By Henry Ceffalio
In September of 1794, a nineteen year old diplomat in The Hague wrote to his mother that he had been attempting to write a gothic romance: “It is called ‘The Monk’ and I am myself so pleased with it that, if the booksellers will not buy it, I will publish it myself” (Peck 36). Four years later, Matthew Gregory Lewis would be threatened with legal persecution for an infamous novel that sustained vitriolic attack. Sir Walter Scott would write, “‘The Monk’ was so highly popular that it seemed to create an epoch in our literature” (51).
This paper will explore the extensive and intricate controversy which Matthew Lewis’s The Monk engendered from its publication in March of 1796 to its ultimate expurgation in February of 1798. I will focus specifically on the novel’s published reviews and responses found in magazines, periodicals, and newspapers from this time frame. What do written criticisms of The Monk reveal about the political, moral, and religious attitudes of England in the late 1790s? I will contend that there was much more at stake than the literary merit of a popular novel: anti-Lewis rhetoricians used the novel to advance social critiques that chastised irreligion, moral depravity, and the corruption of the aristocracy within the context of a conservative reaction to the French Revolution in England.
I will sort reviews of The Monk into two key categories: reviews in the year 1796, when the novel was anonymous, and reviews from 1797 and 1798, when the author was revealed to be MP Matthew Lewis, ESQ. The few reviews from the first category were scattered but generally positive. The many reviews from the second category were indignant, disparaging, and affronted by the text’s perceived immorality. In 1797, publications utilised the many impurities in The Monk to forward their conservative, anti-Revolutionary religious and moral beliefs. The crucial fact to The Monk’s detractors, beyond its moral turpitude, was that the author was an aristocrat, a Member of Parliament, and an unmistakably excellent writer.
An interpretation of the controversy requires an understanding of the primary source. The Monk is a violent, salacious, and unsettling story penned with graphic detail. Ambrosio is a Spanish monk seduced by a woman named Matilda, a demon in disguise. Matilda summons Lucifer so that Ambrosio can deflower a fifteen-year-old girl named Antonia. The Devil ultimately gives Ambrosio a myrtle bough that grants him the ability to rape Antonia without her knowing. Ambrosio tries to rape Antonia, but her mother enters her bedroom and Ambrosio murders her instead. Matilda convinces Ambrosio to concoct another potion. This time, the magic allows Ambrosio to successfully rape Antonia, who he then murders. Lewis reveals at the novel’s end that Ambrosio and Antonia are siblings, thereby adding incest and matricide to Ambrosio’s brimming list of sins. Numerous poems are interspersed and a subplot features a riot, the burning of a convent, and the Bleeding Nun. Lewis’s sensational story is complemented by vivid, explicit prose. When Ambrosio rapes Antonia, Lewis spares no detail: “He fastened his lips greedily upon hers, sucked in her licious breath, violated with his bold hand the treasures of her bosom, and wound around him her soft and yielding limbs” (233). Lewis’s depictions of rape and murder maintain this vitality throughout the novel, especially in contrast with the innocence of Antonia. The Monk is beyond risqué. It is a strikingly violent, sexually explicit, sensational novel.
I. The First Edition and Mixed Early Reviews
How did English readers initially react to such a seemingly dissolute story? The responses vary by which version was in circulation. The first version of The Monk was published anonymously on March 12th, 1796 (Parreaux 19). Matthew Lewis was elected to Parliament that July (87). His novel was successful enough to demand a second edition, published in October of 1796, signed M.P. Matthew Gregory Lewis (Peck 35). The year of 1796 thus represents the only period when The Monk had no author. It was not until Samuel Taylor Coleridge in February of 1797 that a review of The Monk mentioned Matthew Lewis’s name. The response to the unattributed novel in 1796 reveals the more authentic judgement of literary critics who were yet to be affected by the controversy’s moral and political attributes. Only two reviews of substance exist before the second edition was released: The Monthly Mirror bestowed uninhibited acclaim, while The Flapper assumed a tone of dismissive scepticism.
The Monthly Mirror ran what is likely the first review of The Monk, and certainly the most glowing (Peck 45). The reviewer stated The Monk is written “in a most masterly and impressive manner” and that “we really do not remember to have read a more interesting production.” The Monthly Mirror complemented Lewis’s proficient ability to capture human desire: “The strongest passions are finely delineated and exemplified in the progress of artful temptation working on self-sufficient pride, superstition, and lasciviousness” (98). This exceedingly flattering review exemplified the intrinsic qualities of The Monk that made it such a popular and enduring novel. Such a peculiarly aberrant narrative had a great degree of allure. Likewise, Lewis’s prose and storytelling was, as nearly every review would declare, both ambitious and deft (Parreaux 75). Diarists that mentioned The Monk, for example, often complemented its literary features as well as its startling imagery (Parreaux 71). The Monthly Mirror wrote both the first and the most wholly positive review of The Monk from any point between 1796 and 1800. This is, as I will show, no coincidence. This reviewer was concerned solely with the literary quality of the book, not its morality. The Monthly Mirror did not foretell the nascent scandal, but rather suggested the presence of an enthralling new novel.
The Flapper published the first negative review of The Monk in September of 1796. The author, under the pseudonym Aurelius, was neither indignant nor moralising like his later peers would be. He was chiefly sceptical and dismissive. Aurelius criticised that no effective moral could be drawn from the story because the temptations which Ambrosio resists are too great for any man to withstand. He provided a lengthy summary of the book and stated that certain descriptions of sex and violence are “wanton and immodest” (Aurelius 1). To conclude, the author cited a passage where Antonia’s mother calls the Bible “indecent” and prevents her daughter from reading it. This passage would become the nexus of the controversy in later months. Aurelius, however, critiqued it with a sort of sarcastic pompousness: “what a pity that the author has not followed up this notable discovery, by presenting the world with a new edition of the Bible, purged of its immoralities by his own chaste hand” (4). Aurelius was not affronted by the passage, but rather dismissive of such a seemingly farcical interpretation of the Bible. The Flapper was the only negative review of The Monk to be found in the first eleven months of its literary life. Aurelius certainly disliked the novel and considered it indecent, but did not associate it with any larger social shortcomings. The sensational immodesty of The Monk was in plain sight but the English public did not take offence to it. Their response was scattered and limited: just two reviews in 1796 contrastingly offered unfettered praise or sceptical dismissal.
“Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene” is a poem in The Monk that was reprinted throughout daily newspapers and monthly publications in 1796. The poem was considered unique for the 1790s because it revived the tradition of the ancient ballad but framed it within a new arrangement of stanza and verse (Parreaux 55). David Rivers, who wrote a strong condemnation of Lewis’s character in 1798, said of this particular poem that he could “seldom recollect having seen a better specimen of this kind” (372). In July of 1796, The Morning Chronicle printed the poem and added that it was “very admirable” (Parreaux 55). The Star in August and The Gentleman’s Magazine in September also featured this poem. Even The Lady’s Magazine in August included “Alonzo the Brave,” which it stated was to be appropriated to its readers’ “use and amusement” (373-4). It is also seen in The Free-Mason’s Magazine, Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, and The Scots Magazine, the last of whom would run a fierce response to The Monk in 1802. The poetry in The Monk is still regarded as particularly influential and unique for the 1790s, and this quality was recognized immediately (Parreaux 55). In 1797, The Monk would come under vigorous attack in print, and few wanted to associate themselves with the text or the author. But in 1796, before Lewis’s name was revealed, these publications were amenable to reprinting a poem from what would shortly become a supposedly immoral novel. Such is the totality of the response to the nameless novel.
II. The Monk as a Post-Revolution Rhetorical Tool
The discourse about the novel significantly grew and critically changed when Lewis’s name and rank were featured on the second edition. Beginning in February of 1797, there was an onslaught of disparaging reviews from esteemed authors in widely-read publications in England. Part III will uncover why specifically Lewis’s name stoked the controversy. Here, I will show that the perceived impiety of The Monk was largely contrived as a rhetorical tool for conservative publications to decry the falling moral and religious standards of their nation, particularly as a response to the French Revolution.
Reviews from The British Critic encapsulate both the superficiality and rhetorical intention of the scandal surrounding The Monk. The British Critic treated The Monk very loosely upon its release. In a very short notice from June of 1796, they stated that “good talents” had been misapplied to an indecorous romance (677). In September of 1798, they retracted their earlier statements with a much fuller and harsher review. They even chose to justify their previously neutral appraisal:
When we reviewed “The Monk”, it had not yet gained any celebrity; we therefore condemned it in a few strong words, such as we thought calculated to extinguish curiosity, which might perhaps be perniciously raised by a particular account of the demerits of an indecent work. Had we written upon a later period, when its circulation was unhappily established, we should have sought the strongest words we could collect, to express our disapprobation and abhorrence.(The British Critic 180).
The British Critic defended their tepid response by explaining how they wished not to inspire reader curiosity. The British Critic, however, was openly unfavourable with many texts, making this strategy appear to be a rather dubious excuse (de Montluzin 241). More likely, The British Critic initially “did not detect any trace of immorality in the book” and deemed it worthy of no more than a short rebuttal (Parreaux 89). Two years later, they realised what they might gain from using The Monk as a rhetorical tool. Or, they were embarrassed by their earlier appraisal. This demonstrates the superficiality in The Monk’s controversy. The exact same objectors who dismissed it in 1796 became outraged in 1798. The Monk, to this effect, was something of a contrived controversy used for a specific rhetorical purpose.
We must see who critiqued The Monk to grasp its power in political and cultural discourses. The British Critic was founded by The Society for the Reformation of Principles and considered “one of the most puissant defenders of Christianity in the British Isles” (Parreaux 75). They were aligned with intellectuals like Edmund Burke, who fostered the modern sense of conservatism in the post-Revolution 1790s. Broadly, they decried decaying moral standards and attacks on religious institutions as antithetical to the traditional worldview which the French Revolution uprooted (Schofield 612). The Monk is teeming with sexual immodesties and perversions of Christian symbols and values. Indeed, all of the horrors of the novel spawn from and exist within Christian iconography. Conservative, anti-revolutionary forces thus found an emblem of immoral and irreligious social ills in Lewis’s novel. The British Critic, for example, specifically tied its critique of The Monk to wider rhetorical aims: “Anyone who points out its turpitude, and seductive tendency, pays a homage to virtue and religion” (306). The stakes were raised beyond literary merit. An acknowledgment of The Monk’s immorality supported social abstractions like moral or religious righteousness. The Monk was orchestrated into a symbol of everything The British Critic would stand against: irreligion, moral decadence, etc. The Monk thus found itself amidst debates regarding politics, philosophy, and religion.
The European Magazine was likewise a distinctly conservative publication that consistently upheld the authority of Christian religious values, attacked proponents of the French Revolution, and lamented the laxing of moral standards (Roe 40). A review in February of 1797 directly connected The Monk to a perceived problem of irreligion. The reviewer first speculated that Lewis’s intention might have been “to attack religious orders, and of course, religion itself, by exhibiting the most extreme depravity of its most eminent disciples.” It then deemed the text “a science of darkness and devils” (111). The Monk was unacceptable because “the Continent teemed with compositions of this character while the Revolution was preparing in France.” The French Revolution had shown that there exists “no page in the history of bigotry to parallel the enormities that have been perpetrated in the present day by democratic enthusiasts and atheistical devotees” (115). This displays The Monk’s utility in conservative, anti-revolutionary literature. The Monk, for these magazines, was an attack upon traditional religious values and supported atheistic, pro-Revolutionary aims. This is the critical feature to The Monk scandal: a lewd text with deviant religious images transformed into a tool by conservative publications to condemn the corrupted worldview plaguing Christian England.
