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The Sexuality of Authorship in The Monk

  • Lauren Fitzgerald

…plus d’informations

  • Lauren Fitzgerald
    Yeshiva University

Corps de l’article

Authorship in all its forms is attributed to the masculine, and plagiarism threatens that gender by bringing it into proximity to the female. Authorship is not only masculine, but it is also compulsorily autonomous, hence compulsorily heterosexual.

Rebecca Moore Howard, “Sexuality, Textuality: The Cultural Work of Plagiarism” (485)

[. . .] gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (41)

I begin with two statements that many scholars of the Gothic would probably agree with yet not necessarily find related: 1) Much Gothic fiction is “queer”; 2) Much Gothic fiction lacks “originality.” To expand on the first statement, from its eighteenth-century beginnings, works in the Gothic mode have often been preoccupied with perversion and decadence; transgressive or “aberrant” sexuality; gender instability and permeable identities; and the paranoia, persecution, and violence of homosexual panic. Even the Gothic’s fascination with “monkish superstition” can be seen to reflect an early modern association of Catholic Europe with sodomy. These queer, homosocial, and homosexual themes in turn implicate the lives of the three best-known male authors of the early Gothic—Horace Walpole, William Beckford, and Matthew Gregory Lewis—their works forming a complicated response to the emerging development of homosexual and heterosexual subjectivities as well as the brutal, institutionalized homophobia of the late eighteenth century. [1]

The second statement, that the Gothic lacks “originality,” describes at least three interrelated textual crimes to which the mode seems to have been prone from the outset: forgery or counterfeiting; excessive production and commodification; and weak or “servile” imitation. The Castle of Otranto began as a forged fifteenth-century manuscript, making Gothic fiction at its origins equivalent to counterfeiting. [2] By the early 1790s, readers complained of a related crime, excessive conventionality, which allowed for quick productions that “flooded” the market. [3] Coleridge spoke for many of his fellow reviewers when he lamented the Gothic age of mechanical reproduction even as he held out hope “that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured” (370). By the end of the decade, the mode was seen as comprised almost entirely of such reproductions, a contributor to the Monthly Magazine declaring that the “hobgoblin-romance” consisted of “innumerable imitations” (Letter 348). Along with pinpointing apparent weaknesses specific to the Gothic, such complaints reflect broader aesthetic theories of the period, especially those concerning the revaluation of originality. According to Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition, and as Gothic critics were apparently all too aware, whereas an original work “is not made” but “grows,” an imitation is “often a sort of manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics, Art and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own” (12). [4]

Walpole’s antiquarian love of fakery (evidenced by his famously papier-mâché castle, Strawberry Hill), on the one hand, and his probable homosexuality and the homosocial themes of his Gothic works, on the other, present a nearly irresistible opportunity to link the Gothic’s unoriginal and queer characteristics through “camp.” [5] However, it is his successor, Matthew Lewis, whom I focus on here. If Walpole set the terms for campy Gothic, Lewis proved to be the original queer Gothic plagiarist, his career commencing with an “avowal” of plagiarism in The Monk (38). As Jerrold Hogle has shown, The Monk abounds with counterfeits, most provocatively in the homoerotic scenes between Ambrosio and the crafty cross-dresser Rosario/Matilda. Such fakery suggests a possible emblem for The Monk’s queer unoriginality, particularly since Lewis committed “a kind of transvestism” by writing in what was considered a “feminine” genre at the time (Wilson [n. pag.]). [6]

Lewis’s relevance to female Gothic is certainly worth reconsidering. But while doing so, we should keep in mind Judith Butler’s insight that cross-dressing reveals a more complex relation than simply that of a “true” or “real” gender identity to a “false” or “derived” one (180). For instance, both contemporary and twentieth-century readers have accused Lewis of copying from the works of Ann Radcliffe (Fitzgerald “Gothic Properties”). This reversal of the standard gendered poles—with “Mrs.” Radcliffe, coded feminine but occupying the traditionally masculine position of the original author, and Lewis, the male author, occupying the position of the copyist and fake—proves an exception to the traditional conception of authorship described by Rebecca Moore Howard in my first epigraph. [7] Other forms of gendering in Radcliffe’s contemporary reception, however, reveal that her unprecedented critical and economic success stood in uneasy relation to her status as a woman writer. When she was not identified with her own exceptionally feminized heroines, she was regendered as “the Shakspeare [sic] of romance writers” (Drake 162) or a “mighty magician,” an equally masculine figure that was contrasted with mere “ingenious ladies” (Matthias 93). If Lewis cross-dressed as a writer of Gothic (coded feminine), Radcliffe was similarly in drag as an author (coded masculine). In keeping with the remark from Butler’s Gender Trouble quoted in my second epigraph, Lewis’s relation to Radcliffe, then, should be seen not as “copy” to “original” but as “copy” to “copy.”

