should direct my future “to read” list then.. But, to the point – The Moonstone gave me a very interesting slice of life I haven’t seen before. Whilst the family-centric lifestyle of Austin is here, there is also a good railway service so the ladies of the household can move around. Rachel Verinder catches trains all over the place – I can’t see Elizabeth Bennet travelling this way (and the railway didn’t open until 12 years after the book was written). The servants described so well by P G Wodehouse or Verne get plenty of words, but they don’t have the social mobility of the 1900s yet – they live in house and are hereditary. It’s an in-between time – and fascinating because of it. Whereas Dickens gave a deep view of the underclass and the seedy, Wilkie Collins merely touches on it. Collins’ focus is on the lives of the privileged and those in contact with them.

My favourite narrators were the “head servant” Betteredge and the “adventurer” Blake. Both are key characters in the story and cross reference each other in a very interesting way – something not many stories are able to do. I wasn’t expecting the amount of humour that comes out during Betteredge and Miss Clack’s sections – it’s rather modern and very British. I looked forward to these narrators and found the change of pace quite rewarding. However, none of the narrators were boring and all had an interesting twist on their telling of the story. Their prejudices and world view form the majority of the story – how and what they see in the world is often more interesting than the sub-plots. This kind of social commentary is of course common in 19th century storytelling and Collins’ inclusion in The Moonstone isn’t out of place.

I find myself being reminded in parts of the Jeeves and Wooster series by Wodehouse – even though these books are set (and were written) many decades later, I am sure Wodehouse was inspired by those that came before him – The Moonstone must be included.

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