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'Monk' Lewis as Literary Lion

  • Lisa M. Wilson

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  • Lisa M. Wilson
    State University of New York at Buffalo

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With the revelation that the anonymous author of The Monk was none other than Matthew Gregory Lewis, Esq., newly-elected M.P., came a storm of criticism that cemented an identification in the public imagination between the author and his scandalous text and characters. [1] The public's fascination with the "perversions" of the novel's main characters (including the "lascivious" Ambrosio and the demon-transvestite Matilda) led to readings of Lewis's character as author and man through the lens of the characters in his novel, a move which was epitomized in Lewis's nickname: "the Monk".

The overwhelming popularity of The Monk also led to personal celebrity for Matthew Gregory Lewis, with its accompanying attempts to locate the truth about the novel's author in the relationship between his body and his text. However, just as efforts to condemn the novel and its author never achieved complete success, neither did the outcry surrounding the novel result in utter condemnation of its author and his talents. Instead, Lewis seems to have achieved the impossible by transforming what might have proved to be a disastrous success de scandale into a substantial reputation as one of the most successful literary lions of his day.

As Lewis was aware, writing in the debased genre of the Gothic novel was an unlikely route to literary laurels, since the genre was commonly constructed as the province of hack writers, especially women. As a man who rose to fame as a Gothic novelist, a form conventionally thought of as "light," and therefore "well adapted to female ingenuity," Lewis's masculinity as well as his literary authority would already have been called into question by his choice of genre. Critics in this period often refer with some anxiety to the gender confusion which could result when men wrote in such "feminine" genres, casting the literary act as a kind of transvestism. For example, one critic, reviewing yet another novel authored by "A Lady," cautioned men against the temptation "to shelter themselves under petticoats" by choosing a female pseudonym in order to exploit some manly reviewer's chivalrous impulses. He warns: "such an author would not find it easy to undress himself, and, in his own person, claim the bays bestowed upon the Lady." [2] Such gender stereotyping clearly complicated Lewis's relationship to the literary and critical establishment, by making it easier to cast him as effeminate and call into question his literary authority.

In the aftermath of The Monk's success, moralists were horrified by the proliferation of anonymous cheap editions of the novel, as well as the increase in mostly-anonymous female writers who adopted Lewis's popular style. [3] With no author whom they might attack on moral or legal grounds, outraged critics they inevitably fell back on castigating Lewis for these productions as well. As the author of Prodigious!!! or, Childe Paddie in London claims after reciting a long list of complaints against the morality of The Monk and its author: "Another evil is example; forth step hundreds of novelists, who ape the perverted genius of the author of the Monk . . . forth have rushed from the press of late days swarms of these things, and many from female pens too, which will as scientifically excite the passions, as any chemical preparation which may be made up." [4] The language of invading plague this satirist employs reveals his sense that Lewis has let loose an uncontrollable horde of anonymous female hack writers who threaten society with their dangerously drug-like novels. Unlike Lewis, whom the author represents as possessing a certain "genius," even if it is of a perverted kind, these novelizing hordes merely "ape" Lewis's example, manufacturing passionately potent texts simply by following Lewis's formula. This satirist reacts to the threat posed by the novelizing hordes by dismissing them as mere cardboard cut-outs, reproductions made in the image of the author of The Monk, an anonymous swarm who might be exterminated by eliminating the "example" they blindly follow. His choice of metaphors both heightens the impression that these hordes are dangerous and attempts to belie those fears. While his swarm imagery implicitly connects the faceless troop of authors with other kinds of anonymous social threats like Jacobins or groups of working-class radicals, these novel-writing swarms are both more and less dangerous in being mindless and led by an identifiable party—Lewis. By repeating fears about the lack of social control over anonymous authors, but linking that danger to a figure of Romantic authorship like Lewis, this author attempts to defuse the threat of anonymous publication by attributing it to a single individual. In doing so, critics attempted to control the contagious debasement of public taste that the popularity of Lewis's style represented. Ironically, such reasoning had unintendedly positive effects for Lewis's literary reputation. This application of the ideology of Romantic authorship forced critics to conclude that Lewis and The Monk had raised themselves above the level of such feminine hackwork. By insisting on Lewis's responsibility for his disreputable literary followers, his critics were forced to conclude that Lewis's success was the result of a unique combination of scandalous text and outrageous personality—and genius.

