Wilkie Collins was a very popular Victorian writer with 30 novels, 60 short stories, 14 plays and a very large number of non-fiction articles to his name. Those non-fiction pieces cover a very wide range of subjects and reveal him to be a highly intelligent and thoughtful man.
He was a long-term friend of Charles Dickens and they worked together on projects: Dickens’ magazines carrying Collins’ stories, and Dickens’ theatre company putting on some of his plays.
Collins studied law (somewhat reluctantly it seems) and was called to the Bar in 1851, the year he met Dickens. Dickens regarded lawyers with contempt and ridiculed them in many of his books, so it’s interesting that Collins never practised after qualifying.
Many years have slipped by since I last read The Moonstone. I was reminded of it when it was suggested as a Book Club read and thought it must be time to take another look – particularly as it is now available as a free eBook. The book tells of the disappearance of a rare diamond, the Moonstone. The events surrounding its disappearance are related in turn by a number of individuals, each of whom is involved to some extent.
The book is a delight. There is a lot of humour, particularly in the first half when it feels like a combination of P G Woodhouse and Charles Dickens. The characters are captured perfectly; even those on the fringe, such as Ezzra Jennings, or the street urchin known as Gooseberry, left me wanting to learn much more about them.
A couple of things caught my eye this time around. The book is frequently referred to as the first detective novel, but the detective in it says, ‘It’s only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake.’ So, presumably, detective novels were already well known.
We may think that the cult of celebrity is an invention of our times, but writing in 1868 Collins says, ‘In our modern system of civilisation, celebrity (no matter of what kind) is the lever that will move anything.’ It seems that we can’t even invent our own idiocy.
A beautifully written book that gives a fascinating insight into attitudes of the time, as well as being an entertaining ‘whodunnit’. The only downside lies in the eBook version. The formatting is dreadful and is a distraction that is hard to ignore, but it’s difficult to complain when the conversion has led to the book being available free of charge.