Thursday, March 4, 2010

Janespotting: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I'm continuing my perusal of Gothic novels mentioned by Austen in Northanger Abbey, and after the interminable tepid delays that made up Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, I had higher hopes for Matthew Lewis's The Monk. After all, the rogue John Thorpe, who lies to Catherine in order to monopolize her time, declares the novel the only "tolerably decent one [to] come out since Tom Jones." The latter novel, a 1749 work by Henry Fielding, was notorious for its inclusion of prostitution and general naughtiness, and Lewis's work, published in 1796, would garner a similarly scandalous reputation.

So I eagerly opened the file (thanks, Project Gutenberg), hoping to be rewarded with loads of Gothic excitement and melodrama. And I wasn't disappointed: not only were we introduced to the title character in the first chapter, we got the essentials of the plot. The Monk of the title is Ambrosio, the head of the Capuchin order in Madrid, noted for his eloquence and piety, and in the first chapter several key figures come to hear him preach: Antonia, a beautiful young girl whose widowed mother is hoping to get financial support from an estranged relative; Don Lorenzo, a cavalier who falls in love with her; and Lorenzo's friend Don Christoval, who is seeking his missing sister.

Chapter two brings several shocking events: a pregnant nun! (The missing sister.) A woman disguised as a novice! Ambrosio forsaking his vows to indulge in carnal pleasures! It just gets dirtier and nastier and more tragic: witchcraft! murder! riots! rape! incest! a couch!* Because Ambrosio was raised in the cloister and never faced temptation, his confidence in his upright character had no basis in experience, and he falls victim to a female temptress, and then to Satan himself. For the other characters there is tragedy and triumph, all equally as melodramatic (and unlikely).

It was much juicier (and shorter) than Udolpho ... and sure, it wasn't particularly deep and meaningful, but at least it was fun. I could totally buy that young girls would be both fascinated and scandalized by the book, whereas Udolpho was a stretch. So which is more typical of the Gothic genre? My next (and last) Gothic experiment, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, should break the tie.

*if you've never experienced the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), get thee to a theater or DVD rental place.

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