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|In The New Machiavelli, H. G. Wells’s 1911 novel of social and political realism, protagonist Richard Remington meditates upon England’s management of India, that jewel in the Empire’s crown. What strikes him most about the colonial relationship is the effacement of any real understanding of this colonial engine of imperial wealth. “Most English people cannot even go to this land they possess; the authorities would prevent it,” observes Remington. “If Messrs. Perowne or Cook organised a cheap tour of Manchester operatives, it would be stopped. No one dare bring the average English voter face to face with the reality of India, or let the Indian native have a glimpse of the English voter” (322). How then did the English citizenry encounter the greatest—in terms of geographic size, population, and economic output—of all British colonial possessions? Some of this experience would have come through second-hand accounts of those with direct experience. According to Clive Dewey, for example, the Indian Civil Service stationed about 1,000 employees in India at a given time,1 most of whom made regular trips back to England, Scotland, and Wales to attend to their families; in later years, however, the practice of settling families in Indian became more widespread (hence contributing to one definition of that vexed term Anglo-Indian), presumably reducing one motive for return visits to the home country. Another means for the English to experience India would have been through the many histories of the country that were published during the nineteenth century, such as James Mill’s History of British India, first printed in three volumes in 1817, though later expanded to six volumes and reprinted widely throughout the nineteenth-century; Mill’s History is interesting in that Mill—the father of John Stuart Mill—wrote his voluminous work without having ever visited India. Newspapers of course offered yet another means for the English to encounter India, though depending on the date and one’s choice of texts, fiction might prove more factually reliable than, say, the Times’ infamous reporting of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which fabricated reports of the systematic torture and rape of English women were presented as truth.2
As I’ve just suggested, novels offered a potent fourth means for English citizens to encounter an India that most of them could never visit personally, and it is not clear that as a fictive genre the novel is at any inherent disadvantage when compared with the secondhand anecdotes of returned civil servants, a history written by an author who had never visited the country of which wrote, and demonstrably false newspaper reportage intended to further the goals of the East India Company and Imperial Britain. This is not to claim that all novels representing India possess greater veracity than the other sources I’ve cited. To continue with the subjects of the Indian Mutiny, many of the flurry of novels that responded to the uprising simply reproduced the tales of native savagery that characterized the Times’ sensational reportage, as did James Grant’s First Love and Last Love: A Tale of the Indian Mutiny (1868). Even historical fiction more sympathetic to the plight of Indians, such as Flora Annie Steel’s On The Face of the Waters (1896), had difficulty transcending the dominant cultural narrative of native savagery; as Jenny Sharpe notes, Steel’s “novel does not break with a colonial logic that explains the British retribution as a response to the massacre of innocents” (101).
It is at this point that I wish to turn to this essay’s central text: Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,3 published, like Grant’s First Love and Last Love, in 1868. Although Collins’s novel does not concern itself with the history of the Mutiny, most critics regard The Moonstone as a response to that colonial history, albeit one in which the details of the Mutiny are sublimated into a tale of colonial larceny set in an earlier period. Constructed out of a series of multiple personal narratives, The Moonstone begins with the storming of Seringapatam in 1798, during which military officer John Herncastle steals the remarkable yellow diamond of the novel’s title from the forehead of an unidentified deity in a “Hindoo” shrine, committing a triple murder of Indian guards in the process. The novel then jumps to 1848, whereupon the narration is picked up largely by Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly head servant of the Verinder estate. Betteredge recounts the return of Franklin Blake, cousin to the Verinders, who has not visited the estate since his childhood; curiously, Blake is preceded by three itinerant Indian jugglers and a young English boy, whom Betteredge dismisses. Blake arrives bearing the yellow diamond stolen a half-century earlier by Herncastle, who has bequeathed it in his will to the young Rachel Verinder, to be presented to her as a gift on her next birthday following Herrncastle’s death. On the evening following Rachel’s birthday dinner, the Moonstone is stolen from the Indian cabinet in Rachel’s bedroom, in which she has placed it for safekeeping. The remainder of the novel traces the characters on whom suspicion is variously placed: the reformed thief turned housemaid Rosanna Spearman; another Verinder cousin, the pious charity organizer Godfrey Ablewhite; Rachel herself; and Franklin Blake.
