There seemed to have been a wave of dark or gothic literature around the end of the eighteenth century and likely into the beginning of the nineteenth century, ranging from the romantic to the macabre and outright disgusting stuff. Whether this was inspired by the horrors of the French revolution or some other underlying and earlier reason I do not know, but the book List editors certainly have an affinity for these stories.
Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk” is, as I understand it, a highly influential work that tapped into this stream. From the basic idea that power and righteousness corrupt, he wrote the twin stories of two girls who falls into the clutches of corrupt monastic rulers. Or, as considered from the other side of the table, of the fall from grace of people who were supposed to be above these things, corrupted by power and temptation.
One story is about Raymond, Agnes and the prioress of the convent of St. Clare. We meet them while she is a nun and he is attempting some covert communication with her. In flashback we get the story how he was travelling in Germany incognito (he is the son of a Marquis in Spain) where he meets and fall in love with Agnes, a guest at the castle Lindenburg. Unfortunately, the baroness of the castle, Agnes’ aunt, is deeply jealous, thinking she should get his attentions. Raymond is kicked out and Agnes comes up with a scheme to pretend to be a renowned ghost to escape with Raymond. The real ghost gets in the way, Raymond disappears and Agnes, believing him dead, joins a convent. Back in Madrid, when they are reunited, they start a clandestine affair, Agnes gets pregnant and the prioress, massively incensed by this violation of rules, confines her to die in the dungeons of the convent.
The second story concerns Antonia, Lorenzo and the abbot of the Capuchin monastery, Ambrosio. In this story Lorenzo, a nobleman, is infatuated by the pretty but demure Antonia. Antonia’s father was of nobility (and related to Raymond) but disowned by his family and Antonia’s mother is convinced that so uneven a match will not end well. At the monastery Ambrosia is a super righteous monk who is slowly being led into temptation. A young novice he cares a lot about, Rosario, turns out to be a woman, Matilda, and she becomes the instrument to gradually corrupt the Monk. They start an illicit affair, but eventually he tires from it and instead turns his attention on the pretty Antonia. Matilda seems more interested in turning the monk onto the dark path than having an actual relationship and it becomes increasingly clear she has access to dark powers. With these Ambrosia manages to get Antonia into his clutches, hiding her away in the dungeon. Will Lorenzo get to her and his sister Agnes in time?
Lewis was very young when he wrote “The Monk” and I could tell how it is driven by his urge to tell a story. It is quickly paced and covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, but it is also rambling in the sense that Lewis cannot decide exactly what story he wants to focus on and from what perspective and this gives it an almost anthology quality. There is a very important part about Ambrosia’s decent from holier than thou to be entirely in the thrall of sexual desires, ready to sacrifice every principle to satiate it. Antonia’s story is of course linked to it because she is his victim, but Lorenzo, the hero of the story, is largely relegated to an impotent observer and much less interesting to Lewis. The story of Agnes, Raymond and the prioress is, although the characters and linked to the first story, almost tangential to it with very little connection. It is a detour, an interesting one, but also so massive and different that it removes the focus from Ambrosia. I think Lewis let himself get carried away and he struggled to tie the stories together.
Thematically this is an attack on the hypocrisy of the righteous. That the vanity of religion corrupts and that we are not to trust those. It does feel a bit thin, though, and the real driver seems to me to be a desire to write a luscious and macabre story with ghosts, sorcery, pretty girls and evil people of power.
Reading up on the story before going in, I had the impression it would be way darker, maybe down the road of de Sade, but in that sense, I was happily disappointed. Sure, there is both rape and murder, but much less of it than I was led to expect, and it is not dwelling on it with sadistic glee.
The final verdict is that it is an easier and more entertaining book to read than expected but also a story strangely out of focus and unpolished. It was a bit hit in its time, but I frankly cannot see why people got so worked up on it.