The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Audio of the introduction below.
The Moonstone, published in 1868, was one of the first detective novels in English, alongside such works as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53) and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841). Before writing The Moonstone, Collins had already met with literary success with his earlier novel The Woman in White, serialised in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round 1859-60. The Moonstone was serialised in the same magazine, and uses a similar polyvocal narrative style, telling the story through many characters’ voices to dramatise multiple perspectives.
The Moonstone of the title is a rare yellow diamond which is left to Rachel Verinder in her uncle John Herncastle’s will but disappears one night from her room. To solve the disappearance, various characters give their accounts of what they remember. The novel is made up of their testimonies. This excerpt is from the prologue, which situates the main events of the novel within a larger history of thefts of the jewel. The Moonstone, we learn, arrived in England because it was violently taken from an Indian armoury by John Herncastle during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.
Wilkie Collins took inspiration for the Moonstone from two famous diamonds in the possession of European royalty: the Orloff diamond, set in the Russian Imperial Sceptre, and the Koh-i-Noor, part of Queen Victoria’s Crown Jewels. How exactly Collins understood the similarities between his fictional Moonstone and these real-life stolen diamonds, however, is somewhat ambiguous, as this extract implies. The writer of the ‘family paper’ that comprises the prologue sees Herncastle’s actions – the theft of the Moonstone and the killing of the three guards – as morally reprehensible. Yet Herncastle’s actions are presented as a certain kind of theft: plunder for personal gain. Those who pocket treasures for themselves, including Herncastle, are condemned both by the narrator and by the army itself, on the penalty of hanging. But such theft is implicitly understood as a theft not from the Indian guards, but from the British Empire. Loot was expected to be handed in to the army so it could be divided up, and treasures sent to Britain – that was how Queen Victoria acquired the Koh-i-Noor, which is still part of the British Crown Jewels today. The prologue leaves us wondering whether, had the Moonstone been presented to Queen Victoria rather than pocketed by Herncastle, it would still be understood as a wrong action within the moral matrix of the novel. The Moonstone condemns the actions of Herncastle and other British soldiers at Seringapatam without bringing the violent invasion itself into question, nor the imperialist campaign of which it was a part.
Ambivalence towards colonial violence is facilitated by the subjective, first-person narration of the prologue. We learn the history of the Moonstone from a character who is personally implicated. The novel is made up of accounts from lots of different perspectives, and we must piece together the truth of what happened incrementally from what each character reveals. This narrative style resembles epistolary fiction, when a story is told in letters, a form that became popular in the eighteenth century. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) in English and Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782) in French are two of the best-known examples. These novels are collections of letters between characters written as events are happening, whereas by contrast The Moonstone is mostly made up of narratives written explicitly for the purpose of solving the crime after the fact – although the prologue frames this collection of testimonies with a single voice! Using these multiple documents, Collins offers a twist to the epistolary form to suit the emerging detective genre.
THE STORMING OF SERINGAPATAM (1799):
(Extracted from a Family Paper.)
I address these lines—written in India—to my relatives in England.
My object is to explain the motive which has induced me to refuse the right hand of friendship to my cousin, John Herncastle. The reserve which I have hitherto maintained in this matter has been misinterpreted by members of my family whose good opinion I cannot consent to forfeit. I request them to suspend their decision until they have read my narrative. And I declare, on my word of honour, that what I am now about to write is, strictly and literally, the truth.
The private difference between my cousin and me took its rise in a great public event in which we were both concerned—the storming of Seringapatam, under General Baird, on the 4th of May, 1799.
In order that the circumstances may be clearly understood, I must revert for a moment to the period before the assault, and to the stories current in our camp of the treasure in jewels and gold stored up in the Palace of Seringapatam.
One of the wildest of these stories related to a Yellow Diamond—a famous gem in the native annals of India.
