The Monk, written by Matthew Lewis, is reviewed by Peter Etherington.
Penguin Classics, 386pp
Review by Peter Etherington
Written by a twenty-year-old MP, Matthew Lewis, in 1796, its blasphemous and sexual content caused a stir, and led to its sensational success – the readers of the day eager to get their hands on something risqué. The content is strong stuff, and while some of the descriptions fall short of the full confessional you might get in a modern thriller or steamy romance, they’re still spicy. Incest, murder, and rape never quite lose their je ne sais quoi, do they?
The main character is Ambrosio, a revered monk who is so devout he never leaves his Madrid monastery to enter the sinful world beyond. The faithful come from far and wide to hear his sermons, the women appreciating not only his purity and wisdom, but his piercing eyes and capacity to set their hearts aflutter. The high esteem the public hold him in is not lost on Ambrosio, whose pride is his one secret sin. It’s not long before he adds a few others, led down the path of corruption by a young boy, Rosario, a mysterious, masked fellow monk.
Antonia, an innocent young girl of fifteen, becomes the object of Ambrosio’s desires. This ultimately peeves a young nobleman, Don Lorenzo, who falls in love with her at one of Ambrosio’s sermons. Lorenzo has two friends, Don Raymond and Don Christoval, and together all three are honour-bound hotheads. They brandish swords at their best mate if they discover he fancies their sister, fall in love at the drop of a hat and become bedridden with grief if their sweethearts die.
Don Raymond is in love with Agnes, a doubly forbidden desire since she is a sister both to the Church and his best friend Lorenzo. Antonia’s spinster aunt Leonella fancies Christoval, but he’s not arsed about her. And so on.
The chapter describing the relationship between Ambrosio and the boy Rosario is sweepingly romantic and crammed with much hand-wringing about temptation and irresistible desire. The intricate relationships are all part of the appeal of this style of romantic gothic tale.
The novel is also sprinkled throughout with charming poems, songs and stories. The ghost story of the Bleeding Nun is dark and brooding; and there’s the Wandering Jew, the (racist-sounding) legend of the Jew who taunted Jesus on His way to the Crucifixion and is doomed to live forever and never stay in the same place for more than a fortnight. He (perhaps aptly) appears in other fiction of the era, such as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
The Monk is the 18th century version of a bestselling Stephen King or Stieg Larsson, all wrapped up in a fast-paced, well-written plot with great surprises, vicious characters, bandits, villains, horrific moments, and a devastating ending. Choice juicy bit: “… two coral lips were visible, ripe, fresh, and melting, and a chin, in whose dimples seemed to lurk a thousand Cupids.”
I read the odd classic now and again, and some, frankly, are a bit of a pain in the arse to get through. (Ovid’s Metamorphoses: classic? Yes. Unputdownable? No.) The Monk was a joy to read, gripping and fun throughout. It’s the kind of classic you could recommend to someone who just reads Lee Childs or J.K. Rowling and stand a good chance of being thanked.