Kings and Queens of Crime

Essays on major Crime Writers

Simon Brett on Monk Lewis

There have been many "one-hit wonders" in the world of literature, but few whose first book was so successful that the title became its author's nickname for the rest of his life. Such, however, was the fate of "Monk" Lewis, as Simon Brett recounts.

In May 1794, fresh from Oxford, Matthew Gregory Lewis started work as an attache at the British Embassy in The Hague, a position secured for him by his father, Deputy-Secretary at the War Office. But the 19 year old was much more interested in writing than diplomacy.

On 23 September 1794, he wrote triumphantly to his adored mother, "What do you think of my having written, in the space of ten weeks, a romance of between three and four hundred pages octavo? I have even written out half of it fair. It is called The Monk, and I am myself so pleased with it, that, if the booksellers will not buy it, I shall publish it myself. "

Matthew Lewis didn't have to resort to self-publishing. The official first edition of The Monk was published anonymously on Saturday 12 March 1796. The public responded immediately. As Sir Walter Scott, a friend of the author, wrote in 1830, "The Monk was so highly popular that it seemed to create an epoch in our literature."

But "popular" has never necessarily meant "approved of". An early review in the European Magazine hinted at the storms that lay ahead. "This singular composition, which has neither originality, morals, nor probability to recommend it, has excited, and will still continue to excite, the curiosity of the public. Such is the irresistible energy of genius."

Those charges - of plagiarism, immorality (later to be narrowed down to blasphemy), and wild extravagance - were to be made many more times, with considerably greater vituperation. But even that sour reviewer couldn't help acknowledging The Monk 's power.

In the second edition, published seven months later, Matthew Lewis did himself no favours by having printed on the title page his name and, fatally, his recently acquired title of "MP" (another job his father's influence had got him).

The furore that this unleashed is hard for us to imagine in a time when one longs for any Member of Parliament to show any spark of character, or demonstrate interest in anything outside the narrow walls of Westminster.

"Yes!" Coleridge fulminated in an appalled article in The Critical Review, "the author of The Monk signs himself a Legislator! -We stare and tremble."

So what was it about the book that so appalled contemporary good taste - and so delighted its huge numbers of readers?  I've a feeling that the answer lies within the dichotomy of that sentence. It's what is now the old question of whether something "popular" could also be "artistic". In 1796, however, that was a relatively new question.

The Romantic Movement was just getting under way. Only two years later the Lyrical Ballads would be published, and the split forever made between the sensitive artist obedient only to his or her muse, and the common entertainer vulgar enough to write work enjoyed by millions. It is a cultural apartheid which still exists, as most of us crime writers can testify.

Matthew Lewis set out solely to entertain. Shocking people was an inevitable by-product of that intention, particularly since be chose to write in the voguish German-influenced Gothic genre.

By the time the fourth edition of The Monk was published, Lewis had uncomplainingly excised all the passages which had caused readers offence. This may have shown appalling artistic judgement - but it also showed a practical and amiable character, One cannot imagine a more self-regarding artist - a "sensitive plant" in the Shelley mould, say - doing the same.

This was the point - "Monk" Lewis had what was possessed by very few of his friends and contemporaries - Byron being and honorable and glittering exception - namely, a sense of humour. And an unstuffy pragmatism.

When there were complaints of anachronism at the introduction of Negro guards into the vaguely medieval setting of his 1797 play, The Castle Spectre, Lewis wrote, "I thought it would give a pleasing variety o the characters and dresses, if I made my servants black, and could I have produced the same effect by making my heroine blue, blue I would have made her. "

Lewis was an unashamed populariser. In his plays he gleefully used the latest sensational stage effects, arid he would have taken the description "melodramatic" as a compliment rather than a censure. Of his 1803 play, The Captive, one reviewer wrote, 
        "The tears of an audience have generally been accounted the highest species of applause. A poet must have an odd taste who would be rewarded by hysteric fits."

Lewis wouldn't have minded the criticism, so long as the people out front were having a good time. And, generally speaking, they were.

But this apparent jokiness about his work does not diminish the power of the book that provided him with a lifelong nickname. The Monk of the title is Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins in Madrid at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and the novel chronicles his decline from arrogant ascetic to corrupt, libidinous murderer.

All the Gothic ingredients are present - hooded figures, demons, rotting corpses, and ghosts ["The Bleeding Nun of Lindenberg", amongst others]. An errant novice is immured in the vaults far beneath her convent by a sadistic Mother Superior and, when found, is clutching to her bosom the long-dead body of her baby- it's all good sensational stuff.

But what distinguishes The Monk from a whole raft of lesser imitations is the quality of the story-telling. In narratives where shock is piled on shock, there is always a danger of bathos. That's why most modern horror fiction makes such lugubrious reading.

But, as he also was to do in The Castle Spectre, Lewis avoided that pitfall by judicious use of humour. This distanced him from his narrative and lulled his readers into a false sense of security, softening them up so that they were properly receptive to the next shock.

He also wrote with great visual immediacy. Though predating by a century the invention of cinema, The Monk contains many scenes which are structured like a film script.

The first chapter opens with a description of the Church of the Capuchins, and the action keeps moving from wide-shot to close-up, picking out individual characters and action, setting up the storylines which will be developed throughout the novel.

Lewis had a remarkable understanding of human psychology. In The Monk, the relationship between sex, violence, power and celebrity is explored in a way that strikes definite chords in the 1990s. Ambrosio is an intellectual cleric with the charisma of a rock idol.

"While he spoke, his Rosary, composed of large grains of amber, fell from his hand, and dropped among the surrounding multitude. It was seized eagerly, and immediately divided among the Spectators." Ambrosio has risen to the top by the suppression of his passions, and when they are released, they seethe with an intensity which burns off the page.

If you haven't already done so, read The Monk. You'll enjoy it.   Then, by way of contrast, read Lewis's Journal of a West Indian Proprietor, in which he recounts his daily life on the first trip he made to his Jamaican estates in 1817. These diaries depict an engaging and observant landowner, whose treatment of his slaves showed a humanity well ahead of its time.

Sadly, on the return journey from his second trip to the estates, aged only forty-two, Matthew Gregory Lewis died of yellow fever, on 16 May 1818. He was buried at sea, but even then the master of Gothic stage effects produced a final coup de theatre.

As his coffin was sinking, the chains weighing it down slipped off and, like an apparition from one of his melodramas, the coffin popped up to the surface again. At their last sighting, his mortal remains were floating sedately back towards Jamaica. Monk Lewis would have enjoyed that image.

Simon Brett