Physically, perhaps emotionally, Matthew Lewis somehow never quite grew up. Small and neat, with pallid, projecting eyes that reminded Sir Walter Scott of those of an insect, he always retained his fragile, boyish air. He was, moreover, so affectionate and high strung that a single kind word, particularly if it fell from the lips of a royal duchess, wight provoke a fit of nervous weeping.
It was only once Lewis had begun to write that he revealed his hidden nature, and then the wildest and most anarchic fancies would come tumbling out in uncontrolled profusion. The three volumes of his novel, ”The Monk”, written on a visit to Holland during the space of ten weeks, were published in March, 1796. The success they achieved was instantaneous. As ”Monk” Lewis he became the lion of every fashionable London party; and to heighten his fame, a horde of self-righteous reviewers savagely attacked the novel, which they pronounced ”impious”, ”libidinous”, ”poisonous”, ”corrupt” and ”obscene”. If a parent saw ”The Monk” ”in the hands of a son or daughter,” declared The Critical Review, ”he might reasonably turn pale”.
Nor, for many years to come did the story lose its gift of shocking. Even Byron, when he reread Monk in 1813, was obliged to confess that he had been slightly startled. ”These descriptions ought to have been written by Tiberius at Caprea, they are forced; the philtered ideas of a jaded voluptuary. It is to me inconceivable how they could have been composed by a man of only twenty…They have no nature- all the sour cream of cantharides.”
The severity of Byron’s criticism may nowadays strike us as a little far fetched, but the surprise he felt is understandable. Although Lewis,s private tendencies were believed to be ill-directed; Byron had heard reports of his successive ”male loves” ; otherwise he was a fairly innocuous product of the English ruling classes. Whence sprang the lurid imaginings that gave ”The Monk” its special qualities? There is no doubt he was inspired by Ann Radcliffe, but into the realms of Gothic romance he had brought a new disturbing element. Lust and cruelty, death and dissolution, rape, matricide, incest, were the subjects of which ”Monk” Lewis treated; and not content with being improper himself, he dared to suggest that certain parts of the Bible were just a unbecoming as his own productions.
In the second volume of ”The Monk” Elvira, ”that prudent mother” is said to have decided that Holy Writ, without careful censorship , was quite unsuited to a pure young girl: ”Many of the narratives can only tend to excite ideas the worst calculated for a female breast… and the annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions. ”
This passage gave extreme offense to the novelist’s more high minded readers, who, when they studies its immediate context, may well have thought that they heard the Devil preaching. For although ”Monk” contains no ”indecent expressions” and loudly advocates the call of Virtue, it was Vice that really fascinated Lewis and brought out all his youthful artistry. The scen of the opening chapter in laid in Madrid at a venerable Capuchin church and a nearby Gothic monastery, where Ambrosio, the most famous preacher of Spain, dispenses consolation to a host of penitents. Ambrosio is an extraordinarily handsome man; ” of noble port and commanding presence” , but so untouched by the sins of the flesh that his admirers like to believe that he cannot distinguish between male and female. In fact, his latent passions are just as strong as his professional vanity, and at the end of Chapter II he succumbs to the passionate advances of an adoring novice named Rosario. Luckily, Rosario proves to be a lovesick girl muffled up in Monkish trappings, but Ambrosio’s fall is none the less disastrous.
”Drunk with desire, he pressed his lips to those which sought them; his kisses vied with Matilda,s in warmth and passion: he clasped her rapturously in his arms; he forgot his vows, his sanctity, and his fame; he remembered nothing but the pleasure and opportunity. ”Ambrosio! Oh, my Ambrosio!” sighed Matilda. ”Thine ever thine”, murmured the friar, and sunk upon her bosom.”
There the curtain abruptly rings down , and Lewis, another master of suspense, plunges into the ramifications of another sub plot. The curtain does not rise again to discover Ambrosio and the false Rosario until the start of Chapter VI, after we have been wheeled around Middle Europe through a succession of wild and ghostly episodes, have escaped from a romantic robbers’ den and encountered the Bleeding Nun, an especially appalling specter.But before long, the ”licentious monk” begins to tire of his lascivious mistress. Now and then he still ”rages with desire” but Matilda,s hold is slowly weakening . The bold young woman continues to tempt him to sin, ”but she soon was aware that she had satiated her lover by the unbounded freedom of her caresses…The delirium of passion being passed, he had leisure to observe every trifling defect; where none were to be found, satiety made him fancy them.” Meanwhile, ”the overwhelming torrent of his desire,” which Matilda had so unwisely unleashed, is surging toward a new objective.
At this point the wretched Matilda chooses to accept her ”conge” . But if she cannot be Ambrosio,s bedfellow, she can at least be his accomplice; and having invoked the powers of the underworld and got the satanic hierarchy on her side, she proceeds to abet him on his loathsome schemes for ruining a beautiful and helpless virgin. She does more; she actually whets his lust by showing him, with the help of a magic mirror, the reflection of the ”enchanting girl” at a particularly unguarded moment:
”she threw off her last garment, and advancing to the bath… put her foot into the water. It struck cold, and she drew it back again. Though unconscious of being observed, an in-bred sense of modesty induced her to veil her charms, and she stood hesitating upon the brink, in the attitude of the Venus of Medicis. At this moment a tame linnet flew towards her, nestled its head between her breasts, and nibbled them in wanton play. The smiling Antonia… at length raised her hands to drive it from its delightful harbour. Ambrosio could bear no more…”I yield!” he cried, dashing the mirror upon the ground: ”Matilda, I follow you! Do with me waht you will!”
Such is the very descriptions that came very near to shocking Byron; and there are other equally voluptuous incidents in the author’s third volume where we read how Ambrosio, after various setbacks, manages to rape Antonia, only to learn they are both the children of Elvira, whom, because she surprised them in the midst of his criminal efforts, he has meanwhile done to death. Thus incest is neatly coupled with matricide, and it remains for the Evil One to make a terrific appearance and preside over the grande finale.
Monk Lewis was an enthusiastic, rather than a gifted writer. As the quotes reveal, he had a banal prose style that was redeemed by the tremendous verve and energy tht he puts into the conduct of the headlong narrative. The pace is unflagging, like that of the runaway horses he describes in Volume II, which ”dragged the carriage through hedges and ditches, dashed down the most dangerous precipices , and seemed to vie in swiftness with the rapidity of the winds” before they finally upset the vehicle.
His phantoms themselves are apt to be unconsciously loud and boisterous. And when the Bleeding Nun appears at her victim,s bedside, ”the most dreadful confusion” we are told, ”reigned through the castle. The vaulted chambers resounded with shrieks and groans; and the spectre , as she raged along the antique galleries, uttered an incoherent mxiture of prayers and blasphemies. Otto was unable to withstand the shock…”
Lewis’s romance was the climax of the eighteenth century Gothic novel. From the ”Castle of Otranto” he took its antique architectural background, from ”Vathek” its spirit of wild impiety, and from the ”Mysteries of Udolpho’, it dungeons, chains, shadows and darkly sweeping mountain landscapes. But none of these authors had dared to go so far. Alongside his elaborate pictures of lust and license he places innumerable images of decay and death. Here he outdoes the Elizabethan poets.