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by Peter Otto

7 - Lewis and his followers

“Not without reluctance then, but in full conviction that we are performing a duty, we declare it to be our opinion, that the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale. The temptations of Ambrosio are described with a libidinous minuteness ... The shameless harlotry of Matilda, and the trembling innocence of Antonia, are seized with equal avidity, as vehicles of the most voluptuous images ... [The work is a bugbear] for children, a poison for youth, and a provocative for the debauchee.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It was not unusual for Radcliffe's admirers to claim that her fiction had the power to transport them to an imaginary world. Talfourd wrote that when we read Radcliffe's wild and wondrous tales “…the world seems shut out, and we breathe only in an enchanted region, where lover's lutes tremble over placid waters, mouldering castles rise conscious of deeds of blood, and the sad voices of the past echo through deep vaults and lonely galleries.”

Scott compared the experience of reading the works of "this mighty enchantress" to "the use of opiates, baneful when habitually and constantly resorted to, but of most blessed power in those moments of pain and of languor, when the whole head is sore and the whole heart sick".

The Monk: a romance (London: J. Bell, 1796), published by Matthew Gregory Lewis when he was 21, conjured a very different response. Rather than offering an alternative to the "real" world, this book seemed to threaten it. For some readers, the stakes were therefore high. Thomas Mathias, for example, wrote in The Pursuits of Literature that "LITERATURE" well or ill conducted, IS THE GREAT ENGINE by which ... ALL CIVILIZED STATES must ultimately be supported or overthrown". For Mathias, The Monk was therefore nothing less than "a new species of legislative or state-parricide".

In contrast to Radcliffe, Lewis was born into the upper ranks of society. His father was Deputy Secretary at War, the owner of plantations in Jamaica, and a supporter of Pitt's government. Lewis's education was "impeccably appropriate to the son of a well-to-do government official". By the time The Monk was published, "He had been fashionably educated at Marylebone Seminary, Westminster School, and Oxford ... and after graduating from the university had received through his father's influence a post in a British embassy". Again owing to his father's influence, in 1796 a seat was found for him in Parliament. Lewis's father planned a diplomatic career for his son; from an early age, Lewis longed to be a writer. The Monk made the former impractical and the latter a reality.

The first edition of The Monk was published anonymously. It sold well and was, on the whole, favourably received. It was the second edition, appearing in the same year but signed "Matthew Lewis" and advertising his newly achieved status as Member of Parliament, that unleashed a storm. "The fact that the writer was a Member of Parliament and the son of the Deputy Secretary at War, a frequenter and a friend of the aristocracy, seemed to make his authorship of The Monk an unpardonable offence". The book was judged immoral and, worse, blasphemous. When Mathias suggested that aspects of the book were "actionable at Common Law", Lewis issued an expurgated version. In Parreaux's summary:

“Lewis did not content himself with hunting out of his book any words which might be deemed indecent, such as lust, enjoy, enjoyment, incontinence, etc. Not only did he expurgate Ambrosio’s vain attempt to violate Antonia, cancel almost all references to physical love, and proscribe all mention of sexual appetites or pleasures. Whole paragraphs, nay, whole pages disappeared: the dialogue between Antonia and Leonella (silly rather than harmful), where the convention that a young lady 'should be ignorant of the differences between the sexes' was derided; the description of Ambrosio’s feelings at the sight of Matilda’s breasts; his voluptuous dreams; the kissing scene between Ambrosio and Matilda; the first fall of Ambrosio (in the new version, instead of yielding to temptation, he is represented struggling against it, and a concluding moral tag is added); the description of his love night with Matilda; his growing satiety, as he becomes 'glutted with the fulness of pleasure'; the description of Antonia undressing and bathing (as she appears to Ambrosio in the magic mirror), or sleeping naked (while the monk prepares to violate her); Ambrosio’s anticipation of the pleasures he will experience when he enjoys her; and finally the long scene in the vaults of the convent, where Antonia is at last violated, were all cancelled.”