A recap of the main events of the Indian Mutiny may be helpful in assessing the claims of Collins scholars that The Moonstone is responding to an event that occurred a decade before the novel’s publication. Alternately called the Sepoy Mutiny for the Indian troops who rebelled against their British commanders, the Indian Mutiny began with troops’ reaction to rumors that the new cartridges—whose ends needed to be bitten off before inserting them in their Enfield rifles—were lubricated with a mixture of cow and pig fat, thus defiling both Hindus and Muslims. Rebellions occurred in Dum-Dum, Barrackpore, Ambala, and Meerut, from where the sepoys marched to Delhi, killing British and Europeans and installing their own leader. The slaughter of English woman and children at Cawnpore after the betrayal of British soldiers occasioned the greatest outrage on behalf of the English; that the bodies of the murdered women and children were subsequently thrown down a well did much to encourage the hyperbolic stories of rape and torture reported in the Times and retold in Grant’s First Love and Last Love. While Cawnpore would serve as the symbolic center of Mutiny atrocities, the rebellion itself continued for more than six months, with major uprisings occurring in Lucknow and other cities. British suppression of the rebellion spared no use of force, and British soldiers committed atrocities exceeding even those the Indians at Cawnpore were purported to have committed—reports that were later established to be false.4
In connecting The Moonstone to the Mutiny, a relatively recent trend in Collins scholarship,5 critics have focused on Collins’s sympathetic stance toward India, particularly when compared with that of his friend and editor (of Household Words, to which he often contributed), Charles Dickens. Additionally, at the time of Collins’s writing of The Moonstone, much media attention was focused on commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Mutiny.6 Generally, the critical narrative that has been constructed suggests that in focusing on the storming of Seringapatam as an anachronistic displacement of the Mutiny, Collins was able to critique the British colonial practices that had motivated the sepoys to rebel. Thus, according to this reading, Collins sides with those present-day historians who see the Mutiny not as a disproportionate reaction to the greasing of munitions cartridges, but as India’s first war of emancipation from the British.
In following this line of inquiry in which Collins’s novel is understood as a critique of British imperialism, critics have arrived at important insights. In his essay “Outlandish English Subjects in The Moonstone,” Timothy L. Carens explores how the novel reveals as uncanny the “savagery” inherent in English familial structure and religious practice.7 Similarly, in “‘Dirty Linen’: Legacies of Empire in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,” Melissa Free sees Collins’s project as dismantling the false binaries of imperial center and colony; according to Free, “it is the thick overlay of empire and home that we a truly examining, (a portrayal) in which home is not merely affected by but
effecting empire” (342).
