THE MONK (1796)


Lewis read a copy of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in May 1794 as he crossed the Channel to take up his post as attaché at the British embassy at The Hague. He had been working desultorily on his own romance The Monk and was suddenly galvanized into completing it: ‘I was induced to go on with it by reading “the Mysteries of Udolpho”, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting Books that ever have been published’ (letter to his mother, 18 May 1794). When The Monk appeared in March 1796 it created an instant sensation due to its sexual violence and lurid descriptions. Lewis foolishly bragged on the title page that he had just been elected a Member of Parliament, which made the novel’s immorality even more threatening. (It is a curious irony that William Beckford’s seat as MP for Hindon was taken by Monk Lewis.) In response to an attack by Mathias urging that Lewis be prosecuted for blasphemy and obscenity, Lewis expurgated the offending passages from future editions. Coleridge agreed with Mathias in his criticism of the novel and Byron, a flaunter of convention himself, nevertheless noted in his journal that the offending parts of the novel ‘ought to have been written by Tiberius at Caprea – they are forced – the philtered ideas of a jaded voluptuary’. Though Lewis’s fame was established by this one novel – he was henceforth known as ‘Monk Lewis’ – he was also a very skilled poet (e.g. 'Alonzo th Brave' and a very popular dramatist (e.g. The Castle Spectre).
          The novel reflects Lewis’s homosexuality (he never married, and had a long relationship with William Kelly, son of Isabella Kelly, the author of half a dozen Gothic romances) as well as his subversive desire to shock his morally complacent elders (Lewis was 19 when he wrote the novel). Ambrosio falls in love with Matilda while she is disguised as a novice; his desire is not consummated until after she reveals herself as a woman, but a homoerotic ambience has been established, and is intensified when she later reveals herself as not really a woman either, but a male demon. However, Matilda exhibits passionate desires that are not congruent with the cold calculation of a demon. Lewis’s analysis of repressed desire is compelling whether Matilda is male or female, human or demonic.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)

The burst of transport was passed: Ambrosio’s lust was satisfied. Pleasure fled, and Shame usurped her seat in his bosom. Confused and terrified at his weakness, he drew himself from Matilda’s arms: his perjury presented itself before him: he reflected on the scene which had just been acted, and trembled at the consequences of a discovery: he looked forward with horror: his heart was despondent, and became the abode of satiety and disgust: he avoided the eyes of his partner in frailty. A melancholy silence prevailed, during which both seemed busied with disagreeable reflections.
          Matilda was the first to break it. She took his hand gently, and pressed it to her burning lips.
          ‘Ambrosio!’ she murmured, in a soft and trembling voice.
          The abbot started at the sound: he turned his eyes upon Matilda’s; they were filled with tears; her cheeks were covered with blushes, and her supplicating looks seemed to solicit his compassion.
         'Dangerous woman!’ said he; ‘into what an abyss of misery have you plunged me! Should your sex be discovered, my honour, nay, my life, must pay for the pleasure of a few moments. Fool that I was, to trust myself to your seductions! What can now be done? How can my offence be expiated? What atonement can purchase the pardon of my crime? Wretched Matilda, you have destroyed my quiet for ever!’
          ‘To me these reproaches, Ambrosio? to me, who have sacrificed for you the world’s pleasures, the luxury of wealth, the delicacy of sex, my friends, my fortune, and my fame! What have you lost which I preserved? Have I not shared in your guilt? Have you not shared in my pleasure? – Guilt, did I say? – In what consists ours, unless in the opinion of an ill-judging world? Let that world be ignorant of them, and our joys become divine and blameless! – Unnatural were your vows of celibacy; man was not created for such a state: and were love a crime, God never would have made it so sweet, so irresistible! Then banish those clouds from your brow, my Ambrosio. Indulge in those pleasures freely, without which life is a worthless gift. Cease to reproach me with having taught you what is bliss, and feel equal transports with the woman who adores you!’
