This Day In Writing History
On July 9th, 1775, the famous British Gothic novelist and playwright Matthew Lewis was born. He was born in London, England to an affluent family. He received his education at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. Lewis spent most of his vacations abroad, studying modern languages. His ambition was to become a diplomat, and at the age of nineteen, he served as an attache to the British Embassy at the Hague in the Netherlands.
As a teenager, Lewis took up writing as a hobby and developed a passion for it. During a period of ten weeks, while he worked at the British Embassy, he wrote a novel which would cause a furor and become one of the greatest works of Gothic literature. It was called The Monk, and it was first published in 1796, under the name M.G. Lewis.
The Monk was both a masterpiece of Gothic horror and a scathing satirical attack on the brutality, corruption, and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in the 18th century. Set in Madrid during the Spanish Inquisition, the title character is Ambrosio, a pious and respected Cappuchin priest and teacher at a monastery who is beloved by everyone in Madrid. Ambrosio becomes obsessed with one of his students - a beautiful young man named Rosario who reveals himself to be a woman in disguise named Matilda.
Ambrosio's piety is shown to be false; pride and vanity are his main motivations for establishing himself as a respected priest. That and his lust make him a prime target for seduction, made even easier considering that Matilda is really a demon in the guise of a human. She seduces Ambrosio into a downward spiral of perversion and degradation. Even a painting of the Virgin Mary arouses the priest's uncontrollable lust. Later, another object of purity arouses Ambrosio and leads to his horrific downfall.
The novel switches gears and tells the story of the romance between Lorenzo and his beloved, a virginal young girl named Antonia. A subplot reveals the injustices suffered by Lorenzo's sister when she is tortured by nuns. There's also a narrative about a character called the Bleeding Nun. Later, Ambrosio, overcome with lust for the innocent Antonia, kills her mother and uses Matilda's black magic to assist him in seducing her. He ends up raping Antonia and later killing her in a fit of rage.
Ambrosio's sins finally catch up with him and he is delivered into the hands of the Inquisition, where he is tortured horribly and sentenced to death. Ambrosio sells his soul to Satan in exchange for saving his life, after which, the Devil prevents the priest's last, pathetic attempt at repentance and reveals that Antonia - the girl Ambrosio raped and killed - was actually his long lost sister. Then he subjects Ambrosio to an agonizing death.
The Monk caused quite a furor when it was published. Lurid, lewd, and shockingly graphic, it was the first novel to feature a Catholic priest as the villain. The novel was a sensation with readers and critics alike and made its author a celebrity. He was given the nickname Monk. Eventually, a magistrate issued an injunction restricting its sale on the grounds of obscenity. Lewis removed some elements that he thought were the reason for the magistrate's ruling and published a second edition. The novel still retained most of its horror.
The furor didn't die down, though. When Matthew Lewis became an elected Member of Parliament, and it was discovered that he was the M.G. Lewis who wrote The Monk, it caused quite a scandal. The novel would continue to earn praise, provoke outrage, and become one of the greatest Gothic novels of all time. Lord Byron paid tribute to Lewis in his poem English Bards And Scotch Reviewers. The Marquis de Sade praised Lewis' writing skills in his classic essay, Reflections On The Novel.
Over the years, The Monk would become a major literary influence. Jane Austen satirized it in her classic novel, Northanger Abbey (1818), and it would inspire the writing of the infamous book The Awful Disclosures Of Maria Monk, or The Hidden Secrets Of A Nun's Life In A Convent Exposed. First published in 1836, the book was supposedly a memoir written by an actual nun, Maria Monk, who lived at a convent in Montreal. In her book, Maria Monk describes the victimization of herself and her fellow nuns by priests from the seminary next door.
According to the book, the priests, who were driven mad with sexual frustration from the vows of chastity imposed on them, would sneak into the convent at night through a secret tunnel and force the nuns to submit to them sexually - with the help of the Mother Superior. In a Gothic style similar to that of Matthew Lewis, Maria Monk provides a graphic and sensational account of perversion and corruption. Nuns who refuse to submit to the priests end up mysteriously disappearing. Should a nun become pregnant as the result of her rape, after giving birth, the priests baptize her baby, then strangle it and throw it into a lime pit.
Although it was published as a memoir - a true account - historians agree that The Awful Disclosures Of Maria Monk was a work of fiction. Some believe that Maria suffered from schizophrenia as the result of a childhood head injury and had trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Others believe that she was a disgruntled nun manipulated by fundamentalist Protestants into wildly exaggerating her claims of abuse. The book is still used today by fundamentalist Protestants as an anti-Catholic tract.
Despite the controversy over The Monk, Matthew Lewis continued to write, and in addition to his short story collections, he wrote a play, The Castle Spectre (1796) - a Gothic romance that would become extremely popular on the British stage. After his father died, Lewis inherited his large fortune. In 1815, Lewis traveled to the West Indies to visit his father's plantations in Jamaica. In the summer of 1816, he went to Switzerland and visited his friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, and told them five ghost stories which were later recorded in his journal.
In 1817, Lewis - an abolitionist - returned to Jamaica to try and improve the living conditions of the slave population. He recorded his experiences in his journal. Unfortunately, the following year, he contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 42. His journal of this period would be published posthumously as Journal Of A West Indian Proprietor (1833), and a volume of his personal correspondence would be published as The Life And Correspondence Of M.G. Lewis in 1839.
Quote Of The Day
"An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them." - Matthew Lewis
Today's video features a clip from the famous 1972 feature film adaptation of Matthew Lewis' classic novel, The Monk - co-written by legendary surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel! Enjoy!