After this immediate best seller, Lewis left the novel in favour of the theatre, producing best-selling plays and melodramas (he was also an MP!). You can see the influence of Shakespeare. A young girl is given a potion to make her unconscious and put into the burial chamber where her seducer will be waiting for her with a knife: a beautifully dark twist on the already dark Romeo and Juliet. He also quotes Measure for Measure. Faustus by Marlowe may also be here: when one character is to be killed she pleads for "another month, or week, or day" as Desdemona in Othello pleads: "Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight ... But half an hour ... But while I say one prayer" and also as Faustus pleads "let this hour be but / A year, a month, a week, a natural day"; perhaps the more obvious parallel with Faustus is the summoning of demons (although in The Monk it is Lucifer rather than Mephistopheles) and the signing away of the soul in blood.
Lewis was rather sceptical of religion. In many ways The Monk is an attack on Roman Catholicism (although, it has been remarked, Lewis's sense of the dramatic could only really be fuelled by the showy Roman tradition rather than the more lacklustre Anglican church) from the point of view of Whig Protestantism but he also has a wonderful bit (which had to be removed for later editions after a criminal trial) where Elvira (the heroine's mother) preserves her innocence by only allowing her to read a bowdlerised Bible which has been rewritten to take out the naughty bits.
The plot revolves around Ambrosio, famed preacher and abbot of a monastery, who is tempted by a woman in a scene straight out of the Garden of Eden (and then another one) and the evil Mother Superior of a convent who seeks to punish one of her nuns who has got herself pregnant. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Inevitably everyone ends up in the catacombs where imprisonment, starvation, rape and murder, not to mention satanic rites, jostle for room amidst the corpses of long-dead nuns and monks. Within this narrative is also the story of a traveller waylaid by robbers in a lonely forest and the tale of the Bleeding Nun.
One of the things that marks this story out is the way that Lewis confounds our expectations. We expect the villains to be caught, tried, punished and eternally damned. This doesn't necessarily happen. We expect our innocent heroines to be rescued seconds before their rape or at least before their murder. Not always! In fact the innocent suffer more than the less innocent and this applies both to heroes and villains. Lewis seems to be saying that to be innocent (in the true sense of ignorant) is not a very good defence in a wicked world.
Two things life this novel above pulp fiction. First is the obvious relish and gusto with which the story is told. This leads to brilliant plot twists that came completely out of the blue and consequences which one is sure won't happen, do. The second is the wonderfully comic characters of two minor characters: the Aunt and the Landlady both of whom are garrulous lower-class (by birth) women who cannot keep to the point of a discourse. In contrast the young romantic leads are stock characters and the only really interesting characters are the female victims and the male and female villains. I'd love to see Alan Rickman give an over-the-top portrayal of Ambrosio.
- "None sleep so profoundly as those who are determined not to wake."
- "The delirium of passion being past, He had leisure to observe every trifling defect." This is a bit like the 2nd verse of Bring Back That Loving Feeling: "Girl you're starting to criticism little things I do."
- "Possession, which cloys Man, only increases the affection of Woman."
For an old book this is wonderfully easy to read.
December 2015; 442 pages