“Dreams, magic, terrors of mighty power
Witches and ghosts who roam at midnight hour.”
Matthew Lewis’ enduring legacy is with this sensational 1796 Gothic horror novel, set in direct opposition as the male Gothic to Ann Radcliffe’s (nearly) contemporaneous female Gothic. While Radcliffe inaugurated a “brand” so successful Austen felt the need to parody it, Lewis never quite achieved the same success twice, and until Poe, I would argue, there was no one to really receive the torch that he passed on. I’d read a bit of The Monk before and expected it to be similar to Melmoth the Wanderer—interesting enough, taken in small doses, but incomprehensible when taken as a rambling whole. I’m surprised to say that I loved The Monk. It was full of excess of every kind, and though not constructed with the same economy of form, witty writing, and attention to a single philosophical ideal as The Picture of Dorian Grey, I feel justified in comparing the pleasure I derive from one to that derived from the other.
Lewis knew that the devil’s in the details and, like Frankenstein, The Monk owes some debt to Paradise Lost (and no doubt many other works). Lewis was berated for creating a novel many saw as encouraging vice, for, in Blake’s famous words about Milton, taking the Devil’s part. If you read the novel on a purely literal level, you can throw those criticisms out the window: the evil Monk and his accomplices are given their just desserts at the end of the story, proving that crime does pay. However, perhaps what the more sophisticated critics were objecting to was the gleeful way Lewis depicted his sinners, making them ten times more interesting than his saints. Lewis was only 19 when he completed his book, and sometimes the prurient, violent imagination of a 19-year-old (pre-video games and sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll) wallows in spectacle, salaciousness, and gore for their own sakes. Despite this, I think this is quite an impressive achievement for his age, and deserving of a lot more attention that it gets.
Lewis inherits from Walpole a Renaissance Catholic setting of Madrid, which no doubt these Protestant Englishmen saw as credulous, superstitious, and, besides, more earthy—a prime spot to displace all of their own anxieties! The story begins with saintly abbot Ambrosio, a 30-year-old orphan whose virtue is matched only by his eloquence (and, we assume, his smokin’ hot good looks). However, it is suggested by Lewis that the seed of Ambrosio’s downfall is his pride which is manifest from the beginning—is he therefore predestined for a fall, à la Satan? Or is this simply a masked criticism on all self-righteous men, whether they be Catholic or not? Ambrosio’s path crosses with that of Agnes, a reluctant (and pregnant) nun and protagonist of strand 2 of this novel, and this incident, too, suggests that Ambrosio’s evil was merely dormant, given he refuses mercy to this unfortunate girl. So far, so good: Lewis seems to be saying that virtue is meaningless if not tempered by modesty and compassion.
Enter Matilda. After the insipid female characters I’ve experienced in The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein, Matilda comes as a welcome (if sinful) relief. Given what we find out by the end of the novel, you can argue Matilda’s character is all calculation and insincerity, but I prefer to believe Ambrosio’s demon at the end was lying to him. I’d like to believe that Matilda is a passionate, selfish and sensuous woman who enjoys playing long games—in short, a very rare commodity in literature up to that point and by far the most interesting character in The Monk. Matilda is in (erotic) love with Ambrosio, and in order to get close to him (merely for observational purposes) she disguises herself as a novice in the monastery. She succeeds, Ambrosio becoming her best friend. Imagine the uninitiated Monk’s surprise when Matilda reveals her gender and her love. Ambrosio is horrified yet titillated. Matilda wants to remain as she is, an unconsummated lover and best friend in a platonic fashion, but Ambrosio is determined to expose her. Then she threatens suicide.
As She uttered these last words, She lifted her arm and made a motion as if to stab herself. The Friar’s eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half-exposed. The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast! The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb. A sensation til then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight: A raging fire shot through every limb; the blood boiled in his veins, and a thousand wild wishes bewildered his imagination.
