THE MONK by Matthew Lewis

An introduction by Patrick McGrath

The Monk is the best of the first wave of gothic novels that starts with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764, and ends with Poe’s reinvigoration of the genre in the mid-19th century. It was written by Matthew Lewis when he was twenty years old. He completed it in ten weeks, partly to support his improvident mother, who’d found herself in straitened circumstances after leaving Lewis’s father, a wealthy British government official, to run off with a music teacher. Published in 1796, it was an immediate sensation. Lewis became famous overnight, dined in high society and formed a friendship with Sir Walter Scott, who apparently liked him because he was short, odd-looking, and not very dignified.

He later became a friend of Byron, and was part of the famous group that gathered in the great poet’s villa on Lake Geneva in the late summer of 1816, where to amuse one another they made up ghost stories. It’s not reported what Lewis contributed, but Mary Shelley contrived to entertain the company with the tale of a scientist who creates in his laboratory, from human remains, a living creature. That story became Frankenstein, the second enduring masterpiece, after Lewis’s, of the early gothic canon.

The Monk is a novel about lust. It is also about moral ruination, religious hypocrisy and persecuted maidens, noble gothic themes all. It succeeds as a novel by virtue of its enthralling depictions of a passionate man’s release from the constraints of long-sustained sexual repression. It’s a novel that disdains propriety, moderation and good taste, but it only became scandalous when Lewis turned twenty-one and was elected to Parliament. He then brazenly identified himself on the title page of the second edition as “M.G. Lewis, M.P.” Coleridge among others was outraged: “... the author of the Monk signs himself a Legislator!-—We stare and tremble.” The author of The Ancient Mariner went on to say that the book was voluptuous, corrupting, obscene and complacent. The Attorney-General sought an injunction, and Lewis expunged certain passages. An 1801 engraving by Isaac Cruikshank, called “Luxury,” featured a woman reading The Monk while warming her backside against a fire and masturbating in front.

The Monk opens in the Capuchin Church in Madrid during the years of the Inquisition. We are introduced to a pair of cavaliers, “young, and richly habited.” They encounter a girl of fifteen accompanied by her aunt. The girl is persuaded to remove her veil and is found to be very lovely. One of the cavaliers, Lorenzo, falls in love with her at once. She is Antonia, and her mother Elvira is an impoverished widow. They are in the church to hear the Abbot of the Capuchins preach. This is Ambrosio: the Monk.

He’s an impressive figure all right. A man of severity, but also of humility, it’s clear that he possesses considerable spiritual gravitas. When he preaches to the assembled congregation—-le tout Madrid is there to hear him-—Antonia, for one, feels his voice “penetrate into her very soul.” The devotion of his audience knows no bounds. They call him “The Man of Holiness.” He inspires awe in them, and they seek to emulate his virtue.

This then is the Monk as he’s first presented to us. Matthew Lewis now sets in motion the second major narrative strand of the novel, involving the sister of the smitten Lorenzo. She is Agnes, a nun in the convent adjoining the Capuchin church. But she’s not there by her own choice. She’s the lover of a man called Raymond de las Cisternas, with whom she’d planned to elope from her family’s castle in Bavaria. But she was found out, and forced to take the veil. She is confined within the convent in Madrid, as meanwhile Raymond desperately schemes to liberate her. It is to the story of these unhappy lovers that Lewis now turns his attention, but not before introducing us to a young novice of the Capuchin order, one Rosario, whose strange, unaccountable suffering has attracted the attention of his superior, the monk Ambrosio.

In the view of the poet John Berryman, one of the most persuasive champions of The Monk, it’s only in its sixth chapter that the book ceases to be “charming and interesting... eminently readable, but hardly remarkable,” and becomes, with great suddenness, “passionate and astonishing.” Lewis, he says, “pursues Ambrosio to the wall and beyond the wall to the next wall and beyond that to the abyss.” Berryman points to Lewis’s genius in showing, through Ambrosio’s shifting existential status from revered holy man to lost soul, just “how long it takes-—how difficult it is-—to be certain of damnation.” He claims that Mann’s Doctor Faustus is frivolous by comparison.

This is undoubtedly true. It’s one reason why it can be argued that the novel transcends the genre to which it belongs, depicting as it does a human tragedy of large dimensions, and achieving a moral grandeur few novels can claim, certainly few as impeccably gothic as The Monk. For this is the story of a tragic fall from a spectacular height; and it is the young novice, Rosario, who sets the fatal machinery in motion.

