1775-07-09

MATTHEW GREGORY “MONK” LEWIS, British gothic novelist, born (d: 1818); Have you ever read an 18th century Gothic romance? They are incomparably silly, overripe, and, except for their excruciatingly stilted language, great fun to read. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto started the literary vogue, and it was quickly followed by Lewis’s Ambrosio, or The Monk (1795), and, in America, by the novels of Charles Brockden Brown. The Monk is the most lurid example of the genre, and Lewis was forced to delete many passages for a second edition that were considered “scandalous,” so scandalous, in fact, that Lewis’s literary stock skyrocketed and he found himself lionized by high society on the Isle of Hypocrites.

The Monk combines the supernatural, the horrible, and a little bit of raw sex in its plot about Ambrosio, the superior of the Capuchins of Madrid. (It is essential to the Anglo-Saxon Gothic novel that affairs of the flesh always take place in Latin climes.) Ambrosio is seduced by Matilda de Villanegas, a woman driven to blind nymphomania by demons, and who enters the monastery, and Ambrosio’s bed, disguised as a boy! After he discovers that the boy is actually a woman, Ambrosio’s entire character changes, and he pursues other women with the aid of magic and by murdering. His sins are found out and he is tortured by the Inquisition, finally being sentenced to death. He makes a bargain with the Devil to escape, but the Devil destroys him.

It seems apparent that had the wild nympho Matilda actually been a boy, none of Ambrosio’s problems would have followed. In real life, Lewis at twenty-eight was in love with fourteen year old William Kelly, a male incarnation of Matilda who brought him nothing but misery.