Sunday, 17 November 2013
The Moonstone Readalong, part one: Betteredge and Clack
"When I came here from London with that horrible Diamond," [said Mr Franklin] "I don't believe there was a happier house in England than this. Look at the household now! Scattered, disunited - the very air of the place poisoned with mystery and suspicion."
The Moonstone of the title is a huge, beautiful diamond stolen from India by a British officer and smuggled back to England. On his deathbed he leaves the diamond to his estranged granddaughter Rachel Verinder, but is it a genuine gift and symbol of his repentence, or a curse? This diamond carries a lot of superstition, and its rightful owners want it back, at whatever cost. Then the Moonstone disappears...
The story is told by several narrators, each telling only the part of the story to which they personally witnessed, in order, allegedly, to get a rounded and accurate account of the mystery surrounding the diamond's disappearance. However, the narrators have their own biases and prejudices, and are not entirely reliable; the evidence they present varies from the conclusion they want you to draw.
Take Betteredge, for example. Gabriel Betteredge is the head of the servants in the Verinders' house, and he absolutely adores his mistress and their family. In his eyes, neither Lady Verinder nor her daughter Rachel can do any wrong. He is an old-fashioned sort of fellow, chivalrously condescending, but sweet enough to get away with all kinds of patronising attitudes without more than a raised eyebrow from the reader. His bible is Robinson Crusoe; it is astonishing what comfort and wisdom he can find in that book whenever his peace of mind is disturbed.
Betteredge's loyalty to "his" family puts him rather at odds with the detective, Sergeant Cuff, who seems too eager to actually solve the mystery of the moonstone, inconveniently following all the clues, even those which might incriminate members of the family. It amused me to see Betteredge growing more and more exasperated with Cuff as he continued in his investigations. Betteredge might not like the sergeant at all, but I thought he was a great character; a predecessor to Sherlock Holmes, and a bit of an eccentric, coming to blows with the gardener over their differing opinions about the rose garden. Cuff also made me think of Lt. Columbo; less bumbling but just as irritating to the people around him, with his inconvenient questions - and his thoughtful whistling as the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.
By the end of the first part of the novel, a lot of the answers seem clear, yet there is still a lot of the book still to go. After Betteredge's section, we relocate with Rachel and Lady Verinder to London, and we meet a new narrator: Miss Clack. This dreadful woman is exactly what you would expect with a name like that: a finicky, pious, interfering old maid who has taken on a mission to convert the entire country with a ready supply of religious tracts. Though rather a caricature, I couldn't help but think she must have been based on some real-life lady or ladies Wilkie must have met on his travels. I'm sure she means well, but she is so heavy-handed, bludgeoning everyone with her evangelism, seeing them only as souls in desperate need of her spiritual wisdom, rather than people who could do with a bit more earthly compassion from time to time. As a result, her effect on people that she met was both sad and funny; it became somewhat of a running joke that just a few words from her would provoke a horrified and profane reaction from each hearer. Her desperate attempts to reach her family by hiding her books and pamphlets ("Satan in the Hair Brush," "Satan under the Tea Table," and "Satan among the Sofa Cushions") in every nook and cranny made me chortle, as did her "Preparation by Little Notes" - if Rachel would not read the pamphlets, perhaps she might benefit from reading some choice passages copied out in letter format? Miss Clack's determination to get her message to its intended recipient reminded me of the barrage of owls carrying Harry Potter's first letter from Hogwarts. Poor dear; tact is utterly alien to her, and despite being hilariously awful, you can't help feeling sorry for her as her efforts alienate everyone she cares for, leaving her all alone.
Since we left Yorkshire for London, the mystery of the moonstone seems to have taken a back seat. Since Sergeant Cuff has been sent on his way, no one seems that concerned about tracking the gem's whereabouts. It is not forgotten, but seems to be treated as an unpleasantness that is in the past and not to be mentioned; that if no one speaks of the mystery, perhaps it will go away of its own accord.
Somehow, I think that's not going to happen.