The Monk, published in 1796, is an early gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, which completely dispels the notion that classics are dull and boring! While I wouldn’t say this was an easy read (due to the 18th century writing style and language you do need to concentrate) it was a real pageturner. I actually started to write this review when I was only halfway through the book and I was going to say that although I was enjoying it, I didn’t think it was a great book. Then, as I continued to read, I changed my mind. It is a great book and the best gothic novel I’ve read so far!
The book cover shown above is the Penguin Classics edition of the book. However, my copy of this novel is actually part of a four books-in-one anthology called Four Gothic Novels, which also includes The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Vathek by William Beckford and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve been reading the novels in the order that they appear in the book, but The Monk was the one that I had really been looking forward to reading.
The novel is set in a monastery in Spain, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The plot is very complex, but basically there are three main storylines.
The first storyline revolves around Ambrosio, the Monk of the title, who is highly respected within the monastery and attracts large crowds to his sermons. Ambrosio is regarded almost as a saint yet when a beautiful young woman called Matilda tries to seduce him, he is tempted into breaking his vows. After succumbing to this first temptation, Ambrosio goes on to commit one crime after another, each worse than the one before.
We are also given a long account of the adventures of the young Marquis de las Cisternas. When the Marquis rescues a baroness from a gang of bandits, he is invited to accompany her to the Castle Lindenberg in Germany where he meets and falls in love with her niece, Agnes – and learns the legend of the Bleeding Nun. Finally we follow a friend of the Marquis, Lorenzo de Medina, who also happens to be the brother of Agnes. When a young girl from Murcia named Antonia arrives in Madrid, she and Lorenzo fall in love – but things don’t go smoothly for the pair and Antonia soon finds herself in serious danger.
At first it seemed that Agnes and Antonia’s storylines were unrelated to the Ambrosio and Matilda plot, but I soon began to see how cleverly Lewis was weaving the threads of the story together. Ambrosio is a complex character and his downfall was fascinating to read about. Some of my favourite passages were those which gave us an insight into the different facets of his personality.
He pronounced the most severe sentences upon Offenders, which, the moment after, Compassion induced him to mitigate: He undertook the most daring enterprizes, which the fear of their consequences soon obliged him to abandon: His inborn genius darted a brilliant light upon subjects the most obscure; and almost instantaneously his Superstition replunged them in darkness more profound than that from which they had just been rescued…The fact was, that the different sentiments with which Education and Nature had inspired him were combating in his bosom: It remained for his passions, which as yet no opportunity had called into play, to decide the victory.
Some parts of the book are quite gruesome and disturbing, and the passages which describe the sufferings of Agnes and Antonia are horrifying. I thought the final chapter of the book was stunning. There were several different ways the story could have ended, but the ending Lewis chose was absolutely perfect.
This book has almost every element of the gothic novel that you can think of: ghostly apparitions, haunted castles, ancient monasteries, bad weather, fortune telling gypsies, an evil prioress, dark dungeons and shadowy crypts, witchcraft, magic and pacts with the devil. It’s also very daring for the 18th century; with themes of murder, rape, incest, violence and torture, I can see exactly why it was so controversial in its day.
So don’t let the fact that the book was written in the 1700s prevent you from picking it up!
If you enjoy this book you might also like The Italian by Ann Radcliffe which I read a few years ago. It’s very similar to this one in both the setting and the atmosphere (and anyone who was put off Radcliffe by the long scenic descriptions in The Mysteries of Udolpho will be pleased to know there are a lot less of those in The Italian).