          As she spoke, her eyes were filled with a delicious languour: her bosom panted: she twined her arms voluptuously round him, drew him towards her, and glued her lips to his. Ambrosio again raged with desire: the die was thrown: his vows were already broken: he had already committed the crime, and why should he refrain from enjoying its reward? He clasped her to his breast with redoubled ardour. No longer repressed by the sense of shame, he gave a loose to his intemperate appetites; while the fair wanton put every invention of lust in practice, every refinement in the art of pleasure, which might heighten the bliss of her possession, and render her lover’s transports still more exquisite. Ambrosio rioted in delights till then unknown to him. Swift fled the night, and the morning blushed to behold him still clasped in the embraces of Matilda.
          Intoxicated with pleasure, the monk rose from the siren’s luxurious couch: he no longer reflected with shame upon his incontinence, or dreaded the vengeance of offended heaven: his only fear was lest death should rob him of enjoyments, for which his long fast had only given a keener edge to his appetite. Matilda was still under the influence of poison; and the voluptuous monk trembled less for his preserver’s life than his concubine’s. Deprived of her, he would not easily find another mistress with whom he could indulge his passions so fully, and so safely; he therefore pressed her with earnestness to use the means of preservation which she had declared to be in her possession.
          ‘Yes!’ replied Matilda; ‘since you have made me feel that life is valuable, I will rescue mine at any rate. No dangers shall appal me: I will look upon the consequences of my action boldly, nor shudder at the horrors which they present: I will think my sacrifice scarcely worthy to purchase your possession; and remember, that a moment passed in your arms in this world, o’erpays an age of punishment in the next. But before I take this step, Ambrosio, give me your solemn oath never to enquire by what means I shall preserve myself.’
          He did so, in a manner the most binding.
          ‘I thank you, my beloved. This precaution is necessary; for, though you know it not, you are under the command of vulgar prejudices. The business on which I must be employed this night might startle you from its singularity, and lower me in your opinion. Tell me, are you possessed of the key of the low door on the western side of the garden?’
          ‘The door which opens into the burying-ground common to us and the sisterhood of St. Clare? I have not the key, but can easily procure it.’
          ‘You have only this to do. Admit me into the burying-ground at midnight. Watch while I descend into the vaults of St. Clare, lest some prying eye should observe my actions. Leave me there alone for an hour, and that life is safe which I dedicate to your pleasures. To prevent creating suspicion, do not visit me during the day. Remember the key, and that I expect you before twelve. Hark! I hear steps approaching! Leave me; I will pretend to sleep.’
          The friar obeyed, and left the cell. . . .
          The night arrived. Ambrosio had taken care to procure from the porter the key of the low door opening into the cemetery. Furnished with this, when all was silent in the monastery, he quitted his cell, and hastened to Matilda’s. She had left her bed, and was dressed before his arrival.
          ‘I have been expecting you with impatience,’ said she; ‘my life depends upon these moments. Have you the key?’
          ‘I have.’
          ‘Away then to the garden. We have no time to lose. Follow me!’
          She took a small covered basket from the table. Bearing this in one hand, and the lamp, which was flaming upon the hearth, in the other, she hastened from the cell. Ambrosio followed her. Both maintained a profound silence. She moved on with quick but cautious steps, passed throught he cloisters, and reached the western side of the garden: her eyes flashed with a fire and wildness which impressed the monk at once with awe and horror. A determined desperate courage reigned upon her brow: she gave the lamp to Ambrosio; then taking from him the key, she unlocked the low door, and entered the cemetery. It was a vast and spacious square, planted with yew-trees; half of it belonged to the abbey, the other half was the property of the sisterhood of St. Clare, and was protected by a roof of stone: the division was marked by an iron railing, the wicket of which was generally left unlocked.
