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.

Book Discussion: Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

As fan fiction goes, Syrie James’s is some of the best.  I first read her Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen a few years back, and she also wrote The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  I lost track of her after that, so I was delighted to find a paperback copy of Dracula, My Love at Half Price Books. Now, let’s be clear, this is a fun, fairly quick read in which James fills in some of the gaps left by Bram Stoker and writes the whole thing from Mina’s point of view.  It is not attempting to provide literary heft, although James’s writing is solid. Mina was always my favorite character besides Quincy Morris. I mean he was a Texan, and he did represent pretty well. 🙂 He also gets to die a hero, so there’s that.

In James’s version, and I don’t think there are any spoilers here given the title, Mina and Dracula carry on a clandestine romance the whole time Van Helsing and the boys are trying to find and kill Dracula. If that seems like it might be a bridge too far, just  go with it. If you are a fan of Stoker’s book (I am) and if you enjoy decent fan fiction ( I sometimes do) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Mina comes off slightly unsympathetic, but maybe that’s just me. It is interesting to see how James’s Dracula explains all the vile deeds attributed to him by Van Helsing et al. Jonathan becomes a fuller character in James’s telling and the reader is rooting for him all the way to the twist at the end, which the astute reader will see coming a mile off.  That doesn’t make it less satisfying. If you are in the market for something fun with classic ties, give this one a try, I think you’ll like it.

Discussion Questions (in case your book club decides to read it):

  1. How does Dracula appeal to Mina at the beginning?  What do you think is missing at first in her relationship with Jonathan?
  2. Do you believe all of Mr. Wagner/Dracula’s explanations for events, why or why not?
  3. Do you think Mina’s backstory with her parents adds to the book, why or why not?
  4. If you had to get rid of one of the characters, which one would it be and why?
  5. Which decisions of Mina’s would you also have made, and which would you not have?  What about at the end, would you have chosen as Mina did? How do you think Dracula’s supernatural magnetism plays into the choices Mina makes?
  6. If you had eternal youth and life, what would you do?

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, he writes that Revolutionary era literature contained a great deal of satire. He further argues that, “Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending…audience…” (251). If we accept, as many Austen fans do, that Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic Romances, then in order to understand the full meaning of the satire, to get the jokes if you will, requires us to look at the stories and novels being satirized.  It is with this idea in mind that I have begun the Year of Reading Dangerously.

Jane Austen added a preface to Northanger Abbey, while preparing it for publication, in order to explain that because it had originally been finished in 1803, “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” (Emphasis mine.) Austen herself knew that to enjoy Northanger Abbey fully, it was important to understand the books and opinions (often about books) which were in vogue at the time it was originally written.

This year, I will be reading as many books referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible and writing about those reading adventures here.  I will also be reading and writing about other books, but my major project for this year is The Year of Reading Dangerously. I have started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Though this slim novel is not mentioned in the text of Northanger Abbey as many others are, it is considered to be the first British Gothic novel, having been published in 1764, at least 25 years before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form (Gamer in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Castle of Otranto). Interestingly, Austen uses the name Isabella for one of her main characters, and that same name is given to one of the heroines in Otranto. Other parallels include the use of a sinister castle, a mistress whom the owner of the castle is trying to be rid of, and a whole host of coincidences which serve to push the narrative along.

In Britain, France and the Gothic 1764-1820: the Import of Terror, Angela Wright lists Gothic tropes as “melancholia, oppressive feudal castles and dreams which foreshadow disastrous outcomes for their protagonists” (39). All of these are found in The Castle of Otranto. The action takes place in and around the titular castle, which contains underground passages, and various rooms which may be used to take refuge in or to hold people against their will. Almost all  the main characters and many of the secondary characters have dreams or supernatural visions, including Manfred, Hippolita, Isabella, Matilda, Father Jerome, and Frederic. The mood of the entire piece is melancholy. Dim passage ways, fog, a supernatural giant knight seeking vengeance, and worst of all, Manfred’s weirdly manic behavior. Once minute, he is grieving his dead son and the next, he’s trying to force his son’s betrothed into a quickie marriage (after he finds a way to have his marriage to the long-suffering Hippolita annulled, of course).

As noted in the introduction, modern readers will most likely find Otranto overwrought and slightly silly, but this in fact adds to the reader’s enjoyment of Northanger Abbey, as undoubtedly, Austen is poking a little fun at Otranto along with other Gothic fiction. In fact, General Tilney bears more than a passing resemblance to Manfred; he is handsome and respected, yet seems a little manic.  Also, just as Manfred oversteps the boundaries of good taste with his plot to marry Isabella and put away Hippolita after Conrad’s death, General Tilney’s designs on Catherine and his head-spinning banishment of her upon discovering her true social and economic standing are similar. Both Manfred and General Tilney are mercurial in their behavior and are trying to insure the continuance of their legacies into the future via nefarious means.

Should you decide to read The Castle of Otranto, here are a few discussion questions to consider:

  1. How do the coincidences move the plot along?  What would happen to the story if they were gone?
  2. Consider the actions of the three female leads.  How were Hippolita, Matilda, and Isabella acting as expected by women of their station?  How were they acting in opposition to expectations?
  3. Reviews of Otranto even from the beginning were mixed. If you were to review it today, what would be your recommendation to readers?
  4. What are some other comparisons between Otranto and Northanger Abbey?
  5. What other characters can you think of from literature who are similar to Manfred? Is he a hero, and anti-hero, a villian?  Why do you think so?

