For many people, their only experience with Matthew Lewis’s The Monk is a brief mention in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In an awkward conversation between Catherine Morland and John Thorpe, Catherine asks:
“Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?”
“Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation.”
In context, and with no knowledge of what The Monk is, we get a pretty good idea that John Thorpe is mostly an ass. He’s unpleasantly judgmental of what Catherine reads (as opposed to being cattily judgmental of what others wear, the way the probably gay Henry Tilney is of what others wear), while at the same time showing what an ignoramus he is about books in general. (Catherine: “I think you must like Udolpho [by Ann Radcliffe], if you were to read it; it is so very interesting.” John Thorpe: “Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe’s.”)
However, Austen is telling us quite a bit more about John Thorpe by having The Monk be one of the only “tolerably decent” novels he’ll consider.
The Monk is bloody disgusting.
So, why am I having you read this? I have a couple of reasons. I’m going to be a little vague in this email, because I’m going to talk a bit about The Monk both at my talk on January 7, as well as when we meet in person on January 27. But, in short:
Everyone is pretty mad for the Gothic novel from about the middle of the eighteenth century up through the early part of the nineteenth. (Austen writes Northanger Abbey around 1798-99, and sells it to a publisher in 1803. Austen’s hope was to publisher the novel right away, so as to better lampoon the Gothic craze that was sweeping over England at the time. We can probably start dating the end of the Gothic novel as a solid seller around that time.) The Queen of the Gothic novel is probably Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe is the definite evolutionary link between the Gothic novel and the sensation novel of the 1860s. But I didn’t pick a Radcliffe novel.
I picked Lewis’s The Monk because of how entirely different it is from a usual, Ann Radcliffeian kind of Gothic novel. Where Radcliffe sort of pioneers the idea of the explained supernatural (put to good use in “Scooby-Doo” cartoons where the ghost that haunts the old carnival turns out to be Ol’ Man Withers in a sheet and chains, trying to wrangle money out of some sort of legal loophole), Lewis’s novel is unapologetically supernatural, filled with ghosts and demons and magic spells. Also, where Radcliffe gives the reader morally upright and “intact” (i.e., virginal) heroines, Lewis gives us a novel with few, if any, heroes, and a lot of sexual violence. And where the Victorian era is going to have a difficult time with female sexuality, and the idea that women might even enjoy intercourse (provided it’s done correctly — and by “correctly” I mean to say with a modicum of interest in the woman’s comfort), Lewis and others of that Georgian/Regency period seem to be entertaining ideas of female pleasure and sexual…openness, if you will.
This is all going to change, once we hit the 1830s. And it’s going to really change in the 1840s, when Charles Mudie, of Mudie’s Lending Library, takes the scene, and takes control of English publishing, by refusing to carry “immoral” books. One of the things I really want us to examine is this idea of Victorian morality. On one hand, it definitely exists, because it’s codified by people like Mudie and the The Society for the Suppression of Vice. Today, we consider things “Victorian” if they seem prudish to us. And yet, we know, because of the lives of writers like George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, that the Victorian era saw all manner of untraditional situations.
Oh — and pornography was a big, big seller. (In London Labour, London Poor, written in the 1860s and edited/compiled by Henry Mayhew, one of the contributors mentions a letter he receives from the Bristol Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the letter writer is downright gleeful about the porn he’s able to buy: “I took my horse and rode to Stapleton prison to inquire into the facts contained in your letter. Inclosed are some of the drawings which I purchased in what they call their market, without the least privacy on their part or mine. They wished to intrude on me a variety of devices in bone and wood of the most obscene kind, particularly those representing a crime ‘inter Christianos non nominandum,’ which they termed the new fashion. I purchased a few, but they are too bulky for a letter. This market is held before the door of the turnkey every day between the hours of ten and twelve.”)
So, I’ve assigned The Monk, and while it might be difficult to get through — or even distasteful, which I’m fully willing to own to — it’s going to be an important touch-point for our later discussions of the novels that come after it.
I hope those of you who are interested can attend on Wednesday, January 7. I’ll be talking about the nineteenth century novel, and giving an overview of the 2009 program. That night could go one of two ways: I talk too long, and leave little to no room for questions; or, I’ll talk so quickly, you’ll have understood nothing, and we’ll have an hour and fifteen minutes of awkward silence punctuated by coughs and the quiet leavings of the disappointed.
Still: I think there’ll be cookies!