How Wilkie Collins found sensation in ordinary life

The Moonstone certainly has elements of breathless storytelling, but some of its thrills derive from the precision of its down-to-earth details

In 1871, Thomas Hardy approvingly described “the sensation novel” as a “long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance” that involved “murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives”. Give or take a bit of illegitimacy, this could be a direct description of The Moonstone.

Except that’s only half the story. It is not just strange events that make The Moonstone so compelling: Wilkie Collins wrote just as well about the everyday world as he did about the extraordinary. In his famous attack on sensation novels in the Quarterly Review, HL Mansel inadvertently explained the appeal of this thrilling realism:

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