Monthly Archives: June 2013

Nationalism in “The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight”

I, unfortunately, do not know much about the unification of Italy or the revolutions of the 1850s and 60s. But they must have interested Braddon, since this narrative is structured around two secret societies–one in England and one in Italy. I think the contrasts between these societies are noteworthy, and I’d like to think more about the political debates they engage.

First, of all, the Black Band is an organized crime ring. Its purpose is distinctly capitalistic, and its organization is strictly hierarchical. Colonel Oscar Bertrand, as the Grand Master, is at the top, and the rest of the members commit crimes that fit their rank (for example, the Marquis of Willoughby commits political espionage, while Joshua Slythe encounters lower-class criminals who do the dirty work of breaking into houses). The Mountaineers, on the other hand, are an underground political organization, and have a slightly more egalitarian model of organization. They all refer to each other as “brothers,” for example, and five “chiefs” share the leadership function.

However, they are an all-male organization; as the Marquis de Montebello tells Lady Edith, “Nay, dearest, […] the oaths that we take are too fearful to be spoken by such lips as thine. The task we have to accomplish involves death and danger. It is not for woman even to know of our struggles, much less to share them” (543). In the context of the larger novel, this is actually a pretty funny moment. Although the Marquis does not know this, Lady Edith knows much more about death and danger than he does (or at least as much). In fact, Braddon makes sure to include a chapter (an easily-forgotten chapter, perhaps) that credits a woman for the creation of the Black Band. Although Oscar Bertrand is the face of the Black Band for most of the novel, Rosine Rousel is actually the “accomplished trickster and cheat, who found a dupe and a tool in a young man of noble birth, and who taught him to become guilty as herself […] who guided the young officer’s hand in his first forgery […] who planned the first slender elements of that association which now overruns Europe with its depredations” (264, my italics). The Black Band was founded by a woman and continues to employ women as high-ranking criminals throughout the novel. And despite all the attention the narrative gives to Oscar Bertrand’s dark deeds, Rosine Rousel is probably the novel’s most formidable character. I mean, look at the novel’s very las lines:

We have followed the innocent and the guilty alike impartially through the intricate labyrinth of life. We have seen the innocent for a time oppressed–the guilty for a time triumphant; but we have also seen that the wondrous balance of good and evil will infallibly adjust itself in the end; and that a dire and unlooked for vengeance will alight upon the heads of those who defy the Power which rules this marvellous universe, or laugh to scorn the just and merciful laws of an All-Wise Providence. (607)

The wondrous balance of good an evil will infallibly adjust itself in the end?! Really? Well, Oscar Bertrand certainly gets his comeuppance, as does Lady Edith. But what about Rosine Rousel–the ostensible founder of the Black Band? She gets away with a small fortune in jewels and is never heard from again. Perhaps this is a common case of a baggy novel losing one of its needles in a haystack of characters…. or perhaps this is a powerfully dangerous female character who is allowed to outsmart the narrative in exchange for her discretion. The female elements of the Black Band are definitely interesting….

Perhaps this female element is why the Black Band is less bloody than the Mountaineers. The political ideals of the Mountaineers are definitely noble, and the characters associated with the Mountaineers are generally portrayed sympathetically. But in a key scene at the Rock of Terror, where the Mountaineers turn an Austrian trap back on the Austrians, Braddon’s narrator seems to chastise their bloodlust. While “Black Carlo” of the Mountaineers glories in the severed heads of his Austrian enemies, Braddon’s narrator says:

This ignorant man naturally forgot that the murdered soldiers were innocent of the wrongs of ill-used Italy. They only did the bidding of their master, and must have sacrificed their lives had they refused to do that bidding. It is thus that the puppets often suffer for the sins of him who pulls the strings. (559)

In stark contrast, the Black Band try to avoid all “unnecessary” killing. Colonel Bertrand explains it this way:

“Do you think these hands are ever stained, directly or indirectly, with unnecessary blood? It is only your vulgar villain who wades to the accomplishment of his purpose through the horrible ways of gore and guilt. No; death is but the last fatal instrument of the accomplished criminal. I have little need to deal with the poison chalice or the knife. A word, a look, and the creature who stands in my pathway is removed for ever, to drag out life in some dim obscurity; to lose his own identity; to disappear from the ranks of his fellow kind; so that his own brother, meeting him in the street, shall pass him by with a shudder of loathing; but still to live!” (266)

This is an odd speech, since Oscar Bertrand definitely kills the first Marquis of Willoughby in a duel, and he indirectly tries to poison Robert Merton (through Lady Edith), so clearly he’s not super-committed to avoiding gore and guilt. It’s probably a convenient speech that allows Braddon to keep the heir of Clavering alive… but I think it says something interesting about the ethos of the Black Band, as opposed to the Mountaineers. This speech at least tries to construct an ethos of “civilization” that the British would probably want to associate with their self-identity (however unjustifiably). The Mountaineers, of course, are bloodthirsty Italians (at least the “brigand” contingent of their ranks…), so the narrative tries to stain their hands, at least a little, with “unnecessary” blood.