Book Discussion: Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover

My book club met this week and we had read Educated.  Although I found the book interesting and Westover an engaging writer, certain aspects of the book were disappointing.  First, it bears more than a passing resemblance to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This is not a reason not to read it, of course, but I wonder a couple of things.  

**How many memoirs by abused/neglected children of poverty in dysfunctional families do we need? This is not to minimize anyone’s suffering, nor to object to a light being shown on aspects of the American experience that need more attention. At what point do we become callused to the horrific stories of the children who managed to escape?

** As has been noticed before, America loves an underdog. We love to read/hear/watch the stories of people who made it against the odds, because it means that anything is possible for anyone in America.  It means that if you have the gumption/grit/intelligence, you, too, can succeed. However, we like to ignore the fact that those who manage to succeed are really outliers. There are plenty of smart, determined people who don’t make it.  They don’t have the lucky break, the mentor, the roommate/sibling/friend who helped them defeat the odds. It is true that the story arc would be more challenging and the ending less neat, but what if someone wrote a memoir about being one of the unlucky ones?  Would it even get published and if it did, would anyone read it?

**Then I saw this article in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/opinion/vance-westover-trump.html and I was more than a little insulted.  I live in rural America and I grow weary of East Coast Entitled Intellectual Elites lumping all of us in “flyover country” together as if we were one large basket of dummies.  If we would just be more like Tara and J. D., we would get a clue and our lives would be great. No worries about money, jobs, dying small towns, etc. Newsflash: it isn’t that simple.  Shocker: some of us are actually educated; we aren’t all rubes and survivalists. And some of us are REALLY tired of being condescended to. Life is complicated, and we didn’t all get the brass ring…but I digress. All of rural culture isn’t toxic, and by the way that word is totally overused.

Here are some discussion questions to think about if you or your book club are reading Educated.

  1. How much do you think is left out of the story?  Do you think there was physical abuse of Tara’s mother?  Why or why not?
  2. Why did the family continue to allow Shawn’s obvious abuse and violence? What would have been the price of  speaking up?
  3. When Tara’s father brings home the shearer, one of her brothers refuses to run it before Tara is ordered to do so.  Why did he feel able to refuse their father and Tara did not?
  4. Why do you think Tara was so reluctant to get help once she got to BYU? Why did her professor push her to apply for the program in Cambridge?
  5. Imagine an alternate ending to this story.  What would your alternate ending be?

The Year of Reading Dangerously Begins…

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For 2019, the theme of the Jane Austen Society of North America will be Northanger Abbey.  Since Northanger Abbey is a book largely concerned with reading, and especially a certain type of reading, I have decided to try to read as many of the Gothic and other novels mentioned or referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible, hence The Year of Reading Dangerously: in which I read the Gothic novels referenced in Northanger Abbey and live to tell the tale.

I began my quest by re-reading Northanger Abbey and I enjoyed it immensely. This time through, I found Catherine much more engaging and less silly.  Likewise, Henry grows in my estimation as an Austen hero. I quite like him and his sense of humor. I find his wit droll and I appreciate the fact that he is comfortable enough with his masculinity to discuss textiles authoritatively. Henry’s best asset is his sense of humor.  One of his gems is, “Promised so faithfully!–A faithful promise!–That puzzles me.–I have heard of a faithful performance. But a faithful promise–the fidelity of promising!” (p. 144 in the Oxford World’s Classic edition) I am not ashamed to admit to chuckling whilst reading. I am sure my husband thought I was going mad, but then again probably not.  I re-read Austen regularly and there are other books which have been known to bring up a laugh as well.

To help me on my journey, I have enlisted Angela Wright and her volume, entitled, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820: the import of terror. I must say that I find it slightly ironic that she has opted out of the Oxford comma in her title,which is published by Cambridge University Press.  Perhaps CUP doesn’t allow the Oxford comma? In any case, I am about halfway through and I am finding the essays insightful and helpful, especially as the first one is about Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto.  I am midway through The Castle of Otranto; I chose to read it first after Northanger Abbey, because Walpole’s slim novel is often credited with bringing the Gothic to Britain.  

Feel free to throw caution to the wind, and join me as I read some hair-raising Gothic Stories!

Welcome to Readerly!

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There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. — Henry James

If you enjoy the company of a great book with a cuppa, you have come to the right place.  Having spent some time on a book selection committee, I have learned that life is too short for terrible books!  Toward that end, I will be exploring well-loved classics and new classics here at Readerly.  I will strive to give you recommendations you can count on–as a librarian, I take reader’s advisory seriously.  I have been reviewing books for over twenty years; my areas of interest include Classics, like Jane Austen and our friend Henry James above, Thrillers, Mysteries, Literary Fiction, Literary Nonfiction, History, True Crime, Baking, and more.

On our journey together, there will be tea…I am an unapologetic Anglophile, so tea is important, as well as “tea things.”  As every teatotaler knows, there is a correct way to prepare tea, and we will adhere to that. I do, however, admit to using lemon rather than milk, mostly because I like lemon.

I hope you will join me in forming a book club for tea drinkers.  Pinkies up!