he main action of the novel takes place takes place in the years 1848-49, at the time of the second Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over that country with great certainty through annexation of the vast areas of the Punjab. 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, which was characterized by ruthless diplomacy extending what Wellesley referred to now as "the empire" of the East India Company. 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. (John R. Reed, 286-7)
To Wilkie Collins, the Moonstone 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 is a history of thefts. In having his initial narrator state "that crime brings its own fatality with it" (Ch. 4), 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 artifact beyond price. The great diamond, which Collins in his 1868 preface to the first volume edition states he based on Russia's "Orloff" (the 190-carat diamond in the Russian Imperial Scepter) and the British crown's 105-carat "Koh-i-Noor" (it was dubbed "Koh-i-Noor" — meaning "mountain of light" — by the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah when he acquired it by guile from the Moghul Emperor in 1739), is never really English or England's, for the novel begins with an account of its various thefts. The novel opens in India with Herncastle's purloining the gem in battle (the opening lines are specifically "written in India") and closes with Murthwaite's account (dated 1850) of the restoration of the gleaming "yellow Diamond" to the forehead of the Hindu deity of the Moon "after the lapse of eight centuries" ("The Statement of Mr. Murthwaite").
The Jewel's Historical Contexts
The United Kingdom's first Sikh settler, Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the Sikh kingdom of Punjab, "ruled the Punjab for six years before being dethroned in 1849, after the British annexed his country. The exiled Sikh became a friend of Queen Victoria, who was godmother to several of his children. He gave the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is the centrepiece of the Queen Mother's state crown, to the UK" ("Royal tribute to first Sikh settler ," London Times July 29, 1999). The date of Murthwaite's account may be ironic, for in 1850 the Sikh maharajah, exiled from Indian after the Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-9, presented the 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" (Reed 287).
In "A Note on Sources" in the 1966 Penguin edition of The Moonstone J. I. M. Stewart states that Collins used G. C. King's Natural History of Precious Stones (1865) to research the history of the Koh-i-Noor, so that he would have known that Queen Victoria had the stone cut down from 109 carats to fit her crown. Adds Stewart, "According to Walter de la Mare in The Eighteen Sixties (Royal Society of Literature, 1932) Charles Reade possessed a moonstone which had been brought from India by his brother, and that this was the original inspiration of the novel" (527). "Just as the Koh-i-Noor symbolized England's conquest of India, the Moonstone represents England's gains from its Indian adventures" (Reed 287).
India as Ancient Civilization
Before Herncastle acquires it 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 curse, 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" (Ch. 2) 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 Household Words would normally regard as Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness regards The Company's Mr. Kurtz (as the torch- and standard-bearer of European law, science, technology, religion, and culture) are, Collins implies, no better than those eleventh-century Moslem invaders of India under Mahmoud of Ginzi, who committed an act of wanton vandalism and sacrilege in stripping "the shrine of Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the eastern world" (Ch. 2). 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" (Ch. 3), 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. Dishonoured forever, Herncastle is compelled to renounce his commission in the Guards before he is 22, the remainder of his life being given over to the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
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 to punish the family that he 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 the seek to appropriate it: it brings out the hypocrisy of the outwardly charitable, pious, and Christian Godfrey Ablewhite, who is unmasked in death as a "Whited Sepulchre," as gross a sensualist and hedonist as Herncastle himself. Through the figures of the duplicitous Godfrey Ablewhite and the tract-dispersing Miss Clack Collins conducts a sustained attack on organized Christianity "as an expression of all he most disliked about his society" (Peters 305).
The Moonstone as Critique of British Imperialism
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 subgenre 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. The conquering English are not 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 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.
The storming of the Seringapatam, in 1799, which establishes the importance of the moonstone and the curse which follows its misuse, was part of the continued interest in India. The Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 — Collins had addressed this in his A Sermon for Sepoys — demonstrated the tinderbox quality of this valuable "property" and also provided English writers with the idea of the "murderous Indian." Collins had further demonstrated his interest in Indian questions by writing with Dickens The Perils of Certain English Prisoners [in the Christmas, 1857, special Christmas number of Household Words ], the real subject of which is India. (Karl 10)
To the rebellion of the native troops in May-August, 1857, Collins's literary collaborator and mentor, Charles Dickens, had responded with an unpleasant mixture of jingoism and rabid violence;
he told Miss Coutts that he wished he was Commander-in-Chief in India and " . . . that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon which the stain of the late cruelties rested . . . with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth . . ." It is not often that a great novelist recommends genocide. . . (Ackroyd 799).
