[The author wrote this essay for a 2009 seminar at Delhi University entitled “The Construction of Social Space in the Nineteenth-century English Novel.“ The websmaster has formatted and extensively edited the following text.]
Wilkie Collins’ complex portrayal of domestic space in The Moonstone destabilizes the usual representations of the English country house as a bucolic manor with a resident angel found in the three-decker novel. Gabriel Betteredge, the Verinder's house-steward, makes this destabilization clear when he responds to Franklin Blake's history of the stolen jewel:
Here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond — bringing after it a conspiracy of living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man. . . . Who ever heard the like of it — in the nineteenth century, mind; in an age of progress, and in a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution? [Ch. 5, p. 38]
Collins plays with the production of social equations in the fiction of his time, disturbing their balance, as it were, by defamiliarizing staple constituents. After tracing Collins’ departure from the model of domesticity as articulated in the work of a pre-Victorian novelist — Jane Austen, particularly in her 1814 work, Mansfield Park — I shall examine the new ways he organizes narrative.
Early in the novel, sharply etched distinctions between the inside and the outside, truth and falsity, the real and the phantasmagoric begin to dissolve and thereby throw into relief the tensions pulsing under the façade of normality. In chapter 3 even the surrounding landscape is not what it seems “Even the lonely little bay welcomed the morning with a show of cheerfulness; and the bared wet surface of the quicksand itself, glittering with a golden brightness, hid the horror of its false brown face under a passing smile” (286).
Betteredge’s observations regarding the “devilish” relic from the colonies leads us directly into the disordered spaces of Collins’ novel. As my title indicates, I propose to read these spaces in terms of fissures and ruptures that operate at various levels in the novel. The repertory of marginalized practices, the micro-stories that, according to de Certeau, found shelter in domestic fiction, have turned by Collins’ time into a metanarrative of their own. I thus hope to discern the emergence of a sort of “antidisciplinary” network in the text that breaks the stranglehold of Victorian realism. However, I also wish to juxtapose this emphasis on dissonance against Collins’ own propensity to engineer clear resolutions. A juxtaposition of this sort will, as I hope to demonstrate, trace the contours of his complex relationship with imperialism, his disagreement with his century’s notion of “progress,” his experimentation with novelistic forms, as well as his conflicted response to the genre of domestic realism.
According to Winifred Hughes, in The Moonstone (1868), Collins returns to the themes and motifs of intrusion, invasion, and deception recurrently to unravel “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors” (qtd. in Hughes, 7). By rendering vulnerable the hitherto inviolable space of the “quiet English home,” he splinters and renders fictional Victorian assumptions of a parochial superiority. Furthermore, he manages to emphasize not only the vitiating influence of the diamond but also the inner malady that afflicts the Verinder household. Ironically, Betteredge’s horrified comment about the moonstone delineates his awareness of only one level of the problem. By exposing the corruption that lay at the heart of this sacred enclosure, Collins then manages to strike at the very root of bourgeois British claims of irreproachable respectability.
When compared to Mansfield Park with its emphasis on well-fortified interiors, the country seat of the Verinders in Collins’ novel emerges as a profoundly defenseless space. The Austenian universe is often characterized by its dependence on an internalized structure of surveillance, an omniscient eye that polices its interiors stringently. Thus, Fanny Price, in what appears to be an open collusion with the narrator/author, ruthlessly expunges the precincts of Mansfield Park of any undesirable elements. From Mr. Bertram’s proscription of the planned theatrical to Fanny’s carefully supervised “coming out” ball, spaces of social interaction are manipulated in Austen’s text to discomfit the outsider. Flighty, unstable, morally corrupt individuals are gradually removed in a drive to “sanitize” the Bertram home.
In contrast, the Verinder household’s has little power to keep out trespassers. Its permeable boundaries allow both the influx of the questing Indians and the unsupervised departure of Rosanna to her death. The spoils of Empire infiltrate Mansfield Park covertly in the form of Sir Bertram’s West Indian acquisitions. However, the colony is never allowed to explicitly intrude into either the lives of the characters or pervade the texture of the narrative itself. Even Sir Bertram’s narration of his overseas experiences is impeded by his daughters’ utter lack of interest in his venture.
