Introduction to The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
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356 ] Introduction to The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins London: Oxford UP; Humphrey Milford, 1928. Pp. xx + 522.1 The Moonstone is the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels. But it is something more important than that; it is the best of all the novels written by that man who among the novelists of the nineteenth century was in every way the most closely associated with Charles Dickens. You cannot appreciate Collins without taking Dickens into account and the work of Dickens after 1850 would not be what it is but for the reciprocal influence of Collins. WilliamWilkieCollinswasbornin1824,twelveyearslaterthanDickens. He had begun writing before he and Dickens met, but his two best-known novels, the only ones which are at all widely read to-day, The Woman in WhiteandTheMoonstone,werewrittenafterthefriendshipwaswellassured. Dickens played an important part in their production; he published both of them serially in his magazine All the Year Round. Both novels were in this form popular successes and contributed materially to the prosperity of the magazine.2 None of the novels which Collins wrote thereafter either deserved or obtained the success of The Woman in White or The Moonstone. Collins’s claim to remembrance after that time is to be found chiefly in the work of Dickens. There is no adequate biography of Collins beyond a brief note in the Dictionary of National Biography, and Forster’s allusions to the relations of the two men are few and meagre, but some things we are entitled to guess.3 At about the middle of Dickens’s career Forster tells us that Dickens experienced an impoverishment of the creative imagination which had hithertoappearedinexhaustible.ThereisnodoubtthatDickens,whoalways needed money, and who had in his early years made unfavourable contracts with publishers, had worked for a long time under too great a strain. He was a man of prodigious energy, and of that physical health upon which energetic men are apt to place too much reliance; and he may have been intoxicated by sudden and universal fame. At any rate, he begins to complain of a diminution of energy. It is at this point that his novels change so as to formdefinitelyasecondgroup.Whatisgreatlytohiscreditisthatthissecond group, although different, is not at all inferior to the first. Instead of that [ 357 Introduction to The Moonstone free narrative, in writing which Dickens hardly knew from week to week what was going to turn up, we find a more elaborate and finished construction . In other words, the early novels are narrative, even picaresque, but the later novels are dramatic; and this change is the great change from the earlier to the later form of the English novel. In this change in the work of Dickens I believe that the influence of Wilkie Collins dominated. Dickens had always been interested in the drama and the stage. Before ever he began to write he made one timid attempt, related by Forster, to obtain a trial from a celebrated theatrical manager. Then and throughout his life one of his chief pleasures was amateur theatricals; even in his busiest working years he was taking part in theatrical performances on such a scale thattheywerealmostprofessional.ButDickenshadmorethanmerely a taste for the stage; there was something essentially dramatic about his view of life. Forster, early in his life of Dickens, observes: On the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life, Dickens liked especially to dwell, and few things moved his fancy so pleasantly. The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other; and to-morrow bore so close a resemblance to nothing half so much as to yesterday.4 Such a feeling is dramatic, as any reader of Oedipus the King must realize; and the words might have been spoken still more appropriately by Wilkie Collins.5 TheearliernovelsofDickensaredramaticonlyindetail.InDavidCopper­ field, even in Nicholas Nickleby, there are separate scenes of great dramatic reality. The whole of the latter part of Martin Chuzzlewit, comprehending the tragedy of Jonas Chuzzlewit and Montague, is drama. But in general form Dickens was following the tradition of Fielding and Smollett.6 One characteristic of this earlier type of fiction is the absence of the sense of fatality. But over the later novels of Dickens, as over the novels of Collins, there is the same atmosphere of fatality that we feel with the very first line of Hamlet or Macbeth. It is not to...