It probably didn’t help the argument that Gothic books were serious literature that they kept being churned out at high speed by teenagers. ‘Vathek’ was apparently written in under a week by the 21-year-old Beckford and then Lewis wrote ‘The Monk’ in ten weeks before the age of 20. It is true that both books can feel a bit rush and immature, but only if you’re looking for faults…
‘The Monk’ is like Ann Radcliffe but with the possibility for political subtlety removed. His heroine is a beautiful stereotype, his evil seductresses are evil and seductive while his presentation of Catholicism would be hideously offensive if it wasn’t so stupid. Anyone who isn’t male, Protestant and non-Spanish is going to be offended if they take this story at all seriously and so I’m going to read it as an extremely silly and immature, but nonetheless enjoyable melodrama.
The good news, is that once you take it on its own terms, ‘The Monk’ is Gothic sensationalism turned up to eleven. Sample pictures from a google image search for this novel include:
The monk who appears in all three of the images is Ambrosio, at the start of the novel he seems to be too holy to be true … could it be that he might fall from grace? These illustrations are around a few of the dramatic set pieces, including rape, murder, ghostly visions and Lucifer carrying a dammed man to his death. The whole book is mostly a series of such events though, so I don’t think I’m giving away too much by these sample spoilers.
Nowadays Lewis would have produced a cheep exploitation film that would have been a 9 days wonder for the media to tut over. To decide if you think his novel if worth your time, I recommend you read the follow review by Coleridge (the full review can be read at http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/coleridge.reviews and also contains his views on ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ and ‘The Italian!)
I’ll give Coleridge the final word on this:
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, which, we sincerely hope, will receive its best and only adequate censure from the offended conscience of the author himself. The shameless harlotry of Matilda, and the trembling innocence of Antonia, are seized with equal avidity, as vehicles of the most voluptuous images; and though the tale is indeed a tale of horror, yet the most painful impression which the work left on our minds was that of great acquirements and a splendid genius employed to furnish a mormo* for children, a poison for youth, and a provocative for the debauchee. Tales of enchantment and witchcraft can never be useful: our author has contrived to make them pernicious, by blending, with irreverent negligence, all that is most awfully true in religion with all that is most ridiculously absurd in superstition.
Make up your own mind – by I have to confess that, for me, ‘The Monk’ will only every be a guilty pleasure and a timely reminder not to take all Gothic literature too seriously.