Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Review of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, article in McBride's Magazine 1868

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"I'm sick to death of novels with an earnest purpose. I'm sick to death of outbursts of eloquence, and large-minded philanthropy, and graphic descriptions, and unsparing anatomy of the human heart, and all that sort of thing. Good gracious me! Isn't it the original intention or purpose, or whatever you call it, of a work of fiction, to set out distinctly by telling a story? And how many of these books, I should like to know, do that? Why, so far as telling a story is concerned, the greater part of them might as well be sermons as novels. Oh, dear me! what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner—something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state, to find out the end."

Wilkie Collins' confession of faith as a novelist is comprised in the above speech of his sprightly heroine, Miss Jessie Yelverton, in _The Queen of Hearts_. He is emphatically a story-writer. He is unrivaled in the construction of an elaborate and intricate plot, and he certainly succeeds in making his readers "go on reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state, to find out the end."

Wilkie Collins' career has been a progressive one. There are some ardent novelreaders who will doubtless remember the publication, years ago, of _Antonina_, and a few years later of _Basil_—two books of singular power, but which, we believe, were failures; and no wonder. Antonina, a tale of the days of ancient Rome, was filled with ghastly pictures of famine, murder and other "unpleasantnesses," while Basil was a veritable literary nightmare. The very force and vigor of the author only served to add to the discomfort of the reader by making its painful pictures strangely vivid and impressive. The scarred face of the fiend, Mannion, and the fever-deathbed of Margaret Sherwin, have haunted many an imagination in persistent and uncomfortable fashion. Soon after Mr. Dickens commenced the publication of Household Words, there appeared in that periodical a number of short stories which were remarkable for the perfection of their style, the elaboration and originality of their plots and their general artistic finish. "A Terribly Strange Bed," "Sister Rose," "The Yellow Mask," etc, were praised, reprinted and universally read, and were afterward issued in bookform in various collections, under the titles of After Dark, The Queen of Hearts, etc

Then came a novel, _The Dead Secret_, also published in Household Words, in which the wonderful skill of the author in constructing and unfolding a plot was for the first time fully displayed. _The Woman in White_ followed, and the claims of Wilkie Collins to be considered a great novelist were at once firmly established. _No Name_ and _Armadale_ succeeded—both, however, inferior to _The Woman in White_.

Wilkie Collins is, however, no mere weaver of intricate plots—no teller of elaborately constructed stories only. Few characters in modern fiction are as well drawn and sustained as that of Count Fosco, the cool, sensible, intellectual villain in The Woman in White, or the swindling but soft-hearted Captain Wragge in _No Name_. Collins also possesses, in common with Anthony Trollope, the power of delineating a heroine who shall be neither a dressed-up doll nor an impossible angel. Rosamond in The Dead Secret, Magdalen Vanstone in No Name, Marion Holcomb in The Woman in White, and Rachel Verinder in the book before us, bear witness to the truth of this assertion. Nor does his powerful mind and pencil fail when called upon to depict scenes of purer and gentler emotion. Rosamond, revealing the "dead secret" to her blind husband, and the vigil of Rachel Verinder beside her sleeping lover, are pictures drawn with a touch truthful, delicate and tender as that of a woman.

The novel that now lies before us is the best that Mr. Collins has of late years given to the world, and we are inclined to consider it, with the one exception of The Woman in White, the best he has ever written. The story is singularly original; and when we remember the force and extent of Hindu superstition, we can scarcely venture to pronounce it improbable. And how admirably is the story told! Clear, lucid and forcible in style, never straying into the alluring but pernicious paths of description or dissertation, the narrative moves onward in its unbroken and entrancing course. Let the impatient reader, hurrying to reach the denouement, skip half a dozen pages. Instantly the thread of the story is broken, the tale becomes incomprehensible, the incidents lose their coherence. The Moonstone is a perfect work of art, and to remove any portion of the cunningly constructed fabric destroys the completeness and beauty of the whole. We will not attempt to give any sketch of the plot or resume of the incidents. Suffice it to say that the story turns on the fortunes of an Indian diamond (which gives its name to the book), stolen from the shrine of a Hindu idol, and bequeathed, with sinister purpose, by a vindictive uncle to his unloved niece.

It would be well if some of the New England writers, who look upon a novel as a mere vehicle for the introduction of morbid and unwholesome metaphysical and psychological studies, or long dissertations on Art—well enough in their way perhaps, but strangely out of place in a story—would study the elements of their art from Wilkie Collins. Then would the words "American novel" cease to be synonymous with weariness of spirit and much yawning on the part of the reader; and arguments for amalgamation would be placed before the public in their naked deformity, instead of under the thin disguise of novels possessing little plot and less probability.

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