The earliest known traditions describe the stone as having been set in the forehead of the four-handed Indian god who typifies the Moon. Partly from its peculiar colour, partly from a superstition which represented it as feeling the influence of the deity whom it adorned, and growing and lessening in lustre with the waxing and waning of the moon, it first gained the name by which it continues to be known in India to this day—the name of THE MOONSTONE. A similar superstition was once prevalent, as I have heard, in ancient Greece and Rome; not applying, however (as in India), to a diamond devoted to the service of a god, but to a semi-transparent stone of the inferior order of gems, supposed to be affected by the lunar influences—the moon, in this latter case also, giving the name by which the stone is still known to collectors in our own time.
The adventures of the Yellow Diamond begin with the eleventh century of the Christian era.
At that date, the Mohammedan conqueror, Mahmoud of Ghizni, crossed India; seized on the holy city of Somnauth; and stripped of its treasures the famous temple, which had stood for centuries—the shrine of Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the Eastern world.
Of all the deities worshipped in the temple, the moon-god alone escaped the rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans. Preserved by three Brahmins, the inviolate deity, bearing the Yellow Diamond in its forehead, was removed by night, and was transported to the second of the sacred cities of India—the city of Benares.
Here, in a new shrine—in a hall inlaid with precious stones, under a roof supported by pillars of gold—the moon-god was set up and worshipped. Here, on the night when the shrine was completed, Vishnu the Preserver appeared to the three Brahmins in a dream.
The deity breathed the breath of his divinity on the Diamond in the forehead of the god. And the Brahmins knelt and hid their faces in their robes. The deity commanded that the Moonstone should be watched, from that time forth, by three priests in turn, night and day, to the end of the generations of men. And the Brahmins heard, and bowed before his will. The deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him. And the Brahmins caused the prophecy to be written over the gates of the shrine in letters of gold.
One age followed another—and still, generation after generation, the successors of the three Brahmins watched their priceless Moonstone, night and day. One age followed another until the first years of the eighteenth Christian century saw the reign of Aurungzebe, Emperor of the Moguls. At his command havoc and rapine were let loose once more among the temples of the worship of Brahmah. The shrine of the four-handed god was polluted by the slaughter of sacred animals; the images of the deities were broken in pieces; and the Moonstone was seized by an officer of rank in the army of Aurungzebe.
Powerless to recover their lost treasure by open force, the three guardian priests followed and watched it in disguise. The generations succeeded each other; the warrior who had committed the sacrilege perished miserably; the Moonstone passed (carrying its curse with it) from one lawless Mohammedan hand to another; and still, through all chances and changes, the successors of the three guardian priests kept their watch, waiting the day when the will of Vishnu the Preserver should restore to them their sacred gem. Time rolled on from the first to the last years of the eighteenth Christian century. The Diamond fell into the possession of Tippoo, Sultan of Seringapatam, who caused it to be placed as an ornament in the handle of a dagger, and who commanded it to be kept among the choicest treasures of his armoury. Even then—in the palace of the Sultan himself—the three guardian priests still kept their watch in secret. There were three officers of Tippoo’s household, strangers to the rest, who had won their master’s confidence by conforming, or appearing to conform, to the Mussulman faith; and to those three men report pointed as the three priests in disguise.
So, as told in our camp, ran the fanciful story of the Moonstone. It made no serious impression on any of us except my cousin—whose love of the marvellous induced him to believe it. On the night before the assault on Seringapatam, he was absurdly angry with me, and with others, for treating the whole thing as a fable. A foolish wrangle followed; and Herncastle’s unlucky temper got the better of him. He declared, in his boastful way, that we should see the Diamond on his finger, if the English army took Seringapatam. The sally was saluted by a roar of laughter, and there, as we all thought that night, the thing ended.
Let me now take you on to the day of the assault.
My cousin and I were separated at the outset. I never saw him when we forded the river; when we planted the English flag in the first breach; when we crossed the ditch beyond; and, fighting every inch of our way, entered the town. It was only at dusk, when the place was ours, and after General Baird himself had found the dead body of Tippoo under a heap of the slain, that Herncastle and I met.
