Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone

by Jason Tougaw

The cover of this 1965 Airmount Classics edition of Collins’s novel dramatizes the mesmerizing quality of the stolen diamond. The suggestion seems to be that the stone’s religious origins–and, of course, the course–give it the power of a drug: to induce altered states in people who get near it.

Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), the subject of this fourth blog post about the nineteenth-century British novels I’m teaching this semester, is entrancing–for many reasons.

Collins’s novel is the progenitor of much modern detective fiction; it’s a tale about a cursed diamond plundered by British colonialists from a sacred Hindu shrine in India; this diamond is based on an actual diamond plundered from actual India by actual colonialists and then enshrined in Queen Victoria’s collection of crown jewels, where it remains to this day. In addition to all this, Collins’s novel documents the everyday use of opiates, tobacco, coffee and various stimulants among Victorians. The states induced by these drugs are Collins’s real interest. An altered state is a route to new knowledge, and what is a detective novel if not an exploration of routes to knowledge?

In The Moonstone, a laudanum-induced hypnosis turns its honest protagonist Franklin Blake into a jewel thief, after a bout of sleeplessness caused by giving up tobacco; Mrs. Verinder, the head of the household in which the crime takes place, keeps a phial of laudanum in her workbox, always close at and, to relieve symptoms of a fatal illness; Ezra Jennings, assistant to the town physician, is addicted to opium as a palliative for his own painful illness; the ancestor who stole the diamond from India was “a notorious opium eater”; sal volatile, or smelling salts, are prescribed when characters are agitated or listless; at one point, after taking a sip of coffee, a character’s “brain brigten[s].” One of the novel’s gothic staples, “the Shivering Sand,” is a quicksand that works like a drug, bedazzling a character into suicide.

For the first of the novel’s eleven narrators, Gabriel Betteredge, the drugs of choice are tobacco and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe–his “friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life.” Betteredge, house steward to the Verinder family, constantly invokes Defoe’s novel as an “infallible remedy” for suffering, for “cold sweat,” for “perturbation of mind and laxity of body”; he consults the novel as an “authority” on the human mind and behavior; he refers to its “comforting effects” and laments their passing when they “wear off”; he prescribes the novel when other characters are in need of guidance or a calming influence; he even uses the novel to predict (or diagnose) the trajectory of the narrative. In a novel in which a dose of laudanum results in the central conflict—the disappearance of the Moonstone—and another dose provides the resolution, the analogy Betteredge sustains between Robinson Crusoe and medicine points to a common denominator in both writing and medicine: they are both routes to unconscious knowledge. 

The caption for this illustration from the 1868 serialization in Harper’s Weekly quotes a scene in the novel in which Ezra Jennings interviews Franklin Blake: “Have you ever been accustomed to the use of opium?” For a full and fascinating account of this first American publication of the novel, see Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge’s essay “The Transatlantic Moonstone.”

The analogy is not limited to Robinson Crusoe. Betteredge indicts Colonel Herncastle, the villainous uncle who bequeaths the cursed diamond to Rachel Verinder, for “smoking opium,” “collecting old books,” and “trying strange things with chemistry”; the absurdly zealous Miss Clack inexorably suggests religious treatises as substitutes for the drops and tonics prescribed by members of “the notoriously infidel profession of Medicine.” Mr. Jennings, the physician’s assistant—who, like Collins himself, is addicted to opium as a palliative for the painful symptoms of terminal disease—dies without finishing his treatise on “the intricate and delicate subject of the brain and the nervous system” but with the satisfaction that his experiment with laudanum on the unconscious of Franklin Blake has restored the protagonist’s good reputation.

In Collins’s estimation, novels are like drugs. They stimulate, sedate, induce altered states, catalyze new ways of thinking, and offer plenty of pleasure–and existential or epistemological hangovers in place of physical ones. Books and drugs are catalysts to inquiry in The Moonstone. But solutions are seldom clearcut. Collins’s eleven narrators undercut and contradict each. While the mystery of the stolen diamond is solved, the social havoc and personal confusion it unleashes are not so easy to undo. In the words of Franklin Blake, one of the novel’s central characters, “When the pursuit of our own interests causes us to become objects of inquiry to ourselves, we are naturally suspicious of what we don’t know.” 

In her book, The Making of a Social Body, critic Mary Poovey tells the story of an experiment with chloroform. In 1847, twenty years before Collins wrote The Moonstone,  Dr. James Young Simpson used himself and some colleagues as experimental subjects in an experiment with chloroform:

The vapor Simpson inhaled that night was chloroform, and its impact literally realized Simpson’s ambition to “turn the world upside down” when it laid the three doctors under the table. As one of his contemporaries tells the story, Simpson awoke to find himself “prostrate on the floor,” Dr. Duncan “beneath a chair . . . snoring in a most determined and alarming manner,” and Dr. Keith’s “feet and legs, making valorous efforts to overturn the supper table, or more probably to annihilate everything that was on it.” 

Chloroform “turns the world upside down” for these physicians. The doctors assume the “prostrate” position of helpless patients or experimental subjects. They become the objects of their own inquiry, all too aware of what they don’t know. I think Collins wants something similar for readers. If his novel is like a drug, it’s one that provokes us to look at the world (and ourselves) askance, to think about what we don’t–or can’t know, about the world and about ourselves. This might sound arduous, but in Collins’s hands, the drug of narrative is pure pleasure.

 

 

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