English Anxiety and the Moonstone

“If he was right, here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish India Diamond—bringing after it a conspiracy of living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man. There was our situation, as revealed to me in Mr. Franklin’s last words! Who ever heard the like of it—in the nineteenth century, mind; in an age of progress, and in a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution? Nobody ever heard the like of it, and, consequently, nobody can be expected to believe it. I shall go on with my story, however, in spite of that” (Collins 46).  

This is the reaction of Mr. Betteredgeafter hearing the tale of the Moonstone from Mr. Franklin upon his arrival. The two men sit along the coast, separated by a rough walking path from the comforts of the English home and garden, watching the waters create a deadly pit in the form of the Shivering Sand. The instability of their environmental situation extends to their narrative ones: Mr. Franklin’s story of the “devilish Indian Diamond” is impossible to believe, and despite this Betteredge must continue it against the assumed incredulity of the reasonable reader (46).  

Franklin and Betteredge are seated at the edge of nation, reason, and the simultaneous pride and confinement of their time. This passage is full of binaries: the English versus the Indian, the living against the dead, the 19th century self-sense of “progress” versus the unbelievable, and reader versus narrator. These overlap, of course, as the sea overlaps the shore, making lethal quicksand of solid ground. The “devilish India Diamond” has “invaded” the “quiet English house,” blessed in the nineteenth century with “the British constitution” which must push back against such gothic nonsense as curses and religions-that-aren’t-Christianity (46). The Moonstone is, effectively, a stand-in for all kinds of English anxieties, ranging from the potential for rebellion by colonized nations to sexual and capitalistic competition. The “devilish India Diamond” could be—and is—immediately followed by “living rogues, set loose on us” to wreak havoc in the psychological as well as the physical world of secure English countryside life.  

The anxiety of foreign influence, interference, and invasion are not the only ones present in the passage—there is also the skepticism of the English reader. Betteredge assumes the likeness of his reader with himself: “Who ever heard the like of it?” he asks, only to answer his own question: “Nobody ever head the like of it…” (46). Who ever heard of England fearing the influence of India? he seems to ask. Nobody. It was supposed to be the other way around, and now everything has been turned upside down and the “blessings of the British constitution,” the very “age of progress” cannot coincide with such reversal (46). Betteredge sees the gothic element, the collision of the present (“the nineteenth century” “the age of progress) and the nation (“our quiet English house” “a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution”) with the Other—in this case the Indian, the past, and the dead. It is this separation of the living and the dead which makes possible the entire situation— “the vengeance of a dead man” is wreaking havoc on the life of living people, and that the dead man spent significant time in India and only existed before the span of the novel connects him also with the foreign and the past.  

By establishing, on the shores of England, that the threat is not only the diamond but the “living rogues” who have enabled its influence and intensified its dangers, Betteredge and Franklin raise the stakes of the Moonstone question: it is not simply a battle over money, of religion, or of property, though it is also all of these things—it is (at the risk of being cheeky) a battle for the soul of England itself. 

He gave me the extract from the Colonel’s will.” — second illustration for the third “Harper’s Weekly” serial instalment of “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins (18 January 1868)

 

Franklin and Betteredge discussing the story at the Shivering Sands

http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/jewett/8.html

 

2 thoughts on “English Anxiety and the Moonstone”

  1. I am really fascinated with the points you make about the moonstone being “a stand in for English anxieties.” The differences in views of the moonstone between characters in the novel is very interesting. For some it is a source of money, for some a course of unrest. While it is sacred to some, it is devilish to Betteredge. There is a constant, conflicting conversations between systems and ideas. As you mentioned, through his interjections and rhetorical questions to the reader, Betteredge does not go out of the way to hide that he is telling the story from his perspective. This also calls into question another conflict in the novel, in which not only the reader but the characters in the story must distinguish reality from individual perception.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog post, as I hadn’t thought of the moonstone as a symbol of English anxieties. After reading the rest of Betterede’s account, I am interested in how this applies when Sargent Cuff prophesies that ‘the Indians will return.’ The Indian jugglers were less relevant in the last section we read, as Rachel is assumed to be the rightful ‘owner’ of the moonstone. This perhaps applies to colonization itself— debates of who owns the moonstone mirror questions of who owns India itself. This further reinforces your point that the moonstone is a stand-in for English anxieties over India’s power and potential for rebellion.

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