Were the Victorians Really that Dumb?

Richard Altick’s Victorian People and Ideas presents theories about the kinds of literature Victorians read as well as their motivations for doing so. His theories include that the majority of the reading public belonged to the middle class, and that most of those people who read did so to escape and avoid mental strain, and that they were mostly unable to read serious, well-written literature. In this piece, I will use Altick’s text as a lens to understand the form of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, while also exploring the limits to this approach. 

Altick argues that many Victorians read for entertainment, not facts, which is partially reflected in the way that The Moonstone is written. The narration is done from several different points of view, and all but one of these accounts are written from the perspective of the future, with the characters recalling past events. In introducing several different viewpoints, the novel provides different interpretations of the events depending on each character’s beliefs and experiences. It also means that each character’s feelings and ideas are also an integral part of the text, which means that much of the novel includes not only the events of the narrative, but also the characters’ worries and anxieties. This makes sense using Altick’s ideas, because he claims that “Because (the majority of readers) possessed virtually no general information, their reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions; they could not be expected to waste time puzzling over any more recondite kind” (Altick 61). Using this idea of Altick’s, the need for familiar allusions explains why so much of this novel is dedicated to expressing common anxieties of the time. An example is Miss Clack’s preoccupation with religion, and the fate of her friends’ souls, which reflects the importance that Victorians placed on religion and living by the Church’s moral standards. However, using Altick to understand The Moonstone is limited in that this claim ignores some of the underlying ideas present in the text. 

Besides being a novel reflecting common Victorian anxieties and ideas, The Moonstone also has elements of class critique, which seems to be written for the middle class, that Altick states is the majority of the reading public. He argues that the working class did not have the time to read, and the upper class tended to avoid intellectual stimulation. Therefore, the class critique of The Moonstone illustrates both the benefits and limits of using Altick as a lens. The character of Betteredge is an example of a critique of the lower class. Betteredge is the head servant, which gives him exaggerated self-importance and belief in his abilities. He scoffs at Franklin Blake when he proposes to find the moonstone, saying “How can you hope to succeed (saving your prescence) when Sergeant Cuff himself made a mess of it,?” forgetting that Blake is above him (Collins 321). Furthermore, the characters of Mr. Ablewhite, with his contributions to charities such as the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society and his mother Mrs. Ablewhite, with her refusal to do anything requiring physical or mental exertion are critiques of the upper class, and are satirically exaggerated. This makes sense through Altick’s view that the majority of the novel’s audience would have been middle class. However, this also illustrates a limit to this approach because satire requires a certain level of intellectual capability to understand, and therefore undermines Altick’s claim that the majority of the reading public was uneducated and read only simple texts.  



The minutiae and the many perspectives in the Moonstone: guaranteed detective fever

“The Moonstone” is considered by many the first investigation novel ever written in English. Despite being located in the very birth of this genre, Wilkie Collins makes use of some techniques that demands from the reader an active stance while reading the story. There’s no main character working as a clever detective who will solve all the mysteries for us. As a matter of fact, the title itself reveals that the center of the story is not a character specifically (like we have in “Mary Barton”), but the mythic Indian diamond which has been stolen from a sacred temple for the Indus and which breaks the balance of an upper-class house in England. Everyone is under suspicion.

The first part of the story is narrated by Gabriel Betteredge, who is the house-steward in service of Lady Verinder. Collins cleverly chose this character as the first narrator because he smoothly gravitates between the servants and the upper-class characters. He has first-hand information from the opposing sides of the house. However, he considers himself as a different employee given his closeness to the Verinder family members. When I first noticed this about this character, I automatically started to pay attention to his name and see what it meant, perhaps because I have already done that in “Great Expectations”.

