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Demon worship, imprisonment, illicit desire, rape. With such subject matter, it’s little surprise that Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk became a sensation as soon as it appeared in 1796. Nor is it a surprise that the novel immediately drew the censure of moralists and literary critics. Still, England’s reading public found the book so compelling that it went through numerous editions within the first couple years of its publication. Today, Matthew Lewis is widely recognized as a central figure in the history of Gothic fiction. In The Monk, he uses the novel’s twisting plots and supernatural machinery to expose the dangers of repressed desire, attack religious hypocrisy, and challenge late eighteenth-century definitions of virtue and propriety. The novel was so popular and notorious in its day that readers and acquaintances began to call the author “Monk” Lewis. The book’s importance did not die with its author, and generations of Gothic novelists and horror writers—from Mary Shelley to Bram Stoker to Stephen King—owe a debt to Lewis’ innovations.
Matthew Lewis was born in London on July 9, 1775. His father, also named Matthew, worked in the War Office for his entire career and amassed considerable wealth. He married Frances Maria Sewell with whom he had four children, Matthew Gregory being the oldest. The marriage was a rocky one. Lewis’ stern father and sociable mother proved incompatible, and in 1781 Frances left her husband to move in with a musician with whom she had an illegitimate child. Lewis senior’s petition for divorce was turned down by the House of Lords in 1783. Despite these problems, the family’s wealth and social connections resulted in Matthew Gregory Lewis being educated at Oxford for a diplomatic career. In 1794, he traveled to The Hague where his father had secured him a position in the British embassy in Holland. Lewis found the work tedious, so with a head full of ghost stories from his early reading and travel, he turned his efforts to writing The Monk. He completed the novel in a few months at the age of nineteen. When his father died in 1812, Lewis inherited a sizable plantation in Jamaica and began working to improve the conditions of the slaves there. On a return trip in 1818, Lewis died of illness and was buried at sea.
While Lewis is best known for The Monk, he wrote several other works of fiction and drama. Despite his parliamentary seat in the House of Commons, he consistently demonstrated more interest in writing than politics. At sixteen he wrote a comedy, The East Indian, which was performed at Drury Lane seven years later. The success of The Monk did not weaken Lewis’ interest in drama, and over the course of his career he wrote numerous comedies, tragedies, and melodramas including The Castle Spectre, The Minister, The Peruvian Hero, The Bravo of Venice, Adelgitha, and The Feudal Tyrants. Both in the Romantic period and today, however, it is The Monk that earned Lewis his literary reputation.
The Monk’s plot has a level of complexity that resists summary. In fact, the novel really has three central storylines, not one. At the heart of the work is the tale of Ambrosio, a proud monk who gives in to temptation and commits a series of increasingly heinous crimes. Lewis interweaves two courtship plots with Ambrosio’s tale. One follows the efforts of Lorenzo to woo and marry Antonia, a virtuous yet naive girl whose social class is far below his own. The other story traces Don Raymond’s efforts to marry Agnes despite the strong objections of her family. Both pairs of lovers find their desires blocked by protective if not tyrannical family members and cruel ecclesiastics. The lives of all the characters are further complicated by the fact that nothing turns out to be what it at first appears, and supernatural beings walk the earth.
The first reviews of The Monk were mixed at best. A few critics noted that the author had some talent, and several praised the poetry in the novel. In general, however, the earliest reception of the novel was harsh. A writer for The British Critic in 1796 stated, “we are sorry to observe that good talents have been misapplied to the production of this monster.” The Critical Review in 1797 declared that a writer of such horrors “deserves our gratitude almost equally with him who would drag us by way of sport through a military hospital.” The same reviewer labeled the book “pernicious” for “blending, with an irreverent negligence, all that is most awfully true in religion with all that is most ridiculously absurd in superstition.” In fact, the complaints against the novel’s representation of religion, particularly the equation of the Bible with the “annals of a brothel,” rose to such a fevered pitch that Lewis was forced to cut many questionable passages from the fourth edition in 1798.
