Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 18. Matthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 18. Matthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk

It was one of the numerous clevernesses of Matthew Gregory Lewis that he saw the incompatibility of a certainly happy ending for “a tale of terror.” It was one result of the defects which prevented his cleverness from reaching genius that he went to the other extreme and made The Monk (1796), as a whole, a mere mess and blotch of murder, outrage, diablerie and indecency. His scheme, indeed, was much less original than Mrs. Radcliffe’s; for he had been in Germany and there is no doubt that he had taken for his model not merely the poems of Bürger and the other early romantics but the drama and fiction of Schiller and of Heinse, in The Robbers (1781) and in Ardinghello (1785). The consequence was that The Monk did not please people even so little squeamish as Byron, and has never, except in a quasi-surreptitious manner, been reprinted in its original form. It is “messy” enough, even in its author’s revised version, being badly constructed and extravagant in every sense. It has, however, some scenes of power. The temptress Matilda de Villanegas (better taken as an actual woman, fiend-inspired, than as a mere succubus) ranks next to Schedoni, in this division, as a character; and the final destruction and damnation of the villainous hero is not quite so ludicrous as it very easily might have been. Lewis before his early death, wrote (or, rather, translated) other novels; but none of them attained, or, in the very slightest degree, deserved, the vogue of The Monk, or of his plays and verses. The most famous of the latter, Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene, occurs in The Monk itself. Mrs. Radcliffe had set the example of inserting verse, sometimes not very bad verse, but she never shows the somewhat loose, but distinctly noteworthy, novel and even influential command of rapid rhythm which was another of Lewis’s oddly flawed, but by no means ordinary, gifts.