The Monk, however, is set in Spain, a staunchly Catholic nation. Modern scholarship regards anti-catholicism as one of the salient themes in the novel, sharing in the tradition of gothic romances like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Anna Radcliffe’s The Italian (Blakemore 524). Why did The Monk’s unsightly portrayal of Roman Catholicism rouse the ire of the most militant section of Protestant English churches? Indeed, these reviews frame the text as irreligious, not anti-catholic. André Parreaux argues that to religious interests in England, “the main danger came not from Rome, but from infidelity” (Parreaux 88). The French Revolution was seen as an attack on the traditions of organised Christianity in general, not just Catholicism. The threat of irreligion was greater than the threat of a Catholic monarch in London. Thus, in 1797, The Monk was perceived as a threat against religion in general, when it might otherwise have been labelled as a libel on Roman Catholicism.
How did France, the nation underpinning so much discussion in the Isles, react to the great Monk controversy? When The Monk was translated into French in 1797 its literary merit was applauded by most French critics. Le Décade Philosophique expressed their approval of the novel in a discussion centred largely upon the characters and their desires. They also commended, with some degree of sarcasm, the veracity behind Lewis’s depiction of monastic life: “on l’aurait cru écrit en Espagne ou en Italie, tant la race monastique y est bien représentée” (Décade 296). Spectateur du Nord featured a piece that discussed Le Moine in comparison with the gothic contemporaries of Radcliffe and Walpole. It was very positive on the whole to the literary merit of the piece: “l’écrivain a dans le style plus de ressources pour faire un bon tableau, que le peintre avec son pinceau et ses couleur” (Spectateur 325). Regardless of the political atmosphere in 1797, French reviews of The Monk were primarily concerned with the merit of the literature, not its morality. Neither Le Décade Philosophique nor Spectateur du Nord nor The Monthly Mirror, the three most positive reviews, tied Lewis’s novel into any wider political or social cause. By contrast, nearly all of its detractors associated The Monk with the conservative, traditional worldviews of their publications at large.
III. “Not Without Mark of Genius” – Lewis as an Author
But why was it only the second edition that engendered considerable attention and pointed rhetorical attacks? A possible explanation is that only after a year in circulation was The Monk popular enough to be noticed by these magazines. But this is only a somewhat veritable rationale. The British Critic chose to use The Monk rhetorically in 1798, and not 1796. Both them and The Flapper were rather apathetic and dismissive towards the first edition in 1796. The second edition is not more sordid than the first; the French Revolution and Reign of Terror were temporally closer. In this part, I will argue that the social and political status of Matthew Lewis was an essential fact in turning The Monk into a literary controversy. It both heightened the potency of the criticism and forwarded an argument that aristocrats ought to be tokens of upstanding behaviour to the rest of the nation. Matthew Lewis’s two most important critics were likewise two of England’s most significant literary minds: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas James Mathias. Their attacks mirrored the conservatism of The British Critic and The European Magazine. However, they attacked Lewis specifically on his credentials as a legislator of aristocratic background.