On the other hand, the textual terrain of The Moonstone is continually besieged by external incursions, both symbolic and physical. Not only does the moonstone, figurative of violent colonial usurpation, gain entry into the house, a threat of very real physical penetration occurs in the guise of the guardians of the diamond whom Betteredge discovered near the house, telling us how he “was stopped by hearing a sound like the soft beating of the drum, on the terrace in front of my lady’s residence. . .I found three mahogany-coloured Indians, in white linen frocks and trousers, looking up at the house” (ch. 3, p. 23). The safe and placid world of provincial England, displayed to perfection in Austen, is effectively dismantled by Collins to display its tattered and patently unsustainable outline.
As mentioned earlier, the house is also threatened by dystopic elements from within. While Rosanna defies domestic protocol in trying to meet Franklin Blake clandestinely, she also makes the cardinal mistake of falling in love with him, contravening, thereby, conventions of social location. Betteredge’s satirical comments on the useless life of the idle rich also reveal within the text operations of class conflicts so often glossed over in Austen. Her stringent regulation of social contact and ruthless excision of disruptive characters thus loses its charge in Collins’ universe.
The ball celebrating Fanny’s “coming out” and the “festival” commemorating Rachel’s eighteenth birthday may appear parallel events in so much as they function on the assumption of a rigid observance of social codes. The dinner witnesses, nonetheless, an almost complete breakdown of this exercise in propriety. The moonstone is blamed for this lapse; it appears to me, however, more like a catalyst that brings to the surface inner workings of human emotions. The conversation is stilted and moves at cross-purposes, guests wrangle and dispute with each other. In fact, it is Franklin Blake’s rude argument with Dr. Candy that sets the stage for the unravelling of tragic consequences and the playing out of dark passions. The dinner party also serves to introduce the interloper and thief, Godfrey Ablewhite, into the household, underscoring the lack of surveillance that allowed such a breach in the first place.
Hughes, who traces the socio-historical moorings of the sensation novel, see this interrogation of established structures central to the entire enterprise. Her perceptive analysis discerns the social causes underlying the mechanics of this dynamic of dissent and situates it within a context of disenchantment with both the limits of domestic realism and the alienating effects of their urban reality. “The methodical, predictable ‘reality’ of the Victorian consciousness,” she tells us, “breaks down under the new order of the sensation novel, with its unsettling distortions and juxtapositions of material that is all too recognizably drawn from the context of modern urban existence” (53). Though not a classic example of the form, The Moonstone nevertheless draws on the repertoire of stock sensation fixtures: the violated domestic space, an undetected crime, buried secrets, and illicit female desire. An application of Hughes’ formulations to the novel, therefore, yields rewarding results.
Locating Collins in his larger cultural context becomes crucial to understanding his politics and the complex, transitional form of this particular novel. Collins’s position in the conflicted topography of fiction-writing in the 1860s and his vying with canonical practitioners of domestic realism for the attentions of a similar audience may perhaps indicate a potential source for the oppositional, almost deconstructive (if one may use this anachronistic term) energy that impels his narrative. Yet, situating him within the generic framework of the sensation novel concurrently helps trace the faultlines that run right through this work.
The novel simultaneously incorporates in its body a series of fragmentations and an attempt to marshal them into a semblance of order. There thus exists an uneasy tension in the text between this effort to generate totalities and the continual threat of things falling apart and the centre disintegrating. One may perhaps envision this struggle at the macroscopic level of contending forms as well. If a simplistic definition may be attempted, the genre of detective fiction, of which The Moonstone is frequently projected as the prototype, deploys its energies in creating wholes out of fragments. The sensation novel, on the other hand, may be seen in terms of its resistance to this very coherence. The Moonstone as a text appears to exist in a limbo of sorts, the conflict between the centripetal and centrifugal forces rendering it a curiously edgy hybrid. The fabled intricacy of Collins’s plotting weaves a complex tapestry of actions across time and space. Yet the perilous, almost doomed, nature of this project is equally on display.
Not only does Collins systemically dismantle the integrity of the English home with its abundance of mercenary motives and unnatural deaths, he also encodes disruptions within the very narrative technique he employs. Composed of a multitude of legal deposition-like declarations, the text is a collage of chronologically ordered statements. The painfully detailed timeline that Collins plots is destabilized to an extent by the chaotic polyphony in the documents and their dialogic interactions. The correspondence between Miss Clack and Franklin Blake recorded in her statement and his frequent editorial interventions play with the notion of a strictly diachronic sequence. The text comes to assume an almost palimpsestic quality where voices and events are overlaid on each other, forging connections across time, erasing the possibility of a continuous narrative.