How does he do it? By means of sex. But it will not be done easily, nor quickly, and it’s in the stages of his corruption that Ambrosio will display the magnificent convulsions of a man habituated since childhood to extreme self-control; who then, when his resolve collapses, gives himself over to sexual gratification with the same dedication he’d formerly expended on the suppression of those urges. But it’s not the boy Rosario who tempts him. It’s who Rosario confesses to be, his secret identity: not a boy, no, but a woman.

It’s worth quoting a passage from the scene in which we come upon this dramatic revelation. It takes place in the depths of the night, in the silence of Rosario’s spartan cell within the abbey: “Ambrosio was in the full vigour of Manhood. He saw before him a young and beautiful Woman... He sat upon her Bed; His hand rested upon her bosom; Her head reclined voluptuously upon his breast. Who then can wonder, if He yielded to the temptation? Drunk with desire, He pressed his lips to those which sought them... He clasped her rapturously in his arms; He forgot his vows, his sanctity, and his fame: He remembered nothing but the pleasure...”

There is more in this vein; Lewis’s descriptions of sexual activity are never demure. But at the same time he’s alert to the shifting psychological temper of the repressed man yielding to sudden overwhelming temptation. Ecstasy is followed by repletion; repletion by shame; and shame by confusion, fear of exposure, disgust and horror. “Rosario” has by this time told Ambrose her real name: Matilda.

“’Fool that I was, to trust myself to your seductions!’” Ambrosio cries, and she replies: “’And were Love a crime, God never would have made it so sweet, so irresistible!’

“As she spoke, her eyes were filled with a delicious languor. Her bosom panted: She twined her arms voluptuously round him, drew him toward her, and glewed her lips to his. Ambrosio again raged with desire...”

It’s astonishing how suggestive and, at times, how explicit Lewis is. “The Monk was glutted with the fullness of pleasure.” “[He] violated with his bold hand the treasures of her bosom.” “[He] hastily proceeded to tear off those garments which impeded the gratification of his lust.” He’s equally outspoken in his treatment of religion. In his monk’s cell, Ambrosio prays before a picture of the Virgin Mary. “This for two years had been the Object of his increasing wonder and adoration.” Then later he discovers, as he gazes at his lover, the lusty Matilda, that she bears “an exact resemblance to his admired Madonna.” Does this quell his raging desire? It does not. In effect, then, Ambrosio is having sex with the Mother of God. This is blasphemy of a high order, and would have got Lewis into serious trouble were it not the Catholic Church he was insulting. The English have had no great love for Catholicism for centuries, nor for Spaniards for that matter, and this perhaps in part accounts for the book’s great appeal.

But Lewis isn’t interested in casting Ambrosio merely as a bad priest who discovers sex after long years of self-denial, and ruins himself in the process. He’s eager instead to show us what was lost, when Ambrosio went to the bad, and what he might have become, had he not suffered the isolation and neglect of a religious education. He writes that Ambrosio was by nature “enterprising, firm and fearless”; that he had a warrior’s heart, and might have stood at the head of an army; that he was naturally generous and compassionate; and that his judgment was “vast, solid, and decisive.” None of these aspects of his character had a chance to develop however, because having lost his parents as a young child, he was confined in a convent. There his teachers “carefully repressed those virtues, whose grandeur and disinterestedness were ill-suited to the Cloister.”

He was instead filled with images of the horrors of Hell. He became obsessed with them. “His in-born genius darted a brilliant light upon subjects the most obscure; and almost instantly his Superstition replunged them in darkness more profound than that from which they had just been rescued.” Recognizing his talents, his teachers tolerated his vanity and his ambition. He was permitted to be jealous of others, and cruel to those who offended him. This only created deeper conflict in the boy, for he was by nature tolerant and sympathetic. They failed to recognize this, nor did they guide him to any resolution of his predicament. Of course he never saw, let alone talked to a woman. And this, Lewis implies, is how religion distorts and destroys the natural talents and qualities of those subjected to its power.

Returning to his story, Lewis recounts that it is while Ambrosio’s newly awoken appetites are in the early stages of growth that a young female petitioner comes to him in the church. She asks him if he will pray for her mother, who is dangerously ill. Ambrosio then discovers, and with no small excitement, that she is a beautiful creature, this girl who begs him to intercede with God on her mother’s behalf; and decides he must have her. We already know this girl. We met her in the opening pages of the novel. She is Antonia.

The plot, and its entwined subplot, concerning the unfortunate Agnes, imprisoned in the convent adjoining the Monk’s abbey, now moves inexorably forward, as Ambrosio plans the seduction and ruin of the fair and virginal Antonia.