We were each attached to a party sent out by the general’s orders to prevent the plunder and confusion which followed our conquest. The camp-followers committed deplorable excesses; and, worse still, the soldiers found their way, by a guarded door, into the treasury of the Palace, and loaded themselves with gold and jewels. It was in the court outside the treasury that my cousin and I met, to enforce the laws of discipline on our own soldiers. Herncastle’s fiery temper had been, as I could plainly see, exasperated to a kind of frenzy by the terrible slaughter through which we had passed. He was very unfit, in my opinion, to perform the duty that had been entrusted to him.
There was riot and confusion enough in the treasury, but no violence that I saw. The men (if I may use such an expression) disgraced themselves good-humouredly. All sorts of rough jests and catchwords were bandied about among them; and the story of the Diamond turned up again unexpectedly, in the form of a mischievous joke. “Who’s got the Moonstone?” was the rallying cry which perpetually caused the plundering, as soon as it was stopped in one place, to break out in another. While I was still vainly trying to establish order, I heard a frightful yelling on the other side of the courtyard, and at once ran towards the cries, in dread of finding some new outbreak of the pillage in that direction.
I got to an open door, and saw the bodies of two Indians (by their dress, as I guessed, officers of the palace) lying across the entrance, dead.
A cry inside hurried me into a room, which appeared to serve as an armoury. A third Indian, mortally wounded, was sinking at the feet of a man whose back was towards me. The man turned at the instant when I came in, and I saw John Herncastle, with a torch in one hand, and a dagger dripping with blood in the other. A stone, set like a pommel, in the end of the dagger’s handle, flashed in the torchlight, as he turned on me, like a gleam of fire. The dying Indian sank to his knees, pointed to the dagger in Herncastle’s hand, and said, in his native language—“The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!” He spoke those words, and fell dead on the floor.
Before I could stir in the matter, the men who had followed me across the courtyard crowded in. My cousin rushed to meet them, like a madman. “Clear the room!” he shouted to me, “and set a guard on the door!” The men fell back as he threw himself on them with his torch and his dagger. I put two sentinels of my own company, on whom I could rely, to keep the door. Through the remainder of the night, I saw no more of my cousin.
Early in the morning, the plunder still going on, General Baird announced publicly by beat of drum, that any thief detected in the fact, be he whom he might, should be hung. The provost-marshal was in attendance, to prove that the General was in earnest; and in the throng that followed the proclamation, Herncastle and I met again.
He held out his hand, as usual, and said, “Good morning.”
I waited before I gave him my hand in return.
“Tell me first,” I said, “how the Indian in the armoury met his death, and what those last words meant, when he pointed to the dagger in your hand.”
“The Indian met his death, as I suppose, by a mortal wound,” said Herncastle. “What his last words meant I know no more than you do.”
I looked at him narrowly. His frenzy of the previous day had all calmed down. I determined to give him another chance.
“Is that all you have to tell me?” I asked.
He answered, “That is all.”
I turned my back on him; and we have not spoken since.
I beg it to be understood that what I write here about my cousin (unless some necessity should arise for making it public) is for the information of the family only. Herncastle has said nothing that can justify me in speaking to our commanding officer. He has been taunted more than once about the Diamond, by those who recollect his angry outbreak before the assault; but, as may easily be imagined, his own remembrance of the circumstances under which I surprised him in the armoury has been enough to keep him silent. It is reported that he means to exchange into another regiment, avowedly for the purpose of separating himself from me.
