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The Black Robe
By Wilkie Collins

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The Black Robe

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The Black Robe
By Wilkie Collins
Charnwood Large Print Library Series
Thorpe Publishing, (2001)
ISBN: 0-7089-9212-9
Genre: Classics, Suspense

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - October 11, 2001

Unfortunately, many people confine their reading of Wilkie Collins works to his most famous novels such as The Moonstone and The Lady in White. By limiting themselves to these outstanding mysteries, they are seeing only one side of Collins' literary skills. Without doubt, Collins' was an excellent storyteller. In The Black Robe he proves that he is more than just a teller of mysteries, he can also weave complicated, suspenseful plots in other genres.

The Black Robe is a difficult story to classify. It is a classic story of suspense interwoven with tales of love and avarice. It also contains religious elements that could make one classify it as religious drama, or, just as easily, as a romance novel. Some may also deem it to be a thinly disguised anti-Catholic treatise. It can even be classified as a psychological drama. No matter how you choose to classify this story, one thing is sure, it was and will remain, a classic work of Victorian Literature. For those interested in Collins' background, this book contains a Biographical Introduction that describes the highlights of Collins' life and delineates his literary career.

The main character in The Black Robe is Lewis Romanyne, a young, wealthy man. Romanyne is a unique young man. He is a scholar bent upon making a name for himself by writing a massive tome to be entitled, The Origin of Religions. To this end he spends all his time in study, much to the detriment of his health. But Romanyne's life of solitude is about to be disturbed, both by events in his own life, and by events outside his control. Unbeknownst to Romanyne, he is about to become the central figure in a struggle of cosmic proportions as a beautiful woman and a Jesuit priest vie for his soul.

Romanyne happens to be the master of Vange Abbey, an estate in Yorkshire that once belonged to the Catholic Church. However, it had been confiscated by Henry the 8th, and the property given to the Romanyne family. This fact has come to the attention of Father Ambrose Benwell, a Jesuit priest who is determined to regain the property for the Catholic Church. To do this, he charges Arthur Penrose, a fellow priest, to convert Romanyne to Catholicism so that they can use his conversion to persuade him to turn the property over to the church.

Father Benwell's ambitions might have been easily obtained save for Stella Eyrecourt. Stella is a young woman with a dark secret in her past. From the moment she first saw Romanyne she was determined to marry him. Together, Stella and Father Benwell wrestle over the fate of Romanyne's soul, and his ultimate happiness. In most circumstances this story would have seemed ridiculous. After all, why would a young man of Romanyne's intelligence be so malleable, to be pulled back and forth between the two opposing forces like a puppet on a string? The reason is made clear at the beginning of the book. Romanyne, being a gentleman, had been forced to engage in a dual that ended tragically. Not being conversant with weapons, Romanyne was surprised and horrified when it turned out that he had killed the young man he was shooting against. Worse, the young man's younger brother was a witness to the slaughter and yelled out "Assassin! Assassin! where are you?". In his remorse, Romanyne was unable to get these terrible words out of his mind. These words tormented him both day and night, weaking him both mentally and spiritually. His only hope was to find something, or someone, who could help him forget. Stella and the Church both held out the hope of relief.

This is an intriguing novel peopled by a host of rich characters, including Major John Philip Hynd, "...a retired army officer, with a wretched income, a disagreeable wife, four ugly children..." Two other compelling characters are Arthur Penrose and Bernard Winterfield, a young man who Stella had met when she was younger. Both men are idealistic, but unbelievably good natured and each, in his own manner, is the epitome of honor and unselfishness Unlike other characters in the story, these two men are able to sublimate their own interests for the betterment of others. Although secondary characters, these two men will remain in my mind long after Stella, Romanyne, and Father Benwell have fades into the mists of time.

In short, the The Black Robe is a timeless novel. Its moral message, and its literary quality, makes it accessible to readers from any time period and any cultural background. The characterizations are naturalistic and the story so well wrought that it will intrigue even those readers that normally don't 'like' Victorian fiction. Collins' even manages to get a plug in for Mr. Murthwaite, a man made famous for his role in The Moonstone.

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