Day 1141: The Moonstone

Cover for The MoonstoneBest Book of Five!
Although the first mystery stories are credited to Edgar Allen Poe, The Moonstone is widely regarded as the first ever mystery novel. It is not a murder mystery (although it includes a murder), but is instead about the mysterious disappearance of a valuable diamond.

Rachel Verinder inherits the moonstone from her uncle on her 19th birthday. Since the diamond was ruthlessly stolen by her uncle in India and is rumored to be cursed, this gift is meant maliciously, because Rachel’s mother wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake acts as courier of the diamond, and only his decision to travel early, we learn later, may have saved his life while the stone is in his possession. The Verinder’s house is visited twice by three mysterious Indians.

The night of Rachel’s birthday dinner, the moonstone disappears from a cabinet in her sitting room. Rachel’s subsequent behavior is inexplicable. She declines to be interviewed by investigators trying to find the diamond and is uncommonly offended by Franklin’s attempts to help solve the mystery.

A house maid named Rosanne seems to be involved in some way in the crime. But perhaps she is being unfairly judged, as she has a criminal past and is trying to reform.

The Woman in White is certainly Wilkie Collins’s most famous novel, but The Moonstone has always been my favorite. An epistomological novel, it is made vibrant by the distinctive and sometimes amusing voices of the various characters, who are requested to submit their testimonies of events. I especially enjoy the sections written by Gabriel Betteridge, the house steward with a fascination for Robinson Crusoe.

logo for RIPThis reread for my Classics Club list has not changed my opinion. The Moonstone has a complicated, but not absurdly so, plot and an exotic element. Although it occasionally contains comments, especially about women and Indians, that are no longer politically correct, they reflect the novel’s time and the attitudes of the narrators.

P. S., I am also reading this for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1065: Diana Tempest

Cover for Diana TempestThe plot of Diana Tempest depends on the actions of our heroine’s weak, selfish, and amoral father, Colonel Tempest. He runs off with his older brother’s young and foolish fiancée, only to tire of her after a few  years. When Diana’s mother dies shortly after her birth, he hands his daughter over to her grandmother, as he is only interested in his son, Archie.

The novel begins a few years later with Colonel Tempest rushing to the side of his dying older brother, hoping to reconcile. But his brother is so full of hatred that he formally recognizes his wife’s son John as his heir, even though he knows John is the issue of an affair between his wife and her cousin.

When John is a young man, Colonel Tempest drunkenly makes a bet that has major ramifications for his family. Even though he repents, he is unable to get out of the wager.

As a young woman, Diana and her grandmother manage to get by but have no extra resources. When Diana meets John, he falls in love with her, but she does not realize this and thinks they are friends. Later she understands she loves him, but it is after he makes a fateful discovery.

This novel fits very well into the sensationalist genre Cholmondely is known for. Its heroine and hero are likable, and it was enjoyable to read.

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Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 977: Far From the Madding Crowd

Cover for Far From the Madding CrowdBest Book of the Week!
I had to laugh at the blurb on my old 1960 paperback copy of Far From the Madding Crowd. It says, “She was a wanton who needed taming.” I think that says a lot more about 1960 than it does about Thomas Hardy’s novel.

Bathsheba Everdene is not a wanton, but she is a spirited, beautiful young woman. We first see her from the eyes of Gabriel Oak, a farmer and sheep breeder, as she moves house to live with her aunt. He observes that she is vain, but she takes his fancy. Soon, he proposes marriage.

Bathsheba is not interested. Still, Gabriel has fallen in love with her and stays in love. Soon, in a horrible mishap, Gabriel loses all his sheep and has to sell his farm for debts. His first thought is relief that she didn’t have to be brought low by his sudden poverty.

By this time, Bathsheba has left the area. When Gabriel is hired as a shepherd, he finds himself working for her, as she has inherited a substantial farm from her uncle. Soon, she has dismissed the thieving bailiff and put Gabriel in his place.

The bulk of the plot of this novel is about Bathsheba’s relationships with three different men—her growing friendship with Gabriel; the obsession Farmer Boldwood has for her, which is provoked by an act of mischief; and her own infatuation with Sergeant Troy, a liar and womanizer.

Far From the Madding Crowd is the first of Hardy’s Wessex novels, and it is much sunnier than any of the others. That is not to say it is light-hearted. It has many dark threads—Farmer Boldwood’s fetishist obsession, Gabriel’s ruin for a freakish reason, the fate of Fanny Robin, a supposed suicide, and a murder. Victorians would have categorized this novel as sensationalist.

With Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this is one of my favorite Hardy novels. I love its depictions of English rural life and customs of the times. I think Bathsheba is an interesting heroine and Gabriel a fine hero. I have been meaning to reread this novel since I saw the new movie last year (good, but not up to the Julie Christie classic), and I’m happy to have finally done it. Also, this is one of the few remaining books left on my current Classics Club list.

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Day 971: Basil

Cover for BasilSuch a deal. Last spring I purchased the collected works of several writers from Delphi Classics in e-book form. I made my choices from authors whose works I thought may not all be available in hardcover, which I prefer. Wilkie Collins was one of them, although I already own copies of several of his novels.