Butler’s larger argument is that all gender is “an effect,” constructed, performed, and ultimately imitated: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself” (43, 175). This insight applies equally well to the constructs of “Female” and “Male” Gothic and finally to what has implicitly served as their “original,” the traditional gendering of authorship as masculine. As Howard points out, all aspects of authorship, not simply the identity of the “author,” have been coded as masculine. [8] And as recent historians of authorship have shown, the solitary genius is similarly a “construct,” a fiction deployed by booksellers, fleshed out by theorists such as Young, and embodied by poets such as Wordsworth. [9]

Just as relevant as gender to understanding the construction of authorship is sexuality. [10] Though masculine authors have a deeply homosocial relation to each other and their works, they are themselves, as Howard argues, usually constructed as “heterosexual.” In older models of poetic inspiration, for example, the author “mates” with a feminine muse (Howard 476). But by the mid-eighteenth century, the heterosexualized process of literary production was cast in oddly mono-sexual terms, with a phallic genius so potent that a single (male) parent could produce offspring on his own. As Young writes, perhaps drawing on the classical association of genius with the phallus (Rosenthal 19), “An Original rises spontaneously from the vital root of Genius” (12). A number of factors contributed to this transformation. Mark Rose and Martha Woodmansee maintain that possessive individualism merged with the new valuation of originality to form a conception of literary production that required a solitary author. Subsequent work on authorship suggests that this economic account fails to capture all of the subtleties of this history (see Randall 65, 77-9). Marie-Hélène Huet, for example, offers the intriguing possibility that changes in the aesthetics of imagination were influenced by shifts in theories of biological reproduction. One such shift involved the development of “parental singularity, the idea that only one parent is essentially responsible for procreation” (41); another included conferring upon the male author the mother’s imaginative ability to produce a monstrously unique creature bearing no relation to its parents, vividly realized in Victor Frankenstein’s singly-parented monster (160-1). [11]

Throwing into relief the heterosexuality of the originary author’s parental singularity are the simultaneous reconceptions of the sexuality of the imitator and plagiarist. As Marilyn Randall shows in her cogent history of textual appropriation, Pragmatic Plagiarism, at least since Roman authors began to translate Greek texts, imitation was often figured as a form of conquest (189-92). Laura Rosenthal points out that Dryden saw his own textual appropriations in line with this tradition, “as a masculine, often sexual act” (44). Plagiarism, which was considered a form of imitation (albeit illegitimate) through much of the eighteenth century (Randall 67; Terry 194-6), was seen as a variation on this theme of sexual conquest, informing the Western tradition of equating plagiarism with a violation of sexual territory (Howard 482-3). As Randall points out, Martial, the Roman author who coined the term, “compares the plagiarist to the philandering, or perhaps cuckolded, husband” (62), an image which Defoe seems to have pressed into service when he complained that invading the literary properties of authors was “every jot as unjust as lying with their Wives, and breaking up their houses” (qtd. in Rose 40).

By the mid-eighteenth century, imitation was an increasingly devalued textual practice. In contrast to the organic and natural processes of genius, it was regarded as mechanical, manufactured, and, at least to some extent, sterile. In turn, the manly conquest of plagiarism was on its way to being seen as form of homosexual rape, comparable to more recent representations (Howard 484). Significantly, this is also the period when English homosexual subcultures were becoming visible (if only as objects of attack) (Crompton xiv) and gender difference was beginning to be codified (Haggerty, Men in Love 172). Just as interesting, language used to condemn both of these sexual and textual practices was provocatively similar. For instance, fops—who, as George Haggerty and others have argued, were not so much “homosexual” figures as “sexually confused gender misfits” (45)—were considered to offer only “imitation[s]” and “artificial” versions of the “natural Behavior” of a “true gentleman” or to reproduce each other, “displaying a Sameness [. . .] in all their Words and Actions” (qtd. in Rosenthal 198, 199). Rosenthal’s examination of Colley Cibber as the notorious plagiarist-fop and veritable “cultural symbol for compromised authorship” further suggests ways in which these imitative practices were seen as analogous (190). And just as imitation and plagiarism were increasingly understood to be contrary to the “natural” mode of generating of original works, so too was sodomy considered the “Murder of the very Essence of Procreation” (qtd. in Crompton 451-2).

In the history of the sexuality of authorship, Matthew Lewis serves as a useful, late-eighteenth-century case study. In separate studies of Lewis’s contemporary reception, Lisa M. Wilson and Michael Gamer (“Authors”) persuasively argue that his authorial identity marks an important moment in the history of authorship more generally, primarily because it is distinct from that of the Romantic solitary genius. Though Lewis’s comments on authorship in The Monk reveal that he was aware of this emerging vision of the originary author, he seems at best ambivalent about it. His use of sources implies instead that he embraced the classical tradition of establishing authority precisely by imitating the works of other writers, and his depiction of authorship suggests that he idealized what we might today call a collaborative process of literary production. The visions of authorship offered in The Monk—a homoerotic “mania” that cannot be conquered but must nonetheless be controlled—intimate that Lewis explored a radical alternative to the originary author, not by questioning its “masculinity” but by refiguring its sexual orientation, as it were, and its relation to the homosocial, patrilineal, literary tradition to which it is heir. The case of Lewis’s imitative modes of literary production as a queered alternative to the Romantic solitary genius maps out larger questions for histories of authorship, for gay and lesbian studies, and for queer theory: How has the “sexuality” of authorship been figured and to what ends? What queered traditions might emerge in a history that considers authorship in these terms?

1. Queer Scenes of Writing in The Monk

Queer, unoriginal, and authorial coalesce midway through The Monk when Theodore, Don Raymond’s page, allows his master to read his poem “Love and Age.” Serving as a relay point between The Monk’s two plots, the episode is easily overlooked. (It appears immediately after Raymond tells Don Lorenzo of his adventures with the Bleeding Nun and just before Lorenzo attempts to rescue Agnes and thus leaves Antonia open to Ambrosio’s machinations [180-7].) Moreover, rather than dealing explicitly in the Gothic motifs characteristic of most of the romance, the episode is comparatively staid, even neo-classical in its considerations. Yet like The Monk’s better-known homoerotic moments, this episode focuses on imitation as a performative strategy that points up the distinctions and continuities between drag and closeting in articulations of male homosocial desire. In addition, such insights are applied to authorship.

The significance of the episode for Lewis’s identity as a homosexual writer has recently been foregrounded by D.L. Macdonald in his critical biography of Lewis and in the edition of The Monk he co-edited with Kathleen Scherf. Drawing on unpublished material and documents not published since the first biography of Lewis appeared in 1839, Macdonald holds that “Love and Age” employs a tradition of odes attributed at the time to the Greek poet Anacreon but since shown to have been composed by a series of anonymous imitators (Macdonald 87-92; Macdonald and Scherf 14-15). According to Macdonald, Lewis translated or wrote parodies of more than two dozen of these odes, including one which become a favourite “with gay and bisexual poets of the nineteenth century,” Byron publishing his own version in Hours of Idleness (87-8). Though Macdonald insists that, unlike the original ode, Lewis’s schoolboy translation is not pederastic, the narrator’s adulation of a “beauteous stripling” is, he finds, “frankly homoerotic” (Macdonald 90; Macdonald and Scherf 15). [12]

More relevant than the homoerotic content of the original Anacreontic text, or even the window into Lewis’s boyhood fantasies that his translation might offer, is that this appropriation entered Lewis early on into the period’s “cult of classical learning,” which often valued the positive representation of relationships between men (or men and boys) in Greek and Roman literature (Haggerty, Men in Love 12; Macdonald 87). In Men in Love, Haggerty argues that the reimagining of “Greek love” that recent scholars of nineteenth-century British homoerotics locate in the Victorian period were “in a considerable measure prepared/prefigured in a wide range of individual cases in the eighteenth century” (16). Haggerty includes Walpole and Beckford among his cases, but Macdonald’s findings show that Lewis would make another strong example, his classical education at Oxford and reworking of the Anacreontic tradition providing what Haggerty calls “the resources for the expression of transgressive desire” (16). That Lewis would go on to revise for The Monk his translation of a classical ode that was read by contemporaries as homoerotic suggests that he remained committed to retaining his authorial ties to this tradition even at the more official—and public—commencement of his career.

Though it is important not to over-privilege these biographical details, I believe they provide useful insights into the significance of “Love and Age” and the episode in which it appears. Macdonald and Scherf assert that Lewis “carefully heterosexualized” the version of the ode published in The Monk (15)—perhaps as a result of its new public context. For instance, Cupid tries to persuade Anacreon to re-devote himself to love by recalling the aging poet’s previous heterosexual dalliances (which Cupid himself brokered). Yet this act of persuasion in turn reminds Cupid of Anacreon’s former ardour for him, making the homoerotic content of Lewis’s boyhood translation far from inaccessible in the revised version of the poem. Cupid imagines himself “Again beloved, esteemed, caressed,” “pressed” into Anacreon’s arms, and “Sport[ing] on thy knees, or on thy bosom sleep[ing]” (Monk 184). Cupid also imagines reciprocating in sexually suggestive terms: “My torch thine age-struck heart shall warm; / My hand pale winter’s rage disarm” (184).

Especially relevant to the issue of authorship, “Love and Age” presents writing as a collaborative process that is erotically charged:

 A feather now of golden hue
 [Cupid] smiling from his pinion drew
This to the poet’s hand the boy commits;
 And straight before Anacreon’s eyes
 The fairest dreams of fancy rise,
And round his favoured head wild inspiration flits.


