The Past, That Other Country

I’ve been reading The Moonstone, by Dickens’s friend and contemporary Wilkie Collins. Collins is no Dickens: there are quite apparent reasons why Dickens has over a dozen novels in honorable active service, while Collins has only two. The Moonstone is a sentimental pot-boiler whose plot is, by turns, clever and too clever. Still, as the ur-detective novel, it offers the pleasure of presenting plenty of genre standards in their uncut form.

One of the striking things about reading 150-year-old genre fiction is that the lack of overtly “literary” qualities frees you to notice those assumptions that have changed in the last 150 years. To modern American ears, the omnipresence of class in Collins’s literary world is startling. It’s there in Dickens, with his colorful characters from all up and down the social hierarchies, but in Collins, it’s startlingly foregrounded.

It’s odd, for example, to read a detective novel in which the detective—universally acknowledged to be the best and most respected detective in the business—is considered so inferior to every other named character that his presence under the same roof can be an unbearable affront. An arisocrat can shut herself up in her room and refuse to speak to him without anyone thinking it suspicious. The servants consider it a grave affront to have him search their possessions: the only hope is if the gentry of the house willingly open up their own possessions to search, and a single refusal derails the entire plan.

Class has its own topography, too, in that intricate pattern of rules dictating the places to which people may and may not be admitted. A caller with an income can drop by uninvited and will be allowed into one of the downstairs rooms—but then must send a note upstairs to the host, without even knowing whether that esteemed personage is at home. The servants flit about freely, but leave the house-islands only on specific business. Everyone else is consigned to floating about the picturesque ports of call where their betters visit only when the plot requires such an excursion of them.

The effect is a bit like reading religious mysticism or cultural anthropology: while I can understand the descriptions and I can see how it works, but the mindset remains elusive, incomprehensible. I wonder how they’ll look back on our detective novels a century and a half from now.