From the outset of his professional career, Lewis revealed his uneasiness about his literary authority and critical reception in ways which emphasize his awareness of these conventional links between gender and genre. In The Monk's opening "Advertisement," Lewis reveals his burdensome sense of literary indebtedness by listing numerous sources for the novel, ending with an admission of "plagiarism": "I have now made a full avowal of all the plagiarisms of which I am aware myself—, but I doubt not, many more may be found, of which I am at present totally unconscious". [5] By doing so, Lewis may have thought to distance himself from the figure of the anonymous hack who appropriates the originality of others without attribution. Ironically, this move appears to have had the opposite effect. At least two of his reviewers took this admission seriously, commenting on the effectiveness of Lewis's use of his sources in order to discuss his merit as a writer. The 1796 Analytical review opens, "In the preface to this romance, which displays no common powers, the author points out the interesting tale which he has chosen to amplify and alter," and goes on to argue that Lewis has constructed a "more finished picture of this bold sketch." While this reviewer asserts that the author displays "no common powers," he then seems unclear about whether to locate those powers in the author or in the quality of his sources. The author of the 1797 Monthly Review article has similarly mixed feelings about the degree to which Lewis's talents may be credited for the success of the novel. After detailing the novel's plot and its precedents, he writes: "This may be called plagiarism; yet it deserves some praise . . . All invention is but new combination." In praising Lewis, this reviewer returns to a more Augustan model of authorship, in which "new combination" is not "plagiarism", but a legitimate writing strategy. By concerning themselves with the question of how Lewis's use of sources reflects on his originality, and by allowing him only "some praise" for improving his sources, these critics move toward a Romantic definition of authorship that connects genius with originality. By finding Lewis lacking, they implicitly associate him with the figure of the hack writer who merely copies other novelists in order to manufacture "new" volumes to satisfy the voracious appetites of circulating library patrons. [6]

Of course, Lewis's exaggerated avowal of his conscious and unconscious "plagiarisms" also suggests that he was intentionally courting such critical attention, especially since his indebtedness to these sources is tenuous and vague at best. By claiming a multiplicity of non-English sources (German, Danish, Spanish) Lewis highlights his translating abilities while implying his worldliness and genius in pulling together such a variety of source materials. As if to quash any doubts about his literary authority in spite of his anonymity, Lewis provides broad hints throughout the text that he is well-educated, worldly, and by implication, male. Not only does he claim authority for his sources (and so for his entire novel) as translations of traditional legends and ballads, but he opens his text with not one but two references to Horace. His opening epigraph and prefatory poem are both translated from Horace's Epistles . Indeed, this prefatory poem can be read as encouraging speculation about his personal identity and literary authority. The poem opens by addressing his novel as it is launched in the literary marketplace, and goes on to provide tantalizing hints about the author's identity. In it, he imagines that, if the book is successful, readers will "ask [the novel] by natural transition/ Respecting me and my condition" (ll. 31-2). What follows is an equivocal sketch of his social class ("nor very poor, nor very rich"), his physical appearance ("of graceless form and dwarfish stature"), and his character ("More passionate no creature living/ Proud, obstinate, and unforgiving"), concluded with one fact: his age ("I scarce have seen my twentieth year") (ll. 34, 36, 47-8, 54). Here, Lewis apparently encourages readers to scrutinize the novel for hints about the identity of its author, and seems to answer those questions beforehand. In fact, this sketch contains virtually no solid features by which its author could be identified, at the same time that it subtly paints Lewis as a passionate young literary prodigy. Interestingly, Lewis employs another authorizing strategy in his chapter epigraphs, which contain references to Shakespeare, Tasso, Pope and several of the male "Graveyard Poets," but no references to other Gothic novelists or any women writers. [7] In this way, from behind the anonymity of his first novel, Lewis attempted to establish his literary credentials unequivocally by distancing himself from potential associations with effeminate hack writing. In doing so, he reveals his concern to establish a solid authorial reputation and his sense that the greatest threat to that reputation would come from critics who saw The Monk as merely another anonymous example of circulating library lumber.