Along with attacks on the novel’s immorality and absurdity, some reviewers also claimed it lacked originality. Many of these complaints point to Lewis’ note on the text in which he states that his central plot came from “Santon Barsisa,” a story published in The Guardian about a man who sells his soul to the devil to avoid being punished for murder. Lewis also claims to have heard the story of the Bleeding Nun in Germany, and he admits that some of his poetry is derivative of earlier works. One critic observed similarities between some of Lewis’ harrowing scenes and those in Mme. De Genlis’ Knights of the Swan; or, the Court of Charlemagne. Yet another writer claimed that Lewis’ storyline was borrowed from The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte and that Ambrosio’s final tragedy was taken from Veit Weber’s The Sorcerer.
Whatever the critics said about the novel, their opinions did not lessen its popularity. Not only did the book go through multiple editions during the late eighteenth century, but it also spawned numerous imitations and stage adaptations. James Boaden dramatized the Ambrosio and Matilda story in Aurelio and Miranda, a five-act drama performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1798. In it, Lewis’ central antagonists are transformed into virtuous victims of circumstance who eventually marry. The Raymond and Agnes story likewise found its way to the stage as a two-act drama, Raymond and Agnes; The Travellers Benighted; or, The Bleeding Nun of Lindenberg. The play weaves together the tale of the Bleeding Nun with the story of Marguerite and Baptiste in a melodramatic spectacle that concludes with a cavern collapsing as the bleeding nun ascends to heaven. And if that wasn’t enough sensationalism for eighteenth-century theatre-goers, Mr. Farley composed Airs, Glees, and Chorusses in a new Grand Ballet Pantomime of Action, Called Raymond and Agnes; or, The Castle of Lindenbergh. This musical was performed at the Theatre Royal at Covent-Garden, and this time the bloody conclusion is punctuated with a lively Spanish fandango.
While these theatrical productions reveal that the late eighteenth century is not likely to be remembered for its drama, the period does represents the heyday of Gothic fiction, a genre defined by its gloomy settings, lurking dangers, hidden passages, mysterious screams, and dark secrets. Horace Walpole generally gets credit for writing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1765. The genre is slow to gain traction, and a second Gothic work does not appear until Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron in 1777. It’s really not until the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and the publication of Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance in 1790 that the English appetite for all things Gothic takes hold. During the 1790s, hundreds of works set in castles, caverns, convents, and dilapidated manor houses poured off the presses. Most of these works, perhaps justifiably, have been lost to history. The few exceptions include Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk.
These notable writers--Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, and Lewis--define the two extremes of Gothic fiction. On one side are Reeve and Radcliffe, whose works contemporary scholars generally label as “female Gothic.” More sentimental in nature, these novels reveal a level of restraint and propriety often missing in the excesses of the “male Gothic.” Neither Reeve nor Radcliffe presents the graphic violence or wild supernaturalism that we find in Walpole and Lewis. In fact, Radcliffe became well known for her explained supernatural--at the end of her novels, nearly all seemingly supernatural events are traced to natural causes. In Radcliffe’s books, rational thought triumphs over superstition, and good finds its reward.
Lewis’ creates a world where the opposite is true. Good characters die in The Monk, and supernatural events are truly supernatural--the Bleeding Nun, Wandering Jew, and Satan himself all inhabit Lewis’ fiction. Whereas Radcliffe ultimately reaffirms eighteenth-century enlightenment ideals of reason and intellection, Matthew Lewis suggests that our rational thought processes cannot fully explain the world around us. When Raymond asks Agnes if she believes in the Bleeding Nun, the heroine rebukes him with seemingly sound logic: “I have too much reason to lament superstition’s influence to be its Victim myself.” The problem here is that she is wrong.