A postcolonial interpretation, such as that offered by the government of India, based on Britain's religious, economic, and cultural depredations in the Indian subcontinent would probably not have occurred to Collins's first readers. In the aftermath of the Falkland Islands War and Britain's surrender of Hong Kong it is easy to read Collins's The Moonstone as a testimonial to Great Britain's imperialistic exploitation of the greatest jewel in the Queen-Empress's crown, India, although she did not formally become Empress until Disraeli's Titles Act of 1876. In fact, Her Majesty did not respond to the native atrocities of the Sepoy Rebellion with anything approaching Dickens's ferocity:
She had been one of the very few people in Britain who did not join in the clamour for indiscriminate slaughter of Indians in revenge for the murder of British women and children at Cawnpore and elsewhere; and she and Prince Albert supported the Governor-General of India, Lord Canning, when he aroused a storm of indignation in Britain by his proclamation in which he urged commanders in the field to show some restraint in the number of executions. The Queen was very conscious of her duties to her Indian subjects, and here, as in Britain, she believed in her ideal of paternalistic government. (Fraser 306)
No matter to what extent that the greatest jewel in Victoria's or any other nineteenth-century monarch's crown was the Koh-i-Noor (still housed in the Tower of London's Jewel Tower today, and presided over from his retirement from the army in 1897 until his death in 1909 by Sir Hugh Gough, Keeper of the Crown Jewels, who as a young subaltern witnessed the execution of the first 85 Sepoy rebels at Meerut on Saturday, 9 May, 1857), 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 1857 mutiny, of the Moslem ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar's impotently trying to restrain the rebellious native troops after they had perfidiously turned on their officers in May, 1857, and of the Hindu ruler Nana Sahib's falsely negotiating a truce with the Cawnpore garrison on 27 June, 1857, then ordering a deadly fusillade directed at the male survivors of the siege of the European compound and the dismemberment on July 15 of all surviving women and children. Could Collins's readers, remembering the horrors of Bibighar, a well crammed to the depth of fifty feet with the mutilated bodies of their countrywomen, and the ensuing siege of Lucknow, possibly identify themselves with the novel's faithful Brahmins? The blood of 15 officers, 448 enlisted men, three officers' wives, 43 soldiers' wives, and 55 children cried out from that well, and reverberated down all the succeeding decades of the Raj. The folly that led loyal Sepoys to rebel against the officers who trusted them (a rebellion sparked by British insensitivity to the Islamic and Hindu troops for whom touching the Enfield rifle cartridges greased with pig and beef fat would mean loss of caste) would be overlooked from the first and eventually absorbed into the myth of blood-thirsty, raving rebels so well captured and disseminated by Dickens and Collins in The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (December, 1857).
In "The Preface" to the first volume edition, Collins seeks to undermine the notion that an external supernatural cause, a curse, motivates the evil that attends attempting to own the Moonstone, arguing instead for a causality of character:
the conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl, supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.
The same object has been kept in view, in the handling of the other characters which appear in these pages. Their course of thought and action under the circumstances which surround them, is shown to be(what it would most probably have been in real life) sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Right, or wrong, their conduct, in either event, equally dircts the course of those portions of the story in which they are concerned."
Returned to its proper guardians, then replaced in the forehead of the Moon god, the Moonstone once again becomes a metaphysical rather than a capitalistic 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" ("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." 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 depredations — [and the Moonstone itself as] the symbol of a national rather than a personal crime" (Reed 286). 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. The Moonstone thus becomes a semiotic sign whose meanings lie beyond cultural misperceptions and hegemonies. 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.
Heroes and Villains
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 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 holymen 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 specious 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.
India in The Moonstone serves much the same function that certain elements provide in Gothic fiction. Its mysteriousness, inflammability, locale 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 itself embedded deeply in superstition, set as it was in the forehead of a four-handed Indian god typifying the moon. It serves something of the function of the statue in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto , which 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, the Indian strategy reinforced the pressure of the past upon the present . . . . (Karl 11)
The British Raj vanished as a direct result of the altruism and idealism of Mahatma Ghandi, a British-educated lawyer turned civil rights champion, then Hindu sage, then liberator, who saw as no other leader of his age had done the necessity for interracial conciliation and transcendent faith if India were to arise from bloody internecine strife and take her rightful place in the society of nations. Today, Collins's The Moonstone may be viewed not as a response to a national insurgency and or European determination to keep the native in his place, but rather as a love story between two people who only come to see each other for what they are after misjudgments, misunderstandings, accidental and intended deceptions, and considerable self-sacrifice.
Printed Works Consulted
Ackroyd, Peter, Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Karl, Frederick R. "Introduction." Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Scarborough, Ontario: Signet, 1984. Pp. 1-21.
Morris, James. Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress. London: Folio Society, 1992.
Peters, Catherine. The King of the Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Minerva, 1991.
Reed, John R. "English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged crime of The Moonstone. Clio 2, 3 (June, 1973): 281-290.
Stewart, J. I. M. "A Note on Sources." Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966, rpt. 1973. Pp. 527-8.
Last modified November 20, 2000