To me, the name Betteredge suggested that he wanted to be in a “better” position, but he never left the edge or the limits between the social classes in the house. He is always in between. James R. Simmons Jr., in his article entitled “Read the name… that I have written inside: Onomastics and Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Moonstone’” says that Franklin Blake considers him one of his friends and that he has a “superior edge in relation to the other servants” (page 71). Simmons also comments that Gabriel is the name of an angel who is a messenger of God and this conveys the message that the house-servant is not only someone reliable to the Verinder family, but also the one who brings the information to the reader in the first part of the book. However, by being the narrator, we come to discover his many flaws, such as considering himself superior because he is unapologetically English, so supposedly different from the continentally educated Franklin Blake.

Although having such a strong and reliable name, Gabriel Betteredge is flawed and it’s not the one who solves the mystery regarding the Moonstone. In the second part of the story, the reader finds a plethora of narratives from characters whose names aren’t that dignifying (such as Miss Clack, a name that suggests a disturbing noise). They have quite different personalities and do not have the typical qualities of a hero, such as Betteredge. The reader is presented to very real human beings.

The meaning of the names in the “Moonstone” reveal interesting information, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The reader must closely inspect everything, because nothing is obvious in the Verinder family’s house. As Simmons said, the family’s last name means that the truth is in the “very inside” (page 70).  Collins consciously creates a mysterious world full of hidden meaning, but also realistic, since we have the perspectives of many flawed characters. A definite answer takes a long time to appear. The mystery is intense, but not overwhelmingly supernatural.  The richness of details (and the name-choosing being an important aspect), alongside the variety of perspectives through the narratives ultimately contribute for a detective fever sensation for the ones who read the Moonstone, who deservedly has the title of the first investigation novel.

Sherlock’s All Seeing Eyes

D.A. Miller defines the panopticon in The Novel and The Police as “a circular prison disposed about a central watchtower…” in which “… surveillance is exercised on fully visible “prisoners” by unseen “guards “”. The quotations added by Miller state the fact that the panopticon does not necessarily exist only within a prison setting. It can also exist through people, one of those people being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a detective, or as Watson calls an “amateur bloodhound”. He is able to accurately make assumptions about people based on the smallest things. He correctly declared that someone was a retired marine sergeant from his tattoo, beard, and the air in which he walked. No one is safe from Sherlock’s profound abilities of deduction. Just one look at a person and he can accurately guess a person’s deepest secret, or so it feels. Sherlock becomes the panopticon in this sense. If you know about his abilities, you will always be on edge that he is watching you and, therefore, you are always watching yourself. But in the end, it does not matter, because however careful you are, Holmes will still find out information because that information “is most characteristically exercised on “little things “”. 

This becomes most apparent with the retired marine sergeant. The tattoo of an anchor is the most visible marker that Sherlock sees but that only tells him of a previous profession that was on the seas. The two “little things” as Miller calls them, are his beard and the way in which he walks. If the sergeant were to cover up his tattoo, Holmes can still deduce that he was a retired sergeant of some kind. Holmes’ version of the panopticon is the scariest because it is invisible. No one can know when he is judging you and you never know if your small ticks or visible differences will be under his scrutiny.


Works Cited:

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Books. 1887.

Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. University of California Press. 1988.


Reverse, Reverse: The Inside-Out Relationship between The Moonstone and A Study in Scarlet

When moving onto A Study in Scarlet, one of the most interesting aspects thus far has been tracing the genre inheritance from The Moonstone. In many ways, the focuses seem to be inside out. Made of the same material, but different sides shown. Implicitly, Scarlet has much more of a lower-class focus, whereas The Moonstone seems more to be concerned with the affairs of the rich, from the granular to large scale. More precisely, Scarlet features more of the consequences of the lack of. As the reader sees the story unfold through the eyes of Watson, the inciting incident for the story as a whole is simply that Watson lacks money to live comfortably (8 Conan Doyle). Additionally, what partially causes this is Britain’s own imperialist practices in India and Afghanistan, providing another Moonstone connection (Conan Doyle 7). Still, Watson was involved in the upholding of this imperialist practice through battle, whereas the characters in Collins’ work mostly just profit off of the plunder. Additionally, Moonstone more directly deals with questions of empire (though what exactly it resolves is debatable) throughout the story. But in Scarlet, the reader sees how Britain’s imperialism impacts the “average” British man as merely a fact of life to uphold, presenting British imperialism merely as something that is, whereas the implicit thematic throughline of The Moonstone is much more concerned with delving into what this imperialism means, for better or worse.