In contrast to the contemporary reconception of authorship as a simultaneously solitary and heterosexual process, according to Theodore’s poem, inspiration is a joyfully homoerotic collaboration that makes a poet’s “bosom glow[. . .] with amorous fire” (184). Macdonald describes the song that results from this collaboration as “the one utopian moment in the grim world of The Monk” (92), but such utopianism seems equally characteristic of the song’s production.

Some of the homoerotic frisson of “Love and Age” is reduplicated in the surrounding episode. It too offers an encounter between a man and a boy, Raymond and Theodore (“a lad scarcely turned of thirteen” who, like the stripling in the original translation, has “sparkling eyes” and “blushing” cheeks [131, 181, 383]), and it concerns the homoerotics of writing, from Theodore’s “transports” in completing his poem to Raymond’s “pleasure” in reading it (181, 187). At the same time, however, the episode reproduces the heterosexualized closeting that Lewis’s original translation underwent. This occlusion of the poem’s homoerotic content occurs, first of all, in criticism from Theodore’s “indulgent critic” (181), Raymond, who sternly warns that such displays are likely to be met with violence. As Raymond remarks after reading the poem,

An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack [. . .] they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is willfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame.


Such comments have a pedagogical function, drawing on standard neoclassical diatribes against authorship to teach Theodore about the dangers of the profession. But Raymond’s advice also specifically addresses the perils that a writer of a homoerotic text will undergo, reminding Theodore of his “blackmailability,” what Eve Sedgwick has described as “vulnerability to the social pressure of homophobic blackmail” (Between Men 89). Raymond warns that as a result of his poem, details of Theodore’s life will be “maliciously rake[d] out from obscurity” in order to “throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct.”

As dangerous as the consequences of such authorial ambitions might be, Lewis carefully avoids suggesting that Theodore can simply choose an alternative to them. And tellingly, the inevitability of Theodore’s authorship is framed in sexual terms. Even with his stern warnings, Raymond concedes that Theodore’s preference is comparable to his own love for Agnes, unconquerable and beyond persuasion: “Authorship is a mania, to conquer which no reasons are sufficiently strong; and you might as easily persuade me not to love, as I persuade you not to write” (186). Nonetheless, Raymond makes clear that the kind of love Theodore experiences is far more dangerous than his own, a “mania” that, like Anacreaon’s “wild inspiration” (184), is pointedly not aroused by a woman. Distancing himself from the sexuality of Theodore’s authorship even before he reads “Love and Age,” Raymond prefaces his advice with the assertion that he himself “never composed more than six lines in his life” (185).

Given the cautious, even cynical tone of Raymond’s advice, the next logical step would be for him to urge Theodore to keep his verses, and especially their implications for the sexuality of their author’s “private character and conduct,” out of public view. Indeed, since Theodore cannot resist authorship—or “being occasionally seized with a poetical paroxysm” (186)—Raymond warns that he must be selective about whom he shares his work with, advising the young poet to “take at least the precaution of communicating your verses to none but those whose partiality for you secures their approbation” (186).

As usual in The Monk, however, concealing sexuality is no simple proposition. Raymond’s recommendation that Theodore closet his work takes on decidedly Gothic features with two provocative images that frame the episode, a veil and a picture. Theodore’s eagerness, early on, to share his poem suggests to Raymond that he has “the emotions of a heart as yet but little skilled in veiling its sentiments” (181). Likewise, after completing his criticism of “Love and Age” and as if to close off any homoerotic potential between himself and Theodore, Raymond promptly retires to bed where “his dreams presented him with the most flattering pictures of happiness with Agnes” (187). As Sedgwick was the first to explore fully, the Gothic’s complex interplay of surfaces such as veils usually fails to conceal secret depths (Coherence). And as Hogle has argued more recently, pictures and other visual images in The Monk reveal not so much the truth as further layers of deception.

One way to consider this characteristically Gothic interplay of surfaces and depths is as a variation on closeting and drag, one often yielding the other. Nowhere is this correspondence more literally exemplified than in Lewis’s figure of Rosario/Matilda. Clara Tuite argues that the closeting of this figure begins at the very moment that “he” is revealed to be a “she.” In an early scene in the romance, “the feigned Rosario” announces to Ambrosio “I am a woman” and underscores the truth of this claim by tearing “open her habit to reveal her breast” (79, 84). For Tuite, rather than disclosing an essential truth, the revelation is, instead, “a strategy of evasion. This unveiling is in fact not an unveiling but a re-veiling in female costume” (n. pag.). Rosario’s abrupt transformation into the female Matilda merely represents Lewis’s attempt to closet the homoerotic relationship between the novice and monk.

