What role did 19th Century popular serial novels such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone play in British understandings of India?
When Wilkie Collins first wrote The Moonstone in 1868, it was not published in the form available today, but was published in instalments in a popular Victorian magazine, All the Year Round. Upon its first publication it was eagerly read by the general British public, for its readership not only included the ruling and upper classes, but the cost and availability meant that a copy would have a wide circulation amongst all members of a household. The tale's images and ideas of India thus reached many social groups in British culture.
To Wilkie Collins, the gem, part of whose history we follow in The Moonstone, the novel of the same name, is the signifier of all things that humanity strives for, material and spiritual. He begins the novel by demonstrating that the history of the Moonstone gem is a history of thefts. In having his initial narrator state "that crime brings its own fatality with it" (p.6 Ch. IV of the prologue), Collins underscores the fact that nemesis attends every worldly expropriator of the Moonstone, which to its temporary European possessors is a bauble and a commodity but which to its faithful guardians, the Brahmins, is a sacred artefact beyond price. The Moonstone is never really English or England's, for the novel begins with an account of its various thefts. It opens in India with Rachel Verinder's Uncle Herncastle's purloining the gem in battle (the opening lines are specifically "written in India"(p.1)) and closes with Murthwaite, the famed fictional explorer's, account (dated 1850) of the restoration of the gleaming "yellow Diamond"(p.466) to the forehead of the Hindu deity of the Moon "after the lapse of eight centuries"(p.466, "The Statement of Mr. Murthwaite"). The date of Murthwaite's account of the restoration of the diamond may be ironic, for in 1850 a Sikh maharajah, exiled from Indian after the Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-9, presented a gem, which is thought to be the inspiration for the Moonstone gem, to Queen Victoria at an elaborate state ceremony in St. James's Palace to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I, as this gem symbolized England's conquest of India, the Moonstone represents England's gains from its Indian adventures The main action of the novel takes place in the years 1848-49, at the time of the second Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over all parts of India with great certainty. The Prologue, clearly described as "the Storming of Seringapatam," and dated 1799, emphasizes the historical significance of the story. An important English victory in what was the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1789-99 distinguished the beginning of Arthur Wellesley's rule as Governor-General, a rule characterized by ruthless diplomacy. In fact, the victory at Seringapatam, as Collins knew, represented the establishment of England as the major power on the sub-continent, at the same time confirming expansion and exploitation as a company practice.
Before Herncastle acquires the Moonstone at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, the stone has already passed through the hands of a number "vain conquerors". The opening narrative transforms the sacred object into a symbol of wealth and power that no mere mortal should possess, but which, despite its properties, immoral warriors of various nations have sought to acquire. In fact, owning what no one should possess merely adds to the Moonstone's allure. The connection of the properties of the Moonstone to "ancient Greece and Rome" (p.2 Ch. II of the prologue) is the first indication that India is not a barbarous and backward series of petty principalities but an ancient civilisation. The British army storming Seringapatam under General Baird, whom we as mid-Victorian readers of All the Year Round would normally...
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