For the characters themselves, Moonstone presents a fuller, albeit perhaps more upwards tilting, in its effort to exploring a complete picture of British society (which is definitely for the worse). Though narrators like Betteredge and Clack are noted to lack wealth, they still spend their narration with the wealthy and privileged. After all, the tragic chain of events caused by the diamond’s loss occurs due to that a wealthy woman wants “her” diamond back. In contrast, the main site of the crime in Scarlet “wore an ill-omened and minatory look. It was one of four which stood back some little way from the street,.., [It] looked out with three tiers of vacant melancholy windows, which were blank and dreary…A small garden sprinkled over with a scattered eruption of sickly plants.” (28 Conan Doyle). Throughout this passage, words like “dreary,” “ill-omened,” and “sickly” among others reinforce the grimness of life where the victim lived, and the reality facing all of the boarders who live there. Similarly, while Sherlock Holmes is portrayed positively as an eccentric character, the characters of Scarlet are more down-to-earth than the colorful persons of Moonstone. For example, John Rance, though perhaps not up to Holmes’ level of intelligence, is not presented with the same massive blind spots of Clack or Betteredge In comparison, The Moonstone features characters of much more “sensational” backgrounds, whether it be through the penitent and troubled former master thief, or the ultimate culprit having a wildly different secret double life. While realistic in their own ways, and much more defined than the common-if- somewhat-suspicious-joe of Scarlet.

When taking these differences in conjunction, it becomes interesting to think about the novel as almost inverses of each other. The lives of the common English people are more directly featured in Scarlet, but the shadow of empire still impacts the proceedings nevertheless. The Moonstone, however, is much more invested in ideas of empire and upper-class concerns, though the voices of those from below still filter through. But as Scarlet progresses, it will be interesting to see if this middle/lower class and insular focus develops further and will perhaps prove itself a true study after all.     

Works Cited:

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Penguin Books, 1998.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Job’s Bugs are Colonial Thugs

What are we to make of Job Leigh and his entomology? On the one hand, they create a cookie cutter image of the working class intellectual portrait that Elizabeth Gaskell paints in the opening of chapter 5 “There are entomologists, who may be seen with a rude-looking net…” This shallow portrait, however, doesn’t seem to explain the prominence of science and insects in the novel, which even appear in the closing lines.

As a narrative tool they position Job as a disinterested character, unaligned with either the hand-loom weavers or the masters. They also create some endearing interactions with Margaret and William, and just generally make Job Leigh seem like a cute and kooky old man who’s not quite on the right page. However, what more can we learn about the meaning they create by utilizing Elaine Freedgood’s metonymic Lens? 

Outside of class I have done some research on colonial writing and discovered Mary Pratt’s book Imperial Eyes where she details her theory that the emergence of natural sciences had a significant role on colonial exploration following the publication of The System of Nature in the 18th century. The same book which is responsible for latin naming method Job Leigh is so infatuated with. 

While I do think there is an interesting reading where Job’s scientific drive can be seen as a colonizing force (he supports Williams imperial expeditions and wants him and other sailors to bring him back specimens) that doesn’t have much impact on our understanding of Mary Barton itself. Instead, I would direct our attention to another way Job’s specimens serve as metonymic device: they stand in for international competition. Reading Gaskell’s propagandizing description of Mancunian already makes it clear that she is proud of Job’s entomology, but I think this lens helps to understand why.  Entomology is not just a silly hobby for an old man, it is the space race of the colonial age. Traveling the world, naming plants and animals, that was how colonial power’s fought their intellectual battles, and little old Job Leigh was a player! Poor working class Manchester was a player! In very small ways of course, but still, readers at the time would have associated Job’s hobby, not like we might, with our cliche’d old man hobbies like gardening, but with a scientific pursuit of national importance.