Pretty passionate stuff for the 18th century? Certainly, although it has the touch of a teenager’s lust. Is it histrionic and full of excess? Of course. Yet I can’t help be sucked into the drama. Ambrosio succumbs, by the way, and has his first sexual encounter with Matilda. Ambrosio is prevented from reacting in a predictable fashion after his lust is sated by Matilda falling ill (it is not explained how the doctor does not realize her gender). She reveals that she sucked poison out of a snakebite of Ambrosio’s to save his life and in so doing, has caused her own death. The choice is for Matilda to die “virtuous” or for her life to be saved by a pact with a demon. As you can imagine, the now-infatuated Ambrosio chooses the latter.
After this sensational series of events, we follow strand 2 of the story, which, though an adventure story, is much more mundane and concerned with similar themes to Castle of Otranto (which the whiff of scandal provided by Agnes’ pregnancy, as related above). In following the exploits of two Spanish noblemen, we veer toward Melmoth the Wanderer’s territory as well as the requisite banditti required in all 18th century Gothic fiction (no, really). Despite the seeming short shrift I give it here, it is mildly entertaining, particularly the story of the Bleeding Nun. (Two lovers are unconventional enough to pose as ghosts in order to elope, but the tables are turned when the man accidentally elopes with the real spirit of the Bleeding Nun. They also encounter in passing the Wandering Jew who, disappointingly, never returns to the novel.) There are even a smattering of interesting female characters, some silly and some strong, and a prototype for Matilda, Beatrice de las Cisternas.
When we return to the narrative of the Monk, we are swept back into Ambrosio’s downfall. Eventually he experiences too much of a good thing; ie, he tires of Matilda. Unfortunately, he can’t stick to monogamy and eventually lusts over Antonia, a saintly girl whom Lewis consciously makes as simple and stupid as possible. Like the corruption of virtue at the heart of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Ambrosio’s attempted seduction of Antonia has a sort of car-wreck potency, so you cannot help but be fascinated by his efforts. They are all in vain, however, until Matilda offers to secure him supernatural help. In one of The Monk’s most arresting scenes, Ambrosio is coerced into accepting demonic help by voyeuristic lust. Various events intervene to thwart Ambrosio until he is forced to give up his soul to evil in order to rape a drugged Antonia in a charnel-house, after which she immediately expires. Meanwhile, incredibly wrought stuff has been happening within strand 2 which has echoes of the French Revolution. For devout Catholic readers, however, I can see the scale of acceptability has been tipped as an enraged mob tears nuns (some of them corrupt, some not) to pieces and sets a convent on fire (!).
If Matilda is revealed to be a sorceress, she always maintains a stereotypically masculine superiority over Ambrosio, who cowers throughout the novel. I love the way Lewis alludes to the frailty of human nature through Ambrosio, who blames everyone but himself for his downfall, and even to the end wants to preserve his appearance of virtue, even if he knows he has long since ceased to be virtuous. Ambrosio’s total lack of courage manifests ultimately in his relinquishing of his hope of redemption in the afterlife by signing his soul away, quite literally, to Satan. The demons have been interested in Ambrosio’s soul for a long time, and even though puerile Antonia suffered a terrible death, she at least is guaranteed heaven. Meanwhile, the strand 2 characters achieve a happy ending by courage and suffering and, amazingly, despite Agnes’ conceiving a child out of wedlock and then losing it due to be imprisoned by nuns in the catacombs (!), she and her paramour end up together.
By the time he had written The Monk, Lewis had visited the Hague and Weimar, so although not born of direct observation, his Madrid rings a bit more truly than other Gothic writers’ Catholic countries. So, too, are there within The Monk glimpses of personal experience which do not always reflect well on the author:
‘. . . you will even pardon me when I acknowledge, that in an unguarded moment the honour of Agnes was sacrificed to my passion.’Lorenzo’s eyes sparkled with fury: A deep crimson spread itself over his face. He started from his seat, and attempted to draw his sword. The Marquis was aware of his movement, and caught his hand. He pressed it affectionately.‘My friend! My Brother! Hear me to the conclusion!’
Lewis subtitles The Monk “A Romance,” and though this is a fair description up to a point, it is also a rollicking, baroque, sensuous tale of damnation and descent.