I also decided to tackle these works in the order in which they appear in each collection, which is often in order of publication. That may not have been the best idea, because in some cases, although not all, it subjects me first to the novels that are, shall we say, less polished. In the case of Collins, I found his first novel, Antonina, unreadable. It is his only historical novel, set in Roman times, and it features turgid prose and overblown pseudo-archaic dialogue.

Basil is his second novel, and here he gets right into the sensationalist fiction for which he was known. The first thing I want to say about it is that usually I try not to judge an older book by modern standards, especially in regard to customs or mores. But I am going to have to address this subject a bit later on. First, I’ll tell you what the book is about.

Basil is the younger son of a very proud, wealthy upper-class man. Basil has always striven to please rather than to disappoint his father, unlike his older brother. But one day Basil decides on a whim to take an omnibus home. Such daring! On the bus, he sees a beautiful young woman and falls madly in love with her. To his dismay, he learns she is the daughter of a linen draper named Sherwin. Even though Basil knows his father will never approve, he enters into a secret marriage with Margaret. However, he agrees with her father’s demand that he live apart from her for a year, never to see her alone during that time.

Although any child could see through the cupidity behind this demand and understand that it was suspicious, Basil goes through with it. He marries Margaret when he has known her about a week and spoken to her only a handful of times.

Already, before the plot even thickened, I was close to putting the book down. I don’t like femme fatale plots, and it was clear this was going to be one. Collins does not even attempt to fool us that this is going to come out well, because Basil says at the beginning that he is writing the manuscript while living alone and in disgrace.

But here is where I might be judging the book based on modern ethos. What occurs between Margaret and Basil gives me the creeps. He follows her home from the bus and bribes her servant to tell him when she is going out. He ambushes her on her walk. Then after one conversation, he arranges the marriage with her father. If you’re thinking that marriages at that time were all arranged, it is clear by Mr. Sherwin’s reaction that this was a very unusual situation. That he leaps to take advantage only shows his greed. Basically, I had a hard time not thinking of Basil as a stalker, when I believe we’re supposed to be impressed by his virtue in offering marriage rather than something else. A stalker and an idiot.

Then Mr. Mannion returns and things get a little more interesting. Mr. Mannion is Mr. Sherwin’s confidential secretary, who has been doing business for him in France. Mr. Mannion is described as a handsome man with a wooden face. He seems to be a person originally from a higher class. It is clear to the reader that something is going on among Mannion, Margaret, and Mrs. Sherwin that Basil doesn’t notice.

The novel becomes darker and more complicated than I anticipated. Does this save it? Well, it kept me reading, but no, not really. Collins hasn’t yet figured out how to structure a narrative. He includes pages of fretting that are supposed to make us sympathize with Basil but instead are annoying. For example, after the main action ends in the wilds of Cornwall, he includes several letters. This technique allows him a bit of a cliffhanger (in more ways than one) while also leaving room to tie up loose ends. But the last three or four pages are almost entirely unnecessary, and they seem to go on and on.

My conclusion? Read some Wilkie Collins but not this one.

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Day 895: Red Pottage

red-pottageBest Book of the Week!
Red Pottage is another find for me this year of a novel by a terrific classic author. I can include Mrs. Oliphant, Dorothy Whipple, and Julia Strachey in this list of classic authors I have not read before that I really enjoyed. My Doughty Library edition says the novel contains “every ingredient for a Victorian bestseller” and mentions wickedness and greed.

Hugh Scarlett has been having an affair with a married woman, Lady Newhaven. At first he thought he was in love with her, but now he has recognized her for who she is—a shallow and stupid beauty. He has already decided to break with her when he meets Rachel West at a party. At one glance he decides that Rachel is the woman to make a better man of him.

Rachel has also attracted the attention of Dick Vernon, a wine grower from Australia who is visiting his friends and family. Rachel likes him, but she is thinking of others.

Rachel has an unhappy past. Once the daughter of a wealthy man, she lost her fortune with her father’s death. For seven years she struggled to support herself, living in London’s East End and working as a typist. At that time, she fell deeply in love with an artist, Mr. Tristram, and was devastated when she realized he had no intention of marrying her. At the beginning of the novel, she has inherited another fortune and still believes herself in love with Mr. Tristram. Now that she has a fortune, though, she is looking like a much better prospect to him.

Another important character is Hester Gresley, an author who has been Rachel’s friend since childhood. Although Hester is better born than Rachel, her fortunes have suffered as Rachel’s have improved. She lives with her brother James, a rector who disregards her talent as a novelist and can only see his own point of view. James’s wife is jealous of Hester, and the children lovable but noisy. Hester finds herself unable to work during the daytime, so she stays up into the morning working, only to be accused by her sister-in-law of laziness.

Red Pottage is a story about morals and manners. That sounds boring, but it is quite satirical at times, while at other times it brought me to tears. The central conflict begins shortly after Hugh meets Rachel, when Lord Newhaven confronts him about Hugh’s affair with his wife. He makes Hugh a challenge, that they draw “lighters” (matches? straws?) and whoever draws the short one must take his own life within four months.

To complicate matters, Lady Newhaven eavesdrops on this conversation but does not learn who drew the short lighter. Then foolish, self-centered Lady Newhaven confides in Rachel, along with her assumption that if her husband dies, she will marry Hugh.

The story turned out just about how I thought it would, but I found the journey completely gripping. Another success from my Classics Club list!

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