The Monk, written by 19 year old Matthew Lewis in 1796, is one of the classic 18th Century gothic novels - famously mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey - and has had a significant influence on the genre due to its convoluted plot, salacious content and a vast array of gothic imagery.
The Monk of the title is Ambrosio - left on a monastery’s doorstep as a baby he has spent his whole life in the monastic orders and has developed a reputation for being extremely holy. Set in Madrid, people fill the church to hear his sermons, but this severe restraint of his passions and ambition begins to crack and his fall is spectacular - with horrific consequences.
To say that this book is ‘gothic’ would be an extreme understatement: The Monk is like a Hammer Horror on overdrive. There are ghosts, witches, crumbling castles, spectral lights, people being imprisoned beneath convents, summonings in a crypt (complete with orgiastic moaning), poisonings, botched elopements, hidden identities, worm-ridden corpses, rape, incest, murder, highwaymen, more ghosts, sadistic nuns and contracts with Lucifer being signed in blood. It’s absolutely bonkers.
You can tell a teenage boy wrote it - there are lots of bosoms heaving away to tempt men and people giving in to their desires, most notably when one of them is supposed to be in the process of dying from poison - but I have to admit I did rather enjoy it. It’s unrelentingly melodramatic and as the plot twists and turns, with all the of the characters spinning around one another in a tightening spiral, the plot gets more and more fantastical until they finally collide in an incendiary climax (pun very definitely intended).
It isn’t perfect by any means - people’s back stories, who they’re related to and what secrets are being hidden gets very complex, Ambrosio’s extreme lust for the magnificently innocent Antonia (her mother has even edited the Bible to remove any indecent passages) is frankly ridiculous and the characterisation and treatment of the female characters is frequently eye-rollingly tedious. Women are the downfall of both men and themselves, they are imprisoned, their struggles to make a better life for themselves when they are already severely restricted in terms of independence just land them in even greater danger, and any woman who actually does take control of their sexuality is either murdered or eternally damned. Male characters aren’t particularly impressive either, with a complete inability to keep it to themselves.
So, don’t expect a stunning work of fiction that powerfully details one man’s fall from grace. However, like a fun B movie, the riotous action and convenient plot twists, along with more nuns than you can shake a (blood-stained) wimple at, mean that I would suggest that fans of the gothic genre give it a go, particularly as it has inspired so much subsequent writings.
Review by Cat Fitzpatrick