Books in Books

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is a plot of discovery, unraveling a dense mystery surrounding opium use and social ties, but it also carries a lesson about the diffusion of knowledge through the written word. Books within the book itself carry valuable information, often only perceptible or accessible to certain characters, indicating how valuable knowledge can be lost when it is written down rather than communicated directly. Paying attention to the comprehension gatekept within the books in The Moonstone promotes an awareness of how the format of the novel itself contributes to the confusion abounding within the story.

In her book, The Ideas in Things, Elaine Freedgood explores the importance of “things” in Victorian literature, suggesting that they carry more weight than just contributing to a realistic setting. Things are abundant in Victorian novels, referred to as “thing culture”, which “survives now in those marginal or debased cultural forms and practices in which apparently mundane or meaningless objects can suddenly take on or be assigned value or meaning…” (Freedgood 8). Books themselves are valued highly in The Moonstone. Betteredge regards Robinson Crusoe as his gospel, seeking advice from its randomly selected pages. Ezra Jennings relies on Human Physiology and Confessions of an English Opium Eater as the basis for his understanding of what happened to Franklin Blake. However, the other characters don’t have access or a desire to obtain the knowledge within their pages, despite their crucial importance perceived by their respective owners. Thus, these books can be viewed as metonyms, they are concrete objects that take the place of knowledge and understanding–more fluid concepts. These metonyms “…allow for causal, material, and conceptual connections…outside the frame of the narrative” (Freedgood 11). However, rather than encourage a connection outside the frame of the narrative, I would argue that the books encourage such about the frame itself. Collins’ novel is told through the written accounts of different characters involved in the mystery, and just as someone who doesn’t respect the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe can’t gain anything from its words or someone who hasn’t read a novel about opium use wouldn’t be aware of its stimulant effects, these same issues of comprehension occur because of written versus communication between the characters. Diffusing knowledge through the written word, just as Rosanna Spearman did in her letter to Franklin Blake or Sergeant Cuff did with his accusation placed in an envelope, relies on those who need the knowledge to both have access and a desire to read it. This conundrum is represented on a small scale through the book metonyms, allowing Collins to indirectly emphasize its pervasive nature in the narrative as a whole.

What’s so gothic about the detective novels?

It goes without saying that when people think about “gothic,” they think about the supernatural and hauntings. However, in detective novels, specifically Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, readers barely see anything supernatural. The most supernatural thing in these two novels is the curse of the Moonstone, even then, it is left ambiguous whether there is an actual curse. When we think about the detective novels, we usually think about scientific methods and logic. In fact, S. S. Van Dine (1888-1939) published a set of twenty rules in 1928 for the detective novels. One of which denounces the presence of any supernatural factors in solving cases (Rule 8). So, how do the detective novels fit in with the Victorian gothic literature landscape?

In his article, John Bowen gives a few more identifying motifs of the gothic than just the supernatural. That includes: strange place; clashing time periods; questions of power, violence, and sexuality; the uncanny; the sublime; social crises; the feelings of terror, horror, and doubt. The Moonstone certainly invokes more traditional gothic motifs than A Study in Scarlet. In Collin’s The Moonstone, we have an ancient and sacred stone from India being brought to “modern” England; the Shivering Sand in Yorkshire where Rosanna Spearman meets her end; the physiognomic and/or racial others such as Rosanna, Limping Lucy, and Ezra Jennings; other numerous aspects; and most importantly, the terror that the novel brings to the readers. In Bowen’s article, he states that terror in the gothic “is concerned with the psychological experience of being full of fear and dread and thus of recognising human limits.” In other word, terror in the gothic is about giving readers a glimpse of the terrible things that could happen without actually showing the terrible things. In The Moonstone, readers are never shown the attacks of Godfrey or Mr. Lurker, the murders of the Indians and Godfrey, or the death of Lady Verinder. All of them are told and recounted to the readers. This allows the readers to feel the terror of the events, but still have a safe distance from them and immorality in the book, which is similar to other gothic novels like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Like Collin’s The Moonstone, Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and other Sherlock Holmes stories invoke a sense of terror in readers through the murders and mysteries that happen, whether in bustling London or in eerie Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes and Watson, like Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, are outsiders, looking into the murders that had already happened. In other word, while The Moonstone’s “detectives” are parts of the events in the book, Holmes is not. Most of the information he gets is from other people and his own observations after the fact. Interestingly, Bowen states that gothic generates a sense of intellectual doubt in readers, “create[ing] in our minds the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge.” While this definition seems to talk about the supernatural and mythical, it can also be applied to Holmes’ Science of Deduction and Analysis (A Study in Scarlet, chapter 2). To an average person, which is Watson and the readers, this “science” seems unobtainable and ridiculous, to the point of magical, as Holmes can deduce the job of a random person on the street. Thus, while Holmes’ Science of Deduction and Analysis is grounded in logic, reason, and observation, it still contains a sense of unnatural and unreasonable, beyond the capability of an average human being.

