- The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Oxford, 357 pp, £8.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 870445 4
In the early 1980s, before hitch-hikers disappeared from the roads, I gave a lift to a couple of teenage Goths on the way to Stratford-upon-Avon. Their cheerful conversation was reassuringly at odds with their get-up (black hair, white faces, silver skulls dangling from their ears). I wondered whether they might see a connection between Hamlet’s nighted colour and their own style, but, being natives of Stratford-upon-Avon, they had been force-fed Shakespeare all their lives and heartily wished he’d chosen some other birthplace. They wanted to talk about the Sisters of Mercy.
Interpretations of the Gothic have shifted many times over the centuries, but as a cultural idiom it has usually attracted young people looking for a way of rejecting the values of their elders without signing up for a political revolution. After the details of their Germanic history were forgotten, the first Goths were reinvented as a Northern tribe chiefly characterised by hostility to the rational order of classical civilisation. They were seen to represent instability and violent excess. In describing the ‘Gothic structure’ of the ‘northern side’ of his Temple of Fame in 1711, Pope was less interested in the showy horrors of its ‘rude iron columns smeared with blood’ than in the mutability of its ornaments: a wall ‘in lustre and effect like glass’ casts ‘various dyes’ over ‘each object’ reflected in its ‘mystic’ surface. The pleasures of uncertainty hover over the Gothic. Boundaries are not fixed – between life and death (ghosts and zombies), animal and human (werewolves, vampires that turn into bats), past and present (current anxieties are projected onto a history of imagined barbarity). Outwardly respectable people are never to be trusted, for they are likely to be hatching the most iniquitous plots. Gothic monstrosities might be alarming, but they must not be dull. They aren’t seriously threatening, however, because their irrationalities distance them from the demands of the world we actually inhabit. There is something childish about the exuberance of the Gothic, a childishness especially trying to university teachers, their patience worn thin by students whose tastes have not moved beyond a shadowy world of ghouls and haunted houses. The Gothic inhabits a world of wilful play, defying the concerns of adult responsibility, or enabling an escape from their complexity. Like all play, it operates within a set of rules and is often relentlessly repetitive.
Gothic narrative is strongly associated with ancient abbeys, crypts, monasteries and mansions, complete with locked chambers and mysterious portraits. The form has a preoccupation with buildings that are also seats of power (‘Don’t go near the castle’). For Ruskin, the significance of Gothic architecture didn’t lie in its association with a sinister feudal past, but in what its disruptive energy could teach a passive and enervated present. He listed six essential features of what he called the ‘Gothic soul’ in his account of ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in The Stones of Venice (1853): Savageness, Changefulness, Naturalism, Grotesqueness, Rigidity, Redundance. Each of these qualities resists the regulations of a mechanised culture. Gothic freedom allows for autonomy, however unruly the results. The unpolished ornamentation of Gothic buildings was an affirmation of human potential, all the more magnificent for its manifest flaws. Ruskin’s idealisation of the Gothic workman becomes a model for creative imperfection: ‘Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also.’ The ‘grotesqueness’ of the Gothic is part of the playfulness Ruskin values. But it cannot be separated from darker impulses:
the difficulty … which exists in distinguishing the playful from the terrible grotesque arises out of this cause: that the mind, under certain phases of excitement, plays with terror, and summons images which, if it were in another temper, would be awful, but of which, either in weariness or in irony, it refrains for the time to acknowledge the true terribleness.
