I have, in the past, been disappointed in Gothic novels. This is not due to any failing on their part, but rather to a belief in mine about what a Gothic novel ought to be. I had it in mind that there should be terrifying imagery, and acts of complete carnage. When I read Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I came to it expecting the levels of evil that you see of Hyde in television shows and films. Instead, Mr Hyde’s greatest fault seems to be that he kicks over an old man (which is certainly not a nice thing to do, but hardly murderous levels of evil).
I first heard of The Monk through reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey is a novel that satirises the Gothic novels at the time, through a young female character (Isabella), who has read too many of them. She has taken these novels so much to heart that she begins to believe that someone she knows must have committed a dreadful murder. One of the books she reads is The Monk, which by this time seems to have gained some notariety.
And what notariety that was! Matthew Lewis, who was also an MP, was personally branded as being, if not evil, then in some way perverted due to the events of the novel. So much so, that an attack on his character was made posthumously in the Courier:
He was a reckless defiler of the public mind; a profligate, he cared not how many were to be undone when he drew back the curtain of his profligacy; he had infected his reason with the insolent belief that the power to corrupt made the right, and that conscience might be laughed, so long as he could evade law. The Monk was an eloquent evil; but the man who compounded it knew in his soul that he was compounding poison for the multitude, and in that knowledge he sent it into the world.
Nonetheless, I was unconvinced that this novel would fulfill my belief that Gothic novels should be horror stories, filled with gore, violence, and ghosts. After all, we keep being told that nowadays we are shown too much sex and violence, and are becoming dulled to what was, in the old days, shocking.
Well, that’s definitely not the case. The Monk is completely chock-full of murders, rape, incest, kidnapping, ghosts, demons and the literal devil. It follows several storylines, including a number of stories within the main story (and sometimes there is a story within a story within a story). The main plot follows a monk called Ambrosio, who is so pure that he never leaves the monastery. However, Ambrosio suffers from a certain amount of vanity, and when a young novitiate reveals himself to be a woman (and not only a woman, but one who perfectly resembles the image of the Virgin Mary that Ambrosio worships daily), and in love with him, he quickly breaks his vows. He then becomes bored of his lover, and strives to violate another girl who is completely innocent in every way. Things only get worse from here.
Interestingly, the novel does not seem to be entirely sex-negative. One character, a girl called Agnes, was promised as a nun by her parents against her will. She breaks her vows after falling in love with a young man, and becomes pregnant with his child. While later novelists, like Dickens, would have Agnes “punished” for her actions with death at the end of the novel, Lewis has her not only live, but also she is rescued from the Convent and manages to live happily ever after with the man she fell in love with.
There is something almost like a Telenovella about this book. There is a massive host of characters, and so many twists (which happen incredibly suddenly) that you could almost get neckache from trying to follow it all. Matilda, Ambrosio’s seductress, admits that she is a woman, tells Ambrosio that she has loved him, begs him not to make her leave the monastery, and when he tells her she must, she asks him for a rose. He tries to pick one, is bitten by a serpent, and swoons. All of this happens in a few pages.
The novel is totally ridiculous. But it is excellent fun to read, and particularly gruesome for a novel of the late 1700s. I thoroughly recommend it, so long as you are happy to be shocked and thrilled.