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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Filed under Primary literature (novels)

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