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What sort of a man was Matthew Lewis, so young when he wrote The Monk, yet seemingly so intimate with the morbid urges of the disturbed psyche? Was he perhaps like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, another precocious habitué of the moral badlands? In his splendid and exhaustive account of the genre, Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, Richard Davenport-Hines quotes a “young lady” writing about Lewis in 1808, calling him “a slim, skinny, finical fop, of modish address, with a very neatly-rounded pair of legs, and a very ugly face... he seems so dapper, so jaunty, so sprack, pert and lively. His eyes are small, and, in general, watery...” He apparently had bad breath, became “rude and impertinent” after a few drinks, and could be seen “’grinning horribly a ghastly smile’, as if to show us all his jagged and slovenly teeth.”

Davenport-Hines also quotes one Lord Holland, who says of Lewis, among other things, that “[his] efforts at pleasantry, which were continual, were very unsuccessful. He had no talent for humour. He was sincere, affectionate, and generous; but his vanity was inordinate and more troublesome than diverting.”

It’s also said that he was a crashing snob and unpopular in society. Walter Scott liked him, but wrote that he had “queerish eyes-—they projected like those of some insects... [He] was extremely small and boyish-—he was indeed the least man I ever saw, to be strictly well and neatly made.” This is reported by John Berryman, who also says of Matthew Lewis: “From the earliest years onward one receives a persistent sense of a wounded personality.” The reasons are not hard to find. His mother eloped when he was six, and he worried constantly about her welfare. She was never reconciled to his father, from whom he was estranged. As a gay man he escaped public disgrace, but the boy he loved, William Kelly, “son of an indigent lady novelist,” according to Berryman, proved “wild and unfaithful in a degree for which other intrigues seem to have given him scant consolation.” Lewis himself said: “I have never felt a painful sensation which I could afterwards efface from my memory, however strongly I may have wished to do so.”

This is no suave and silky decadent, this is no Dorian Gray; this is a clever, vulnerable and insecure youth, brash, nervously vivacious and physically unattractive, who somehow found the imaginative wherewithal to sublimate his pain in the frenzied composition of one great book. In the last years of his short life he busied himself with the Jamaican sugar plantation he inherited from his father, and with improving the lives of his slaves. His death, in 1818, was attended by some rather strange circumstances-—

Meanwhile, Ambrosio insinuates himself into Antonia’s household, where Elvira lies close to death. His objective is simple: he must possess the girl. And here we turn to a great scholar of the gothic, Mario Praz, author of The Romantic Agony, a seminal work of scholarship, in which he locates Lewis’s theme of the persecuted woman within a rich European tradition. He finds her in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Goethe, in de Sade, and later in The Woman in White, Uncle Silas and Tess of the d’Urbervilles; also in Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. But Lewis, says Praz, “is not content with only one victim. There is not only Antonia, who is seduced by the perverted monk... who awakes, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, in a fearful crypt among decayed corpses, who is made the object of a loathsome love among those emblems of death... There is also, chained in an in-pace of the same convent dungeon, another victim... Agnes...”

Yes, Agnes. For the Prioress of the convent adjoining the Capuchin Church has discovered that the girl is pregnant. This shameful fact must be concealed at all costs, so it is put about that Agnes is seriously ill, and then that she’s dead. Poor Raymond, father of this unborn child, is himself dying of grief and desperation by this point, unable to release his beloved from the convent, and kept in ignorance of her true condition. In fact Agnes has been taken into the vaults beneath the abbey and confined there; and it is to that foul subterranean place that the story now takes us.

It is wonderfully grotesque inversion, to move from the world above-—the abbey, the monks and nuns, the altars, the odor of sanctity-—to the physical and moral corruption of the vaults beneath; and it provides a chilling spatial echo of the moral fissure in the Monk himself. On the surface, in daylight, he’s the reverend abbot of the Capuchin Church. But by night, in darkness, his shadow side is revealed: the ruthless predator, the sexually voracious monster, eventually both rapist and murderer. In this he foreshadows the great doubled gothic villains of the late 19th century, Dr. Henry Jekyll and, of course, Dorian Gray, Esquire.

Mario Praz also speaks of what Matthew Lewis shared with Byron, and this is the idea of the Fatal Man. Praz locates this figure first in the figure of Satan in Paradise Lost. The characteristics of the Fatal Man he identifies as the condition of being fallen, and exiled; of living under a curse, or predestined to a fate which, although often fixed by himself in his own mind, he is nonetheless determined to fulfill. There is in him an ancient grief, and “the traces of obscured nobility.” Ann Radcliffe’s Montoni, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, is a Fatal Man, and was well known to Matthew Lewis. Later, in Byron, we meet the Corsair, and the Giaour, among others. All share with Lewis’s Ambrosio a certain grim profile:

“His early dream of good outstripp’d the truth,/And troubled manhood followed baffled youth;/With thoughts of years in phantom chase misspent,/And wasted powers for better purpose lent...”

