Opium addiction, mixed-race parentage, same-sex affection, and anti-imperialism: all feature in what T. S. Eliot called 'the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels,' Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) .
The Moonstone is a huge (and, legend has it, cursed) diamond brought back from India by a British soldier, who looted the jewel and murdered its guardians during the storming of Seringapatam. This is only the latest in a series of thefts of the diamond: it was originally taken from a Hindu temple by a soldier in the army of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb; all of its owners have met untimely ends. Decades later the British soldier bequeathes the sacred diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 21st birthday, and at midnight the same night it is stolen from her bedroom.
Three mysterious Indian "conjurors" have been seen in the neighborhood, and at first suspicion falls on them. But when the famous detective Sergeant Cuff is brought in to solve the mystery, he deduces that someone in the house has stolen it. The housemaid Rosanna Spearman and Rachel herself are soon the chief suspects. But after Rosanna's apparent suicide and Rachel's refusal to tell all she knows, Sergeant Cuff's investigation reaches a dead end. A year later, the case is reopened by Rachel's cousin Franklin Blake, who had been in the house the night of the theft, aided by the physician's assistant Ezra Jennings.
Mixed-race parentage: Jennings' skin is "of gipsy darkness," his nose "presented the fine shape and modelling so often found among the ancient people of the East, so seldom visible among the newer races of the West," and his "thick closely-curling" black hair is turning white, but in irregular piebald patches . The description is clearly intended to suggest that Jennings has mixed-race parentage, which indeed he confirms just a bit later in the novel. While some of the other characters view him with suspicion on this account, Blake treats him with sympathy and respect. And as it turns out, it is Jennings who largely solves the mystery of the theft of the Moonstone.
Opium use: We also discover that Jennings is suffering from a debilitating disease, to allay the symptoms of which he regularly uses opium. Jennings complains to Blake about the general "ignorant distrust of opium"  and gives him a copy of Thomas De Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). But Jennings also tells us about the "dreadful night[s]" that are "the vengence of...opium, pursuing me through a series of frightful dreams" . Jennings is caught in a double bind: he needs opium to free himself from the pain of his disease, but it is gradually destroying his ability to function:
"The one effectual palliative in my case, is—opium. To that all-potent and all-merciful drug I am indebted for a respite of many years from my sentence of death. But even the virtues of opium have their limit. The progress of the disease has gradually forced me from the use of opium to the abuse of it. I am feeling the penalty at last. My nervous system is shattered; my nights are nights of horror. The end is not far off now." Collins knew whereof he wrote. He had begun using laudanum (opium powder dissolved in alcohol) in the mid-1860s to alleviate chronic pain and headaches, and his use of the drug quickly became habitual. Jennings reports that his own "full dose" is 500 drops , and he tells Blake that this is "ten times larger"  than a typical dose given to an unhabituated adult. Since Collins had been using laudanum regularly for several years by the time he wrote these passages, we can guess that his own levels of use were approaching those of Jennings.
|The Koh-i-Noor Diamond|
Mixed-race parentage and opium use are not the only subjects about which surprisingly positive attitudes are expressed in The Moonstone. Other areas where monolithic assumptions about Victorian points of view are challenged include:
Same-sex affection: In an era where middle- and upper-class men and women occupied virtually separate spheres, feelings of friendship between members of the same sex could be expressed in terms that may strike modern ears as rather heated. Jennings, for example, when writing of Franklin Blake, uses the words "attraction" and "yearning":
"What is the secret of the attraction that there is for me in this man? Does it only mean that I feel the contrast between the frankly kind manner in which he has allowed me to become acquainted with him, and the merciless dislike and distrust with which I am met by other people? Or is there really something in him which answers to the yearning that I have for a little human sympathy—the yearning, which has survived the solitude and persecution of many years; which seems to grow keener and keener, as the time comes nearer and nearer when I shall endure and feel no more?" Such impassioned declarations also occur between women in the novel. Lucy Yolland, the daughter of a local fisherman, says of the housemaid Rosanna Spearman,
"'I loved her...She was an angel. She might have been happy with me. I had a plan for our going to London together like sisters, and living by our needles. That man [Franklin Blake] came here, and spoilt it all...I meant to take her away from the mortification she was suffering here...Where is he?...Where's this gentleman that I mustn't speak of, except with respect? Ha, Mr. Betteredge, the day is not far off when the poor will rise against the rich. I pray Heaven they may begin with him. I pray Heaven they may begin with him.'" Anti-imperialism: The Moonstone would seem to be full of orientalist exoticism: a cursed Indian diamond pursued across the centuries by mysterious, inscrutable and murderous Hindu holy men. But a closer look reveals something a bit different. In his preface to the first book edition Collins wrote that he based the Moonstone in part on the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, "the subject of a prediction, which prophesied certain misfortune to the persons who should divert it from its ancient uses" . Since the Koh-i-Noor had become part of the British Crown Jewels in 1850, Collins would seem to be issuing a warning to his fellow Britons about imperial plunder.
And on the night of the re-creation of the Moonstone's theft, among Franklin Blake's reading material is Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), which includes the following sentence: "You tell me of immense territories subject to the English; I cannot think of their possessions, without being led to enquire by what right they possess them" .
There is also the ultimate fate of the Moonstone. In the final pages of the novel (spoiler alert!) the English adventurer Murthwaite, in disguise as a Hindu pilgrim, travels to a religious ceremony outside the western Indian city of Somnauth (where there is indeed an ancient temple). He describes the setting and the huge crowd as "the grandest spectacle of Nature and Man, in combination, that I have ever seen" . When the image of the four-armed god Shiva is revealed to the ecstatic celebrants, Murthwaite sees the gem gleaming from the statue's forehead. It's difficult not to feel that Murthwaite, and his creator Collins, think that this is the stone's rightful place.
Film and TV adaptations: The Moonstone has been filmed three times, in 1909, 1915, and 1934, and was adapted for television by the BBC in 1959, 1972, and 1997. The 1997 version stars Keeley Hawes (later of Wives and Daughters (1999) and Tipping the Velvet (2002)) and Greg Wise (of Sense and Sensibility (1995)); the 1972 version features Vivien Heilbron and Robin Ellis (earlier featured in Sense and Sensibility (1971) and Elizabeth R (1971), and later the star of Poldark (1975-77)). If I see any of the BBC Moonstone adaptations I'll update here.
1. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays: New Edition, Harcourt Brace, 1950, p. 413.
2. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Faber and Faber, 1972, pp. 53-54.
3. Paul Collins, "The Case of the First Mystery Novelist," New York Times, January 7, 2011.
4. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, edited by John Sutherland, Oxford World's Classics, 1999, p. 319. Mention should be made of Sutherland's excellent introduction and notes to this edition, which raise many of the issues discussed in this post.
5. The Moonstone, p. 381
6. The Moonstone, p. 392.
7. The Moonstone, pp. 375-376.
8. The Moonstone, p. 405.
9. The Moonstone, p. 387
10. John Sutherland, "A Note on the Composition," in The Moonstone, p. xxxvii.
11. The Moonstone, p. 393.
12. The Moonstone, p. 184.
13. The Moonstone, liii.
14. Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling, Oxford World's Classics, 1987, pp. 102-103.
15. The Moonstone, p. 465.