In this essay I shall investigate an aspect of the phenomenology of the Gypsies in European cultural history through an analysis of the European side of the encounter, in a novel by the nineteenth-century English writer Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: A Romance (1868). The Moonstone, as we shall see, is intimately concerned with the problem of Orientalism in British colonial India. I shall argue that Collins's novel also has something valuable to say in this context about the discourse on Gypsies.
First, some prefatory remarks on the novel's genre, cultural context and content. Collins, a longtime friend and colleague of Dickens, was one of the most widely read English novelists of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Probably his best-known book today is The Woman in White (1860). Like that work, The Moonstone is a frankly sensational detective novel. T.S. Eliot famously called it the ‘the first and greatest of the English detective novels’ (1950: 413). Sensation novels embody a separate sub-genre of the English tradition, and were all the rage in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Generally speaking, they represented an aesthetic opposition to the sober realist or ‘scientific’ tradition of writing, and deliberately set out both to stimulate and to satisfy the appetite of the public for new, exciting, unprecedented, uncanny motifs, plots and arguments. Jenny Bourne Taylor argues that the sensation novel, characterized as it is by the obsession with the new and startling in endless variation, is a typical manifestation of the hunger for novelty characteristic of cultural modernity (Taylor 1988: 1–26, esp. 3ff.). The sensation novel, with its bold questioning of apparent certainties, was thus a medium eminently suited to expressing the widespread sense of cultural crisis and fear of decline in 1860s Britain.
The Moonstone is the tale of the sensational theft of the eponymous large and beautiful yellow diamond from the Yorkshire mansion of the Verinder family in 1848, and of the attempts to recover the jewel – or at least to discover how it was stolen – in investigations by Sergeant Cuff, a mildly eccentric character with a razor-sharp analytical mind in the mould of Sherlock Holmes, and by other, unofficial detectives.