The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens

Captain Ravender and first mate Steadiman are bringing the Golden Mary from England to California, for the gold rush, when they run into an iceberg rounding Cape Horn. Crew and passengers make it into boats, as the ship is clearly going down, and row and drift around the South Pacific until being picked up just as they are all about to expire.

The captain and the first mate are both first rate: the captain steady and respectable, eating dinner with the lady passengers, threatening to shoot the bad seed who almost panics the escape operation, and the first mate hypercompetent, playful, serious, and taking over, seeing everyone through to the rescue even though he wishes for the benefit of the captain’s experience the whole time. And there are some very good scenes at sea:

The light shone up so high that I could see the huge iceberg upon which we had struck, cloven at the top and down the middle, exactly like Penrith Church in my dream. At the same moment I could see the watch last relieved, crowding up and down on deck; I could see Mrs Atherfield and Miss Coleshaw thrown about on the top of the companion as they struggled to bring the child up from below; I could see that the masts were going with the shock and the beating of the ship; I could see the frightful breach stove in on the starboard side, half the length of the vessel, and the sheathing and timbers spirting up; I could see that the Cutter was disabled, in a wreck of broken fragments; and I could see every eye turned upon me. It is my belief that if there had been ten thousand eyes there, I should have seen them all, with their different looks. And all this in a moment. But you must consider what a moment.

Before the rescue, there is “The Beguilement in the Boats,” the section of the book written by Dickens’s and Collins’s collaborators. Percy Fitzgerald, who makes two contributions, is my favorite. Both of the stories themselves are the best. “The Armourer’s Story” is an English country village tale of romantic frustration leading as far as violence, and “The Supercargo’s Story” is a lovely ghost-ship yarn set in the North Sea on Christmas night. And there was a definite something I liked about his writing style (PS, I should really find out who this guy actually is). Here, describing the ruins of of an old abbey or nunnery where they form an arch now used as a forge:

This might have been the clergymen’s pantry, or wine vaults, may be, in the old times. Whatever use they had for it, it was a very snug place. I recollect there were all sorts of queer faces with horns and hoods, all carved out in the bunch; and I often lay awake at nights looking at them, and studying them, and thinking why they were grinning and winking at me in that way. I remember one creature that always aimed straight at you with his tail pointed, holding it like a gun.

I mean, picture that little guy!

So, where was the Christmas in Household Words‘ 1856 Christmas issue (aside from its being the night Jan Fagel haunts the coast)? It’s Christmas in the way Dickens is always Christmas: a motley cast of characters—all, of course, Dickensian—goes through a tribulation and comes together as a society to overcome, and, you know, humanism, that sort of thing. (I kind of devolved there but I think you get the idea.) And I think that’s fine! But I might just have been disappointed if this were really supposed to be my Christmas number and it had none of the snugness-and-chill of “A Christmas Carol” or “The Chimes.”

“As genuine documents they are sent to me—and as genuine documents I shall preserve them”

So The Moonstone is put together from this unusually large number of separate narratives, which appear in nonoverlapping chronological order. This is the kind of thing that’s right up my alley, and somehow I didn’t even know about it until I’d opened the book to the table of contents. Shameful.

The narratives are all put together by Franklin Blake, though it’s not entirely clear why. At the beginning he seems like something of a family chronicler; later I thought he was collecting materials for his own exoneration; and later still it seemed he wouldn’t have needed them after all. But he collects a combination of preexisting documents and specifically commissioned accounts.

Blake is particular in his commission: each witness must only write about what they themselves knew at the time, and must not color their accounts with the knowledge that they later gained as the mystery of the Moonstone was solved. They are pretty good about this; we know they know what happens, but they don’t let us find anything out in advance for the most part.

So Blake wants us to have the best first-hand account possible of the entire affair from top to bottom. But normally this kind of testimony is far from unimpeachable, and we expect, with so very many narratives, to find conflicts or mysteries to clear up among them. I mean, this is a mystery, anyway, and Collins has given us a bunch of different accounts from a bunch of different people, some of whom must have something to hide. So we expect to be teasing out the differences, finding a detail here or there, that sort of thing, but it doesn’t really happen. In fact, because the stories are mostly recounted after the mystery is cleared up, the tellers don’t really have much to hide at all, even if they did during the investigation. And between the lack of overlap between accounts, the familiarity of each writer with some of the other stories, and the general ingenuousness, there is nary a discrepancy in the novel. The characters might have a few fun and interesting things to say about each other (ah, Miss Clack), but that’s about it.

It really does seem as if the people helping out Franklin Blake by contributing their stories to the whole actually want to help him document the truth. To that end, many of the accounts that are not themselves primary documents (e.g., en excerpt from Ezra Jennings’s journal, a letter from Mr. Candy, the statement of Sergeant Cuff’s man) explain that they can be counted on as accurate because they have been cross-checked against diaries kept at the time. Gabriel Betteredge relies on the diary of his daughter, Penelope, and Miss Clack explains that:

I am indebted to my dear parents (both now in heaven) for having had habits of order and regularity instilled into me at a very early age.

In that happy bygone time, I was taught to keep my hair tidy at all hours of the day and night, and to fold up every article of my clothing carefully, in the same order, on the same chair, in the same place at the foot of the bed, before retiring to rest. An entry of the day’s events in my little diary invariably preceded the folding up. …

…I have continued to fold my clothes, and to keep my little diary. The former habit links me to my happy childhood—before papa was ruined. The latter habit—hitherto mainly useful in helping me to discipline the fallen nature which we all inherit from Adam—has unexpectedly proved important to my humble interests in quite another way. It has enabled poor Me to serve the caprice of a wealthy member of the family into which my late uncle married. I am fortunate enough to be useful to Mr. Franklin Blake.

In spite of this “caprice,” Miss Clack does, like the others, do her best to make her account accurate, even going so far as to reprint a nasty little correspondence between herself and Blake, so that the “letters may speak for themselves.” And Mr. Blake does not scruple to note that:

Miss Clack may make her mind quite easy on this point. Nothing will be added, altered, or removed, in her manuscript, or in any of the other manuscripts which pass through my hands. Whatever opinions any of the writers may express, whatever peculiarities of treatment may mark, and perhaps in a literary sense, disfigure, the narratives which I am now collecting, not a line will be tampered with anywhere, from first to last. As genuine documents they are sent to me—and as genuine documents I shall preserve them; endorsed by the attestations of witnesses who can speak to the facts.

And again, it seems to be true. An actual pursuit of the truth, even so far that the ship’s captain seems to regret that he has “not got the ship’s journal to refer to, and [he] cannot now call to mind the latitude and longitude” specifically, is under way. And all because Mr. Bruff and Mr. Blake think “that the whole story ought, in the interests of truth, to be placed on record in writing—and the sooner the better”—what pure motives, and purely carried out. Almost unbelievable.

Gabriel Betteredge & Co.: character in The Moonstone

Sarah commented on my post about Gabriel Betteredge, the narrator of the first part of The Moonstone (actually, not of the very first part), that she thinks “the strength of The Moonstone is in its characters, especially Gabriel,” and I tend to think she is right. Or at least, one of its biggest strengths.

First, the whole idea of character is foregrounded in the novel in a couple of important ways, the first being the structure of the story itself. Franklin Blake, one of the principals in the affair of the Moonstone, charges himself with collecting the most thorough account of the mystery possible. He prevails on several witnesses, not just to the theft of the Indian Diamond but to all the ensuing events up to and including the solution to the crime, to provide him with accounts of what they themselves saw, heard, and knew at the time. The accounts are not overlapping, though they make reference to each other in places. But the experience of hearing the story recounted by eleven different first person narrators, each of whom appears in the accounts of the others, puts the matter of character immediately in mind.

The first such narrator (after the prologue) I have already mentioned, Gabriel Betteredge. He is unusual in that he is one of two people to tell two separate parts of the story, and in that his first account is by far the longest portion of the book. He introduces us to all the main players, so it’s through him we first get an idea of all the rest of the people we will come to know much better later. For one: Rachel Verinder. Rachel is behind the second reason character is so important in the story; it is because of Rachel’s character (secretive, obstinate, good) that the entire plot of the book exists at all. In the days immediately following the theft, she is clearly hiding something. Betteredge, who has been in her family’s service his whole life, insists that despite her guilty appearances he simply knows she cannot have stolen the diamond, and that no matter what Sergeant Cuff thinks, be he the best detective in England or not, her guilt is no less than impossible. But because we know Betteredge so well, we know his attachment to the family, to his “young lady” especially—and because during his whole narrative Rachel is acting really, really weird—we think she is completely guilty, and also kind of a pain in the ass. We definitely don’t believe in the tales of her wonderful character.

But it turns out those stories are true, and in every other narrative, as more information about the theft of the diamond leaks out, Rachel does seem like an extremely upstanding young woman. And it turns out that for all her queerness after the incident, she has been doing something noble all along—or at least genuinely thinks she has. And in so doing she has kept information hidden for an entire year that could have, most probably, helped to clear up the mystery in only a few days, had it been available to Sergeant Cuff initially. Indeed, Cuff has retired and been off the case that entire year, and as soon as he hears the way the case has broken open by that point he is able to name the ultimate perpetrator.

(Rachel’s is not the only character to hinder the investigation. The servants, insulted by the initial investigator, are less than helpful afterward, purely out of spite as we find out later.)

The rest of the narrators are just about as good as Gabriel Betteredge. Miss Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders, is a hysterically funny “rampant spinster” evangelist. Mathew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor, is nosy, gossipy, and extremely concerned with his time—which, he reminds us, “is money.” Franklin Blake is a perfect male counterpart to Rachel. More on Ezra Jennings and Sergeant Cuff in a moment. Mr. Candy, town doctor, and Mr. Murthwaite, knowledgeable adventurer, are also well-developed personalities despite more minor roles.

On Ezra Jennings: very interesting to me that the character with the sense to blow the whole thing open is both widely mistrusted because of a stain on his honor (not to mention his “gipsy complexion” and “parti-coloured hair”) and also an opium abuser (like Wilkie Collins himself). In fact, he is so well aware of the unreliability of his own story, in telling it both to Franklin Blake and to us, that he supplements his arguments with passages from well-known medical books. (Though I feel I could write a whole post on the use of documents in constructing the narratives themselves. I may do so.) Also, he is one of the most charming and disarming of the characters, in my own opinion. Who else would say this, after receiving a politely and indirectly scolding letter:

Translated from polite commonplace, into plain English, the meaning of this is, as I take it, that Mrs. Merridew stands in mortal fear of the opinion of the world. She has unfortunately appealed to the very last man in existence who has any reason to regard that opinion with respect. I won’t disappoint Miss Verinder; and I won’t delay a reconciliation between two young people who love each other, and who have been parted too long already. Translated from plain English to polite commonplace, this means that Mr. Jennings presents his compliments to Mrs. Merridew, and regrets that he cannot feel justified in interfering any farther in the matter.

Here it feels like we are really getting at Collins, though that may well be an illusion. But I really like Jennings’s outsider status; he is so much more forthright and genuine for it.

And on Sgt. Cuff: “first and greatest” of English detectives? I don’t know, but he is certainly a well-drawn prototype. His somewhat unusual appearance, first off (in the words of Betteredge):

…a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed all in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck. His face was as sharp as a hatchet, and the skin of it was as yellow and dry and withered as an autumn leaf. His eyes, of a steely light grey, had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself. His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy; his long lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker—or anything else you like, except what he really was. A more complete opposite to Superintendent Seegrave than Sergeant Cuff, and a less comforting officer to look at, for a family in distress, I defy you to discover, search where you may.

But despite a possible lack of bedside manner, Cuff is quite brilliant and puts Seegrave, of course, to shame. And comforting the family in distress is definitely not his priority. But even Cuff’s logic sets him on the wrong trail. Because of Miss Verinder, “How any man living was to have seen things in their true light, in such a situation as mine was at the time, I don’t profess to know.” The heart of any mystery for its reader! We cannot solve it until the facts are laid before us, and neither can Sergeant Cuff.

And the last bit of foregrounded character: I knew for a while who was the really guilty one in this tale, though it took almost to the end for me to say how he had done it (and this really was an incredibly suspenseful novel). One of the problems with his guilt was one of motive. A financial motive sort of made sense, but then sort of not. It wasn’t until Cuff uncovered the completely and utterly hidden character of the man in question that the motive became clear. A second character entirely: assumed name, unknown address, secret lady love. And yet there was something about his personality all along that made me think him guilty.

Gabriel Betteredge

I am in love with the narrator of (the first part of) The Moonstone. The faithful old steward, as the case against his mistress’s daughter becomes thicker and thicker:

It was downright frightful to hear him piling up proof after proof against Miss Rachel, and to know, while one was longing to defend her, that there was no disputing the truth of what he said. I am (thank God!) constitutionally superior to reason. This enabled me to hold firm to my lady’s view, which was my view also. This roused my spirit, and made me put a bold face on it before Sergeant Cuff. Profit, good friends, I beseech you, by my example. It will save you from many troubles of the vexing sort. Cultivate a superiority to reason, and see how you pare the claws of all the sensible people when they try to scratch you for your own good!

How will this superiority repay him in the end? Funny that I like him, saying things like that, but I do.