Into the Gothic World of the Monk

One of my maxims for writing stories that take place in past eras is that people have always been the same.  What goes on inside hearts, and behind closed doors has never changed.   It is only the outer society that differs in clothes and manner.

A fantastic example of this is the 1796 novel by Matthew G. Lewis.   It is difficult to imagine this being published in the staid Victorian period.  But go back one century to the much more bawdy 18th, and this book was not only published, it was a smashing hit.  The fact that some critics deemed it obscene and dangerous, of course, only helped to sell more copies.

Matthew Lewis, born on July 9. 1775, to a prominant English family, wrote the novel in a span of ten weeks.   Inspired by the novel, Mysteries of Udolpho, he aimed to write his own Gothic masterpiece.    Evidently putting aside any care or worry what anyone would think of him or his novel, he went full out, no-holds barred.

The title character, Ambrosio is the ultimate man of two faces.  To his congregation he is the embodiment of purity and moral excellence.  Inside, he is an ego-ist who feeds on their adoration.    The novel weaves back and forth as he engages in a forbidden love affair while hearing confessions.   The novel becomes a Matryoshka doll of stories within stories.  Romance,  sex, magic, murder,  and ghosts  fill the pages.

While the confessions show most of the characters as decent folk caught up in a very unjust world,  Ambrosio the Monk spirals into one of the most loathesome characters in all of literature.  A hypocrite to the extreme who blames everyone  and everyone but himself for anything and everything he does,  his arrogance and utter disregard for others leads him to rape and murder.

The novel also boasts one of the most fascinating, unapologetic characters in Matilda.  As Ambrosio’s lover and nemesis,  she is his perfect foil, and the reader will be quite curious whose side she is really on.

Story-wise, the novel is a marvel and it is easy to see why it had such great influence on such later literary figures as Emily Bronte and Poe.  On the negative side, the novel is unfortunately filled with the racism and sexism of its day.  Reading the treatment of the women is not easy.  Their constant punishment will raise the hair of anyone with modern sensibility.   While the men happily go along their merry ways, you can bet any of the female characters who engages in physical intercourse- whether it be consensual sex or  rape, will either die or lose her beauty and retire into a convent.  Only one female character in the book who has had pre-marital sex is “allowed” by the author to marry the man she loves at the end.   But not until after she has suffered one of  the cruelest, most heartbreaking tragedies one can imagine.

If the book had been written today I would have thrown it out the window.  But accepting the book for the era it was written, I was able to greatly enjoy the story while glaring at times and being grateful that authors no longer need to punish their ladies as some sort of horrible, hypocritical “moral”.

Recommended as a highly engaging, spellbinding, and at times, surprisingly humorous tale with a fantasic, witty end.

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Published in: on May 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm  Comments (17)  
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Cazotte: The Fantastique Writer Who Saw Death

Jacques Cazotte (1719-1792) note: some sources put his birth at 1720

” A brief but sparkling bon-bon from the French writer Jacques Cazotte, who was guillotined in 1792. A young captain, stationed in Naples, is tempted into summoning up Beelzebub, who appears first in the guise of a hideous camel, then as a cute spaniel, and lastly – and most dangerously – as a gorgeous, pouting nymphette who declares herself enamoured of the young man and follows him everywhere. This is an amusing study of temptation, with sinister undertones.” Anne Billson in Time Out “In Biondetta there remains no trace of the monstrous apparition conjured up by Alvaro in the ruins of Portico. The satanic seductress is hidden behind the face of the tormented and plaintive beauty until the end of the fable.” Jorges Luis Borges “The Devil in Love is famous on various counts: for its charm and the perfection of its scenes, but above all for the originality of its conception. ” Gerard de Nerval- from the blurb for the Dedalus European Classics edition of The Devil in Love.
 
Written in 1772, (original French title: Le Diable Amoureux), The Devil in Love was Jacques Cazotte’s crowning achievement  of the fantastique which paralleled the English Gothics of the day.
 
Educated by Jesuits, Jacques worked for public office in Martinique, and returned to Paris with the rank of commissioner-general.   In his forties, he began his foray into writing.  Having little interest in the rationalism of the day, he penned a series of fantastical stories as well as translating several Arabian tales into French.
 
Cazotte’s belief in his ability as a seer led him to the Martinist mysticism of Martinez de Pasqually.  The esoteric form of Christianity concerned itself with the fall of man, and his return to the divine source.
 
Declaring himself a “mystical monarchist”, Cazotte warned several men and women at a dinner party in 1788 that they would all soon die by guillotine or noose.  To the theater critic Sebastian Chamfort,  he declared, “You will slash your own wrists 22 times before dying a long and miserable death.” 
 
When the French Revolution began, Chamfort supported it for humanistic reasons.  However, as it became more and more bloody, he condemned the murders and was imprisoned.  Wishing to escape a public execution, he slashed his wrists twenty-two times with a dull razor before dying.
 
Cazotte’s prediction to  The Marquis de Condorcet that he would one day take poison to escape the guillotine came true in 1794.
 
Jacques Cazotte could not escape his own fate, either.  On September 25, 1792 he was beheaded for treason.
 

French Gothic Novel or The Roman Noir

The term, “noir” instantly brings to mind the works of such authors as Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, and Dorothy B. Hughes.  Many of their novels turned into the gritty, black and white films of the 1950s.  Tales of downtrodden men and women (victims and perpetrators alike) lost in the underbelly of society.

However, Roman Noir (black novel) was first coined by the French in the 18th century, and originally referred to the Gothic novels emerging from England at the time.

The English Gothic novel (born from Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) were mysteries often set in ruined castles populated by lonely women, tyrannical Lords, and creepy servants.   Ancient curses, ominous visions, forbidden romance, and fears of the supernatural abound.

The Roman Noir became the parallel literary movement in France.  Notable authors included  Denis Diderot, Madame de Genlis,  Baculard d’Arnaud,  Stéphanie Ducrest de St-Albin,Gaston Leroux, Balzac, Vicomte d’Arlincourt,  Francois Ducray-Duminil,  Victor Hugo, and Maupassant.

During the nineteenth century,  in continuation of the Gothic or Roman Noir, a new emphasis on horror gave birth to the  le roman frenetique.  

-Lou Chaney as The Hunchback of Notre Dame