T S Eliot called The Moonstone “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s hard not to agree. The Moonstone, an enormous diamond of religious significance, is vilely plundered by a British soldier during the taking of Seringapatam in 1799. The Moonstone is brought back to England and, eventually, given to the prim, beautiful and willful heiress, Rachel Verinder, on her birthday in 1848. And it goes missing the very same night. Rachel’s family and friends are keen to recover the lost stone and to identify the thief and call upon the services of Sergeant Cuff, the most celebrated and successful detective that Scotland Yard can offer. Yet Rachel is strangely reluctant to assist in the investigation, and the professional sleuth is not the only one searching for the stone and for answers. Three juggling Indians accompanied by a clairvoyant young boy, a ruthless London money lender and an amiable philanthropist all seem to have their own interest in recovering the stone while others, including Rachel and a reformed thief turned servant girl, seem at least as anxious to conceal certain facts surrounding its disappearance. The stage is thus set for a gripping detective story full of twists and turns and unexpected developments, all centred on the Verinder’s country house in Yorkshire.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides a stunning and disturbing account of a women’s decline into madness. Margaret Atwood comments in the Blind Assassin that life is little more than a period of waiting interspersed with a few significant moments. For the nameless women in The Yellow Wallpaper, this is one of those moments. Over a three year period we see in acute and distressingly real detail how her inability to match her identity with the role of submissive wife that late Victorian society demanded leads to a steady, inexorable descent from sagacity to despair. Suffering from some unnamed illness – which modern readers might recognise as post-natal depression – she is confined to a room for rest and sleep. Unable to find any outlet for emotion or intellect, she becomes obsessed with the room’s wallpaper – it’s complex and endless pattern of pointless swirls. At first she just dislikes it, then hatred bordering on fear follows, to be usurped by a semi-dependent fascination and ultimately total identity: she becomes, not so much the wallpaper, but the embodiment of the creeping women who dwell, reluctantly, behind the pattern.
George Chesney’s startling account of an imagined invasion and conquest of Britain by the Germans in the 1870s was born in the shock reaction to the very real, very swift and unexpected German victories in the War of Surprises of 1870. Filled with regret for a nation destroyed and embittered by the passiveness with which the nation ignored all the warning signs, failing to take what with hindsight seem like obvious measure of self-preservation, a unknown soldier reminisces for history grandchildren upon his experience of the Battle of Dorking. At once level, this short story is just a shocking and gripping account of a fiction overthrow of the country. But Chesney’s tale rewards a deeper reading as well, revealing much about contemporary attitudes to empire and fears for the future. The nameless soldier encapsulates, in his regret, concerns over the squandering of energy and enterprise swallowed in the maintenance and expansion of Empire which so dominated England in the later years of the 19th century. And he exposes a perceived fragility in the security of the nation: that England falls so easily to the Germans is ascribed not only to a lack of preparedness but also to an arrogance born of a belief in the natural superiority of English civilisation and culture and, particularly, to the brittle basis on which British economic prosperity was based. It is in these arguments that the reader cannot fail to miss potential parallels with today’s circumstances: a national prosperity based not on manufacturing or labour but upon trade, credit, services and other business which could so easily be diverted elsewhere.
Mansfield Park, although certainly regarded as a part of the canon of English literature, is often considered to be the weakest, least dazzling of Austen’s novels. Without the witty sparkle of Pride and Prejudice or the gothic indulgence of Northanger Abbey, it has struggled at time to match the popularity of her other titles. But oh, what a treat those who pass over Mansfield Park are missing. Certainly, it is the most disturbing and perhaps the least superficially pleasing of Austen’s output but it has rewards aplenty for the careful reader.
Mansfield Park, home of the affluent Bertram family, takes in a young poor relation with the overt intention of giving her the advantages of a good education and good connections while preserving her sense of gratitude and subservience. Fanny, the haplessly lucky chosen beneficiary of such benevolence is uprooted from friends, home, family and all that it familiar to take up residence in the grand house with her grand relations. Continue reading