We must understand Matthew Lewis’s position within the context of the 1790s’ popular ideas about manners and civility before we interpret Coleridge and Mathias’s arguments. A prominent belief in the late eighteenth century was that the upper classes must be catalysts for social change. Aristocrats should inspire the respectability of lower classes by setting a proper example of traditional, civilised behaviour (Parreaux 81). Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society, the argument of which matched its title, stated that, “Reformation must begin with the GREAT, or it will never be effectual. Their example is the fountain from whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions, and characters” (114). Likewise, in 1789, Wesley’s Arminian Magazine blamed “the great and opulent” for having contaminated the manners and morals of the nation (496). We find this argument repeated in An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World and An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society (Parreaux 84). The Gentleman’s Magazine, which wrote about The Monk multiple times, stated that “the reformation must always begin with the higher classes of society” and condemned ill-manners among elites (51). Matthew Lewis was born into an aristocratic family. His father was the Under-Secretary of War. He had been educated at Christ College, Oxford and elected to Parliament at the age of twenty (Peck 13). In the minds of many, the development and enlightenment of England’s population was dependent on a man with the precise qualifications of M. P Matthew Greogry Lewis.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge directly voices this contention. Coleridge was an eminent poet and literary critic who, when The Monk debuted, was beginning to align his reputation more with social conservatism than poetic romanticism (Landess 847). His assessment in The Critical Review in February of 1797 represented the most comprehensive review of The Monk to date and the first to mention Lewis’s station and directly attack him for it. Coleridge’s thesis was that Lewis holds “insufficient respect” and is perhaps an “infidel” towards what he considered to be genuine religious truths. Lewis’s descriptions were “the most voluptuous” and his book at large is unfit to be published because “if a parent saw in the the hands of a son or a daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.” His anti-Lewis case framed the novel as some attack against traditional morals and religion, an echo of his contemporaries in The European Magazine and The British Critic. But unlike those reviews, Coleridge only tangentially connected this to partisan political objectives. The most clear attack was upon Lewis’s ethos: “Nor must it be forgotten that the author is a man of rank and fortune. – Yes! the author of the Monk signs himself a LEGISLATOR! – We stare and tremble” (197). This was the conclusion to Coleridge’s review and his most rhetorically theatrical argument. Coleridge believed it was a grave social problem that a man of clear wealth and power wrote such a licentious text. Coleridge was upset with the changing morals of a society at large; a man of such ostensible refinement writing The Monk hence showed how deeply rooted these moral ills had become. The phrase “We stare and tremble” reflected critics’ fear that even the aristocracy has been imbued with such moral ills, with the direct potential to corrupt the entirety of England (Parreaux 90).
In July of 1797, Thomas James Mathias published a strikingly more cruel response than that of Colerdige. Mathias launched his attack of “bold partisan fury” in his very conservative satirical magazine The Pursuits of Literature (Parreaux 107). His review matched the politically oriented attacks of his predecessors: he called The Monk “an object of national and moral reprehension” whose author aimed to “poison the waters of our land” (v). But his review focused specifically on Lewis’s role as a public representative :
A legislator in our own parliament 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 unqualified blasphemy against the very code and volume of our religion.(ii.).
Mathias’s rhetorical strategy was to juxtapose all the supposed duties of a legislator with the horrors of his book. He thus accepted that a man in the position of Lewis should have better morals than to conceive a story like this. He stated that a legislator writing The Monk “thrust upon the nation” moral ills, thus condemning Lewis for using his power to debauch the nation at large (ii). Furthermore, the moral corruption he perceived as plaguing the nation permeated well beyond rebellious sects but into men of rank and fortune. His link between The Monk and the station of its author thus significantly augmented the urgency and vigour of the argument.
The clearest attack on the station of Matthew Lewis came from a collective biography by David Rivers titled Literary Memoirs of Living Authors of Great Britain. Lewis’s biographer began by praising the “literary merit” of The Monk. He stated that, “it displays considerable marks of genius and ability in the writer” (371). But with regard to the “moral merit,” he wrote,
That a gentleman by birth, who has given us proofs of a liberal education and considerable talents, and who was honoured, at his very entrance into manhood, with a seat in the venerated senate of his country, should have been guilty of so flagrant an outrage against decency and propriety… is a circumstance not the least remarkable in the history of the times.(Rivers 371).
Rivers stated that the moral corruption of The Monk coming from a man like Lewis is a substantially greater offence. He implied a man like Lewis must have better morals than this, and the fact he did not emblematized a pernicious and wide social ill. Of this review, Parreaux writes, “Lewis’s case was clear. Here was one of those dissolute members of the upper classes who corrupted the poor by their wickedness and the bad examples they set, forgetful of their duties” (Parreaux 371-2). In the 1790s, there was little separation between the author and their work. A novel was thought to be a product of the author’s experience, not their imagination. Coleridge, Mathias, and Rivers all lamented the status of The Monk’s author to enhance larger critiques about the decaying moral fabric of the aristocracy and the nation at large.
