Today in 1775, Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk, was born. Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The great struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads its main character, the monk Ambrosio, to temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt. Here is an extract from the first chapter.
Scarcely had the Abbey-Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins’ thronged with Auditors. Do not encourage the idea that the Crowd was assembled either from motives of piety or thirst of information. But very few were influenced by those reasons; and in a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway as in Madrid, to seek for true devotion would be a fruitless attempt. The Audience now assembled in the Capuchin Church was collected by various causes, but all of them were foreign to the ostensible motive. The Women came to show themselves, the Men to see the Women: Some were attracted by curiosity to hear an Orator so celebrated; Some came because they had no better means of employing their time till the play began; Some, from being assured that it would be impossible to find places in the Church; and one half of Madrid was brought thither by expecting to meet the other half. The only persons truly anxious to hear the Preacher were a few antiquated devotees, and half a dozen rival Orators, determined to find fault with and ridicule the discourse. As to the remainder of the Audience, the Sermon might have been emitted altogether, certainly without their being disappointed, and very probably without their perceiving the omission.
Whatever was the occasion, it is at least certain that the Capuchin Church had never witnessed a more numerous assembly. Every corner was filled, every seat was occupied. The very Statues which ornamented the long aisles were pressed into the service. Boys suspended themselves upon the wings of Cherubims; St. Francis and St. Mark bore each a spectator on his shoulders and St. Agatha found herself under the necessity of carrying double. The consequence was, that in spite of all their hurry and expedition, our two newcomers, on entering the Church, looked round in vain for places.
However, the old Woman continued to move forwards. In vain were exclamations of displeasure vented against her from all sides: In vain was She addressed with – ‘I assure you, Segnora, there are no places here.’ – ‘I beg, Segnora, that you will not crowd me so intolerably!’ – ‘Segnora, you cannot pass this way. Bless me! How can people be so troublesome!’ – The old Woman was obstinate, and on She went. By dint of perseverance and two brawny arms She made a passage through the Crowd , and managed to bustle herself into the very body of the Church, at no great distance from timidity and in silence, profiting by the exertions of her conductress.
‘Holy Virgin!’ exclaimed the old Woman in a tone of disappointment, while She threw a glance of enquiry round her; ‘Holy Virgin! What a heat! What a Crowd! I wonder what can be the meaning of all this. I believe we must return: There is no such thing as a seat to be had, and nobody seems kind enough to accommodate us with theirs.’
This broad hint attracted the notice of two Cavaliers, who occupied stools on the right hand and were leaning their backs against the seventh column from the Pulpit. Both were young, and richly habited. Hearing this appeal to their politeness pronounced in a female voice, they interrupted their conversation to look at the speaker. She had thrown up her veil in order to take a clearer look round the Cathedral. Her hair was red, and She squinted. The Cavaliers turned round , and renewed their conversation.
‘By all means,’ replied the old Woman’s companion; ‘By all means, Leonella, let us return home immediately; The heat is extensive, and I am terrified at such a crowd.’
These words were pronounced in a tone of unexampled sweetness. The Cavaliers again broke off their discourse, but for this time they were not contented with looking up: Both started involuntarily from their seats, and turned themselves towards the Speaker.
The voice came from a female, the delicacy and elegance of whose figure inspired the Youths with the most lively curiosity to view the face to which is belonged. This satisfaction was denied them. Her features were hidden by a thick veil; But struggling through the crowd had deranged it sufficiently to discover a neck which for symmetry and beauty might have vied with the Medicean Venus. It was of the most dazzling whiteness, and received additional charms from being shaded by the tresses of her long fair hair, which descended in ringlets to her waists. Her figure was rather below than above the middle size: It was light and airy as that of an Hamadryad. Her bosom was carefully veiled. Her dress was white; it was fastened by a blue sash, and just permitted to peep out from under it a little foot of the most delicate proportions. A chaplet of large grains hung upon her arm, and her face was covered with a veil of thick black gauze. Such was the female, to whom the youngest of the Cavaliers now offered, while the other thought it necessary to pay the same attention to her companion.
Matthew Lewis was an English novelist and dramatist. Inspired by German horror romanticism and the work of Ann Radcliffe, Lewis produced his masterpiece, The Monk, at the age of nineteen. It contains many typical Gothic elements: seduction in a monastery, lustful monks, evil Abbesses, bandits, and beautiful heroines. But, as the Introduction to this new edition by Emma McEvoy (Lecturer, Goldsmith’s College) shows, Lewis also played with convention, ranging from gruesome realism to social comedy, and even parodied the genre in which he was writing.
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