These revisions did little to rescue Lewis's reputation. The entry under "Lewis" in A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) summarises economically the conventional view:

“While on his travels [Lewis] wrote a romance of great notoriety, and certainly displayed a luxuriant fancy, but sadly debased by obscenity and impiety. The work, however, was pruned of much of its offensive matter on coming to a second edition (sic), though even in its renovated state it is dangerous to the moral principles of young and inexperienced readers.”

Lewis's difficulties arose in part because readers tended to associate him with Ambrosio, the villain of his book. As is well known, Ambrosio is attracted to a young male novice Rosario, who turns out to be a young woman, Matilda. Ambrosio soon breaks his vow of celibacy and makes love to Matilda, who turns out to be a devil in human disguise. His attempts to realise his desires lead him to murder his mother and rape and murder his sister. The association of Lewis with Ambrosio's variously transgressive desires was strengthened by the "open secret" of his homosexuality and, from the early nineteenth century, of his love for William Kelly, the son of Isabella Kelly (the author of Gothic fictions such as Joscelina: or, The rewards of benevolence (London: Printed for the Author, 1797) and Ruthinglenne, or The critical moment (London: Minerva, 1801)). Indeed, it has been argued that "gossip about Lewis's erotic attraction to men ... played a key role in establishing him as a literary lion", anticipating a link between fame and sexual transgression that was to become established with Byron.

While Radcliffe established a school, The Monk, according to Scott, "was so highly popular that it seemed to create an epoch in our literature".73 Like Radcliffe's works, Lewis's novel inspired a host of plagiarisers, imitators and competitors. The mystery of the black convent (London: A. Neil, [n.d.]) and Fatal vows, or The false monk, a romance (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810) are two of the many chapbooks that draw heavily on The Monk. Ireland's The abbess (London: Earle and Hemet, 1799) vies with Lewis's
descriptions of pain, suffering, and sexual excess. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in The Monk occurs after the Abbess, having been captured by the mob and treated with "every species of cruelty which hate or vindictive fury could invent", falls beneath the blow of a well-aimed flint:

“She sank upon the ground bathed in blood, and in a few minutes terminated her miserable existence. Yet though She no longer felt their insults, the Rioters still exercised their impotent rage upon her lifeless body. They beat it, trod upon it, and ill-used it, till it became no more than a mass of flesh, unsightly, shapeless, and disgusting.”

The same graphic detail, sensational prose, and curiously dispassionate tone is emulated in The abbess when, to cite only one example, Honoria and Girolamo are burnt at the stake:

“Many pitied Honoria's fate; but universal execrations were loaded on the hateful Girolamo. When at the stake, his murderous arm was first severed from his body, and cast into the fire, which was already consuming the penitent Honoria. The chain was, then affixed to Girolamo's body, who was sentenced to be burned by a slow fire; yet, he shrunk not from the scorching fame, that gradually consumed his flesh, and ended, at length, his detested existence.”

Going one step further in the representation of the dreadful, Walker's "objective" in The three Spaniards (London: G. Walker and Hurst, 1800) "is to horrify, startle, disgust, and amuse Monk Lewis’s own audience with a book calculated to out-Monk The Monk itself". As Frank writes, the result was "an almost unrivalled example of the violent, hate-driven sado-eroticism of the high Gothic at its highest peak".

Between the extremes represented by those who borrow heavily from and those who attempt to surpass Lewis, are the productions of writers who variously imitate, respond to, develop, or attempt to transform aspects of Lewis's work. Amongst such books, perhaps the most significant of those included in this collection are Charlotte Dacre's remarkable Zofloya; or, The Moor: a romance of the fifteenth century (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806); Joseph Fox's Santa-Maria; or, The mysterious pregnancy (London: G. Kearsley, 1797); Sophia Francis's The nun of Miserecordia; or, The eve of All Saints (London: Minerva, 1807); William Child Green's Abbot of Montserrat; or, The pool of blood (London: A. K. Newman, 1826); and Francis Lathom's Italian mysteries; or, More secrets than one (London: Minerva, 1820).

8 - Terror and Horror Gothic

9 - Gothic Echoes / Gothic Labyrinths


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