While Lewis's authorizing efforts were clearly only partially successful in the case of The Monk, the divided response to the novel revealed that at least some of the strategies that Lewis employed in the novel were effective and helped to establish him as a poetic genius as well as a literary celebrity. Lewis's celebrity was based on the popularity of his scandalous novel-writing and its presumed connection to his personal life; his literary reputation was based more on his ballad-writing, which was more distanced from such biographical readings. [8] From the beginning of this career, Lewis and his publisher apparently recognized the importance of emphasizing his poetry, since the novel includes a "Table of the Poetry" and at least one advertisement touts the novel as "THE MONK, a ROMANCE, interspersed with the following Pieces of Poetry." In spite of the scandal surrounding other aspects of the novel, Lewis's poetic reputation was born out of the acclaim garnered by the poetry in The Monk . For example, Lewis's ballad "Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene" was nearly universally praised as the one redeeming feature of the novel and was widely reprinted (313-16). [9] Even Coleridge, who generally condemned the novel, praises Lewis's poetry and suggests that it raises The Monk above the level of circulating library trash. [10] Coleridge concludes his anonymous 1797 review by reprinting "The Exile" and commenting that "the poetry interspersed through the volumes is, in general, far above mediocrity." He goes on to claim that Lewis's poetry, as substantially different from the rest of his novel, will elevate his literary reputation: "We shall present our readers with the following exquisitely tender elegy, which, we may venture to prophesy, will melt and delight the heart, when ghosts and hobgoblins shall be found only in the lumber garret of a circulating library." By "prophesying" that Lewis's poem will achieve lasting fame, Coleridge implies that his poetry, by appealing to readers' better emotions, has the power to establish the genius of its author. Coleridge can set Lewis apart from the mass of anonymous hack writers only by establishing a firm distinction between the ephemeral "ghosts and hobgoblins" of circulating library novels, which appeal to the falsely charged emotions of their readers, and the poetry that can "melt and delight the heart." Of course, Coleridge's neat binary privileging poetry over circulating library prose is complicated by the fact that Lewis had produced both "ghosts and hobgoblins" and "exquisite elegies" in The Monk . In a period in which poetry and novelistic prose made competing claims for pre-eminence, Lewis's literary reputation proved a significant site of contention over literary authority and meaning.

Lewis complicated his own claims to literary authority by revealing and exploiting anxieties about originality that were fostered by the developing discourse of Romantic authorship. Throughout his career Lewis remained self-conscious about potential charges of plagiarism and challenges to his literary authority, but seems to have delighted in eliciting just such challenges. For example, Lewis included a parody of his acclaimed ballad "Alonzo and Imogene" in the fourth revised edition of The Monk (albeit hidden in a footnote). [11] At least one reviewer registered horrified protest: "we cannot help expressing our astonishment that the author should have subjoined to his justly popular poem of Alonzo and Imogene a ridiculous parody, expressly calculated to ruin the interest, and pervert the effect of the original . . . it will require all the art of Mr. Lewis to make us feel, with the same force as heretofore, the simple beauties of that composition." [12] The reviewer objects to the parodic impulse which undercuts the poem's claim to literary authority, and, by implication, that of its author. The reviewer would probably have been even more startled to learn that the author of this parody was none other than the wronged Mr. Lewis himself. By including a parody of his own best claim to literary laurels and authorial status, Lewis undercuts his own authorizing project. At the same time, he implicitly challenges the critical establishment by poking fun at the one piece of his work of which they consistently approved. Lewis's choice to include the parody in the revised edition of The Monk suggests his awareness of the inconsistent critical position of many of his detractors, who, like Coleridge, praised his poetry at the same time they insisted the entire novel must have resulted from its author's singular perversions. [13] By including the parody, Lewis subtly underlines the point that praiseworthy poem, objectionable parody, and perverted novel were all the work of a single hand. While Lewis did not acknowledge his authorship of the "Alonzo" parody in the text of The Monk, he did include it in the 1801 Tales of Wonder, giving away the joke by signing it proudly: "Original—M.G. Lewis."