Yet it is important to remember that Rosario/Matilda never discloses a “true” gender by which to define his/her identity or to determine the nature of his/her relationship with Ambrosio. By the end of The Monk, we learn only that Matilda is “a subordinate but crafty spirit” who assumes a female guise in one of Lucifer’s successful bids to tempt Ambrosio (361). Consequently, and in keeping with Sedgwick’s examination of the closet, Rosario/Matilda’s relationship with Ambrosio functions as a site of “the known and the unknown, the explicit and the inexplicit around homo/heterosexual definition” (Epistemology 3). Moreover, he/she exemplifies Butler’s point that drag can aim to parody the “notion of an original or primary gender identity” (174). Lucifer claims that the “crafty” spirit’s guise is based not on a woman but the representation of a woman, the portrait of the Madonna that Ambrosio idolizes (361). And since Lucifer is of course hardly a reliable source of information, we are left with more questions about the basis of Rosario/Matilda’s gender identity: Does the picture precede and a serve as the model for the spirit’s disguise? Or does the disguise serve as a model for the portrait? With Sedgwick, I read these dual accounts less as a sign of Lewis’s inconsistency than “ingeniously of a piece with broader Gothic notions of personal identity”—that is, as “social” and “impressed [. . .] from the outside” (Coherence 155). Through this series of displacements, Rosario/Matilda serves as an ideal emblem for drag as “gender parody,” embodying Butler’s claim “that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin” (175).

The complex layering of veils and pictures, gender and sexuality that makes up the figure of Rosario/Matilda in turn derails any attempt to read Raymond’s advice as simply a recommendation for “protective” closeting (to borrow from Tuite [n. pag.]). Instead, Theodore’s absent “veiling” suggests that drag is the more useful strategy, particularly for young authors of homoerotic texts. Raymond’s invocation of the veil references not only Rosario/Matilda but also the deceptively veiled figure he himself encounters, the hyper-feminine Bleeding Nun, “a Female of more than human stature” (140). Conceptually and thematically linked to this veiling are Raymond’s dreams of “pictures of happiness with Agnes” that end the episode. At the same time that these pictures seem to serve as method of closeting, by closing off the pederastic possibilities of Raymond’s relationship with Theodore, they hint at the kind of cross-dressing that would enable them to be realized. Rather than images of Agnes, these pictures might well depict Theodore veiled as Agnes. Offering a reversal of Rosario/Matilda’s “revelation,” Raymond’s dream perhaps veils the boy to construct the woman.

Likewise, Raymond’s warning that Theodore “communicate” his verses to only favourably inclined readers amounts to a recommendation not that he conceal his work but that he perform it, albeit under specific conditions. If, as Butler argues, we should consider drag as a form of imitation, an appropriation of a specific “style” in order to create a certain “effect” (177, 43), perhaps we can consider literary imitation as a kind of drag, or in any case an analogously gendered performance. As I mention above, Lewis’s relation to Radcliffe and even Radcliffe’s relation to her own success have each been constructed as forms of literary transvestism. Raymond’s advice encourages Theodore to view authorship in these terms as well. Because Theodore’s performance is laden with risk, Raymond recommends that he not closet but limit it to a small coterie audience whose “approbation” he can be sure of.

To suggest that authorship is “constructed,” as Butler says about gender, “is not to assert its illusoriness or artificiality, where those terms are understood to reside within a binary that counterposes the ‘real’ and the ‘authentic’ as oppositional” (43). Rather, in profoundly parallel ways, authorship and gender are the effects of specific performances, and in both cases, imitation reveals that “all along the original was derived” (176). Such imitative drag proves to be seductively effective in the “Love and Age” episode. Despite his attempts to gain distance from Theodore’s authorship, Raymond is captivated: Positioning himself as the “partial” audience with whom Theodore can safely circulate his verses, he declares that he is “pleased” with the poem (itself an imitation, as Raymond recognizes) and asks for “a copy” (186, 187). Here as elsewhere in The Monk, as Wilson describes it, Lewis “reveal[s] and exploit[s] the anxieties about originality that were fostered by the developing discourse of Romantic authorship” and in so doing critiques contemporary theories of the originary author (n. pag.).

2. Lewis as Plagiarist

In many ways, the “Love and Age” episode functions as a synecdoche for key characteristics of The Monk, in particular, the “textuality” that Robert Miles points out “predominates” in the romance (Gothic 161). Signs of this textuality can be found in the epigraphs from writers considered “Romantic” by contemporaries (including Shakespeare, Tasso, Collins, Thompson, and Robert Blair). Another indication is the string of interconnected remarks by classical and neoclassical writers that further construct Lewis’s authorship as part of a classical tradition. The “Imitation of Horace” that prefaces the romance, for example, evokes the epigraph on authorship from Pope’s imitation of Horace’s epistle “To Augustus” (Monk 179, Pope 646) that opens the “Love and Age” episode and foreshadows Theodore’s authorial “Vanity” (which in turn links him to the “Vain boy” of his own verses [187, 182]). Similarly, Lewis’s prefatory Horation imitation predicts that his book will find itself “condemned, despised, / Neglected, blamed, and criticized” (35) much as Raymond warns of the various “arrows” writers must face.

