From The Guardian:
In 1871, Thomas Hardy approvingly described “the sensation novel” as a “long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance” that involved “murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives”. Give or take a bit of illegitimacy, this could be a direct description of The Moonstone.
Except that’s only half the story. It is not just strange events that make The Moonstone so compelling: Wilkie Collins wrote just as well about the everyday world as he did about the extraordinary. In his famous attack on sensation novels in the Quarterly Review, HL Mansel inadvertently explained the appeal of this thrilling realism:
The sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation. It is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own day and among the people we are in the habit of meeting.
Where Mansel saw a “morbid” cheap trick, others such as Henry James saw something far more interesting. Wilkie Collins, said James, revealed:
Those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors. The innovation gave a new impetus to the literature of horrors … Instead of the terrors of Udolpho, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house or the London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely more terrible.
Victorian readers could see themselves – or at least, their contemporaries – in Collins’s novels. This domestic immediacy didn’t just make the books chilling, it also made them persuasive social documents. Later on in Collins’s career his campaigning fervour supposedly got the better of plots, prompting his friend Algernon Swinburne to lament: “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? / Some demon whispered—’Wilkie! have a mission.’” But in earlier books, he was able to make serious, important points without compromising on the storytelling. The Woman In White highlighted unscrupulous practices in private asylums. And The Moonstone is a fascinating barometer both of Victorian attitudes, and the opposition towards them. If, for instance, you were of the opinion that our ancestors were all gung-ho Christians, you need only read the hypocritical narrative of Miss Clack and the humour Collins wrings out of her greed, folly, false piety and the deathly boring tracts she delivers. His ambivalence towards imperialism is even more striking; the intricate plot set into motion by a brutal crime committed by British soldiers against Indians, with plenty of unsettling imagery showing Collins’s clear awareness of the pain and injustice of empire.
Link to the rest at The Guardian