However, each review found a way to complement Matthew Lewis’s skill as an author, with the word “genius” regularly printed next to his name. The Flapper said the novel was “neat and appropriate” and the poetry “of real merit” (1). The European Magazine was openly hostile but remarked that the novel had “the irresistible energy of genius” (111). The British Critic assumed the same tone but admitted that it was “in many parts genius” (306). Coleridge spent the first half of his review attesting to Lewis’s literary merit, asserting that it was “the offspring of no common genius” (195). True, the word “genius” had a less exalted association in the eighteenth century than today. Yet, if there was such open hostility to the morality of Matthew Lewis’s novel, why did reviewers consistently find it necessary to complement the skill of Lewis’s writing? Perhaps The Monk was so demonstrably genius that one couldn’t spurn Lewis’s skill. Perhaps reviewers wished to appear unbiased and thus ascribed value to the least consequential aspect of The Monk. But this trend is critically connected to this sentiment from Mathias: “That the author is a man of genius and fancy? So much the worse. That there are very poetic descriptions of castles and abbeys in this novel? So much the worse again, the novel is more alluring on that account” (v). If Lewis was not only an aristocratic legislator, but a man who was a highly-trained “genius,” expertly learned in poetic and literary forms, then he is even more emblematic of the upper echelons of society who corrupted the nation with works like this. Framing Lewis as a “genius” allowed critics to further enhance his social position and prestige. Whether or not Lewis had written a brilliant novel, stating that he did augments the idea that pernicious immorality had permeated into the most refined pockets of English civilisation.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge used the word “blasphemous” to state that The Monk was an impious, irreverent text (197). Thomas James Mathias extended Coleridge’s definition to mean that the text was “blasphemous” under English common law. His dialogue featured lengthy footnotes where he laid out a strictly legal argument for why Lewis should be criminally punished.” Mathias’s argument claimed that the passage where Antonia’s mother calls the bible “improper” violated certain provisions in English common law (vi). He recommended that Lewis “omit the indecent and blasphemous passages in another edition,” or else face legal consequences (viii). Evidence conflicts as to whether or not legal action was pursued against Matthew Lewis between Mathias’s dialogue in July of 1797 and when the fourth edition appeared in February of 1798 (Parreaux 120). Lewis’s 1818 obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine stated: “A prosecution was talked of, and we believe commenced; but, on a pledge to recall the copies, and to recast the work in another edition, legal proceedings were dropped” (183). If Lewis found himself in legal trouble, it was quickly dropped with the promise to expurgate his novel – and expurgate he did. Lewis entirely cut in the fourth edition the discussion of the Bible, as well as erotic descriptions of Matilda’s breast, Ambrosio’s sexual dreams about Antonia, sex scenes between Ambrosio and Matilda, and the attempted and successful rapes. He replaced references to “God” with more abstract ones to “heaven,” and cut nearly every reference to the word “lust” (Macdonald and Scherf 21).
With this, it seems, the great controversy of The Monk rested. Lewis acquiesced to Mathias’s wish to decontaminate the novel and The Monk entered the nineteenth century no longer the object of a fiery political rhetoric. Lewis, by contrast, could never quite distance himself from the reputation of his novel, and his later attempts as a playwright and novelist in the early nineteenth century were crucially marred by his connection to his debut novel (Parreaux 147).
The Monk has transmuted from a work deemed rife with moral turpitude to a canonical work of Gothic fiction, considered by many to be a precursor to the novels of Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë, as well as to the modern sense of the horror genre. The great Monk controversy of 1796-1798 transcended anything Matthew Lewis imagined his romance might become. Nearly every publication labelled him a literary genius, who had authored a vividly seductive and distinctly licentious story. However, the more pressing criticism was that his novel was a moral monstrosity. His novel transmuted into a rhetorical tool for conservative diagnoses of moral degradation in England after the French Revolution. His novel, in less than two years, became much more than the sum of its pages.
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About the Author: Henry Ceffalio is a student of English Literature and History at McGill University. He is the Sports Editor for the Bull & Bear Magazine and serves as an editor for The Imagist Literary Magazine at McGill. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York.