Wednesday 16 November 2022

Review: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

This review includes some heavy spoilers, I wouldn't normally mention it but I think The Monk is a must-read, and it must be read unspoiled.

 Mathew Lewis’s The Monk was almost one of the first gothic novels I ever read. Back in the dark eons, when I was first getting interested in eighteenth century literature, I bought a compendium of three gothic novels. I read The Castle of Otranto and Vathek and decided that the significantly longer The Monk may best be left for another time. Almost twenty years, and a lot of gothic and eighteenth century novels later, I finally got around to reading it - and I’m glad I left it till now because I think no other gothic novel can top The Monk

Written when Lewis was approaching twenty, the imprint of a young man can be seen in the text’s desire to shock and appall but what immediately captured my attention was the book’s swagger. There’s no pretence that this is a translation of a lost manuscript, no distancing features of a tale told by another person and no preface explaining or apologising for the work. The closest The Monk comes to this is a poem where he reveals his youth, makes jokes about his book being forgotten and declares himself a man of dwarfish size and giant passions. 

The reader is then introduced to an actual scene and characters, there is no setting in historical context, no pre-amble, just the image of a church packed beyond capacity to hear a hot, young preacher. Here, the core lovers of the story meet, attended by their comic chaperones. Although I’ve learned to love the slightly stiff, creaky tone of a classic gothic novel, there’s no stiffness in this opening and (to my delight) actual paragraphing. It’s character focused and the jokes actually land. I laughed out loud at Leonella, beginning an explanation to the innocent Antonia about the difference between men and women,

      “Man has no breasts, and no hips and no…” before being cut off. 

When the two men, Don Lorenzo and his friend Don Christoval talk about the women they’ve just met, the smitten Don Lorenzo describes the timid Antonia as very clever. Don Christoval points out that she was practically mute, saying little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’, to which Don Lorenzo replies that she’s clever because she said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the right places. Even the narration has a comic verve. Don Lorenzo falls asleep in the church, waking up at a time when he realises he’s about to view a private ceremony that he shouldn’t. He makes a decision to leave;

   “I will go,” said Lorenzo. And Lorenzo stayed, where he was.” It’s that double use of his name and the comma after stayed that pace the sentence into something comic and true.

As well as this focus on character, the book is crammed full of (wonderfully preposterous) event. The actions and reversals of the second chapter could be a book by themselves and build beautifully on each other in a kinetic and chaotic way. From Ambrosio’s erotic feelings to his Madonna statue, his priggish sentence on the pregnant nun (which, unknown to him, kicks the whole subplot off), the Rosario reveal, the deadly centipede bite, the miraculous healing and the final ultimatum, “I must enjoy you, or die”.. it’s a rollercoaster.

Other improbable and wonderful parts of the book are a Robber’s Bride-esque escapade, a planned daring escape which leads to a man accidentally eloping with a randy ghost who wants to kiss him every night, the possible origins of the song ‘the worms crawl in’ and a Mother Superior being beaten by a crowd until she’s “no more that a mass of flesh, unsightly, shapeless and disgusting.” - Indeed, a lot of nuns die in the course of this book. I found myself starting each chapter with the feeling of ‘what’s in store next?’ never sure of the imaginative, ludicrous and often extreme events I was to come across.

That the book does this and still maintains a tight structure is amazing. There are some detours from the plots, and a number of subplots but they all add to the main stories, of the monk, Ambrosio and his slide into depravity, and of Raymond’s search for his love Agnes, lost in the secrecy of a nunnery. 

While Ambrosio’s story does include some pretty heinous actions, it was Agnes’s that went too far for me and actually made me feel creeped out and unpleasant. Locked in a cold oubliette, chained to a wall and pregnant, she gives birth to a baby who can’t survive the cold and poor nutrition. She then keeps hold of the baby as it rots, imagining the writhing of the maggots within the child as a heartbeat and looking at the decaying corpse as something beautiful in its mother’s eye. At this point the book goes beyond the campy, shock-for-shock’s-sake tone of the book and becomes something truly nasty and horrific. All I can say is, I’m glad she had a happy ending, and one that felt real and hard-won. (Though I was disturbed by the fact she had to win back her honour, having consented to sleeping with Raymond before marriage and getting pregnant, when it was his intemperance that lead to her torments).

Less happy endings were had for Don Lorenzo and Antonia, she died because she was too good for this world and he paired off with a random hot woman who appeared toward the end of the book - an ending that felt somewhat perfunctory. Also having an unhappy ending was Ambrosio the monk. Having been the golden child of the monastery, he quickly slid to the dark side, murdered his mother and raped his sister before being exposed and tortured. He then sold his soul to the devil and, unlike his initial tempter, Matilda, who has a huge glow-up after selling her soul, is tricked by The Trickster and is eaten alive by bugs and has his eyes torn out by eagles. 

The Monk is not an edifying book, it’s not a moral one but it is one that goes to extremes and, I think, fully succeeds in Horace Walpole’s project of uniting the vividness of the ancient romances with the more grounded psychology of a ‘modern’ novel. Matthew Lewis pulled off the trick and I think all the future gothic novels I read will seem lesser because of it.

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