In conclusion, what I’m trying to say is while the detective novels seem to stray away from the gothic conventions of Victorian novels, they, in fact, still utilize many gothic motifs, thus, allowing them to be a branch of the gothic genre.



Bowen, John. “Gothic motifs.” British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-motifs. Accessed 15 November 2022.

Victorians Can’t Say Anything: Change My Mind

The topics of Victorian sexuality and class difference are distinctly interwoven but are little discussed in plain terms. However, passages from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, reveal the unsaid tensions between Mr. Franklin Blake and Rosanna Spearman. 

To frame my discussion of this class conflicted, unrequited love story, I turn to Rosanna’s letter to Franklin Blake after her death. The narrative perspective is framed from the bottom up, where rejection is received by the servant, not exacted by the gentleman, upholding gendered structures of power in the home. The nightgown is similarly uncovered and received into Rosanna’s possession when she investigates his chambers and launches an intimate point of contact between the two: “I undressed, and put the nightgown on me. You had worn it – and I had another little moment of pleasure in wearing it after you” (Collins 328). This is one of the very few (if any) points in Victorian novels where a woman is visibly naked, and even when she redresses, she does so for her own pleasure. Alone, the sexual pleasure she takes in the nightgown is secret and forbidden, as the word “little” in her confession could be read as the “little death,” or a codified confession of female orgasm. 

There are two main points of contact which make up Rosanna’s delight in wearing the nightshirt making contact with her skin. The first is the constant concern with its stains, plural, on the inside of the garment which must be hidden.  Not only is there the paint smear which could convict him of theft, the overt secret, but also the multiple seminal stains on the inside of the shirt. These are ghosts of past pleasure next to her skin belonging to a man whom she could never sexually engage with. Her use of his nightshirt as a sexual object is the closest she could come to that forbidden act.  A second key feature is the nametag embroidered on the inside of the neck. With his name against her skin, he becomes part of the whole of the nightshirt. Covering her, this text engages in the language of domination and subordination present in both a sexual relationship, but also in the class system that negates the possibility for such a sexual relationship to occur. 

Later in the narrative when Franklin Blake finds Rosanna’s confession and the nightshirt, his language of dismay is also sexualized. He states, “I had penetrated the secret which the quicksand had kept from every other living creature” (Collins 314). Mr. Franklin Blake is at the heart of Rosanna’s sacred place, the Shivering Sands, uncovering the secret of her passion. The very setting establishes an intimate connection between the two, and the fact that he has used the word “penetrated” to describe how he dug up the lock box from the quicksand only increases the tension. Finally, with the nightgown in his hands, reunited with his body in the privacy of solitude, the connection is finalized as an intimate link by touch. 

On the next page, there Franklin Blake has another interesting thought: “Of what was said between us on the beach, I have not the faintest recollection” (Collins 315). Though the recipient of this proposition is meant to be Betteredge, it also holds implications for the silent connection now established between him and Rosanna. Her influence, or ghost, resides in the Shivering Sands, as proposed upon her introduction as a character in the novel, and she now descends upon him as an undefinable inkling of the social forces that forbid their relationship. Franklin Blake places the clause of having a sensation of an external force before admitting his own ignorance to its implications. The ideology of preserving class structures by forbidding sexual encounters between them completely escapes Franklin Blake, it shows how deeply internalized those values of separation are in upper class Victorian society. Though he is thoroughly ignorant, Rosanna was bitterly aware of these social demands. 