Probably the best-known sign of The Monk’s textuality, however, is Lewis’s comment that he committed “plagiarisms” in the production of his romance. In listing several sources—an early eighteenth-century story, a German folktale, a Danish ballad, and Spanish poetry—the prefatory advertisement to The Monk, Miles observes, “announc[es] that the text is a pastiche, a collection of pre-existing material” (“Ann Radcliffe” 53). Yet Lewis concludes this announcement with a remark that has proven to be more provocative than revealing: “I have now made a full avowal of all the plagiarisms of which I am aware myself; I doubt not, many more may be found, of which I am at present totally unconscious” (38). As the earliest public statement on the composition of The Monk (all the more rare since Lewis was reticent about commenting publicly on the romance later in his career), it is tempting to see the advertisement as a candid account of Lewis’s authorship. Indeed, though resulting in very different interpretations, several scholars have read it as an expression of Lewis’s feelings about his sources, suggesting they ranged from “casual” to “embarrassed” and included a “burdensome sense of literary indebtedness” (Peck 20; Macdonald and Scherf 15; Wilson [n. pag.]).

However, as with Rosario/Matilda’s “avowal of her sex” (82), instead of a clear revelation of origins, Lewis’s “avowal” veils more than it discloses. For one thing, the advertisement is a highly conventional statement and perhaps even an imitation of other such advertisements. [13] For another, Wilson points out that marshalling his various sources allows Lewis not only to convey his sense of indebtedness, but also to present himself as “well-educated, worldly, and by implication male” and to distance himself “from potential associations with effeminate hack writing,” especially that of the feminized Gothic (n. pag.). As a result, rather than an unmediated expression of authorial intention, the advertisement might be more accurately understood as a form of drag that in turn suggests that authorship, like gender, is the effect of a constructed identity.

Not surprisingly, the advertisement bears a striking resemblance to Raymond’s comments on the originality of Theodore’s poem. Raymond remarks that “most of the best ideas are borrowed from other poets, though possibly you are unconscious of the theft yourself” (186). “Borrowing” would not necessarily imply, as “plagiarism” almost always did, an attempt to deceive, but as the last and presumably most important in Raymond’s list of the poem’s “several faults,” it is a comparably serious weakness, especially since it is equated with “theft.” [14] In addition, the unconsciousness of Theodore’s thefts and Lewis’s other possible plagiarisms link both to the unconquerable “mania” of authorship. The comparison between the advertisement and the episode is furthered by Raymond’s quip that though “a short poem must be correct and perfect,” such “faults [as theft] may occasionally be excused in a work of length” (186)—including, we might assume, a three-volume romance.

These parallels between The Monk’s advertisement and Raymond’s criticism make it even more difficult to read Lewis’s “avowal of all of [his] plagiarisms” as a candid accounting. On the one hand, the advertisement’s reference to “plagiarisms” invites the suspicion that Lewis deceives us about his use of sources. On the other, the mere fact that he lists (at least some of) his sources counters this suspicion; when an author acknowledges the identity of a source, the appropriative act becomes the more legitimate practice of imitation. Here again, Butler’s notion of drag as a form of imitation that creates specific gender effects proves helpful. If imitation (as an invocation of a style that an author intends for readers to recognize as belonging to someone else) works as a form of cross-dressing, then plagiarism (as an author’s attempt to deceive readers into believing that the appropriated text is the product of his or her “own” identity) operates as a kind of closet, a means of concealing identity. [15] Precisely by “avowing” his “plagiarisms,” Lewis imitates rather than conceals authorial identity. Consequently, like Rosario/Matilda’s “true” gender, there is no stable ground upon which to situate Lewis’s authorship of The Monk.

If Lewis seems to have avoided the closet in his composition of The Monk, what seems to have come close to driving him into it was the romance’s brutal reception. As much as he emphasizes the derivative, constructed nature of his authorship, reviewers of The Monk insisted upon situating it directly within him. Despite what several recent scholars have suggested (Peck 20-21; Macdonald and Scherf 15; Wilson [n. pag.]), the reception of The Monk is remarkable precisely because most contemporary critics did not count Lewis’s use of sources among his many textual crimes. It is true that an anonymous reviewer for the European Magazine complained that The Monk lacked “originality” (111), but this criticism is by no means characteristic of the reception of the romance’s use of sources. Indeed, the one review to refer to Lewis’s “plagiarism” does so to offer at least “some praise” amidst otherwise hostile comments (Monthly Review 451). Even Coleridge, who, as we have seen, lamented the prevalence of Gothic “manufacture” in his review of The Monk, carefully set Lewis’s romance apart as “the offspring of no uncommon genius” and was unbothered by even an apparently unacknowledged source (“Schiller’s incomprehensible Armenian”) (370, 371). One might well counter that as the most famous plagiarist of the Romantic period, Coleridge had his own reasons for not being overly concerned about borrowing from Schiller, but other reviewers of The Monk were equally nonchalant about its sources (Fitzgerald “Gothic Villain”).