Whether this be true or not, I cannot prevail upon myself to become his accuser—and I think with good reason. If I made the matter public, I have no evidence but moral evidence to bring forward. I have not only no proof that he killed the two men at the door; I cannot even declare that he killed the third man inside—for I cannot say that my own eyes saw the deed committed. It is true that I heard the dying Indian’s words; but if those words were pronounced to be the ravings of delirium, how could I contradict the assertion from my own knowledge? Let our relatives, on either side, form their own opinion on what I have written, and decide for themselves whether the aversion I now feel towards this man is well or ill founded.
Although I attach no sort of credit to the fantastic Indian legend of the gem, I must acknowledge, before I conclude, that I am influenced by a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality with it. I am not only persuaded of Herncastle’s guilt; I am even fanciful enough to believe that he will live to regret it, if he keeps the Diamond; and that others will live to regret taking it from him, if he gives the Diamond away.
Some themes and questions to consider
Family histories: This prologue creates the idea of a shadowy archive of family secrets, a back-story to the mystery of Verinder’s inheritance, that is presented as outside of or preceding the ‘main story’. What are the functions of using a prologue on the way we can understand a story?
Writing letters: This prologue also more closely resembles other examples of epistolary fiction than most of the later chapters of the book. How does the letter form establish mystery and intrigue?
Reading colonial texts: This text is selective about its judgments of right and wrong actions. What ways of reading this excerpt might be used as tools for tackling similar texts and the implicit values they impart?
Serialisation: The Moonstone was originally published serially in the weekly literary magazine All the Year Round between 4 January and 8 August 1868. This meant that original readers would have had to wait for each new instalment to find out what happened next. How might this serial format add to the experience of reading a mystery novel?
The full text of The Moonstone is available through Project Gutenberg.
Resources on the life and work of Wilkie Collins
Andrew Lycett, Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation (2013)
Norman Page (ed.), Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage (1974)
Lyn Pykett, Wilkie Collins (2005)
Crime and crime fiction
British Library: Crime and crime fiction
Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction? How did literature balance fear, social commentary and entertainment? This theme traces the development of crime fiction from penny dreadfuls’ and the Victorian criminal underworld through to the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes.
British Library: The creation of the police and the rise of detective fiction
Judith Flanders explores how the creation of a unified Metropolitan Police force in 1829 led to the birth of the fictional detective.
Oxford Bibliographies: Detective Fiction
‘Cluedo and Cadavers: British Detective Fiction’ (podcast from the Crime Fiction in Oxford day school)
Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times fiction editor, talks at the Crime Fiction Day at St John's College, University of Oxford, on the theme of British Detective Fiction.
Epistolary novels and testimony
Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (1982)
Jan-Melissa Schramm, Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature and Theology (2000)
British Library: Letters, letter writing and epistolary novels
Louise Curran explores the real and fictional letters published in the 18th century, from the correspondence of Alexander Pope and Ignatius Sancho to Samuel Richardson's hugely popular epistolary novel Pamela and the works it inspired.
Inspiration for the novel
Wilkie Collins’s discussion of the inspiration for The Moonstone from his preface to the novel, on p. 3.
British Library: An introduction to The Moonstone
Robert McCrum considers how Wilkie Collins combined plot, character and the imperial drama of India to create the first Victorian detective novel.
Victorian Web: All the Year Round — an introduction
Empire and race
The Victorians: Empire and Race (Gresham College podcast)
Free public lecture by Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA. This lecture is part of the series The Victorians: Culture and Experience in Britain, Europe and the World 1815-1914.
Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (2019)
British Online Archives: ‘India under Colonial Rule, 1752-1933’
Six diverse primary source collections which detail the political, economic, and spiritual realities of British colonial rule in India.
Histories of Colour: The British Raj
Written by Carissa Chew.
About the Contributor
Helen Dallas is a DPhil candidate at Trinity College, University of Oxford. She specialises in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture. Her doctoral project looks at the creation of character in Romantic-era British theatre. Helen is a 2022–23 Ashmolean Junior Teaching Fellow and is the co-creator and co-presenter of Practice Makes: The Oxford Reimaging Performance Podcast with Madeleine Saidenberg.