In both Carens’ and Free’s essays, as in most scholarship focusing on the colonial dimensions of The Moonstone, Collins’s character Ezra Jennings serves a central role. Introduced late in the novel, Jennings is the assistant to Dr. Candy, who in turn is an attendee of Rachel Verinder’s birthday dinner the evening the diamond is stolen; as Candy has since lapsed into an illness depriving him of his mental acumen, Jennings’s role becomes all the more important. When Franklin Blake first encounters him, he perceives Jennings as a striking figure. Appearing much older than his years, Jennings bears a “complexion [ ] of a gypsy darkness,” and his “nose present[s] the fine shape and modeling so often found among the ancient people’s of the East, so seldom visible among the newer races of the West.” Most noteworthy is Jennings’s hair,
which by some freak of Nature, had lost its color in the most startling and capricious manner. Over the top of his head it was still the deep black which was its natural color. Round the sides of his head—without the slightest gradation of gray to break the force of the extraordinary contrast—it had turned completely white. The line between the two colors preserved no sort of regularity. At one place, the white hair ran up into the black; at another, the black hair ran down into the white. (343-44)
Predictably, critics have seen Jennings’s unusual “piebald” hair as symbolizing a dichotomy of Englishness/Otherness, as Tamar Heller does in her afterword to the collection of Collins essays Reality’s Dark Light (in which she observes—shockingly—that two BBC adaptations have chosen to omit this detail from their productions).8 If, as a symbol of hybridity, Jennings depiction begins with his physiognomy, skin, and hair, it hardly ends there, and the complexity of his symbolic otherness is overdetermined. Indeed, although Jennings himself makes clear that he is of mixed ethnicity, it is unclear exactly what exactly his heritage is. “I was born and partly brought up in one of our colonies,” he tells Franklin Blake. “My father was an Englishman, but my mother—we are straying far from our subject,” he finishes inconclusively. The novel does give some hints at his possible Indianness; in addition to the novel’s illustrations, which render Jennings and the Indian jugglers similarly, Jennings’s addiction to opium establishes a symbolic connection to India. As Lillian Nader has observed, the British relationship to Indian-grown opium was a scandal that undermined the moral claims of imperialism; India was the source of British opium illicitly imported to China until the British forced China to make such importation legal in the Treaty of Tiensen.9 (Interestingly enough, critics seem to overlook the role that tobacco plays is the novel, however; as I will discuss shortly, cessation of its use becomes a major plot device that connects Blake to America—tobacco being a main export of England’s former, North American colonies—just as opium connects Jennings to India. Thus the twin substances of tobacco and opium serve as synecdoches for colonies past and present.)
“….Mr. Franklin Blake….and agreeable….down a peg….medicine….confesses….sleep at night….tell him….out of order….medicine….but he tells me….and groping in the dark means one and the same thing….all the company at the dinner-table….I say….groping after sleep….nothing but medicine….he says….leading the blind….know what it means….witty….a night’s rest in spite of his teeth…Lady Verinder’s medicine-chest….five-and-twenty minims….without his knowing it….out, Mr. Candy….excellent….without it….down on him….truth….something besides….excellent….dose of laudanum, sir….bed….what….medicine now.” (408)
‘….Mr. Franklin Blake is clever and agreeable, but he wants taking down a peg when he talks of medicine. He confesses that he has been suffering from want of sleep at night. I tell him that his nerves are out of order, and that he ought to take medicine. He tells me that taking medicine and groping in the dark mean one and the same thing. This before all the company at the dinner-table. I say to him, you are groping after sleep, and nothing but medicine can help you find it. He says to me, I have heard of the blind leading the blind, and now I know what it means. Witty—but I can give him a night’s rest in spite of his teeth. He really wants sleep; and Lady Verinder’s medicine chest is at my disposal. Give him five-and-twenty minims of laudanum to-night, with out his knowing it; and then call to-morrow morning. ‘Well, Mr. Blake, will you try a little medicine today? You will never sleep without it.’—‘There you are out, Mr. Candy: I have had an excellent night’s rest without it.’ Then come down on him with the truth! ‘You had a dose of laudanum, sir, before you went to bed. What do you say to the art of medicine now?’ (409)
According to Jennings’s reconstruction of Candy’s incoherent speech into comprehensible narrative, a recalcitrant Franklin Blake—suffering from insomnia as a result of quitting cigar smoking because Rachel Verinder disliked the habit—was drugged with laudanum on the recommendation of Dr. Candy (administered, we later learn, by Godfrey Ablewhite). Jennings further theorizes that Blake, in a somnambulant trance brought about by opium consumption and nicotine deprivation, himself removed the diamond, probably intending to move it from the Indian cabinet in which is was stored to a more secure location.