Indeed, much of the terror in The Monk comes from the fact that nothing is quite what it seems to be. Raymond nearly loses his life by misjudging the good-humored Baptiste and ill-mannered Marguerite. Ambrosio appears a saint to all Madrid, but in private leaves no mortal sin unexplored. Angels transform into demons, men turn out to be women, and the rich travel as the poor. Lewis’ monastery is not a sanctuary from the sins of the world, but a place of cruelty, torture, rape, and murder.
These reversals do not merely serve the novel’s sensationalism. Part of what makes The Monk such a rewarding read is that Lewis uses the conventions of Gothic fiction to challenge many late eighteenth-century ideals, especially those connected to gender and sexuality. In the majority of fiction from Lewis’ time, the female heroines are portrayed as angels on earth. Their goodness and sensibility radiate forth so forcefully that the hero falls immediately in love and the villains pause to question their own cruelty. Lewis exposes such characterizations as the fictions that they are. In The Monk, Antonia exemplifies the typical heroine we would find on the pages of a Radcliffe novel. Lewis, however, presents her innocence as a failing, not a strength. Her ignorance ultimately makes her incapable of recognizing evil and defending herself against it. It is the unchaste Agnes who ultimately triumphs in Lewis’ novel. She makes mistakes, but in the process she gains valuable experience, a far more important commodity to Lewis than innocence.
Lewis’ privileging of experiential learning places his gender politics in line with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argues that eighteenth-century women have become unfit mothers and wives because they are taught to value their ability to feel, not their ability to think. Women, she claims, would rather have men faun over them than respect them. Lewis, like Wollstonecraft, calls into question men’s misplaced affections. When Lorenzo plans to marry Antonia because she is “young, lovely, gentle, sensible,” his friend Don Cristoval immediately challenges him: “Sensible? Why, she said nothing but ‘Yes,’ and ‘No.’” We quickly learn that Don Cristoval’s assessment is correct--Antonia may have sensibility, but she has too little sense to navigate the treacherous world around her.
Still, even while Lewis champions experiential learning for women, his feminism has a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny. Older women such as Dame Cunegonda and Leonella are constant targets of ridicule and abuse in The Monk, and Lewis sometimes makes narrative asides that insult women. Also, the novel’s violence and voyeurism is almost entirely directed at women, from the brutal mob killing of the Prioress to Antonia’s titillating bath scene. Lewis takes woman off of her dehumanizing pedestal, but he still treats her as a physical object for the prurient interests of his readers.
Lewis’ representation of sexuality is equally complex. Not all scholars agree on whether or not Matthew Lewis was homosexual, although the general opinion is that he was. But regardless of the author’s own sexual identity, his novel certainly presents human desire as something complicated and changing. When we first meet Ambrosio in the cloister, we learn that “no voice sounded so sweet to him as did Rosario’s.” The relationship between the monk and novice is intimate and heartwarming. When the relationship becomes explicitly sexualized with the unveiling of Matilda, the nature of the original friendship between Rosario and Ambrosio falls into question. Matilda herself seems to recognize the same-sex relationship as the healthier of the two: “Oh! Call me not Matilda! Call me Rosario, call me your friend! Those are the names which I love to hear from your lips.” When we later find identity transforming a second time through supernatural means, we would have a hard time defining Ambrosio’s desire as either heterosexual or homosexual. Instead, Lewis once again resists any simple binary view of the world.
In the end, the richness of The Monk lies in its ability to challenge its readers’ assumptions and resist any reductive view of the world. Interwoven with the sensational storyline are questions about who we are and what we value. The novel reveals imagination to be as important as reason, and experience to be more valuable than purity. Lewis’ concept of virtue breaks from the norm as he challenges the teachings of both family and church. Lewis provides no easy answers to what it means to be male or female, masculine or feminine. Both the horror and beauty of Lewis’ Gothic landscape is that so little is knowable, and the little we thought we knew quickly falls into question.
Allen Grove is Professor of English at Alfred University. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and his teaching and research focus primarily on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel.