Posted by: Mish | July 20, 2009

the Black Robe

Winterfield: “I respect still more my own liberty as a free Christian.”
Benwell: “Perhaps a free thinker, Mr. Winterfield?”
Winterfield: “Anything you like to call it, Father Benwell, so long as it is free.”

In the Black Robe, Father Benwell divides a couple and conquers the impressionable husband so that the Church may reclaim land Lewis Romayne had inherited. Being the intellectual writer that he was, Wilkie Collins adds depth to the straightforward plot through psychology, deceit, power struggles, and relationships. The novel is full of Victorian England’s religious views and biases and Collins’s usual social commentary about domestic issues and the plight of women.

“The Catholic system here showed to perfection its masterly knowledge of the weakness of human nature, and its inexhaustible dexterity in adapting the means to the end.”

The differences between Father Benwell and Arthur Penrose are like night and day. When Penrose tells his superior that he doesn’t like concealing his Catholicism and priesthood, Benwell tells him he has dispensation that absolves him of the responsibility. He then assigns Penrose with the undercover task of converting Romayne so that the land which was confiscated during Henry VIII’s reign may be “lawfully” returned to the Church. Benwell later reports that:

“The zeal with which this young man has undertaken the work of conversion entrusted to him has, I regret to say, not been fired by devotion to the interests of the Church, but by a dog-like affection for Romayne. Without waiting for my permission, Penrose has revealed himself in his true character as a priest. And, more than this, he has not only refused to observe the proceedings of Romayne and Miss Eyrecourt- he has deliberately closed his ears to the confidence which Romayne wished to repose in him, on the ground that I might have ordered him to repeat that confidence to me. To what use can we put this poor fellow’s ungovernable sense of honor and gratitude? Under present circumstances, he is clearly of little use to us.”

Although religious prejudices abound in the Black Robe, it’s through the portrayal of the Church’s spiritual aristocracy, its priests, and characters’ comments, Victorian England’s anti-Catholicism sentiments are crystal clear. Penrose entreats Romayne to remain a Protestant if he still has objections or doubts to becoming a Catholic. Romayne later says that if Jesuit priests were honest and had integrity like Penrose, he would easily be converted. The opinionated Mrs. Eyrecourt calls her son-in-law a “weak, superstitious, conceited, fanatical fool” and says:

“The audacity of these Papists is really beyond belief. You remember how they made Bishops and Archbishops here, in flat defiance of our laws? Father Benwell follows that example.”

She also refers to Father Benwell as Judas Iscariot and tells him she wished he were a Jew because:

“Learned persons have told me that it is the peculiarity of the Jews- may I say, the amiable peculiarity?- never to make converts. It would be so nice if you would take a leaf out of their book, when we have the happiness of receiving you here. My lively imagination pictures you in a double character. Father Benwell everywhere else; and- say, the patriarch Abraham at Ten Acres Lodge”.

Father Benwell describes Miss Eyrecourt as “a Protestant, with all the prejudices incident to that way of thinking”. The hypocritical priest, who can be seen as a reflection of the Church, also says, “There is something quite revolting to me in a deceitful woman”. Romayne reprimands his wife and tells her to be more tolerant of other forms of Christianity.

Upset that Romayne and her daughter marry with only five people in attendance, Mrs. Eyrecourt insists on making it right with Society by throwing a proper wedding celebration that includes a long list of guests, a ball with a small orchestra, a feast fit for kings, and decorating of the estate. “Among the social entertainments of the time, general curiosity was excited, in the little sphere which absurdly describes itself under the big name of Society” when instead of a grand ball with a fine food, Lady Loring hosted a more casual Sandwich Dance. It was a “bold protest against late hours and heavy midnight meals”.

Written in 1881, the Black Robe differs in structure and style than Collins’s earlier, acclaimed classics the Woman in White and the Moonstone. If starting the Black Robe thinking it’ll be a suspenseful mystery, one will be disappointed. Letters, diary entries, and third person narrations are used to coherently tie the epistolary novel together.

Due to its content and style, I think the Black Robe is something readers either like or loathe. It started off a tad slowly before gaining steady momentum, but I “had” to finish the last hundred pages or so in one sitting. At times it was difficult to put down. I found this well-written and rather informative novel more interesting because of it’s portrayal of the religious views and biases. Other commentary about Victorian society has, for me, gotten repetitive. Surprisingly, a brief reference is made to Mr. Murthwaite, a traveler of India from the Moonstone. I’ve come to really like the writing of Collins, whose novels are so far three for three. Should one be wondering if I’ll read more by him, I already have A Rogue’s Life and Man and Wife in the queue for later on down the road.

Quotes:

  • “Movement, perpetual movement, is a law of Nature.”
  • “ART has its trials as well as its triumphs. It is powerless to assert itself against the sordid interests of everyday life. The greatest book ever written, the finest picture ever painted, appeals in vain to minds preoccupied by selfish and secret cares.”
  • “A frivolous person is, in the vast majority of cases, a person easily persuaded to talk, and not disposed to be reticent in keeping secrets.”
  • “It is one of the defects of a super-subtle intellect to trust too implicitly to calculation, and to leave nothing to chance.”
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