This review is of the Oxford World's Classics edition of Matthew Lewis's one-hit wonder of a novel, "The Monk", although Lewis did go on to be a very successful playwright. Written in 1794 when he was only nineteen years' old, Lewis may have predicted the storm of outrage that his novel would initiate, when he wrote almost halfway through it, "To enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame; ..."
After reading Ann Radcliffe's long and somewhat ponderous, but admittedly well-written and dreamy "Mysteries of Udolpho", "The Monk" brought a breath of fresh air into my experience of reading late-eighteenth century gothic novels. Lewis's short and brisk sentences aid quickness of thought and action, and there is often no time to sit and take in the air before the reader is taken off to the next scene in this saga of blasphemy, incest, rape, and murder. Or, as Emma McEvoy of London University puts it in her introduction, Lewis's book is "a work which enjoys short climaxes, rather than long anticipation." This is probably why he went on to write such popular plays.
But whereas Radcliffe in her work would ultimately find rational explanations for all the supposed causes of fear and suspicion, Lewis revels in the truth of the supernatural. The novel is replete with dark and sinister designs and dealing with spirits is the route for their fulfilment. This is tolerable for the reader because the tale is set within the unreal milieu of the gothic drama - and, of course, setting it in the context of deeply-catholic, old-world Spain also helps!
I thought I knew how the novel would pan out and end from clues hidden within the very first chapters, with hints given about the mysterious family background of the monk and with details dropped in conversation in the church about the family history of Elvira. But I was both right and wrong, and without giving the plot away I cannot elaborate any further. But at what the opening scene does not hint is the long meandering journey taken to reach the end, nor at the excesses experienced along the way. There are some stories within stories within stories, when we hear of the legend of the Bleeding Nun, as the action shifts to Germany from the hot and humid streets of Madrid. I say `hot and humid', but there is very little descriptive element to the novel; more is focussed on the action and plot.
There are some factual errors in the writing. Lewis was clearly unaware of differences between monks and friars, for example, or if he did know, he did not care too much. Equally there are some narrative problems too: for example, one moment Matilda (impersonating a male novice) is lying in her/his cell on her/his deathbed in the monastery in front of monks who are praying for her delivery from death, and the next Matilda's golden hair is "pouring itself" over her lover's chest. She must have had a voluminous cowl to hide all that hair!
There is a certain laddish humour in the writing: for instance, "She was wise enough to hold her tongue. As this is the only instance known of a woman's ever having done so, it was judged worthy to be recorded here." And Lorenzo de Medina, Don Christoval and Raymond de las Cisternas are all young blades about town, with an eye for a pretty woman.
In her introduction, Emma McEvoy explains how novels at the time were supposed to inculcate virtue, not vice, but that some contemporary reviewers ignored morality altogether and just praised it as a good read. She mentions that the owner of a circulating library " `underscored all the naughty passages' so that her young female readers would know which parts to avoid." She goes on to explain Lewis's background and how his novel fits the conventions of the gothic form, except that "It seems as if Lewis is determined to wreak vengeance on the unbelievably virtuous characters of other novelists."
This edition includes the usual standard extras that one comes to expect from Oxford World's Classics: the note on the text, the select bibliography, a chronology of the author, and explanatory notes. Some of these latter, however, are a little odd: "Knight of Mount (A)Etna" (p.26) would seem quite self-explanatory; "natural philosophy" (p.267) was the contemporary term for science rather then alchemy; and, yes, I think we worked out for ourselves that the "Grand Inquisitor" (p.422) would be "the official who presided at the Inquisition."
As with all reprints of classic works of literature, I recommend that the so-called introduction (which is really more of a commentary) is best read after the novel.