The Black Robe (Collins)

The Black Robe - Wilkie Collins

I found this story of a nerve-stricken man and his shattered marriage to be less entertaining than Collins' usual, mainly because it relies on an uncomfortable strain of anti-Catholicism - and associated mercenary motives - for its villain, Father Benwell, who is just about as stereotypical a Jesuit schemer as you could find in any of Mrs. Radcliffe's Gothic romances. Collins makes an attempt to introduce some supernatural or apparently supernatural occurrences into the mental/emotional breakdown of his protagonist, Romayne - aptly named, since he becomes an avid Catholic convert and priest, to the point of abandoning his pregnant wife Stella - but the haunting voices in the lonely old house aren't very enthusiastically portrayed, and Collins doesn't seem to be terribly interested in convincing us of either a plausible or a supernatural explanation for them. The associated story of the mentally ill younger brother of a victim of Romayne (in a duel) has possibilities, but we never really get to know him, nor to understand the massive coincidence of his being the unwitting transmitter of some important documents.


There are a couple of sympathetic characters, one being Stella, Romayne's wife, and the other a Jesuit enthusiast (but with a moral compass) named Penrose, who is packed off on some dangerous adventures in the New World. And, of course, there is one Winterfield, who is a noble but (while Romayne lives) hopeless alternate suitor for Stella, who wooed her under the impression his first wife was dead, was forced to leave Stella at the altar when that first wife resurfaced, and of course has the most terrible trouble re-establishing his claim thereafter. But, sympathetic or no, I just found myself a little bit detached from all of them, probably because they all seemed far too easily duped by Father Benwell and his endless lies and sophistries directed at retrieving Romayne's estate for the Church. There is, of course, a happy ending of sorts, brought about by a little boy throwing things in a fire (at his expiring Father's urging).


It wasn't bad, but Collins can do better than this.