An important reason for this omission is not simply that reviewers had the more dangerous textual crimes of blasphemy and obscenity to attend to. Rather, given the revaluation of originality that conflated author with work, to criticize Lewis on the grounds that his romance was not entirely his own would imply that he was not entirely responsible for it. And for most reviewers, maintaining this connection between author and production was crucial and remained so throughout Lewis’s career. [16] For he was always to be “Monk” Lewis, one and the same with his romance, and therefore susceptible to punishment nearly as severe as that with which Monk Ambrosio meets (Fitzgerald “Crime”)—and through means not unlike what Raymond imagines for Theodore, by “stigmatizing its author” and “wounding the man.” In order for this punishment to be exacted, Lewis needed to be “out” as The Monk’s irrefutable author; charges of plagiarism would only serve to closet (and protect) him.

Though most of The Monk’s reviewers did not concern themselves with the romance’s sources, Lewis himself did, deploying the strategies of both drag and closeting in his own response to the reception. In a letter to his father composed the same month that the fourth edition of The Monk appeared, he complained that he did not deserve “censure” for “the sentiments, characters, or general tendency of the work” because they were derived from the “Santon Barsisa,” a brief story published in the Guardian in 1713 (Monk 408). James Watt reads this letter as a kind of closeting, arguing that in it, Lewis “sought refuge behind one of his sources” (95). Gamer suggests a more useful way to read the symbolic action of this letter, demonstrating that Lewis responded to The Monk’s reception by “abdicat[ing] authorship” in the published version of The Castle Spectre (“Authors” 846). Rather than attempting to conceal the “true” origins of his work behind other texts, Lewis denied these origins altogether in much the same way that drag parodies origins.

However, in the fourth edition of The Monk (the version he bowdlerized due to threats of prosecution for blasphemy and obscenity), Lewis makes use of an altogether different strategy. Instead of openly imitating another author’s style (such as Anacreon’s), Lewis seems to resort to the closet, committing a true act of plagiarism in order to conceal his ties to the homoerotic tradition that he had associated himself with by publishing “Love and Age.” In this edition of the romance, he appends a note to the poem declaring that “The last stanza is taken from the first Ode of Anacreon” (462). Though the note calls additional attention to the source of the poem, publicizing further Lewis’s ties to the Anacreontic tradition, the more crucial result is that it serves to narrow the extent of this association, reducing it to the least sexual of the poem’s stanzas. What is more, the note obscures rather than clarifies the relationship of the poem to its source. Thanks to Macdonald’s research, we know that Lewis’s debts to the Anacreontic tradition extend to much more than the last stanza: the entire poem is based on the ode, as readers familiar with the original would have known. Ironically perhaps, but without question this time, Lewis commits plagiarism in the very footnote that seems aimed at acknowledging his source.

André Parreaux’s still useful reception-history of The Monk suggests a reason for this act of textual closeting. Though the romance itself, particularly in combination with Lewis’s rank as M.P., seems to have provided ample fuel for the calls for prosecution, Lewis’s homosexuality made him especially vulnerable. [17] Had he resisted the pressure to bowdlerize his romance and gone to trial, sensitive details about his life might well have come out in court (Parreaux 119). As Louis Crompton points out, prosecutions—and executions—for sodomy increased dramatically during this period (451, 454). Lewis seems to have followed the cautions about blackmailability that Raymond offers Theodore. Though imitation serves throughout The Monk as a subversive strategy, a means of queering the Romantic vision of solitary authorship, in Lewis’s one clear act of plagiarism (as opposed to the “plagiarisms” he avows), he conceals the imitation of “Love and Age” behind his own claim of originary authorship. As a result, it is difficult to read Lewis’s note to the poem as anything but a defensive gesture of protective closeting and an effort to distract readers from the homoerotics of “Love and Age.”

Despite the compromises Lewis was forced to make to the fourth edition, The Monk manages to point up alternatives to the period’s dominant model of authorship (a model that remains enormously influential). At least early on in his career, he seems to have found the ambiguous layerings of the Gothic to have been a useful means of negotiating authorship in an age that increasingly devalued imitation as a means of establishing authority. What he must have especially appreciated was precisely the constructed (as opposed to “organic” or “original”) nature of the mode that led contemporaries to accuse Gothic writers of excessive imitation. The gender implications of these complaints are worth noting. Fewer than two decades before critics associated the “hobgoblin romance” with excessive “manufacture,” future poet laureate Thomas Warton, in The History of English Poetry (1778), related the Gothic instead with masculine originality. Whereas the Middle Ages (“Gothic times”) were the very “parents of imagination,” the subsequent “study of the classics,” Warton complained, “produced that bane of invention, IMITATION.” Calling on the nativist, masculinized discourse that attached to Gothic aesthetics early in the century, Warton cast neoclassical imitation as the enemy of home-grown, manly, bardic originality: “The brave eccentricities of original genius, and the daring hardiness of native thought, were intimidated by metaphysical sentiments of perfection and refinement” (78-9).

It might seem remarkable now that these gendered poles of Gothic original and neoclassical imitation would be so thoroughly reversed by the time Lewis published The Monk. But in their relation to the “original” Gothic, the multitude of prose romances that flooded the market in the 1790s were seen, like fops who imitated the “natural Behavior” of “true” gentlemen, as mere shadowy copies. (This opposition further suggests that it is hardly a coincidence that Lewis opted for the imitation of classical models rather than the generation of Gothic origins to convey The Monk’s brief moment of utopian homoeroticism.) As Gamer argues, the case of Lewis allows us “to map author-functions that lie outside the ‘Romantic author’” (“Authors” 834), bringing into sharper focus how radically unstable the terms of this construct are. With its emphasis on imitation in various textual and sexual guises, The Monk enables us to reexamine the opposition between authentic originality and derivative copies in the history of the sexuality of authorship.

Coda: A Note on The Castle Spectre

Though the note appended to “Love and Age” in the fourth edition of The Monk indicates that Lewis felt obliged to closet his ties to a classical, imitative, homoerotic literary tradition, the published version of The Castle Spectre, which appeared just a few weeks earlier, in January 1798, shows that he had found a way to forge a link to a more recent, queered literary tradition. Miles sees The Castle Spectre, like The Monk, engaging in the “open secret” of Lewis’s sexuality (“Ann Radcliffe” 44-5, 51), but one would be hard pressed to find in the drama the kind of utopianism seen in the relationship of Cupid and Anacreon or even Theodore and Raymond. Nearly all of the drama’s homosocial pair bonds are informed by violence, most notably in Osmond’s interactions with his brother, Reginald, with the hero, Percy, and with his slave, Hassan.

Nonetheless, The Castle Spectre offers a homosocial pairing that is relatively optimistic. In a footnote added to the published version, Lewis comments on a scene from the second act in which Percy, masquerading as a ghost, frightens Osmond away from further threatening the heroine, Angela:

I really believed the invention to be entirely my own: But the situations of Angela, Osmond, and Percy, so closely resemble those of Isabella, Manfred, and the animated portrait in The Castle of Otranto, that I am convinced the idea must have been suggested to me by that beautiful Romance.—Wherever I can trace any plagiarisms, whether willful or involuntary, I shall continue to point them out to the reader without reserve.


We have already seen this avowal of “plagiarisms” in The Monk, complete with hints that such textual appropriations are unconscious and incontrollable. But this note functions differently, in part because the specificity of Lewis’s references to The Castle of Otranto distinguishes them from the stock conventions of the advertisement and also because Walpole had died just ten months earlier, [18] suggesting that the note served a memorializing purpose.

Just as relevant, by calling attention to the debt his scene owed to Walpole, Lewis publicly declares an association between his drama and the “beautiful Romance” in a manner prescient of a more recent attempt at forming a gay literary tradition. In an examination of David Leavitt’s use of an episode from Stephen Spender’s autobiography in the story “The Term Paper Artist,” Kenneth Bleeth and Julie Rivkin argue that this appropriation provides a “mimetic model” for “cultural transmission” that “works to blur the distinction between authenticity and plagiarism and offers a way of thinking about a gay writer’s use of his precursors as a means of discovering and articulating desire.” By drawing on “the complex work done by copying and identification in the making and transmitting of gay culture,” this model has the advantage of not getting “stalled in the oedipal roadblock” (as do Bloom’s agonistic “relations between men”) (1350-2).

Two centuries earlier, Lewis seems to have made use of a similarly mimetic model for transmitting gay (Gothic) culture by appropriating not only the scene he notes but also Otranto’s “open secrets” of incest and counterfeiting (Haggerty, Men in Love 161-7; Hogle n. pag.). As important, by publicizing The Castle Spectre’s debt to Otranto, Lewis begins to build a queer, male Gothic tradition, one that he might well have intended to initiate with The Monk since the true owner of the castle in Otranto is also named Theodore. Lewis’s imitation of Walpole serves as a subversive, perhaps even liberatory, gesture, a means of constructing identity as well as claiming a cultural legacy that does not depend upon the primacy or truth of origins. As a result, to say that the Gothic is “manufactured,” excessively imitative, or “the conventional genre par excellence” (Sedgwick Coherence 166) only highlights its relevance to the transmission of gay culture since the late eighteenth century, a relevance that is obscured as long as we remain loyal to what Butler refers to as “the myth of originality” (176).

Parties annexes