The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk by Matthew Lewis, part 1

The Monk was published in 1796; some critics suspect that it was written, or at least started as early as 1792, during Lewis’s visit to the continent.  Several letters to his mother mention that he is working on a novel, and in a 1794 letter to her, he specifically mentions having written a novel in the style of The Castle of Otranto.  He must have revised his work, though, because it also contains nods to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which was published in 1794. Maclachlan writes in the introduction that despite initial favorable reviews, several reviews, especially the February 1797 article by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were somewhat less than complimentary (ix, x).  The Penguin Classic version I am reading is a reprint of the April 1796 version, which would have been the second edition, to which Lewis attached his name. Interestingly, there is a passage in Chapter V of Volume II in which the writer directly addresses the reader with an aside about book critics, “for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them…one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author.” (172-173)  It seems Lewis was a little tetchy about some of the reviews of his work.

The Monk is extremely melodramatic and there is much that will be laughable to a modern reader, indeed, one can easily see why Austen enjoyed lampooning the Gothic in Northanger Abbey. Although some critics have sought to credit Lewis with giving women agency, because of the copious and frequent consensual “relations” in The Monk, I would tend to put his depiction of women under the heading of wish fulfillment.  I mean how many women fall madly in love with a middle-aged priest with a God complex?  Or maybe I lead a sheltered life. Also, anyone who makes as many misogynistic asides, such as this gem from chapter 1, “As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so [hold her tongue], it was judged worthy to be recorded here,” (33) is not interested in portraying women as fully formed humans with the ability to choose their own paths.

Something else to notice about The Monk in relation to British Gothic literature and Northanger Abbey is the setting, which is Catholic Spain.  In Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820, one of Angela Wright’s main arguments is that British writers (and translators) of Gothic fiction had to walk a line between nascent British nationalism, especially in light of the French Revolution, and the standard ingredients in Gothic fiction, such as moody castles with Catholic priests and nuns, as well as an ample helping of the supernatural, which was usually somehow tied to Catholic mysticism. Walpole sidestepped this problem by giving his tale a fake backstory of translation from the Italian, but Lewis goes all in and writes somewhat condescendingly of Catholic rituals, beliefs, and clergy, make it obvious that he and his readers are above all that nonsense without overtly saying so. Interestingly, one of the pivotal moments in Austen’s Northanger Abbey is when Henry realizes what Catherine has supposed and says in chapter 24, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English…” Austen was as much aware of the settings of the Gothic as her fellow writers and she walked the line right along with them; she uses the expectations of the reader (and Catherine) to full effect by having Henry remind us of the difference between fantasy and reality, at least in the world of Northanger Abbey.

Lewis’s The Monk is written as a story within a frame story, a commonly used device at the time. In chapter 1 we meet Antonia and her Aunt Leonella (the comic relief) along with three cavaliers and Ambrosio, a priest famous for his piety. Chapter 2 goes into the story of Ambrosio and Rosario, who is really Matilda (that name keeps reappearing!) who has disguised herself as a young monk and is about to take her vows, when she unmasks herself to Ambrosio and declares her undying love for him.  During one of their meetings, Ambrosio is bitten by a viper and Matilda sucks the poison out in order to save him, thus dooming herself to die, but not before they do the dirty on the final page of the chapter. The most obvious thing to point out here is the symbolism of the viper in the garden, but in Lewis’s telling, it is the man who is attacked and the woman saves him by sacrificing herself. Interesting. Since Matilda is about to die, they consummate their love, but one wonders what Ambrosio will do when he realizes what he has done.  Stay tuned…

Chapter 3-5 switch to the story of Alphonso (really the Conde de las Cisternas) and Agnes, the sister of Lorenzo–these are 2 or our three cavaliers from chapter one, if you’re keeping up. There are a lot of twists and turns, banditti, disguises, apparently a favorite tool of Lewis’s, and chase scenes. Of course, Agnes and Cisternas are in love, but through a series of miscommunications, she ends up pregnant and in a nunnery, while Cisternas is searching everywhere for her.  He finds her, but not before Ambrosio discovers her secret and rats her out to the Mother Superior and she is tortured and dies. Meanwhile, Lorenzo is pursuing his own crush on Antonia from Chapter 1. We are now about halfway through. The main points to remember as related to Northanger Abbey are the frequent misunderstandings and coincidences that serve to move the plot along. The characters always circle back into the story, just as they do in Northanger Abbey.  We think we’ve seen the last of James Thorpe, but he turns out to be the cause of Catherine’s summary dismissal by General Tilney. We think that Ambrosio has fallen, but I suspect he will make a reappearance in the second half.

The Monk is a great example of what Austen found so humorous about Gothic novels.  It is over the top melodramatic. There are hidden identities, melancholy castles, abbeys, and churches, overwrought clergymen and horse chases galore.  We’ll see what happens to our cast of characters next time when I discuss the second half of The Monk.

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