The Stones of Venice emerged from the Protestant ethic that was the basis of Ruskin’s understanding of history. He saw the Gothic character of medieval Venice as a political and religious identity, not as an aesthetic choice. What Ruskin perceived as the Gothic’s assertion of the worth of the individual despite its imperfections seemed to him a confirmation of what mattered most in Christian faith, ‘Christianity having recognised, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul’. Originality, rather than conformity, would be the natural expression of this value: ‘every point and niche’ of Gothic architecture ‘affords room, fuel and focus for individual fire’. Ruskin’s position reflected his antagonism towards the Catholic Church and his view of the Gothic had more to do with his evangelical beliefs than with the substance of Venetian history. But Ruskin was not the first to find an anti-Catholic spirit in the Gothic, or to see its extravagances as a form of resistance to despotism. If the justification of the status quo rests on the claims of common sense, then a Gothic refusal of sense in favour of something wilder and more disorderly becomes a seductive option for those who mistrust the establishment. Many early Gothic texts reflect this pattern. Some were written by spirited young women like Mary Shelley, who was 18 when she started Frankenstein in 1816, or Ann Radcliffe, whose gripping Gothic novels, all resolutely supportive of the rights of women, appeared throughout the 1790s. William Beckford wrote the Orientally-inspired Vathek (1786) when he was 21. Like Horace Walpole, author of the pioneering Gothic extravaganza The Castle of Otranto (1764), Beckford combined an interest in literature with a determination to revive a Gothic style of architecture; his grandiose Fonthill Abbey, like Walpole’s elegant Strawberry Hill, is an explicit repudiation of classical taste. Beckford and Walpole were both wealthy men, but their ambivalent sexuality meant they had an uneasy relationship with their peers. If Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe made the Gothic a vehicle for feminist ideas, Horace Walpole and William Beckford gave its dissidence a camp identity it has never quite lost.
Matthew Lewis had much in common with Walpole and Beckford. He was born into affluence, the son of a well-to-do official in the War Office, and had a gentleman’s education at Westminster and Oxford. He seems to have been gay. His father hoped he might become a diplomat, but Lewis found the work tedious and turned his attention to drama and fiction. While serving in the British Embassy at The Hague at the age of 19, he embarked on The Monk: A Romance, completing the first draft in less than ten weeks. It was published in 1796, when Lewis was 21, and quickly became a spectacular success, electrifying and scandalising its readers in equal measure. Like Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was a book that came to define the life of its author. Though Lewis went on to become a successful dramatist, it was The Monk that made the most vivid impression on his readers, and he was known as ‘Monk Lewis’ for the rest of his life.
It was an association that became troublesome as Lewis grew older and more concerned with his public reputation. The Monk tells the story of Ambrosio, a Capuchin monk in Madrid who is at first celebrated for his austere virtue and eloquent preaching. But his piety is a sham, built on vanity and ambition. Ambrosio rapidly succumbs to every conceivable temptation, including voyeurism, dealings with the occult, rape, incest and matricide. Having renounced any hope of salvation, the despairing Ambrosio is finally possessed by Lucifer at his most lurid: ‘His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty’s thunder … His hands and feet were armed with long Talons … his hair was supplied with living snakes, which twined themselves round his brow with frightful hissings.’ The extremities of Ambrosio’s vice would be enough to transfix any reader, but Lewis throws in extra thrills, including a subplot in which a young woman and her baby are shut up in a dungeon and left to starve, a scene where a group of duplicitous bandits attempt to drug and murder the travellers who are lodging with them overnight, the appearance of the malevolent ghost of a badly behaved nun, and an encounter with the Wandering Jew, described in Lewis’s characteristically portentous manner: ‘a Man of majestic presence: His countenance was strongly marked, and his eyes were large, black, and sparkling: Yet there was a something in his look which, the moment that I saw him, inspired me with a secret awe, not to say horror.’ Lewis gives his readers generous measure. He has no truck with hinted subtleties of illusory dread, or the internally conjured spectres of the mind. He delivers what he promises. If a ghost is mentioned, it will appear – a proper ghost, with fearsome countenance and oozings of blood. ‘What a sight presented itself to my startled eyes! I beheld before me an animated Corse. Her countenance was long and haggard; Her cheeks and lips were bloodless; The paleness of death was spread over her features, and her eyeballs fixed stedfastly upon me were lustreless and hollow.’ Devilish tempters are described in gratifying detail:
a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead; Two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders; and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious Stones.
Lewis’s flamboyant fantasies give the reader’s imagination every assistance.