An investigation into the organization of time and space in this novel helps one better comprehend this strain in the text. Time, in different sections of the novel, takes on different qualities in accordance with the temporal location. The Prologue and the Epilogue, situated in India, appear to utilize the device of the almost ageless adventure time. As Ashish Roy observes, time in the India sequences appears to flow almost seamlessly, without breaks or pauses (“The Fabulous Imperialist Semiotic,” 666). When distinctions are made, the reference point is almost always the Christian calendar: The story begins, for instance, with the statement that
the adventures of the Yellow Diamond begin with the eleventh century of the Christian era. . .One age followed another — and still, generation after generation, the successors of the three Brahmins watched their priceless Moonstone. . .until the first years of the eighteenth Christian century. . . (ch 1, p. 8)
The Epilogue is similarly inscribed within an almost timeless landscape. In the main body of the text however, nearly every day is accounted for and every incident scrupulously dated.
Collins’s mapping of space in the novel also functions both horizontally and vertically. The text traverses a wide swath of geographical space. However, surfaces and depths also play a crucial role in the vertical plumbing of spaces. Betteredge’s observation on the quicksand works axiomatically for characters as well as objects in the novel. As David Blair observes in his introduction to the Wordsworth edition of the novel, “The Shivering Sand. . .reflect[s] the novel at large in functioning as a gateway between what is visible and what is concealed, what is acknowledged and what is unacknowledged, what is open and what is mysterious, what is in the public domain and what is deeply private, what is respectable and what is transgressive“ (viii). The novel, which is replete with instances of such gateways, reveals Collins’s fascination with a world that is unstable, unquantifiable, and unknowable in its entirety. He appears to conceptualize space in terms of levels and layers, each plane a receptacle of different truths. Even notions of selfhood are similarly disaggregated. Jennings’ and Blake’s experiences with opium, Cuffs’ comment about the disjunction between a man’s interests and his business, and Betteredge’s split response to Jennings as a servant and a man, are harbingers of existential anxieties in a rapidly changing world. The unquestioned coherence of self in both literature and life was giving way to an interrogation of the very limits of this undivided self.
These contradictions also manifest themselves in the figure of the detective, Sergeant Cuff. He may, at first, appear a Dickensian Bucket-like figure. “His eyes. . .had a very disconcerting trick. . .of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself” (ch. 12, p. 94). His nondescript appearance gives nothing away and his methods and manners lend him an air of omniscience. In his “underground” way he excavates secrets, retrieves information, and unravels mysteries. His ceaseless surveillance appears to condense him into a synecdochic, all-seeing eye that nothing can escape.
Yet this configuration does not hold true when subjected to closer scrutiny. Despite Cuff’s pronouncements to the contrary, he does not “know” everything. His prophecies are not so much self-fulfilling as self-negating, their basic premise often emerging seriously flawed. The “eye” itself is profoundly fractured. His surveillance network proves defective and Rosanna manages to slip through the net. Rosanna’s anticipation of many of his manouevres also renders them transparent and open to circumvention. The “great” Sergeant Cuff’s infallibility and his ability to piece together evidence to discover a monolithic truth are then gravely compromised. In a self reflexive gesture Cuff candidly admits to the “mess” he has made, not the first of his career either!
The novel diffuses the role of the detective as we encounter several sleuths. Betteredge afflicted with “detective fever,” Blake determined to win his lost love back, Jennings eager to prove his hypothesis — all embark on separate journeys of detection that finally intersect chiasmically to reveal the solution. In this process, the mission of truth-finding itself becomes segmented and “truth” as an entity becomes a multiform production. This reassembling of truth from its slivers, I would like to propose, occurs to me as an act of bricolage, the detective figure a bricoleur who can only work with fragments, never totalities. In this process, a stained nightgown, a bottle of fragrant ink, untimely walks, delirious ravings, a torn receipt, a “morsel” of gold thread of Indian origin, are reinvested with meaning and their combinatorial possibilities amplified to bring about the dénouement. The objects and practices are unmoored from their original contexts, perhaps even redeployed in a Certeauvian manoeuvre to form an asyndeton-like utterance, creating “trajectories that have a mythical structure. . .a story jerry-built out of elements taken from common sayings, an allusive and fragmentary story whose gaps mesh with the social practices it symbolizes” (Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 102).
