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Wilkie Collins — The Moonstone

She was unlike most other girls of her age, in this—that she had ideas of her own, and was stiff-necked enough to set the fashions themselves at defiance, if the fashions didn’t suit her views… She judged for herself, as few women of twice her age judge in general; never asked your advice; never told you beforehand what she was going to do; never came with secrets and confidences to anybody, from her mother downwards. In little things and great, with people she loved, and people she hated (and she did both with equal heartiness), Miss Rachel always went on a way of her own, sufficienct for herself in the joys and sorrows of her life. Over and over again I have heard my lady say, ‘Rachel’s best friend and Rachel’s worst enemy are, one and the other—Rachel herself.

And again, I was surprised by how awesome and atypical Wilkie Collins’ heroines are of Victorian fiction. They are real people with real personalities, not just fainting flowers or paragons of goodness and saintliness as some of Dickens’ characters tend to be. There is a certain open-mindedness, too, about the awful way in which his characters treat the “Hindoo” … the horror of it is not accidental.

The Moonstone of the title is a fabulous yellow diamond said to wax and wane with the moon, stolen by a degenerate soldier during the Siege of Seringapatam, and bequeathed to his niece. When it’s stolen at her eighteenth birthday party, a number of terrible misfortunes (a curse, perhaps?) begin to afflict her family. Franklin Blake, an honest young man in love with the aforementioned Miss Rachel, attempts to get to the bottom of things–and thus is born what is apparently the first detective novel written in English (according to some quotes in the introduction and Wikipedia, anyway), as both Sergeant Cuff and a variety of other characters attempt to figure out what has happened to the Moonstone.

The fact remains is that Wilkie Collins is a really wonderful storyteller, with the many twists and turns of The Moonstone keeping you guessing until the end (I guarantee that if you haven’t already spoiled the plot ending for yourself, you’ll never guess who stole it). With a suitably mysterious cast to the story, as well as an interesting population of characters, this Victorian who-dunit is an engrossing read.

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Wilkie Collins — The Woman in White

So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages as it haunted my life, goes down into the impenetrable Gloom. Like a Shadow she first came to me, in the loneliness of the night. Like a Shadow she passes away, in the loneliness of the dead.

The Woman in White is probably Wilkie Collins’ most famous work, and employs his trademark style of telling the narrative with a variety of different characters and different voices. As the involvement of one character in the story ends, another picks it up to tell his or her knowledge of the proceedings. I’d be lying a little bit if I said that most of the characters sounded like anything other than Wilkie Collins, but it’s an entertaining story and therefore a forgiveable fault.

The Woman in White begins on the road, with Walter Hartwright, a poor drawing master, heading to Limmeridge, where he is to teach two young ladies. While traveling he meets a mysterious woman in white on the road alone, agitated and determined to head to London. He helps her escape and continues on his way. While at Limmeridge, he meets the mannish but intelligent and kind Marian Halcombe and her beautiful, nervous half-sister Laura Fairlie, and of course falls in love with Miss Fairlie. Unfortunately, she’s been engaged to the dastardly Sir Percival Glyde, mixed up in some mysterious business with the odious Count Fosco (whose fondness for white mice is one of the most skin-crawling things in the novel), and is shipped off to the ominously named Blackwater Park. What follows is a thrilling mystery of mistaken identities, hidden secrets, insanity, and evil villains.

Collins’ writing is incredibly atmospheric; the book is pervaded with a constant sense of drear and dread that is very appropriate for the story matter. The villains are REALLY villainous. It’s a great mystery. Probably my favorite bit though was the character of Marian; she’s something really unique among the fluttery women that populate Victorian fiction.

The Woman in White will keep you guessing and unable to put it down right up to the last page.

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