An extract from the family papers of a cousin to John Herncastle tells the story of his and John Herncastle's parts in the storming of the castle of Seringapatam in India under General Baird of the British army in 1799. The narrator explains the background to his ill will toward John Herncastle, who stole the Yellow "Moonstone" diamond from Seringapatam. The diamond originally existed as part of a Hindu shrine to the moon god. This Hindu deity commanded that the Moonstone be guarded at all times by three Brahmin priests and that a curse would befall anyone who stole the gem. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the jewel was stolen by Mohammedans and eventually wound up set in a dagger handle in the palace at Seringapatam, still guarded by three Brahmins, who posed as Mussulmen in the palace household.
The narrator and John Herncastle heard this history of the diamond in their army camp, and Herncastle was heard to boast that if Seringapatam should be taken, he would steal the diamond. After the storming of the castle, the narrator and Herncastle were sent to prevent looting by the English soldiers. The narrator heard yelling and found Herncastle in a palace room, holding the Moonstone dagger, covered with blood. Two dead Indians lay at the door and at Herncastle's feet was a dying Indian who proclaimed, "The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!"
In the ensuing chaos, the narrator did not have an opportunity to speak with Herncastle until the following morning. Herncastle denied that he killed the Indian and said nothing of the Moonstone. The narrator has not enough evidence to publicly accuse him but writes this narrative "for the information of the family only." The narrator feels slightly superstitious about the Moonstone and believes that Herncastle will regret having stolen the diamond.
The First Period is narrated by Gabriel Betteredge, the House-Steward at Julia, Lady Verinder's estate. The date is May 22, 1850, and Franklin Blake, Lady Verinder's nephew, has just asked Betteredge to narrate the events surrounding the loss of the Indian Diamond at Lady Verinder's Yorkshire house in 1848. The narrative is to serve as a record of the facts, to clear the characters of innocent people who have been suspected in the theft. Blake has enlisted the people connected with the Diamond to narrate the events "in turn—as far as our own personal experience extends, and no farther."
Betteredge agrees to write the narrative. Before he begins he has been consulting Robinson Crusoe for prophecy and guidance. For many years, Betteredge has always consulted the novel in times of need. The novel now warns of the folly of beginning a task without knowing how difficult it will be. Betteredge worries about the difficulty of remembering and narrating all of the events surrounding the Moonstone and its theft.
Betteredge lovingly describes Lady Verinder, who was formerly Miss Herncastle, the youngest of three sisters. Betteredge first went into service as a pageboy to Lady Verinder's father. When Lady Verinder married the late Sir John Verinder, Betteredge went with them to serve as bailiff to the contented couple.
Betteredge married the woman who kept house for him, Selina Gomby, not because he loved her, but because it was cheaper to marry her than continue to employ her. Their marriage was not especially happy, and Selina died after five years, leaving Betteredge with a daughter, Penelope. Around this time, Sir John Verinder died, and Penelope was raised in the house with Lady Verinder's daughter, Rachel. As Betteredge became older, Lady Verinder eventually asked him to become House-Steward, the post that he currently holds.
As Betteredge writes this history, his daughter Penelope, now a teenager, reads over his shoulder and advises him that he should get on with telling of the diamond, not himself. Betteredge asks for the reader's forgiveness and begins his narrative a third time.
Penelope suggests to Betteredge that he explain events day by day and offers to refresh his memory by consulting her diary from the time period of the diamond theft. Betteredge begins on Wednesday, May 24, 1848.
On that morning, Lady Verinder tells him that Franklin Blake will come the next day to celebrate Miss Rachel's birthday. Betteredge remembers Blake fondly, though he has not seen him since he was a child, because Blake had been sent by his father to be educated in Europe.
The day of Franklin's arrival, Betteredge encounters three Indians and an English boy on the front terrace of the house. The Indians ask to give a performance, but Betteredge orders them off the property. Soon, Penelope runs up to Betteredge insisting that the Indians are dangerous. She has seen them on their way out, consulting a pool of black liquid held in the English boy's hand. She overheard them asking the entranced boy to prophesize about "the English gentleman from foreign parts" and the time of his arrival at the house. They asked the boy if the gentleman has got "It" about him. Betteredge dismissed this strange behavior as a rehearsal of their "hocus-pocus" performance. Penelope insists that Betteredge ask Franklin Blake what the talk of the Indians might mean.
Betteredge explains that he did later ask Franklin about this (as will be related soon), and Franklin treated the news of the Indians as no joking matter, and assumed that "It" referred to the Moonstone.
The prologue of The Moonstone prepares us for both the historical background of the novel and the narrative technique. The setting of the opening and closing of the novel is India—the prologue is specifically about events on Indian soil, as well as being itself "written in India." Though the novel will follow the theft of the diamond from a household in England, the prologue reminds us that the diamond was stolen first and foremost from Indians by an Englishman. The Battle of Seringapatam is an actual historical event in the British occupation of India. The battle is significant because it reinforced the predominance of the East India Company at the time and, subsequently, British sovereignty in India throughout the nineteenth century when Wilkie Collins was writing. The Prologue is unequivocal about the unethical quality of John Herncastle's violent acts and theft of a spiritually significant object, and this can be read, by extension, as a condemnation of British treatment of occupied India.
Both the prologue and the opening chapters of the novel call attention to themselves as written documents. The Moonstone has no single narrator, and no omniscient, third-person narration that can reveal everyone's thoughts. Instead, the novel consists of over a dozen individual testimonies written by various characters involved with the diamond or the Verinder family. These characters, in turn, rely on other written documents that are often reproduced within the narrative (though some are not reproduced, as is the case with Penelope's diary). Franklin Blake, nephew to Lady Verinder, serves as the "editor" of the various testimonies and the force behind the project of taking them all down in writing. Blake suggests "we should all write the story of the Moonstone in turn—as far as our own personal experience extends and no farther." This technique of narration is well suited to the genre of detective fiction, whereby more and more information is gathered through various witnesses, and all cannot be revealed to us at once.
The opening of Betteredge's narration, with its twists and turns and constant apologies for slowness or forgetfulness, calls attention on one level to the mediation of "real" events through individual interpretation. On another level, the narration gestures toward the real difficulty of piecing together a complex novel. Yet as far as setting up a complex novel, these opening chapters—which were, along with the prologue, the first serial installment—efficiently introduce the main characters of the novel. Betteredge is a good opening narrator, since he is presented as simple enough to be believable and his servant status renders him slightly disinterested, yet with enough access to the house and institutional memory of the family to have knowledge of events that are useful to the case. Finally, Betteredge is presented as naturally skeptical or bewildered about supernatural events as we see from his wonder at the "prophetic" powers of Robinson Crusoe or his dismissal of Penelope's conclusions about the three Indians. This quality of Betteredge's allows Collins to acknowledge the exotic or unbelievable parts of the story while disarming skeptical readers.