Diamonds in English Literature – Victorian Novelists and Poets

The Diamond Necklace. Thomas Carlyle
At a time when scientists were just beginning to understand gemstones and how they form, writers were experimenting with ideas that we now call ‘new age’. Spiritualism, Eastern mysticism, even fairies were catching not only the public’s attention but also intellectuals.

Thomas Carlyle was a philosopher and writer. The Diamond Necklace is an essay in which he relates the story of the affair of the diamond necklace which the French queen, Marie Antoinette, was accused of stealing. Like many writers at this time, he writes as if the diamonds have feelings and are able to influence human thoughts and actions, even to take actions themselves.

The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins
In 1799 a British soldier kills three temple guards in order to steal a huge yellow diamond from a statue of Vishnu. He returns to England with a fortune but is not accepted into decent society. When he dies the diamond passes to his niece, Rachel Verinder. However the gift is malicious as he knows the stone holds a curse on whoever owns it.

Rachel wears the diamond at her birthday party, at her family’s country estate, but the stone gives a sinister atmosphere as it replaces the ‘life and sparkle’ of the party. That night the diamond disappears and the local police are called in to investigate. They prove to be inept and are replaced by Sergeant Cuff from Scotland Yard. He is sacked when he suspects Rachel organised the theft for the insurance money.

The action moves to London, some people are murdered, others commit suicide. While all these things are going on, three mysterious Indian men lurk in the shadows of nearly every scene. Things become increasingly complicated as the narration moves from one character to another, some of whom may be lying, none of whom knows the full story. Rachel’s boyfriend is suspected of stealing the stone. Eventually Sergeant Cuff returns to the case and solves it.

The Indians turn out to be hereditary priestly guardians of the stone who have been tracking it in England for generations. They take the diamond back to India and return it to their temple.

While Charles Dickens is famous for being the most popular Victorian novelist, this novel was more popular at the time than anything Dickens wrote. It is most notable for being the first detective novel. In establishing the genre, Collins established many tropes which would later become cliches: the country house murder; the bumbling local police; the genius but eccentric detective; the detective who gets pulled off the case but solves it anyway; the red herring and many more. T.S. Eliot described it as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.”

The novel also includes the story of a diamond stolen from an idol. This theme was common in adventure stories involving large gemstones, and it was particularly common since the time gemstones started arriving in large quantities from British India. Yet there is little evidence for it ever happening. There is no tradition for gemstones to be implanted in the eye sockets of Indian statues. Surely the desecration of a religious image important enough to hold such a valuable stone would cause outrage among the community, causing even the colonial authorities to want to track down the perpetrator. In any case, I have not yet found any reliable historical record that shows that such a theft ever took place.

It has been suggested that the notion of damaging a ‘false idol’ is attractive to Protestants, who are mostly opposed to sacred images on the grounds that they are the worshipping of idols. This would explain why the story is so popular, even though it is untrue. Yet it does not explain why there would be a curse attached to the theft. If the god is ‘untrue’, how would it be able to exercise power in the material world? Perhaps some iconoclasts secretly wish for a spiritual element in their lives.

Although the stone in this story is a diamond, it is called the Moonstone. A moonstone is a different type of gemstone, a form of feldspar called adularia. It is notable for having a blue or white flash which is called schiller, or adularescence. it can also have a cat’s eye effect where a line of light reflects from a stone, like you see when light shines on an old dvd.

Collins combined the details of several real diamonds to construct his Moonstone. The Orloff was reputedly stolen from the eye socket of an Indian temple statue. A legend also places the Koh-i-Noor in the third eye of a statue of Shiva at one time although there is, again, no real proof of this. Collins is reported to have seen the 410 carat Pitt diamond, which proved to be a burden to its owner – Pitt complained of spending too much time and money on protecting a “too precious stone”. Finally, the Sancy Diamond, like Collins’ Moonstone, was stolen in an unsolved robbery and found its way back to India when it was purchased in 1965 by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy of Bombay.

I wonder if those South Asian nationalists who long for the Koh-i-Noor were inspired by Wilkie Collins’ novel.

The Eustace Diamonds. Anthony Trollope
Lizzie is a high spirited social climber with a habit of telling lies for her own amusement. She manages to marry Sir Florian Eustace, who has a much higher social position and wealth, but is also sickly. He allows her to wear a diamond necklace with a diamond-studded Maltese cross. But he warns her they are a family heirloom, only to be inherited by sons of the Eustace family. Sir Florian dies and Lizzie decides to keep the necklace for herself.

By tradition, the necklace should have gone to John Eustace, Sir Florian’s brother. The family lawyer makes strenuous efforts to retrieve the necklace. But this causes some embarassment to the family as Lizzie is also the mother of Sir Florian’s son, who is also entitled to an inheritance.

In the court case, the family claims the necklace is an heirloom and therefore should be passed down according to tradition, regardless of what the will says. The court decides it is not an heirloom but ‘paraphernalia’ (stuff, things) because gems are likely to be recut and reset and that would strip them of any sentimental value.

Although it is technically a win for Lizzie, the decision diminishes her social status. As the holder of an heirloom of a great family she held a higher social status than being the owner of mere ‘paraphernalia’. Furthermore, her obsession with the diamonds gets in the way of securing a new, high status, husband. The few decent men who she stands a chance of marrying are disgusted by her actions in relation to the jewels.

Afraid that the necklace could get stolen, Lizzie keeps it in a strongbox when she is travelling. One night she returns to her rooms to find the strongbox stolen. Police are called in but she does not reveal to them that she hid the necklace under her pillow and it is still, in fact, in her possession. Some time later the necklace really is stolen, but Lizzie maintains the lie that it was stolen previously. The police investigations gradually reveal the truth, which shames LIzzie further.

The thieves take the necklace to Vienna where it is taken apart and the diamonds recut. It then goes to Hamburg to be made into a new necklace and sold to a Russian princess. LIzzie finds a husband but he has a hidden past. It seems likely this past will catch up with him before long, which will lower Lizzie’s social status even further.

It seems to me the diamond necklace seems to share a similar fate to Lizzie. Her social standing is reduced in stages just as the necklace is degraded in steps, although the losses suffered do not happen simultaneously.

Victorian Poetry

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection. Gerald Manley Hopkins
Heraclitus is known as ‘the weeping philosopher’, because his vision of life is so gloomy. This poem has two parts, beginning with references to clouds and bodily flesh which is to be consumed by worms. The transition is marked by fire, which consumes everything but cannot harm a diamond. In the second part he refers to the resurrection and the diamond as a more permanent state, perhaps our true state. It reads:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is,
since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Notice here the wordplay in the rhyme of ‘I am, and’; ‘diamond’; and ‘diamond’ and that ‘I am’ is part of the word ‘diamond’ itself. So through the resurrection he becomes immortal, like a diamond.

Hopkins died in 1889 at the age of 44, not long after he wrote this poem. But in contrast to Heraclitus, his last words were: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life”.

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