Fan Behavior: Why India Appears so Often in Victorian Literature

Something I found intriguing while reading The Moonstone is how similar it was to other detective works.  Especially Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band,” a classic Sherlock Holmes story.  One main similarity I noticed was that both somehow involved India. 

In “The Speckled Band,” the stepfather of the story has a “violence of temper” that is apparently “hereditary,” although his stepdaughter believes it has “been intensified by by his long residence in the tropics,” those tropics being India (Doyle, 2).  He also has “a passion…for Indian animals,” (Doyle 3).  In The Moonstone, the prologue introduces the moonstone itself by stating “one of the wildest of these stories related to a Yellow Diamond–a famous gem in the native annals of India,” which establishes the involvement of India right off the bat (Collins, 11).  

It is interesting that a foreign country is so present in British literature, even for one under British rule.  In addition, both mentions of India have some negative connotation.  In “The Speckled Band,” India has worsened the temper of the stepfather, and the end of the story reveals it is one of his Indian animals (a snake) that has acted as the murder weapon.  In The Moonstone, the stone said to cause bad luck originates from India and is the cause of most of the suffering in the novel.  Victorians clearly have a hostile and racist outlook on foreign countries, especially India, as seen by the portrayals of the country and what comes from it that become detrimental to the supposed stability and prosperity in Britain.  At the same time, Victorians are fascinated by different cultures, and as their technology advances, so does their knowledge of nations outside of Britain, as well as their curiosity.  So for all the racism and negative attention directed towards India in the detective story, Victorian authors and audiences cannot help but be entertained by their central inclusion in the plot.

Does The Moonstone Need a Detective to Solve the Case?

“Whether the investigation is conducted by police or private detectives, its sheer intrusiveness posits a world whose normality has been hitherto defined as a matter of not needing the police or policelike detectives.”

On page 3 of Miller’s article “The Novel and the Police”, Miller notes how the presence of police or private detectives in an investigation assumes a “world whose normality has been hitherto defined as a matter of not needing the police or policelike detectives” (Miller 3). I thought this quote was useful in reading Collin’s The Moonstone, as the predominant detective figure Sergeant Cuff, is dismissed from the case earlier in the novel by Rachel’s mother Lady Julia after Cuff suggested that Rachel was hiding something and still has possession of the stone. Although Rachel herself did not have the stone, Cuff was correct in his assumption that Rachel was withholding information about the case. Later in the story during Jennings’s narrative, Cuff returns to help with the reenactment of Franklin under the influence of opium the night of the moonstone’s disappearance. On the 20th of June during his narrative, Jennings says “I also suggested inviting the Sergeant to be present at the experiment…he would be a valuable witness to have, in any case; and, if I proved to be wrong in believing the Diamond to be hidden in Mr. Blake’s room, his advice might be of great importance” (Collins 407). This quote was interesting to me because Jennings has made great progress on the case since Cuff was dismissed earlier on by Julia. By himself, Jennings drew the connection of the possibility of Franklin being under the influence of opium during the disappearance of the stone. Jennings draws on his own personal experience and knowledge of opium and its effects and assumes that Franklin could have very well stolen the moonstone without knowing it. However, despite this observation that arguably only an opium addict like Jennings could make, Collins makes it clear that Jennings wants Cuff to help during the recreation of the night. Jennings says that Cuff “is a valuable witness to have in any case”, suggesting that all cases should have a detective or “policelike” figure (407).  The previous quote from Miller’s article is interesting to look at this dynamic between Cuff leaving and returning to help with the case, as the re-emergence of Cuff proves to be helpful but also doesn’t seem necessary at the time, given the progress made in the case during his absence. By Jennings emphasizing the importance of the presence of Cuff during the investigation, it places the detective figure as a necessary asset when trying to uncover the truth and begs the question if detectives are actually needed.