Wilkie Collins’s 1881 The Black Robe tells the story of the misadventures of Lewis Romayne in a novel which deals with depression, madness, a fatal duel, marital breakdown, capture by South American ‘natives’, ill-motivated religious conversion, bigamy and disinheritance. The somewhat mad premise is that scheming Jesuit Father Branwell is out to win back a monastery seized by Henry VIII from the Church and the novel is best-known for its anti-Catholic prejudice but there are many other reasons why this Collins novel is well worth reading.
For general readers: Romayne is a deeply egotistical and irritating protagonist and, while his wife Stella is realistic and rounded, if cultivating deep sympathies with characters is what’s most important to you, you may be a little disappointed. Father Branwell, on the other hand is a wonderful villain, worthy of comparison with Count Fosco in the much more widely-read The Woman in White (1859). We are acquainted with his plotting to such an extent, through the inclusion of his written correspondence, that we almost begin to sympathise with him, making for an interesting reading experience. At times the novel feels a little uneven, especially in its pacing and use of split narration - this is a novel which reads like it could have gone in several ways and not one in which Collins demonstrates the very best of his skill in multiple narration. But the moments of wonderfully human insight, Collins’s nuanced understanding of relationships and the sensational drama of some of the novel’s incidents more than make up for it.
For students: The Black Robe is obviously extremely useful in terms of understanding nineteenth-century suspicions of Catholicism but the text is perhaps most well-suited to an analysis of marriage. Henry VIII isn’t just the pretence for the plot centred on Romayne’s property but a model for the debates which follow on what constitutes a ‘true’ union. The novel sees the sensation novelist’s usual preoccupation with the legalities of marriage set alongside religious considerations (the first time I’ve seen this), while Collins also details a breakdown in communication between husband and wife in a way which recalls his The Law and the Lady (1875) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1871), giving a wonderful insight into the pressures of Victorian domesticity. There is also, as usual, much material here for students working on madness, along with a wedding day very similar to Jane and Rochester’s interrupted nuptials in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre.