Over a year after I first read The Moonstone, it’s not the famously twisty plot that stands out to me. And it’s not how Wilkie Collin’s 1868 novel does what it’s often praised for doing — setting the stage for modern detective fiction. No, what stands out to me is the femaleness of the whole thing; a femaleness that makes me see The Moonstone as a surprising companion for a contemporary writer I love — Tana French.
Femininity is at the heart of Collin’s strange, rollicking novel as much as the search for a cursed Indian diamond drives its plot. An epistolary narrative, The Moonstone has only one female narrator (and a repressed, Bible-thumping one at that), but that hardly changes the fact that femininity, as packaged and popularized by the Victorians, infects the story, boiling over into the mystery’s solution, and prompting the cover up of potent fears of female secrecy and domestic corruption that continue to haunt the genre.
Like all good mysteries, The Moonstone’s set up is simple: A diamond is given to Rachel Verinder on her birthday. It disappears, and while there are motives aplenty, there is little actual evidence to point to its location. When the family summons Sergeant Cuff, a London detective, to the scene of the crime, it becomes clear that the secret-keeping of Rachel and other female household members is the main impediment to the investigation.
Sergeant Cuff’s personality contrasts with the traditional masculinity of peers like the assertive Franklin Blake and humorously misogynist butler Betteredge, creating an ideal scapegoat for the fallout of Rachel’s withholding, and the anxiety it provokes. Cuff is “miserably lean,” looking “as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on him.” He is also “soft” and “melancholy,” with a passion for roses. Thin and wasted instead of rough and ready and thoughtful rather than assertive, he has more in common with The Moonstone’s female characters than its male ones. His preferences for silence, discretion, and aesthetic pleasures closely align him with the feminine, domestic sphere of the home, despite his very public role as a police officer.
Cuff’s feminine traits allow him to uncover key clues in the case. His eye for household details like ink stains and petticoat lengths leads him to deduce that Rachel Verinder knows the identity of the thief. However, while highly feminized, he is still male. By having a member of the public, masculine sphere bring this unsavory detail to light, The Moonstone accomplishes an impressive ideological paradox that manages to both stoke and sooth fears of female secrecy and domestic corruption.
Nineteenth-century England both idolized and feared its daughters, wives, and mothers—a contradictory set of emotions tricky to reconcile. Sergeant Cuff demonstrates one of the ways this cognitive dissonance was resolved: scapegoating.
An outsider coming into the closeted world of the Verinder family, Sergeant Cuff is ideally placed to take the blame for revealing the domestic corruption surrounding the diamond. By ferreting out Rachel’s secrets, he also reveals her complicity in the disruption of the home and family that is supposed to be her chief joy and duty—hardly a comforting realization for the novel’s characters or readers. Since Cuff’s intrusion into the family space causes the realization, however, fear of the male outsider can overtake the much more insidious fear of the female secrecy.
This literary scapegoating continues in contemporary fiction. Tana French’s 2014 novel, The Secret Place, features Stephen Moran, a canny and sociable detective investigating a murder at a girl’s boarding school in Dublin. Like Cuff, Moran is contrasted with a more traditionally masculine character—in this case, Antoinette Conway, a female detective who uses a brusque and demanding demeanor to deal with workplace harassment. Moran is content to allow Conway the dominant role in their partnership observing that “my ego’s not that weak; it won’t collapse without a daily workout.” He is also able to connect with and gain the trust of their pool of female, teenaged suspects because of his ability to project sympathy and empathy, an ability Conway notably lacks.
The boarding school is a hotbed of feminine pettiness and cruelty, best demonstrated by the titular noticeboard where the girls post rumors, gossip, and threats—including the ominous notecard that leads Moran and Conway to the school. Like Cuff, Moran’s ability to infiltrate this all-female sphere hinges on his feminine instinct to emote and connect, even with people he has little personal liking for.
The Secret Place’s reveal achieves the same balance of anxiety and scapegoating that The Moonstone did over a century prior. The murder is traced back to a close-knit group of friends, but when the girl responsible confesses, Moran finds himself feeling hollow. While he knows the crime has “grown inside these walls,” he feels that he played a hand in destroying the girls’ friendship. “All I could find,” he muses when searching for meaning in the case, is “the last shadow of something craved and lost.” His guilt is illogical when considering that the girls’ relationship is hardly the bastion of wholesome companionship he believes it to be, but it effectively shifts the blame for the crime from the girls to Moran. Like Cuff, he is the male outsider who probes femininity and uncovers its darkness. And like Cuff, The Secret Place prefers to lay the blame at his feet rather than admit to the anxiety and sexism behind the book’s conception of toxic girlhood
The anxiety binding The Moonstone and The Secret Place together reveals patriarchal ideology obsessively revisiting the same fears. This anxiety suggests that femininity is an unknown territory best fenced in by the home and then left unexplored—and yet, try as it might, it cannot resist femininity’s pull.
Claudia McCarron is a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, the Ploughshares blog, Podcast Review and elsewhere. She lives in West Virginia and tweets @claudiaamcc.