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What role did 19th Century popular serial novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone play in British understandings of India?


When Wilkie Collins first wrote The Moonstone in 1868, it was not published in the form available today, but was published in instalments in a popular Victorian magazine, All the Year Round. Upon its first publication it was eagerly read by the general British public, for its readership not only included the ruling and upper classes, but the cost and availability meant that a copy would have a wide circulation amongst all members of a household. The tale’s images and ideas of India thus reached many social groups in British culture.

To Wilkie Collins, the gem, part of whose history we follow in The Moonstone, the novel of the same name, is the signifier of all things that humanity strives for, material and spiritual. He begins the novel by demonstrating that the history of the Moonstone gem is a history of thefts. In having his initial narrator state "that crime brings its own fatality with it" (p.6 Ch. IV of the prologue), Collins underscores the fact that nemesis attends every worldly expropriator of the Moonstone, which to its temporary European possessors is a bauble and a commodity but which to its faithful guardians, the Brahmins, is a sacred artefact beyond price.


The Moonstone is never really English or England's, for the novel begins with an account of its various thefts. It opens in India with Rachel Verinder’s Uncle Herncastle's purloining the gem in battle (the opening lines are specifically "written in India"(p.1)) and closes with Murthwaite, the famed fictional explorer's, account (dated 1850) of the restoration of the gleaming "yellow Diamond"(p.466) to the forehead of the Hindu deity of the Moon "after the lapse of eight centuries"(p.466, "The Statement of Mr. Murthwaite"). The date of Murthwaite's account of the restoration of the diamond may be ironic, for in 1850 a Sikh maharajah, exiled from Indian after the Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-9, presented a gem, which is thought to be the inspiration for the Moonstone gem, to Queen Victoria at an elaborate state ceremony in St. James's Palace to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I, as this gem symbolized England's conquest of India, the Moonstone represents England's gains from its Indian adventures


The main action of the novel takes place in the years 1848-49, at the time of the second Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over all parts of India with great certainty. The Prologue, clearly described as "the Storming of Seringapatam," and dated 1799, emphasizes the historical significance of the story. An important English victory in what was the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1789-99 distinguished the beginning of Arthur Wellesley's rule as Governor-General, a rule characterized by ruthless diplomacy. In fact, the victory at Seringapatam, as Collins knew, represented the establishment of England as the major power on the sub-continent, at the same time confirming expansion and exploitation as a company practice.

Before Herncastle acquires the Moonstone at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, the stone has already passed through the hands of a number “vain conquerors”. The opening narrative transforms the sacred object into a symbol of wealth and power that no mere mortal should possess, but which, despite its properties, immoral warriors of various nations have sought to acquire. In fact, owning what no one should possess merely adds to the Moonstone's allure.
The connection of the properties of the Moonstone to "ancient Greece and Rome" (p.2 Ch. II of the prologue) is the first indication that India is not a barbarous and backward series of petty principalities but an ancient civilisation. The British army storming Seringapatam under General Baird, whom we as mid-Victorian readers of All the Year Round would normally regard as the bearer of European law, science, technology, religion, and culture are, Collins implies, no better than those eleventh-century Moslem invaders of India, who committed an act of wanton vandalism and sacrilege in stripping "the shrine of Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the eastern world" (p.2 Ch. II of the prologue). We hear of the barbarism and "rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans" then meet Colonel Herncastle after we have been told that the British army has converted the city's Moslem defenders into a "heap" of corpses. In retrospect, absurd, foolish, hot-tempered, Herncastle is ridiculous when he boasts to his fellow officers "that we should see the Diamond on his finger" (p.3 Ch. III), for he clearly has no idea of the dimensions of the sacred object he covets and wades through blood to attain but can never enjoy.