Collins consistently engages with the question of what it means to be English vis-a-vis a global populace. There is, as Ashish Roy points out, an “English/not-English polarity” in the novel (664). We have seen as much in Collins’s treatment of time and temporality. Admitting the validity of Roy’s very convincing argument with respect to Collins’s pro-Empire stand, I will nevertheless attempt to approach the problem from another angle. I will seek to explore the ramifications of the text’s transnational canvas, interrogating the possibility, if any, of amending Roy’s polarized position.
The novel abounds in objects, characters, and mannerisms that are “alien.” The Brahmins from India and the object of their quest, the moonstone, are strangers and foreigners at the most obvious level. However, the hero, Franklin Blake, is also an interesting though exaggerated amalgam of pan-European characteristics. His “French,” “German,” and “Italian” sides, which Betteredge often disparages, indicate his potential to employ multiple attitudes and approaches. In a comic exchange, he credits the “slovenly” British mind with a “curious want of system” (ch. 6, p. 41 and several instances). It is precisely this sort of man who can accept alternative realities: “But then I am an imaginative man and the butcher, the baker, and the tax-gatherer, are not the only credible realities in existence to my mind” (43). This openness to embrace difference probably explains his “attraction” to the outcast Ezra Jennings. There is a shared sympathy of mind between the self-professed cosmopolitan traveller and the brilliant doctor of mixed racial origins. It is this camaraderie that generates one half of the solution to the mystery. Mr. Murthwaite, another traveller, is also the one who interprets the Indians’ inexplicable behaviour to Mr. Bruff, providing an answer to the other half of the riddle.
Collins’s attack on the insularity and rigidity of Victorian conventions, especially those of its domestic fiction, comes across clearly in the novel. His literary universe is characterized by a constant traffic between different parts of the Empire and beyond. The privileged figures in the narrative all appear to be people who have breached the limits of the home and the nation, facilitating their access to realities not immediately evident. However, one cannot deny that the sustainability of this transnational configuration is precarious at best. Jennings who appears to embody a blend of the East and the West, his particoloured hair bringing an almost Manichaean dichotomy into play, is ravaged by an internal disease that eventually kills him. Other participants in this global drama are also entangled in a mesh of violence. Disguise, deceit, and murder appear the medium through which such transactions are made possible.
Captain Herncastle’s violent wresting of the diamond from the hilt of Tipoo’s sword, the Indians’ invasion of the Verinder home in order to retrieve the jewel, their attacks on Luker and Ablewhite and their subsequent murder of the latter as well as Murthwaite’s disguised entry into India , all indicate a violent and uneasy meeting ground for different races. One never witnesses the complete assimilation of the Western-attired and polished Indians into the chosen location of their exile. Though never found out, Murthwaite’s more successful invasion in the guise of a Buddhist Hindu traveller is nevertheless fraught with danger. The expedient of the disguise then perhaps signals the inability of terrains to accommodate strangers in their native guise. A further complication arises in the way disguise seems to work across racial registers in the text. The modalities of Collins’s colour politics emerge steeped in prejudices driven by preconceived notions.
Collins’s engagement is thus a complex undertaking that poses as many questions as the solutions it offers. A savage undercutting of contemporary models of domestic fiction and Victorian pretensions to a rational, ordered, paradisiacal existence, in its exploration of global realities, The Moonstone is marked by a deep inner conflict. In bringing crime, degradation, and proscribed desire into the sanctified embodiment of nineteenth-century complacency, Collins defamiliarizes the countrified Austenian world of impenetrable domesticity and reveals its “hidden energies“ (Hughes 67), its secret impulses, and its uncomfortable truths. By introducing the colony into the very heart of the English home, he indicates the impossibility of maintaining a comfortable distance from the pressing political concerns of his time. However, reading Collins from a postcolonial perspective leaves one acutely conscious of the circulation of old stereotypes and a recycling of colonial attitudes that occur in a modernized avatar in the text.
Blair, David. Introduction. The Moonstone. By Wilkie Collins. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1999. vii-xxiii.
Certeau, Michel de. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. California: U of California P, 2002. 91-110.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1999.
Hughes, Winifred. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
Roy, Ashish. “The Fabulous Imperialist Semiotic of Wilkie Collin’ The Moonstone.” New Literary History 24.3 (1993): 657-81. Web. 21 Apr. 2009 <>.
Last modified 31 May 2010