The Moonstone

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Of the twenty-five novels which Collins produced, over an exceptionally long and creative literary career, only two can be said to have really made it into the canon (or at least, which amounts to much the same thing, into undergraduate reading lists.) These two are, of course, The Woman in White (1860) andThe Moonstone (1868). The most popular of his novels in his lifetime, they have remained the works by Collins which anyone with any interest in the Victorian novel has read. The Moonstone, in particular, ever since the poet Swinburne declared it to be the best of Collins’s novels, has received a great deal of critical attention, although it was perhaps the introduction to the novel written by another poet, T.S.Eliot, which first made it academically fashionable. Thus, for Collins scholars and enthusiasts, who have put so much effort in recent years into editing and promoting his less well-known novels, the announcement of yet another edition of The Moonstone, when so many are already available, is likely to provoke a reaction of discouragement than pleasure. In the case of this new edition by Steve Farmer, however, such a reaction would be completely misplaced. Here is a book which anyone with an interest in either Collins or Victorian literature in general will want to buy.

The chief reason for this is Broadview’s exceptionally generous editorial policy in its series of Literary Texts, and the very good use that Steve Farmer has made of this generosity. In this edition, for a very reasonable price, we are given not only a beautifully printed and error-free annotated text of the novel, but also a full introduction and over 150 pages of appendices. These appendices include excerpts from early reviews of the novel, newspaper accounts of two sensational crimes which almost certainly contributed to its plot, an article by Collins addressing (albeit in a very indirect fashion) the issue of the Indian Mutiny, letters by Collins concerning the composition and publication of the novel, and, last but by no means least, the complete text of the stage adaptation of the novel which Collins made in 1877, together with reviews of the original performances. This is the first time that Collins’s dramatic adaptation of the novel has been reprinted and this text alone is well worth the price of the book.

The text of The Moonstone is neither an especially difficult nor a roblematic one, and, on the whole, Steve Farmer’s annotation is correspondingly light. The notes tend either to be literary in nature, as when parallels in other novels by Collins are pointed out, or designed to explicate the social and historical background to the novel. This works very well in some cases, as when, for example, the precise duties of the various kinds of servant who feature in the story are explained, but at other times the notes struck me as somewhat tangential to the narrative. There were also a few points at which I felt that words or phrases in the text should have been explained but were not. The Introduction, in keeping with this approach, very skilfully combines an introduction to the major themes and literary features of the novel with a sketch of its critical fortunes up to the present. It is a relaxed and generous account, which manages to explain sympathetically the enormous range of critical responses that the book has evoked, from Dorothy Sayers’ celebration of it as the founding Detective Story to those Freudian, feminist and post-colonial readings which have proved so modish an approach to Victorian fiction over the past decade. Farmer, indeed, imputes his own generous attitude to Collins himself, suggesting that the author would have been ‘amused and pleased’ by such a variety of ‘explanations’. One wonders whether this would indeed have been the case, although Collins surely would have been delighted, at least, to find his work taken as seriously as he himself took it. At any rate, the word ‘amused’ here seems ambiguous, and one assumes from it that Farmer himself is underwhelmed by at least some of the critical essays he has waded through.

The editor’s interest in the context and the sources of the novel is also very evident in the choice of material for the appendices, but—and here is the great advantage of Broadview’s policy—the fact that we have the material before us allows us to draw our own conclusions as to its relevance to the texts. Post- colonial critics have recently made great play with the Indian dimension to the novel, suggesting that the Moonstone itself symbolises British fear and guilt over her imperial adventures. The reprinting of Collins’s ‘A Sermon for Sepoys’, written at Dickens’ request in 1858, certainly allows us to see just how temperate and measured his response to the Indian Mutiny was, compared to the horrified reactions of Dickens and others. But it also allows us to form our own view of Collins’s attitude to British imperialism, and, to this reader at least, his fable conveys a much more ambiguous and nuanced attitude than post-colonial readings would suggest.

As I have said, however, the biggest plus of this edition is the reprinting of the complete text of Collins’s stage adaptation. The text is taken from an edition which Collins had privately printed for his own use, and its reprinting allows us again to form our own judgement about the relationship between the author’s famous passion for the stage and his novelistic craft. Collins himself saw the drama and the novel as ‘twin-sisters’ and during his life wrote some 15 plays, six of which were adaptations of his own novels. It was indeed this love of the stage which first brought Collins and Dickens together, and thus ironically helped assure Collins’s success as a novelist. Farmer’s expansive introduction to the play, based on much research, provides an excellent introduction to Victorian theatre as well as to Collins’s own involvement with it. What is most striking when one reads the play is just how ruthlessly Collins revises the novel, squeezing the action into 24 hours, cutting out most of the suspense and omitting some of the most interesting characters. Even those characters which remain are to a great extent simplified. At the same time, some important characteristics of Collins’s literary genius are clearly brought out—the extremely tight construction of the plot, the creation of moments of sensational drama and the complete control of pace. Yet one cannot help but feel, whether because of Collins’s own particular genius or because of the constraints which the theatre- going audience of the time imposed upon dramatists, that his talents are shown in a much better light in the novel itself. And indeed the play itself was not nearly so successful as Collins and others had hoped.

Opinions about this will certainly vary from reader to reader. What is undoubtedly the case, however, is that anyone interested in Wilkie Collins will want to own a copy of this excellent edition.