Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) marked a turning point in the history of Gothic literature. With its emphasis firmly on the horrific and the shocking, the book moved Gothic away from the gentle terrors of earlier authors such as Horace Walpole and, instead, confronted readers with an onslaught of horror in the form of spectral bleeding nuns, mob violence, murder, sorcery and incest. Unsurprisingly the book met with outrage and condemnation from critics. Equally unsurprisingly it was hugely popular with the public.
With its twin themes of erotic obsession and the corrupting influence of power, The Monk deals with important issues and contains moments of impressive psychological insight. At heart, however, it remains a morality tale about one man’s fall from grace through greed, pride and lust. The edition shown here is a heavily abbreviated version of the novel published sometime around 1818. On the left Ambrosio, the monk of the title, signs his Faustian pact with the devil while, on the right, the entire plot of the book is summarised in lurid headings such as ‘Artifices of a Female Demon’; ‘Her Mother Whom He Murdered’; ‘Assassinates with a Dagger’ and, finally, ‘Most Ignominious Death’.
The Monk first became widely available in an edition published by Joseph Bell in 1796. The title-page only carried Lewis’s initials, rather than his full name, but the first reviews were – somewhat surprisingly given the content – favourable. Encouraged, Lewis announced his authorship in the second edition, adding for good measure his new title of Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, with his name now firmly associated with the book (so much so that he was known as ‘Monk’ Lewis for the rest of his life) the novel became the subject of critical condemnation and accusations of blasphemy. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge attacked the book in the Critical Review of February 1797 arguing that its scenes of lust and depravity were likely to corrupt readers. Coleridge observed further that The Monk was a novel ‘which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter he might reasonably turn pale’. Worse was to follow when the writer Thomas James Mathias argued that certain passages in the book, especially those containing comments on the Bible, were open to legal action on the grounds that they were sacrilegious. Chastened by the intense criticism, Lewis removed several controversial passages from the book and from the fourth edition onwards the novel appeared in a somewhat subdued form. The Monk, however, never lost its popularity with readers keen to test their morality against its allegedly depraved content.