“….Mr. Franklin Blake was pleasant and agreeable, at least in the early part of the evening, and I accepted his suggestion that we down a peg together when next he is in town. ‘The best medicine,’ he confesses. ‘Helps me sleep at night.’ I should tell him to go easy on that prescription, but don’t wish to speak out of order. “Fine enough medicine,’ I say. “The therapeutic use of liquor is recorded in the earliest annals of history.’ ‘All good and well, but,’ he tells me, ‘writing history and groping in the dark means one and the same thing.’ He laughs loudly; I look around at all the company at the dinner-table and see them staring silently. ‘I say,’ I tell him, ‘speaking of groping after sleep, I should do a bit of that myself.’ ‘Nothing but medicine,’ he says, downing his sherry with alacrity. ‘The blind leading the blind,’ he blurts out; I don’t know what it means, though he seems, in his besotted way, to find himself witty. If he keeps it up with the sherry, he’ll get a night’s rest in spite of his teeth, though I suspect it will be his head that ails him in the morning. ‘Lady Verinder’s medicine-chest holds a much better prescription,’ I tell him: ‘laudanum.’ ‘Five-and-twenty minims would put a man to sleep without his knowing it the next day—no hangover whatsoever.’ ‘Perhaps some day I’ll try it out, Mr. Candy,’ he tells me. ‘Excellent,’ I say. ‘But for now I’ll do without it,’ Blake says, ‘and with another glass of sherry instead’ Well, no reason to look down on him for his timidity when it comes to opium, though the truth is, I wish I could get him to take something besides alcohol. ‘Excellent,’ he says, tilting back his glass. ‘I’ll take good sherry over a dose of laudanum, sir, any day.’ I tell him that I must be getting to bed, what with my rounds to make the morrow. ‘Good night,’ I tell Mr. Blake. ‘Go easy on that medicine now.’
I offer this experiment in textual reconstruction not to suggest alcoholism on Franklin Blake’s part, but simply to stress the indeterminacy of the fragments Jennings must work with, which, given the lack of any definite confirmation, remain one conjecture among many possible conjectures. That Ablewhite ends up in possession of the diamond neither rules out nor in the possibility of collusion between himself and his cousin. Ablewhite may have resorted to embezzling to pay the debts incurred by keeping a mistress in a lavish lifestyle, but Blake has his motives, too; we learn early in the novel that “Franklin Blake’s debts . . . are matters of family notoriety” (243). Objection to Blake’s involvement on the grounds that he could have solved his financial problems by marrying Rachel Verinder can be anticipated by the same answer given in Ablewhite’s case, namely that drawing such a large sum from the family estate so early in a marriage would be unseemly. Objection on the grounds that Blake’s testimonies express real surprise at the revelations about the evidence of his nightshirt, Rachel’s eyewitness testimony, or the removal of Ablewhite’s disguise can be answered by asking, what thief wouldn’t feign surprise? And moreover, why is Godfrey Ablewhite never asked to provide his own narrative in the early days following the theft, before he disappears from sight?
1. Clive Dewey, Anglo-Indian Attitudes: The Mind of the Indian Civil Service (Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1993).
2. Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Women in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1993), 66.
4. For this very rough history, I have relied on Patrick Brantlinger’s brief description of the Mutiny. See Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994), 200-01. For further discussion of the way in which tales of Mutiny atrocities were exaggerated and/or fabricated, see Sharpe, 67.
5. Melissa Free lists Lillian Nayder, Catherine Peters, Sue Lonhoff, and Jaya Mehta as critics who view the Moonstone’s focus on the siege of Seringapatam as a displacement of the 1857 Mutiny. See Melissa Free, “‘Dirty Linen’: Legacies of Empire in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48.4 (2006): 347.
7. Timothy L. Carens, “Outlandish English Subjects in The Moonstone,” in Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins, ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox (Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 2003), 239-65.
8. Tamar Heller, “Afterword: Masterpiece Theatre and Ezra Jennings’s Hair,” in Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins, ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox (Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 2003), 361-70.
9. Lillian Nayder, “Collins and Empire,” in The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins, ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 147-148.
10. Ronald R. Thomas, “The Moonstone, Detective Fiction, and Forensic Science,” in The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins, ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 77.