, WHAT YOU WILL (1794–7)


But there is one publication of the time too peculiar and too important to be passed over in a general reprehension. There is nothing with which it may be compared. A legislator in our own parliament, a member of the House of Commons of Great Britain, an elected guardian and defender of the laws, the religion, and the good manners of the country, has neither scrupled nor blushed to depict and to publish to the world the arts of lewd and systematic seduction, and to thrust upon the nation the most open and unqualified blasphemy against the very code and volume of our religion. And all this, with his name, style, and title, prefixed to the novel or romance called 'THE MONK.' And one of our public theatres has allured the public attention still more to this novel, by a scenic representation of an Episode in it, not wholly uninteresting. 'O Proceres, Censore opus est, an Haruspice nobis?' [O ancestors! Is it a moral reformer, or an auger of evil omens? Juvenal, Satire 2] I consider this a new species of legislative or state-parricide. What is it to the kingdom at large, or what is it to all those whose office it is to maintain truth, and to instruct the rising abilities and hope of England, that the author of it is a very young man? That forsooth he is a man of genius and fancy? So much the worse. That there are very poetical descriptions of castles and abbies in this novel? So much the worse again, the novel is more alluring on that account. Is this a time to poison the waters of our land in their springs and fountains? Are we to add incitement to incitement, and corruption to corruption, till there neither is, nor can be, a return to virtuous action and to regulated life? Who knows the age of this author? I presume, very few. Who does not know, that he is a Member of Parliament? He has told us all so himself. I pretend not to know, . . . whether this be an object of parliamentary animadversion. Prudence may possibly forbid it. But we can feel that it is an object of moral and national reprehension, when a Senator openly and daringly violates his first duty to his country. There are wounds and obstructions and diseases in the political, as well as in the natural, body, for which the removal of the part affected is alone efficacious. At an hour like this, are we to stand in consultation on the remedy, when not only the disease is ascertained, but the very stage of the disease, and its specific symptoms? Are we to spare the sharpest instruments of authority and of censure, when public establishments are gangrened in the life-organs? . . . But men, however dignified in their political station, or gifted with genius and fortune and accomplishments, may at least be made ashamed, or alarmed, or convicted before the tribunal of public opinion. Before that tribunal, and to the law of reputation, and every abiding and powerful sanction by which that law is enforced, is Mr. LEWIS this day called to answer.


'THE MONK, a Romance in three volumes by M. LEWIS, Esq. M.P.' printed for Bell, Oxford Street. At first I thought that the name and title of the author were fictitious, and some of the public papers hinted it. But I have been solemnly and repeatedly assured, that it is the writing and publication of M. LEWIS Esq. Member of Parliament. It is sufficient for me to point out Chap. 7. of Vol. 2. As a composition, the work would have been better, if the offensive and scandalous passages had been omitted, and it is disgraced by a diablerie and nonsense fitted only to frighten children in the nursery. I believe this 7th Chap. of Vol. 2. is actionable at Common Law. Edmund Curl in the first year of George II. was prosecuted by the Attorney General (Sir Philip Yorke afterwards Lord Hardwicke) for printing two obscene books. The Attorney General set for the several obscene passages, and concluded, that it was an offence against the King's peace. The defendant was found guilty and set in the pillory. . . . We know the proceedings against the book, entitled 'Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,' by John Cleland. To the passages of obscenity, (which certainly I shall not copy in this place) Mr. Lewis has added blasphemy against the Scriptures; if the following passage may be considered as such.

'He (the Monk) examined the book which she (Antonia) had been reading, and had now placed upon the table. It was THE BIBLE, 'How,' said the Prior to himself, 'Antonia reads the Bible, and is still so ignorant?' But upon further inspection he found that Elvira (the mother of Antonia) had made exactly the same remark. That prudent mother, while she admired the beauties of THE SACRED WRITINGS, was convinced, that unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman. Many of the narratives can only tend to excite ideas the worst calculated for a female breast; every thing is called roundly and plainly by it's own name; and the annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions. Yet this is the book which young women are recommended to study, which is put into the hands of children, able to comprehend little more than those passages of which they had better remain ignorant, and which but too frequently inculcate the first rudiments of vice, and give the first alarm to the still sleeping passions. Of this Elvira was so fully convinced, that she would have preferred putting into her daughter's hands Amadis de Gaul, or the Valiant Champion Tirante the White; and would sooner have authorised her studying the lewd exploits of Don Galaor, or the lascivious jokes of the Damzel Plazer de mi vida.' (p. 247, 248.) &c.

I state only what is printed. It is for others to read it and to judge. The falsehood of this passage is not more gross than it's impiety. In the case of Thomas Woolston, in the 2d. of George II. for blasphemous discourses against our Saviour's miracles, when arrest of judgment was moved, Lord Raymond and the whole Court declared they would not suffer it to be debated, whether to write against Christianity in general (not concerning controverted points between the learned, but in general) was not an offence punishable in the temporal Courts of Common Law. Woolston was imprisoned one year, and entered into a large recognizance for his good behaviour during life. Sir Philip Yorke, afterwards Lord Hardwicke, was Attorney General at the time. The case of the King against Annet, when the Hon. Charles Yorke was Attorney General, (3d of Geo. III.) for a blasphemous book entitled 'The Free Inquirer,' tending, among other points, to ridicule, traduce and discredit the HOLY SCRIPTURES, is well known to the profession. The punishment was uncommonly severe. Whether the passage I have quoted in a popular novel, has not a tendency to corrupt the minds of the people, and of the younger unsuspecting part of the female sex, by traducing and discrediting THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, is a matter of public consideration. – 'This book goes all over the kingdom;' are the words of Judge Reynolds, in the case of E. Curl. What Mr. LEWIS has printed publicly with his name, that I state publicly to the nation. Few will dissent from the opinion of Lord Raymond and the Court, in the case of Curl above stated, as reported by Strange and Barnardiston to this effect; 'Religion is part of the common law, 'and therefore whatever is an offence against that, is an offence against THE COMMON Law.' With this opinion, I conclude the note.

[SOURCE: Thomas Mathias, The Pursuits of Literature, Fourth Part, 3rd edn (London: T. Becket, 1797), pp. ii–v]

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