The Moonstone and Genre

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

The Moonstone and Genre

I confess I have been delaying my first post for The Moonstone. Like a detective novel, there are so many irresistible avenues in which one can pursue when researching Wilkie Collins and the novel. I will try to set us down a number of those paths in the next few weeks without spoiling the mystery.

T.S. Eliot called The Moonstone, “the first and greatest of English detective novels,” but he did so in the context of an essay which praises Collins’ skill with atmosphere, but says that his novels will not have the permanence of Dickens.

G.K. Chesterton called it, “probably the best detective tale in the world.”

Dorothy L. Sayers in a 1944 introduction to The Moonstone said that Collins is “genuinely feminist in his treatment of women.”

It is useful to consider the question of genre.

While critics have categorized The Moonstone the first detective novel, and it certainly is a detective novel. (First detective novel is somewhat contested as The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix was serialized in 1862 but it did not have the success or longevity of The Moonstone) Collins subtitled The Moonstone “a romance” which has different connotations than our modern notions of romance novels. It is also part of a group of fiction popular in the 1860s known as sensation fiction. The unlike the Gothic novel, with which the sensation novel shares many features, in the Sensation novel the ordinary middle or upper middle class home becomes the scene of a terrible mystery or secret and the fear and pleasure derived in reading the story comes from revelation of some previously undisclosed familial secret. The underpinnings of the family home are made unstable by disclosure of secrets, possibly dark secrets, lying beneath the veneer of public respectability. Generally, the whole notion of genres was more fluid in the Victorian era than in the present.

For the purposes of the stage, this is particularly useful in that layers of knowledge that are revealed slowly overtime are enjoyable for an actor to play and for an audience to watch. It also fits well with Rob’s approach to the adaptation and Paul’s approach to the direction, which is to avoid the potential for vaudeville in favor of focusing real relationships.

It is also worth noting that Collins wrote a version of The Moonstone for the stage which was performed in 4 acts at the Royal Olympic Theatre in 1877. Collins simplified the plot, cut major characters and restricted the action to 24 hours. It was not well received and though it ran for three months the principal actors left the production before the run had finished.

In The Moonstone, Collins both pioneers and, in some cases, subverts the standard devices readers have come to know as the mainstays of detective fiction. An item is stolen from a locked house, there are a limited number of guests and servants who are the suspects, and an eccentric detective (who appears distracted) elicits key information from unsuspecting members of the household. The detective reveals a solution to the mystery based on analysis of the facts. The detective also at one point predicts the name of the guilty party by writing it on a piece of paper and sealing it in an envelope.

For the audience, I think it will be delightful to see these devices revealed on stage. At the same time it is important to realize that for all his popularity with reading public the categories applied to Collins have diminished his status compared to fellow author and friend Charles Dickens, who grappled with similar issues of class and the problems with the laws in England at that time particularly as they pertained to property, women and inheritance.

The novel was published starting January 4, 1868, in 32 weekly installments in All The Year Round, the weekly journal founded by Charles Dickens and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly. Later in was published in book form in three relatively inexpensive volumes. The structure of the weeklies meant that revelations varied from week to week to keep the readers waiting to see what the next installment would bring which fit well with the emerging literary form that focused on a detective.

The structure of The Moonstone follows the narratives of multiple different characters each giving their information in turn in the hope that the layers of evidence will emerge that will reveal what happened to ill-fated moonstone. This presents unique difficulties and opportunities for the stage and I think Rob has kept the strength and individuality of Collins’ competing narrators.

In the days to come I will give more information on the context and the characters but will try to avoid spoilers.

Sources: Wilkie Collins An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson; Wilkie Collins: Women Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill; Introduction Oxford World’s Classics Edition of The Moonstone and Introduction Penguin Classics Edition of The Moonstone