Lewis had no time for the steady reason of the Enlightenment, but shared its dislike of Catholicism. He repeatedly insists that Ambrosio’s depravities are primarily a consequence of monkish corruption:
Had his Youth been passed in the world, He would have shown himself possessed of many brilliant and manly qualities … While the Monks were busied in rooting out his virtues and narrowing his sentiments, they allowed every vice which had fallen to his share to arrive at full perfection. He was suffered to be proud, vain, ambitious and disdainful: He was jealous of his Equals, and despised all merit but his own: He was implacable when offended, and cruel in his revenge.
Celibacy had only exacerbated ‘the cravings of brutal appetite’, and the secrecy of the monastery had enabled the devil to insinuate the androgynous Matilda, his seductive agent, into Ambrosio’s cell with fatal ease. Matilda’s ‘exquisite’ face mirrors the painting of the Madonna that Ambrosio formerly worshipped, so that his pious adoration of the Virgin is transformed into lust for a demon. No wonder Lewis’s contemporaries were taken aback. Anti-Catholic polemic was common in the late 18th century, but it had not previously offered anything like this sacrilegious audacity.
It’s possible that Lewis would have done better to exercise more restraint in his exploration of monastic debauchery. Contemporary critics rushed to condemn the book for licentiousness, while other Gothic writers distanced themselves from Lewis’s unseemly approach to their territory. Radcliffe, whose novels avoid anything approaching Lewis’s graphic atrocities, argued that her work dealt in terror, nor horror: ‘Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them … And where lies the difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity that accompany the first, respecting the dreading evil?’ The menace in her novels is always a consequence of human conspiracies, not the machinations of hell. Radcliffe had a good deal to lose from Lewis’s sensationalising of Gothic narrative, for she needed to preserve her standing as a decorous lady. Coleridge, whose poetry often has powerfully Gothic overtones, was equally disapproving – particularly when the second edition of The Monk identified Lewis as an MP. Observing that ‘the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale,’ he could hardly contain his indignation: ‘Yes! the author of the Monk signs himself a LEGISLATOR! We stare and tremble.’ Understandably, Lewis soon published an expurgated edition. No one, however, forgot the enjoyable frisson produced by the initial version, despite the fact that it was only in 1952 that an unexpurgated edition of The Monk, based on the 1796 edition, made an appearance. Though never wholeheartedly celebrated, The Monk’s notoriety did not prevent it becoming one of the most influential works of its generation. It is more likely to have helped.
Scholars have approached The Monk with caution. In general, they have wanted to claim more dignity for the work than its teenage irreverence quite merits. Howard Anderson, introducing the first Oxford edition in 1973, followed the critical fashion of the day in construing the book as a ‘long quest for individual fulfilment’. He saw Ambrosio’s fall as an example of the inward psychological drama that preoccupied literary criticism in the 1970s, when the literary Gothic was beginning to attract respectful notice. Anderson admires The Monk for ‘expanding our assumptions about where we live to include the dark and frightening regions within ourselves and beneath the familiar relationships to which we look for support’. Critics are now less interested in reading fiction as explorations of ‘regions within ourselves’. In this excellent World’s Classics edition, Nick Groom analyses the novel in much broader political and historical terms, seeing the book’s ‘extreme writing’ as a response to the shockwaves caused by the violence of the French Revolution. He also elucidates its tangle of literary references, for Lewis drew on a remarkable range of reading in concocting the details of Ambrosio’s depravity. These lines of investigation are helpful, but as Groom goes on to acknowledge, concentrating on them means that we risk losing sight of the ‘increasingly deranged’ narrative that confronts the novel’s readers. The Monk is not the sober product of experience. It is the work of a boy – raw, fevered, irresponsible. Its riotous invention cannot be wholly comprehended within the context of events in Revolutionary France, or the alleged oppressions of Catholicism, or as a critique of the undisciplined will. Calm good taste is an admirable quality, but it is not the only literary virtue.