This, according to Mario Praz, is Byron’s “somber portrait of his idealized self,” from the first canto of Lara. But it might have been written of the Monk. This is the gallery of fallen angels in which he belongs.

The story moves toward its dramatic climax in the vaults beneath the church. Matthew Lewis is good on the horrors of the crypt, in fact in this territory he is the equal if not the superior of Edgar Allan Poe. Here is Ambrosio, in the vaults, discovering Antonia’s apparently dead body: “By the side of three putrid half-corrupted Bodies lay the sleeping Beauty... He lifted her still motionless from the Tomb... Scarcely could he command his passions sufficiently, to restrain himself from enjoying her while yet insensible... Gradually he felt the bosom which rested against his, glow with returning warmth...”

Antonia awakens from the drug that had rendered her as though dead. She is terrified by her surroundings, and Ambrosio comforts her. “While he spoke thus, He repeated his embraces, and permitted himself the most indecent liberties...”

Antonia begs for mercy. Ambrosio is without mercy.

“’Can I relinquish these limbs so white, so soft, so delicate; These swelling breasts, round, full, and elastic! These lips fraught with such inexhaustible sweetness?’... He clasped her to his bosom almost lifeless with terror... He stifled her cries with kisses, treated her with the rudeness of an unprincipled Barbarian, proceeded from freedom to freedom, and in the violence of his lustful delirium, wounded and bruised her tender limbs... He gradually made himself Master of her person, and desisted not from his prey, till He had accomplished his crime and the dishonor of Antonia.”

And so on. There are several dramatic developments later in this scene, which culminates with the death of Antonia, while Ambrosio, along with Matilda, his partner in crime, is carried off to the prisons of the Inquisition. Torture will follow, and after that, damnation.

Meanwhile Agnes remains confined elsewhere in the vaults with her dead baby. “Its presence,” she later recalls, “was my only comfort... It soon became a mass of putridity, and to every eye was a loathsome and disgusting Object... My slumbers were constantly interrupted by some obnoxious insect crawling over me. Sometimes I felt a bloated toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom... Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with long worms, which bred in the corrupted flesh of my Infant...”

The wicked prioress of the convent is responsible for Agnes’s torments. Her crimes being publicized, she will perish at the hands of an angry mob, whose mindless fury would certainly remind Lewis’s contemporaries of the worst excesses of the recent revolution in France. His vivid description might well have influenced Dickens in his account of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge: like Lewis, a social conservative, Dickens was appalled and fascinated by the immense destructive, and self-destructive energies of a frenzied mob. The final agonies the Prioress suffers at the hands of this mob are described in detail; then she dies in their midst, struck by a hard-thrown flint to the head: “Yet though she no longer felt their insults, the Rioters still exercised their impotent rage upon her lifeless body. They beat it, trod upon it, and ill-used it, till it became no more than a mass of flesh, unsightly, shapeless, and disgusting.”

Ambrose’s fate is more complicated. A year after The Monk was published, Ann Radcliffe brought out The Italian. Her villain, Schedoni, was another Fatal Man. Schedoni and Ambrosio, in the words of Mario Praz, “are first seen in the full odor of sanctity, then commit the most horrible crimes, and both end as victims of the Inquisition.” Here we can see Lewis’s immediate influence on another important gothic novelist. And it’s in these final pages that we’re reminded of John Berryman’s praise for Lewis, specifically his genius in showing us “how long it takes-—how difficult it is-—to be certain of damnation.”

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Matthew Lewis probably avoided damnation, his last years being spent in improving the lives of the slaves he’d inherited on his father’s Jamaican sugar plantation. He even wrote a book on the subject, his Journal of a West India Proprietor, which was published posthumously in 1834 and stayed in print for a hundred years. For this work he received high praise from Coleridge, it being a sensible, humane and witty book. In possession of a large fortune after his father’s death, Lewis indulged his natural generosity, and according to Walter Scott, “did much good by stealth.”

Toward the end of his second visit to the Caribbean he contracted yellow fever. On the voyage home he wrote his will on his servant’s hat. Then, after terrible suffering, he died. His body was put in an improvised coffin, which was wrapped in sheets, and weighted, then dropped overboard. But the weights fell out and the coffin floated. The wind caught the sheet and acted as a sail, and Lewis was carried back toward Jamaica, where he’d spent the happiest days of his life.

On his first journey out, he’d written that he didn’t care how slow the ship’s progress was, for “when a day is once over, I am just as much nearer advanced to ‘that bourne,’ to reach which, peaceably and harmlessly, is the only business of life, and towards which the whole of our existence forms but one continued journey.”