Wilkie Collins is a second-tier writer. Nothing wrong with that — I’ve gotten hours of entertainment from The Moonstone and The Woman in White. Just that a third reading of his novels probably wouldn’t net you much more than you’d gotten out of them the first time around. And The Black Robe, it must be said, is second-tier Wilkie Collins. Which is to say that much as I enjoyed it, I doubt it will deserve revisiting.
But, oh, what a wild ride it was! I downloaded it blindly from Eucalyptus, hoping that the title promised evil Jesuits, and lo, evil Jesuits abounded! Lurking, skulking, disguised as laymen, scheming for gain, reading other people’s mail, reporting back to Rome, breaking up a marriage…. Collins was perfectly serious, but with the faintest push, a film version would be high camp. One scene toward the end, which takes place in a Roman church at night, doesn’t even need to be pushed. (Those Catholics…. so emotional!)
There is too much in the book, and the pacing bogs down. It begins with a high-strung, rich and well-born Englishman, Lewis Romayne, getting involved in a duel in France and killing his opponent, an incident that sets his mental balance awry. This is familiar Collins: atmospheric, puzzling, tense. You settle down to his oblique way of conveying information and try to keep track of what’s going to be important. But it turns out that this business (which includes a mysterious voice that only Romanye can hear) is merely the preface to the dastardly Jesuit plot to reclaim Romayne’s property of Vange Abbey, which was originally a Jesuit foundation.
There is a beautiful young lady who falls in love with Romayne at first sight. She has a Past. There is a noble young Jesuit who allows his humanity to come between him and the Church. There is a circus-rider. She dies. Collins unwisely allows the mysterious voice to fade away and we’re left with the preoccupation of so many English novels of the era: a will.
In fact the enduring mystery turns out to be what Collins had against Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular. This is a late novel for him (1881) and I’m not aware of any particular Jesuit threat to English stability and well-being at the time. What seems to have annoyed Collins the most is the self-control and what we would call “forward-thinking” strategy of the bad guy, Father Benwell (note ironic name). Yet he also disapproves of the characters who “give in” to their emotions. And there’s one poor fellow who is only allowed to be emotionally unbuttoned in the presence of his dog. Henry James manages his characters better than that.