Reading The Monk

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!

Published in: on December 26, 2008 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Classics in Context: The Victorians (Mostly)

Beginning in January, the Bethesda Library’s Classics in Context program leaves behind the Americans and heads back, for the most part, to the England of the nineteenth century.

2009’s program looks at four different aspects of Victorian literature: that of the gothic/sensational; that of literature by women; that of the European cross-pollination (though with fewer bees, for those who are (a) allergic; and (b) afraid of bees); and that of the late- and post-Victorian novelists.

The group meets on the third Tuesday of every month (except in January, where we will meet on the fourth Tuesday — January 27) from 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at the Bethesda Libarary in Bethesda, Maryland (7400 Arlington Road, Bethesda, Maryland, 20814). The program is free and upon to the public.

The reading list is below. For more information about the group itself and to be included in the email list, please send an email to mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com.

January 27, 7:00 p.m.The Monk by Matthew “Monk” Lewis

February 17, 7:00 p.m.The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

March 17, 7:00 p.m.: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 21, 7:00 p.m.: East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood

May 19, 7:00 p.m.: North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell 

June 16, 7:00 p.m.: Villette by Charlotte Bronte  

July 21, 7:00 p.m.: The Maias by Eca de Queiros 

August 18, 7:00 p.m.: The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy 

September 15, 7:00 p.m.: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 

October 20, 7:00 p.m.: The Odd Women by George Gissing 

November 17, 7:00 p.m.: Dracula by Bram Stoker 

December 15, 6:30 p.m.: A Man of Property by John Gallsworthy

Published in: on December 12, 2008 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  

“The Americans” — an unpublished (notsomuch) essay

Periodically, Judy Gilbert Levy is kind enough to ask me to contribute something to the library’s newsletter. Sometimes I don’t blow her off completely after offering vague promises of “Oh, yeah, sure.” But the problem is, I’m not a very good targeted essayist. By which I mean I can really only write the one way, this way, which is breezy and conversational but is never really going to get me that high-paying gig at Norton Critical Editions. What follows is an “essay” I wrote recently for Judy, which she was kind enough to like but smart enough to ask for some revisions. The edited version will go out in the newsletter.


Published in: on February 5, 2008 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne (yes, him again) wrote a letter to his publisher:

“America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash — and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.”

This d****d mob was the fault of a pint-sized deeply religious scribbling woman in her 40s: Harriet Beecher Stowe.


Published in: on February 3, 2008 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Reminder: The Scarlet Letter discussion 1/15

Our first meeting of 2008 is this Tuesday, January 15, to discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. We’ll meet at 7:00 p.m. (note the new time — we’re no longer meeting at 7:15 p.m.) at the Bethesda Library.

Zach asked if it wouldn’t be fun for all of us to show up wearing our favorite sin on our breast. “You know, for authenticity,” he suggested. This is why I don’t ask Zach to join us often for our discussions. (Besides, I know that I, for one, don’t have shirts large enough to encompass the entire alphabet.)

I was surprised by this second reading of the novel. My first reading was in high school, some 20+ years ago, and I remember feeling smarter than Hawthorne while reading it, because I was reading without necessarily comprehending. Many years and life experiences later, it’s an entirely different novel to me — more complicated than I think I gave it credit for even when I picked it as the novel to kick us off in the new year. I’m looking forward to the ensuing discussion.

On a side topic — there’s quite a crew of us heading to the Anderson House next Saturday, January 19, to hear the Washington Arts Trio at a free concert. If you’re interested in joining us, and you haven’t already sent me an email, let me know either in an email or at the meeting on Tuesday. I need to let the docent at the Anderson House how many chairs to set aside for us. (Though, from the way she told it, there shouldn’t be an issue with too few chairs; they get a small turn-out.)

I’m excited to see everyone who can make it on Tuesday!

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Who Doesn’t Love a Field Trip?: The Anderson House

Seeing as how we’re reading American literature and all, and seeing as how we’re in sort of the epitome of America (D.C.’s new slogan: “Now Known for More Than Just Murders!“), what say we do something American-y?

The Society of the Cincinnati, housed in the Anderson House at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue NW, offers free concerts. This month, on January 19 (a Saturday), the Washington Arts Trio is featuring selections by Russian composers, including Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Arensky. Oh, and there’s a punch-and-cookies reception afterwards. What could be more American than free Russian culture followed by cookies?

But seriously: I’m planning on going. The concert starts at 1:30 p.m.; the museum itself opens at 1:00 p.m. I’d never even heard of the Anderson House (or the Society of the Cincinnati, for that matter) until Zach and I accidentally stumbled across it while going on a self-guided walking tour of Dupont Circle. My favorite thing that I learned at the Anderson House? Mrs. Anderson spent part of World War I distributing gum and cigarettes — in a full gown, jewelry, and furs — to the French and Belgian troups.

If you want to join me, send me an email and let me know. My tour guide was very excited at the prospect, and she said she could set aside seats for us.

Published in: on January 6, 2008 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  

“The Birth-Mark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1846)

While Hawthorne’s millieu was predominantly early colonial America, “The Birth-Mark,” published in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846, is set in Hawthorne’s time.

What I find interesting in Hawthorne’s writing is his outright antagonism towards science and knowledge. Whether it’s Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter who has too much learning of science, alchemy, and Native American ways; or whether it’s poor Aylmer in this story and his almost beautiful wife Georgiana.

After the jump, the complete text of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark.”


Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 2:50 am  Comments (2)  

“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

In 1835, Hawthorne published “The Minister’s Black Veil” — a look at the nature of sin and redemption, and the affect a black veil can have on one’s parishoners. Compare Parson Hooper in this story with Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.

Also, for those interested in a bit of conjecture, I think I have an idea as to why the parson is wearing this veil. It’s hinted at very briefly in the text. Your thoughts about why would be most welcome in the comments section of this post.

After the jump, the full text of “The Minister’s Black Veil.”


Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 2:47 am  Leave a Comment  

“Mrs. Hutchinson” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1830)

First published in the Salem Gazette, “Mrs. Hutchinson” is Hawthorne’s treatment of Anne Hutchinson, a radical Puritan minister of the early-to-mid 1600s.

Hutchinson is mentioned in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne writes about the rose bush that inexplicably grows next to the prison where Hester Prynne is doing time:

But whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the dall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it, — or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door, — we shall not take upon us to determine.”

Also, many critics find a spiritual and artistic progenitor of Hester Prynne in Hutchinson. After the jump, the full text of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Hutchinson.”


Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 2:39 am  Comments (1)  

Nathaniel Hawthorne

hawthorne.gifIn 1663, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, — Nathaniel added the ‘w’ to his name when he was in his 20s — had a woman named Ann Coleman whipped through the streets of Salem. She had come preaching the Quaker faith in a town devoted to Protestantism. She left Salem so lacerated “that for some time it was feared she would not survive the barbarous treatment,” according to The History of the Society of Friends in America. (The Wikipedia entry for Nathaniel Hawthorne efficiently covers William Hawthorne’s entire reason d’etre in the new English colonies thusly: “After arriving, William persecuted Quakers.”)


Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment