Do you have a favourite book? I know that it’s one of the most difficult questions that you could possibly ask a bookish person. We have shelves crammed full of books, how the hell are we meant to edit that down to just one deserving book? It’s all about context, timing, age, and countless other variables. Although, we all have books that we prefer to the others. It’s like children: we all know our parents have a favourite but they’re just kind enough to not tell us. I’d definitely place The Monk at the top of my favourites list. The rest of the books on there might change as time goes by but this has been there since I first read it. I’ve always been a fan of the Romantic period and, though my studies, I became enamoured with gothic fiction. You may remember that I wrote a beginner’s guide to gothic fiction of the 1790s. I wrote my postgraduate dissertation on it and it was mainly so I could use this book. I love it. I’ve tried to make so many people read it but it’s not for everyone. It’s a bit much but, then again, so am I.
It is often that case that random passages or phrases in books stick with you for no reason. Matilda’s “beauteous orb” is one such phrase. That bizarre and clunky description of her exposed breast has given me so much pleasure since I first read The Monk at university. It’s also something that helped me bond with somebody I used to work with. It is, in my opinion, a great microcosm for the novel itself. Completely silly, trashy but strangely sophisticated at the same time. Of course, all gothic fiction of the 1790s was kind of trashy and silly but Matthew Lewis was part of the terrorist fiction tradition. The gothic has always been linked with politics, which is why so many writers around the time of the French Revolution evoked those tropes in their works. Some managed to do it in a more sophisticated way than others. But not everything can be Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria.
Although, The Monk has just about everything that you could possibly want from a gothic tale. A chaste young woman whose virtue is being threatened, a brave young cavalier who’s trying to win her heart, a virtuous Monk being tempted into sin, a Bloody Nun, and a Wandering Jew. Seriously, it’s like gothic tropes are Pokemon and Lewis has gotta catch ’em all. I hear plenty of people compare Lewis to Horace Walpole and, frankly, it’s ridiculous. The gothic as Walpole defined it wasn’t anything like the gothic of the 1790s. Walpole’s novel was more of a romance with a few spooky elements. Lewis is a whole other bag and he has a lot of fun in getting it out there. And, yes, there are perhaps some passages that go on a bit too long but that’s just the gothic. The Mysteries of Udolpho has so many descriptions of trees for God’s sake. It’s a thing.
If you ignore the explicit nature of Lewis’ novel, the young politician does have a little in common with Mrs Radcliffe. Although, Lewis was the face of the new face of gothic fiction. The face that wasn’t afraid to terrify their readers and invoke the supernatural to make it work. This was a step away from the poetic realism behind that Radcliffe favoured. Instead of the logical explanations of her works, Lewis is more than happy to introduce us to the Devil and his minions. There’s no skirting around it, there’s evil here. The main focus of the novel is the demise of a celebrated and pious monk. Though he is beloved and respected by all of Madrid, Ambrosio has never left the monastery. But when he discovers a young woman has been disguised as a monk to get close to him, Ambrosio starts to go back on his vows. And that’s where the fun begins.
The Monk is an amazing book to read and has been one of my favourites since I first read it. For one thing, it’s incredibly funny. It inspired my postgraduate dissertation and is a book I always go back to. It embraces the gothic tradition but goes to the extremes. He takes a conscious move away from neoclassicism and stepping further into the romantic tradition. He rejects logic and reason in favour of imagination and emotion. In the likes of Ann Radcliffe, you’d be sure that the virtuous would prosper and the villainous would be punished. Life isn’t quite so clear in Lewis’ world. He understands humans and their motivations. Yes, his major focus is on beautiful and virginal women but, hey, that’s gothic. It wouldn’t feel right if a few sexy young women weren’t having their innocence threatened.
Beneath the dark arts and the sexual nature of the plot, there is a whole lot of depth to this novel. The political nature of Lewis’ work is inescapable. And I’m not just talking about his treatment of the Catholic Church. This is a novel that was born from the French Revolution. It contains a lot of anger and fear about the shifting political climate at the time. I mean there is one passage that recreates the storming of the Bastille but with more nuns being torn to pieces. This is a novel that shows an innate fear of the rising population rates. The power, as we see in the novel, is not in the hands of the individual but in the crowd. Yes, The Monk is a hyperbolic nightmare but Lewis is using terrorist fiction to mirror the fears of the day.
I get that many people won’t enjoy this book but, if you’re willing to try, you’ll see something truly brilliant. It is sophisticated, fun, and the most gothic of gothic fiction. It is also the cause of some of my favourite pieces of literary criticism of all time. I like to imagine that the majority of people reading this in 1796 were like Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”