Sunday, August 11, 2013

Opium addiction, Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone

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) [1].

Collins' novel isn't actually the first English detective novel; that honor, according to crime writer and critic Julian Symons, belongs to The Notting Hill Mystery (1865) by the pseudonymous 'Charles Felix' [2] (recently discovered to be the publisher Charles Warren Adams, thanks to detective work by Paul Collins [3]). Mention should also be made of Inspector Bucket (in Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853), and the Chevalier Dupin (in American writer Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and other stories) as precursors. But Collins' novel remains compelling, less for the implausible solution of the mystery than for what it reveals about its author's unconventional life and unusual attitudes.

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 [4]. 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" [5] 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" [6]. 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." [7]
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 [8], and he tells Blake that this is "ten times larger" [9] 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
There is a legend, promulgated later on by Collins himself, that he dictated large sections of The Moonstone while under the influence of the drug and virtually unconscious of what he was producing. Editor John Sutherland's recent examinations of the manuscript, though, found that there was only a portion of the "Miss Clack" section (about eight pages in the 1999 Oxford edition) that aren't in Collins' own handwriting, although the twelve pages that follow the dictated section are in pencil, which may indicate that Collins wrote them while laid up in bed [10].

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?" [11]
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.'" [12]
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" [13]. 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" [14].

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" [15].  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.


  1. I wouldn't have expected an anti-imperialist message from this book, given everything I've heard about it. But my only experience with this story is from various TV adaptations that I saw forever ago, so what do I know? I always mean to read it, and then realize how long the mystery takes to set up . . . and then save it for another time.

    It's also interesting tome that although the book may take an anti-imperialist stance, it trades that stance for an orientalist one ... embracing an admittedly fiction-friendly worldview in which treasures or people of the East are inherently mysterious and dangerous and unpredictable. . . and because of this, should be left alone.

    On that note, I wonder if a lot of educated Brits in the 19th century leaned either toward Imperialism or Orientalism. Actually, I bet most people in the West still land somewhere between those two ways of thinking, even if they would never admit it. I could say something here about the ongoing dangers of both underestimating or overestimating the "Other" but then I'd just be every grad student ever ;)

    "The Moonstone" always reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes adventure, "The Blue Carbuncle." Similar themes of the dangerous/bloody jewel of the East, of course. I realize they are separated by about 24 years in their publishing date, but I'd be curious to know whether or not they are directly linked (or if "The Moonstone" just inspired a few imitators). Any ideas, P?

    1. Miranda, brilliant of you to make "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" connection. I had only a dim memory of the story, so I dug out my old Heritage Press edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories and re-read it. And there are definitely a large number of parallels to The Moonstone. They include:

      1. An incredibly valuable gem stolen from a lady's boudoir
      2. The jewel's exotic land of origin (China, in the case of the "Blue Carbuncle")
      3. The untimely deaths of a series of owners
      4. The true thief throwing suspicion on an innocent person who has a history of stealing
      5. A keenly observant and highly rational detective, based on a real-life model

      I have no idea whether there is any evidence that Conan Doyle consciously based this story on Collins' novel, but the echoes are certainly suggestive.

      As for the tension between anti-imperialism and fantasies of the exotic, inscrutable, and murderous Other, as you point out the two attitudes are not necessarily incompatible. The character of the adventurer Murthwaite embodies this tension. He views Indians with respect, knows Indian languages and cultural practices, and calls them "a wonderful people"; and at the same time says of the three men seeking the Moonstone,

      "'In the country those men came from, they care just as much about killing a man, as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe. If a thousand lives stood between them and the getting back of their Diamond—and if they thought they could destroy those lives without discovery—they would take them all. The sacrifice of caste is a serious thing in India, if you like. The sacrifice of life is nothing at all.'" (p. 73)

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

  2. I'm sure Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't above recycling the best elements of earlier mystery novels . . . and I'm surely not going to fault him for it.
    And what a delicious quote from Murthwaite!

    1. Miranda, on Conan Doyle's debt to earlier detective fiction, see M. Lapin's comment below. Perhaps "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" did indeed result from a desire to improve the plot of The Moonstone...

    2. Doyle or even Sherlock Holmes desiring to show up a "failed" detective? Succeed where the other guy could not? No, that doesn't sound like them at all . . . ;)


    3. Re: Murthwaite's views, I don't want to belabor the irony that you're pointing out, and that may have been intentional on Collins' part. Of course, thousands of lives were destroyed in the theft of India's wealth. But it's apparently the British East India Company to whom the sacrifice of life is nothing at all...

  3. Dear Pessimisissimo,

    Wonderful post on a topic close to my heart, the detective novel.

    FIrst, while of course like many people I have read countless times about the importance of Willkie Collins’s Moonstone to the development of the detective novel, I have yet to read it. Your post shames me for not having done so earlier. I'll be setting aside my current crime reading and picking up a copy...

    Second, I caution you from taking Julian Symons at face value about attributing the first detective novel to The Notting Hill Mystery. You’re not the only one, unfortunately, to be lured into his British chauvinism. In fact, the more deserving author is Émile Gaboriau, whose L’affaire Lerouge was serialized in Le Petit Journal in 1864, first appeared in book form in 1866, was translated into German in 1867 and into English in 1883. Beyond quibbling about “who got there first,” there is little doubt that Gaboriau was far more influential in the development of the detective novel than “Charles Felix,” by creating detective characters — Père Tabaret and Monsieur Lecoq — who endured over several novels and in multiple translations. The debt to Gaboriau is openly acknowledge by Conan Doyle as well, although in a rather backhanded way:

    “Have you read Gaboriau’s works,” I [Watson] asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

    Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book [Monsieur Lecoq, 1868-1869; Eng. trans. 1879-1880] made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown person. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” —Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1887)

    That Conan Doyle tightened up the structure of the detective novel inherited from Gaboriau in his Sherlock Holmes series of novels and short stories was a tremendous gift to the development of the genre. But I think there is little doubt that Gaboriau’s novels, and even Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone, were far more foundational than whatever “Charles Felix” may have written.

    Your faithful reader, M. Lapin

    1. M. Lapin, I'm indebted to your own detective work in hunting down the reference to Émile Gaboriau in A Study in Scarlet (the very first Sherlock Holmes adventure). While both T. S. Eliot and Julian Symons are careful to limit their claims to "English detective novels," your larger point about the wide influence of Gaboriau (and the obscurity, even at the time, of "Charles Felix") is the essential one.

      As for The Moonstone, as I wrote above the solution of the mystery is one of the least interesting things about the novel. One of its fascinating features is that the main detective figure, Sergeant Cuff, is not actually able to solve the mystery (another element perhaps later borrowed by Conan Doyle for "A Scandal in Bohemia," where Sherlock Holmes is outwitted by Irene Adler).

      Many thanks for another thoughtful and highly informative comment!



    2. Interesting stuff, M. Lapin! It's been a while since I read "A Study in Scarlet," and I didn't remember/realize that Sherlock Holmes had commented on an earlier fictional detective. It certainly is a clever wink-wink/nod-nod by Doyle to the authorial shoulders he stood upon a mystery writer.