“To an heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.”
Thankfully, this is the last of the three Gothic novels I have to read for next term. Titled, in a stunning display of originality, The Monk, Matthew Lewis’ first and last novel details the fall from grace of holier-than-thou Spanish monk Ambrosio as he succumbs to Lust and Pride.
It’s a novel that firmly disproves any notion of late eighteenth-century prudishness: first published in 1796, it’s a tale of rape, murder and torture (the Spanish Inquisition turns up at one point, which nobody expected), not to mention a good dollop of Catholic-hating, and it sold sensationally well until the censored fourth edition, which flopped.
But let us remember that Twilight also sold sensationally well, as did the truly abominable Pamela. It doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, The Monk is lurid, clunky, repetitive and just plain awful. It reads like a horror novel whose author has got all the ingredients but not the right cooking method, as it were. Inset narratives like that of the Wandering Jew or the Bleeding Nun are, you know, quite horror-y (and moderately promising), but not really scary. Sure, Ambrosio is a villain, but his crimes are so extreme as to be unbelievable. (Although I will say that his fate is satisfyingly gruesome.) His victims (Agnes and Antonia) are just too virtuous, and their suitors Lorenzo and Raymond more or less indistinguishable.
It also took me 100 pages to work out the relationships between Elvira, Leonella and Antonia. This may have been the result of a regrettable lack of attention early on, but it made the whole thing extremely confusing because they all have exactly the same character traits.
To be fair, The Monk is the kind of novel a contemporary audience might enjoy as a sort of escapism; after all, no-one would call Stephen King’s novels great art. Possibly it’s the difference in style, and the fact that what looks like a cliche now was once new or at least not hackneyed to death. But, really. Don’t read this.