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.