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“The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight,” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Like lots of Victorian novels, this one is huge, has lots of characters, and an intricate plot… and since I’d like to write about it, I need to keep the characters straight. Where do I even start? I just finished it last night, and I’m already forgetting people’s names…. Here goes:

Colonel Oscar Bertrand: The Grand Master of the Black Band, which is a secret society of organized crime. He’s Austrian, he’s trying to squelch the Italian rebellion, while also stealing everything from wills to wives to money from people back in merry old England. He marries Ellen Clavering, the daughter of one of his “slaves.” She has a huge fortune that nobody knows about, so when she has a son, he packs the new heir off somewhere, tells her he’s dead, and then tries to kill her too. Eventually, he messes with the wrong Italians (another secret society named the Mountaineers who are agitating for freedom) and is tricked into drinking poison that looks like wine. It turns him into an idiot and slowly and painfully eats away at his brain. He is left wandering the hills of Italy until he dies.

The Beaumorris Family:

  • Frederick Beaumorris: The oldest son of a rich family. Well, his uncle was rich, at any rate, and planned to leave his wealth to Frederick’s younger brother, Arthur, rather than to Frederick, as the eldest. So, Frederick forges a new will that gives him the inheritance. From there, he moves on to a life of crime and debauchery. He seduces the daughter (Ida Cleveland) of a man he ruins and subjects her to a sham marriage. When she finds out the truth, she briefly goes mad; when she regains her reason, she flees back to England with (of course) her baby, and dies in the streets. The baby, Rose, gets found and raised by Robert Merton’s old clerk, who loves her like a grandfather. Frederick eventually tries to seduce his niece, Clara (not knowing who she is). He is foiled by Oscar Bertrand, who saves him from incest only to blackmail him to join the Black Band. (If he doesn’t, Bertrand will reveal the forgery upon which his fortune rests). Eventually, Robert Merton falls in love with Rose, finds out the secret of her unknown history, tracks down Squire Cleveland (Rose’s grandfather) and Frederick Beaumorris (Rose’s father). Cleveland challenges Beaumorris to a duel for seducing his daughter, Ida. Beaumorris puts off the duel long enough to meet Rose, whose beauty and innocence purify his heart (of course). Then, at the duel, he kills himself and leaves his fortune to Rose. Of course, Rose does the right thing and gives the entire fortune to Clara and Arthur, to whom (as she discovers) it rightfully belongs.
  • Arthur Beaumorris: We meet him as Jasper Melville, a penniless gentleman who is living off of his daughter’s talent as a ballerina. He’s a broken man, but he loves his three children, and they are devoted to him. After his oldest, Clara, is kidnapped by Frederick Beaumorris (who doesn’t know he’s her uncle), he receives forged letters that make it look like Clara ran off with Frederick. He believes them, and when Clara escapes from her French prison and makes the trek back to England, she discovers that her father has disowned and abandoned her. He travels to a friend in the north, gets kidnapped by the Beaumorris forgery cover-up crew, and stashed in a madhouse. He’s in the madhouse for almost a year, gets rescued through the efforts of his daughter, via the detective Joshua Slythe, but is too weak to remember anything. Eventually he recovers, loves his daughter again, and waits around in his sickbed for the rest of the plot to work itself out.
  • Clara Beumorris: We first meet her as Clara Melville, a ballerina and friend of the prima ballerina, Lolota Vizzini. Despite being a ballerina, Clara is a virtuous gal, and rebuffs the constant flirting of Frederick Beaumorris (who doesn’t know he’s her uncle–I love writing that sentence, hahaha). A stand-up gentleman named Reginald Falkner helps her rebuff this flirting, and the two fall chastely in love. But when Sir Frederick kidnaps Clara, he sends forged love letters (from Clara to Frederick) to Falkner, who, like Clara’s father, believes the forgeries and breaks up with Clara. In the meantime, another stand-up guy, Antony Verner, falls in love with Clara. He’s a tragedian, and promises to restore Clara’s missing father, and her father’s missing fortune, if Clara will marry him. Although she doesn’t love him that way, Clara agrees, because, hey, he’s a great guy. Antony pretty much does everything he promises. He gets her father back, and her father gets his fortune back, although I think Rose Cleveland should get the credit for that one. Whatever, Clara gives Antony the credit and tells him she’s ready to marry him. Of course, Antony somehow magically knows about Reginald Falkner and writes to him to say that Clara has been wrongly accused of running off with her uncle. Reginald somehow magically believes Antony (how do they know each other?!), and Antony lets her out of the deal so that she can marry Reginald. What a great guy. Braddon lets him get married to some unspecified actress at the end.

