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Your 2021 Just Desserts hiatus reading suggestion: The formative mysteries of Wilkie Collins

During Just Desserts’ traditional end-of-year holiday hiatus in November and December 2019, we’re going to continue to remain active…but only in a virtual sense. During these two months, although we won’t be gathering for an in-person meeting, members are encouraged to read either one or both of Wilkie Collins’ two classic mystery novels, which helped set the tone of mystery fiction for decades after their release — The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). You are encouraged to read either or both of older novels, then visit this very discussion post on the Just Desserts Blog and leave a comment in a response to that post, sharing your thoughts on whichever novel you sampled.

For those who are unfamiliar with Wilkie Collins, and these two novels, here’s some general background, and an overview of the novels:

From his Wikipedia entry: William Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist and playwright known for The Woman in White (1859), and for The Moonstone (1868), which has been posited as the first modern English detective novel. Born to the London painter William Collins and his wife, he moved with the family to Italy when he was twelve, living there and in France for two years and learning Italian and French. He worked initially as a tea merchant. After publishing Antonina, his first novel, in 1850, Collins met Charles Dickens, who became a friend and mentor. Some Collins work first appeared in Dickens’s journals Household Words and All the Year Round. They also collaborated on drama and fiction. Collins gained financial stability and an international following by the 1860s, but began to suffer from gout and became addicted to the opium he took for the pain, so that his health and writing quality declined in the 1870s and 1880s. Collins was critical of the institution of marriage: he split his time between widow Caroline Graves – living with her for most of his adult life, treating her daughter as his – and the younger Martha Rudd, by whom he had three children.

The Woman in White: This dramatic tale, inspired by an actual criminal case, is told through multiple narrators. Frederick Fairlie, a wealthy hypochondriac, hires virtuous Walter Hartright to tutor his beautiful niece and heiress, Laura, and her homely, courageous half sister, Marian Halcombe. Although Hartright and Laura fall in love, she honours her late father’s wish that she marry Sir Percival Glyde, a villain who plans to steal her inheritance. Glyde is assisted by sinister Count Fosco, a cultured, corpulent Italian who became the archetype of subsequent villains in crime novels. Their plot is threatened by Anne Catherick, a mysterious fugitive from a mental asylum who dresses in white, resembles Laura, and knows the secret of Glyde’s illegitimate birth. Through the perseverance of Hartright and Marian, Glyde and Fosco are defeated and killed, allowing Hartright to marry Laura.

(This description comes from the Encyclopedia Brittanica)

The Moonstone: Rachel Verinder, a young English woman, inherits a large Indian diamond on her eighteenth birthday. It is a legacy from her uncle, a corrupt British army officer who served in India. The diamond is of great religious significance and extremely valuable, and three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering it. The story incorporates elements of the legendary origins of the Hope Diamond (or perhaps the Orloff Diamond or the Koh-i-Noor diamond). Rachel’s eighteenth birthday is celebrated with a large party at which the guests include her cousin Franklin Blake. She wears the Moonstone on her dress that evening for all to see, including some Indian jugglers who have called at the house. Later that night the diamond is stolen from Rachel’s bedroom, and a period of turmoil, unhappiness, misunderstandings and ill luck ensues. Told by a series of narratives from some of the main characters, the complex plot traces the subsequent efforts to explain the theft, identify the thief, trace the stone and recover it. .

(This descriptions comes from the Wikipedia entry)

Catalog Links: The libraries own several editions of both of these novels, however they are also now in the public domain, and so many, many eBook versions proliferate throughout the electronic marketplace, at cheap rates or even as free editions.

2 thoughts on “Your 2021 Just Desserts hiatus reading suggestion: The formative mysteries of Wilkie Collins

  1. Jen O.

    Let me start with: It’s worth a read. I enjoyed it. The plot has twists and turns, and while the supposed heroine Laura is too passive to be interesting, her sister Marian is a delight and there are many well-drawn minor characters. The book was Wilkie Collins’s first big hit, in part because of the memorable villain, who was quite famous in his day. Another thing I like about it is the skillful way Collins portrays multiple people who have completely different “takes” on the same person or situation.
    But rarely have I read a book wherein I was so conscious of whether or not the main female characters had men around who were on their side. They are consistently fettered by convention, laws, male machinations, and lack of access to their own money. This, of course, is part of the author’s point. He was opposed to marriage because of the disadvantages it placed women under. But it leads to a feeling of claustrophobia. If you happen to feel trapped in certain aspects of your life, you will find this novel cathartic.
    An interesting historical side note: Collins is interested in gender roles, and he sets up Laura and Marian as opposites. One is the classic Victorian heroine – blonde, pretty, sweet, dutiful, and passive. The other half-sister is ugly, mannish, clever, active, and resourceful. Despite the fact that Collins goes so far as to give Marian the shadow of a mustache, she was still the fan favorite, and Collins received letters begging to know who the real-life model for Marian was so that the writer might offer her marriage. The Victorians might profess to admire sweet spinelessness, but in the end they really preferred the active and determined young woman. Don’t we all?
    Finally, while you can see the distant shape of the classic mystery on the horizon, there isn’t a body discovered in the library in chapter one or an Agatha Christie-style denouncement at the end. But there’s still a multi-layered and surprising puzzle that the characters urgently need to unravel, and it’s still a good read. If you are up for a long novel and are willing to tolerate a “what does he see in her” heroine, who is at least nice after all, you will probably like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

    December 11, 2021 at 12:07 pm
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  3. Cathy Tallon

    First, I got the movie of The Moonstone from the library, so I had a general idea of the story. I have read or seen filmed versions of The Woman in White but wasn’t familiar with the Moonstone. I liked this book. The author had a sense of humor and used colorful oddball characters to narrate the story. The story revolves around the original theft of the diamond from a religious statue and the murder of guardians of the statue in India. The thief keeps his treasure in a bank with instructions to have the diamond cut up if anything happens to him. He then leaves the diamond to his 18-year-old niece, not as a kindly act, but more as retaliation for her mother refusing to receive him since there are people trying to recover it and return it to India. The diamond disappears the same night she receives it. Much of the story is told by the family’s long-time servant, Mr. Betteridge and is then taken up by a poor relation, Miss Clack. I am very glad not to be related to Miss Clack. It takes a year before the mystery is solved. This book was written in 1868 and so you do have the prevailing attitudes at the time to deal with including racism, sexism, and Great Britain empire aspirations. None of the English people involved even consider returning The Moonstone to its rightful owners. Still, I recommend it – Like I said – there is a lot of humor involved.

    December 12, 2021 at 12:00 pm

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