          Thither Matilda bent her course: she opened the wicket, and sought for the door leading to the subterraneous vaults where reposed the mouldering bodies of the votaries of St. Clare. The night was perfectly dark; neither moon nor stars were visible. Luckily there was not a breath of wind, and the friar bore his lamp in full security: by the assistance of its beams, the door of the sepulchre was soon discovered. It was sunk within the hollow of a wall, and almost concealed by thick festoons of ivy hanging over it. . . .
          Near an hour had elapsed since Matilda descended into the caverns; still she returned not. Ambrosio’s curiosity was excited. He drew near the staircase – he listened – all was silent, except that at intervals he caught the sound of Matilda’s voice, as it wound along the subterraneous passages, and was re-echoed by the sepulchre’s vaulted roofs. She was at too great a distance for him to distinguish her words, and ere they reached him, they were deadened into a low murmur. He longed to penetrate into this mystery. He resolved to disobey her injunctions, and follow her into the cavern. He advanced to the staircase; he had already descended some steps, when his courage failed him. He remembered Matilda’s menaces, if he infringed her orders; and his bosom was filled with a secret unaccountable awe. He returned up the stairs, resumed his former station, and waited impatiently for the conclusion of this adventure.
          Suddenly he was sensible of a violent shock. An earthquake rocked the ground, the columns which supported the roof under which he stood were so strongly shaken, that every moment menaced him with its fall, and at the same moment he heard a loud and tremendous burst of thunder: it ceased, and his eyes being fixed upon the staircase, he saw a bright column of light flash along the caverns beneath. It was seen but for an instant. No sooner did it disappear, than all was once more quiet and obscure. Profound darkness again surrounded him, and the silence of night was only broken by the whirring bat, as she flitted slowly by him.
          With every instant Ambrosio’s amazement increased. Another hour elapsed, after which the same light again appeared, and was lost again as suddenly. It was accompanied by a strain of sweet but solemn music, which, as it stole through the vaults below, inspired the monk with mingled delight and terror. It had not long been hushed, when he heard Matilda’s steps upon the staircase. She ascended from the cavern; the most lively joy animated her beautiful features.
          ‘Did you see any thing?’ she asked.
          ‘Twice I saw a column of light flash up the staircase.’
          ‘Nothing else?’
          ‘The morning is on the point of breaking, let us retire to the abbey, lest day-light should betray us.’
          With a light step she hastened from the burying-ground. She regained her cell, and the curious abbot still accompanied her. She closed the door, and disembarrassed herself of her lamp and basket.
          ‘I have succeeded!’ she cried, throwing herself upon his bosom; ‘succeeded beyond my fondest hopes! I shall live, Ambrosio, shall live for you! The step which I shuddered at taking proves to me a source of joys inexpressible! Oh that I dared communicate those joys to you! Oh that I were permitted to share with you my power, and raise you as high above the level of your sex, as one bold deed has exalted me above mine!’
          ‘And what prevents you, Matilda?’ interrupted the friar. ‘Why is your business in the cavern made a secret? Do you think me undeserving of your confidence? Matilda, I must doubt the truth of your affection, while you have joys in which I am forbidden to share.’
          ‘You reproach me with injustice; I grieve sincerely that I am obliged to conceal from you my happiness: but I am not to blame; the fault lies not in me, but in yourself, my Ambrosio. You are still too much the monk, your mind is enslaved by the prejudices of education; and superstition might make you shudder at the idea of that which experience has taught me to prize and value. At present you are unfit to be trusted with a secret of such importance; but the strength of your judgment, and the curiosity which I rejoice to see sparkling in your eyes, makes me hope that you will one day deserve my confidence. Till that period arrives, restrain your impatience. Remember that you have given me your solemn oath, never to enquire into this night’s adverntures. I insist upon your keeping this oath; for though,’ she added smiling, while she sealed his lips with a wanton kiss, ‘though I forgive you breaking your vows to heaven, I expect you to keep your vows to me.’

[SOURCE: M. G. Lewis, The Monk, 3 vols (Waterford: J. Saunders, 1796), vol. 2, pp. 174–9, 183–5, 192–6]

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