The Willoughby/Merton Clusterfuck:

  • Lionel, Marquis of Willoughby: We meet him as the younger brother of the existing Marquis of Willoughby, who’s a great guy. So as the younger brother, Lionel’s not rich. But he loves a gold digger, so that’s a problem. He proposes to Lady Edith, who says she loves him, but can’t marry someone with no money. So he goes crying to his friend, Oscar Bertrand, who tells him to join the Black Band and he will get 1) his brother’s money and title, and 2) Lady Edith. Lionel joins the Black Band, and Bertrand orchestrates a situation in which Lionel brings his drunk brother to play cards with Bertrand, who cheats. The current Marquis accuses him of cheating, and since he’s drunk, challenges Bertrand to a duel. The Marquis loses, dies, and Lionel becomes the new Marquis. But he feels super guilty, and even when he eventually gets Lady Edith, he starts to hate her because she doesn’t feel guilty. As a member of the Black Band, he eventually moves to Venice with Lady Edith and becomes a secret agent in the Mountaineers, betrays them, and then feels even more guilty and flees from the Black Band and Lady Edith. He’s in love with Lolota Vizzini, so he flees to Naples with her. Braddon allows him to escape, even though these Mountaineer folks seem to think that they capture ALL the traitors (what about Lionel, guys?!). By the time he’s safe in Naples, Bertrand is already an idiot and it’s the end of the book. He spends the rest of his life married to Lolota, happily atoning for the sins of his youth.
  • Lolota Vizzini: She’s a famous ballerina and a typical virtuous victim. She got married to a loser at a young age (not her fault–she had a drunk father, and this guy was the lesser of two evils). The loser is actually an Italian double agent (member of the Mountaineers, but reports their activities to the Black Band). He dies (I don’t remember how), leaving Lolota free to fall in love with Lionel. She helps Clara out a lot throughout the novel, especially by sending her money to get back to England after she escapes from the Beaumorris estate in France. During the Italy portion of the book, Lady Edith can tell that Lionel is in love with Lolota, so she vows revenge against them both. She betrays Lionel as a traitor to the Mountaineers (who he did, in fact, betray), but he escapes their single assassination attempt (wow, they give up quickly). She then sends her maid to intercept Lolota as she flees to Naples (where Lionel has arranged to meet her) and send her to a plague-stricken quarter of town. The maid (Rosine Rouel) does this, and Lolota gets a near-fatal fever. Lionel arrives just in time, finds her, and takes her to a mansion, where she is nursed back to health by nuns and world-class physicians. They live happily ever after.
  • Lady Edith Merton: She rejects Lionel because he doesn’t have money. Right before he can tell her that he has become a Marquis and inherited all of his brother’s wealth, she marries Robert Merton, the merchant prince. Merton is filthy rich, but he started out poor, so he’s a totally great guy. Oscar Bertrand has already agreed to get Edith for Lionel, so he visits Edith and tells her to murder her husband by poisoning his champagne. She tries that when his back is turned, but stupidly, she fails to notice that she’s in front of a huge mirror, so he sees the whole attempt. He declares her insane (because why else would you try to murder a super rich dude?) and sends her off to his castle in Scotland to be locked up and watched by mad nurses. She makes a very creative escape attempt, which almost succeeds, before Oscar Bertrand successfully breaks her out. From there, he reunites her with her supposed love, Lionel, and the two are sent to Venice as members of the Black Band. She, apparently, has no soul, so Lionel promptly falls out of love with her. But whatever, she tries to have him killed and then bigamously marries the Marquis de Montebello, a high-ranking official in the Mountaineers. Oscar Bertrand shows up to remind her that she’s still a member of the Black Band, and instructs her to get lots of secrets out of her husband. She does, but as she’s telling them to Bertrand, a member of the Mountaineers listens in the shadows and the plans of the Black Band are gruesomely foiled. Now the Mountaineers know that she’s a traitor, so they extract the Marquis de Montebello and take him to a safe place. Then they take Lady Edith to a place called the Rock of Terror and bury her alive. As she’s on the verge of death, some goatherds rescue her and take her to the inn where Lionel and Lolota happen to be staying after their wedding, and in her dying moment she sees that Lionel is alive and all her plans have been foiled.
  • Robert Merton: Braddon keeps referring to this guy as the “merchant prince,” and that phrase is now kind of a pet peeve for me. Who knows why. Living the American dream in England, this guy started out as a stock boy or something like that, and is now the richest man for miles around. He’s also an autodidact, a talented politician who fights for the rights of the poor, blah, blah, blah. He marries Lady Edith, who tries to kill him, and then realizes that maybe he should have gotten to know her a bit more…. In the second half of the novel, as Lady Edith is out of sight, out of mind, he falls in love with Rose Cleveland, the faux-granddaughter of his old clerk. She’s also super in love with him, and tearfully reads his political speeches to her grandfather every time she finds them in the paper. The clerk’s nephew is also super in love with Rose, but of course, Rose is actually a rich girl in disguise, so Robert Merton is a much more suitable match. The nephew kind of falls out of the picture, especially after Robert Merton helps discover all of the secrets of Rose’s past and restores her to her rightful place in the Cleveland estate. After he is 100% sure that Lady Edith is dead (he even goes to Italy to double-check), he marries Rose (no bigamy for this guy… how boring).

That’s all I can handle so far. But I think this covers the main points.

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