Ironically, until the close of the novel, no one seems to regard the three Brahmins as the gem's rightful custodians. While Herncastle maliciously bequeaths the stone to Rachel Verinder, his niece, to punish the family that rejected him, the Brahmins risk their immortal souls by masquerading as members of a lower caste (jugglers and musicians) in order to retrieve the gem, dedicating their lives to the service of their god. The Moonstone brings out the worst in the worldlings that seek to appropriate it, for it brings out the hypocrisy of the outwardly charitable, pious, and Christian Godfrey Ablewhite, desirer of Rachel Verinder’s affections, who is unmasked in death as gross a sensualist and hedonist as Herncastle himself. In contrast to the selflessness of the Brahmins, sensual pleasure and self-love motivate Godfrey Ablewhite as they had Colonel Herncastle, and frustrate recovery of the diamond.
The colourful, exotic history of the stone which becomes its meaning, both opens and closes the novel. The story of The Moonstone is a fable, a cautionary tale with an overt moral. The bulk of the novel is merely the European chapter in that history. The prediction of disaster to befall each successive owner implies that the gem's story is one of successive thefts: this prediction, based entirely on the limitations of human nature, is a curse to all but Franklin Blake, and the focus of his affections, Rachel Verinder. Rachel's selfless love that prompts her to sacrifice her honour for the sake of her beloved (whom she mistakenly believes to be a thief) parallels the religious dedication of the Brahmins, so that romantic love becomes the Western equivalent of Eastern reverence. Just as the holy men recover the diamond to restore the powers of their deity, so Franklin Blake recovers Rachel's respect, lost for a time through a plausible, but inaccurate, error in judgment based on seeing but not understanding. The Moonstone becomes a catalyst for emotional and moral growth for the only Europeans who have not coveted it.
Returned to its proper guardians, then replaced in the forehead of the Moon god, the Moonstone once again becomes a metaphysical rather than a material signifier. Only at the end is the reader compelled to see the death of Godfrey Ablewhite as poetically just and the Brahmins as heroic conservators capable of great personal sacrifice: they have "forfeited their caste, in the service of the god. The god had commanded that their purification should be the purification by pilgrimage" (p.465 "The Statement of Mr. Murthwaite"). Having been constantly together their entire lives, the trio depart in separate directions: "Never more were they to look on each other's faces."(p.465) With the exception of the lovers, Rachel Verinder and Franklin Blake, who always esteemed each other rather than the diamond, the Western "possessors" of the stone we now regard as thieves, charlatans, and fences. Herncastle's acquiring the gem through deception and murder establishes the pattern of repeated thefts as symbolic of England's imperial conquests and the Moonstone itself as the symbol of a national rather than a personal crime. Perhaps to Collins, and ultimately to his less prejudiced and more open-minded readers, the British Raj is not civilising and benevolent, but economic and military imperialism at its worst. In the idol, it inspires faith in the community of believers; as a useless bauble, it excites the Christian sins of lust, envy, greed, and even murder.

India in The Moonstone serves much the same function that certain elements provide in Gothic fiction. Its mysteriousness, mysticism and availability of curses and omens, furnish the background that once belonged to castles, remote areas, winding passageways, Mediterranean-type killers, and medieval premonitions. The Moonstone diamond is embedded as deeply in superstition, as it was in the forehead of a fourhanded Indian god typifying the moon. It serves something of the function of the statue in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, which is often regarded as the tale that began the Gothic genre. The Indian connection, however, gave Collins an additional dimension for his crime-detection novel, for it suggested light-dark imagery, aspects of surface versus subsurface, external events versus background, history, and shadows. If nothing else, India’s complex history reinforced the pressure of the past upon the present.


In The King of the Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, Catherine Peters sees the novel The Moonstone as subverting not merely the conventions of the Sensation Novel (the sub genre that Collins had been pivotal in creating) but also the traditional tenets of nineteenth-century British imperialism. The Brahmins are hardly mindless primitives, and the British army is not shown intervening to prevent bloodshed between rival factions, nor are the conquering English superior, enlightened beings attempting to confer the benefits of European culture and Christian morality upon benighted savages. Whereas the focus of the Sensation Novel had been sexual indiscretion (illegitimacy, bigamy, adultery), the centre of The Moonstone is crime and detection. Perhaps the new genre and Collins's apparently ambivalent attitudes owe something to context in which his readers would have viewed any subject associated with India after the 1857 Sepoy rebellion, produced by an English failure to understand the deeply religious nature of India's Muslims and Hindus. This novel represents what was part of a continuing interest in India. However, Collins was evidently changeable somewhat in his view of India. In A Sermon for Sepoys, another of his writings, Collins chose to portray India in quite another light when addressing the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. In this, he demonstrates the volatile quality of this valuable "property" and also is partly responsible for providing English writers with the idea of the "murderous Indian."


Collins's mythical Moonstone stands for an India that is not the world's most populous democracy, as we know it today, but the India of the Raj. To Collins's readers, whether the common reader of the serial instalments in All the Year Round from 4 January to 8 August, or the more privileged reader of the triple-decker (16 July, 1868), mention of India would have instantly conjured up the terrific events of the series of mid 19th century mutinies; the Cawnpore garrison massacre, the horrors of the well at Bibighar, and the ensuing siege of Lucknow. Could Collins’ readers possibly identify themselves with the novel's faithful Brahmins? The reasons that led to these rebellions would be overlooked from the first and eventually absorbed into the myth of blood-thirsty, raving rebels so well captured and disseminated by Collins and his contemporaries in many of their writings.

Bibliography


Page references to passages from The Moonstone come from the Oxford University Press, 1999 edition of the novel.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sutherland, John. “Introduction and A Note on the Composition” Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stewart, J. I. M. “A Note on Sources.” Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, rpt. 1973. Pp. 527-8.

Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Peters, Catherine. The King of the Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London, Minerva, 1991.

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