Lewis's editorship of Tales of Wonder, a miscellany of ancient and modern ballads by a variety of authors, further illuminates his vexed relationship to the ideology of the Romantic genius. The care with which he attributes each poem in the text suggests his acute awareness of the growing importance of originality and therefore of naming as a means to secure authorial ownership of circulating literary texts. Unlike earlier miscellanies or "commonplace books," each poem's title is followed by not only the name of its author, but also its source. For example, Scott's "Fire-King" is headed "Original. Walter Scott," while Lewis's "The Water-King" is headed "Danish. M.G. Lewis." With some poems, Lewis goes even further, citing in a headnote the specific text from which the poem was translated and even citing competing versions by other translators. In the headnote to "Giles Jollup the Grave, and Brown Sally Green," his parody on "Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene," Lewis took the question of plagiarism and attribution to the greatest lengths of all, pointing out that he has printed in italics the lines he took from another newspaper parody of his poem. [14] Such excessively careful attribution of each poem in the anthology suggests a concern with originality which anxiously draws attention to the author's claims to genius and therefore to ownership of their works. As with his "Advertisement" in The Monk, such a careful accounting serves to highlight ironically the role plagiarisms and copying play in the construction of the Romantic author.

Critical reaction to Tales of Wonder supports the notion that Lewis's nearly obsessive concern with attribution and his penchant for self-satire often resulted in reviews that paid more attention to parody and plagiarism than to genius-claims in his work. Like the reaction of the Monthly Mirror to Lewis's inclusion of the parody in The Monk , even reviewers who generally approved of the volume disliked the parodies in Tales of Wonder, pointing to the confusion which resulted. For example, the Poetical Register, which generally praised the volume, registered confusion when it arrived at the parodies. The reviewer commented that "many of the tales are evidently designed to ridicule the present taste for the wonderful, and of others it is difficult to decide whether they are meant to be serious or ludicrous." [15] The Antijacobin Review located the problem in the text's author-editor, noting in some wonderment that Lewis "does not want abilities, or knowledge, but his talents are strangely perverted, and he sometimes seems even to be employed in throwing a ridicule upon himself." [16] Clearly, this reviewer understands the role of the parodies in the volumes as undercutting the authority of the texts which they "ridicule," and thereby the authority of their author; a desire for self-satire is so foreign as to be nearly incomprehensible.

The virulent and occasionally bewildered reaction to Lewis's volumes revealed the extent to which the miscellany form had fallen out of favor as mere re-production rather than authentic production in conjunction with the ideology of the Romantic author. [17] Advertised as "written and collected by M.G. Lewis, Esq., M.P., Author of the Monk, Castle Spectre, Love of Gain , etc.," the miscellany quickly earned the epithet "tales of plunder." Reviewers objected to what they viewed as Lewis's appropriation of other writers' work at the expense of the reading public, and, as proof, pointed to the small proportion of original material in the volumes and the high purchase price. The Monthly Magazine wrote indignantly that the volumes are "made up of shreds and scraps" with very little "original matter," yet the reader is "with a degree of assurance very uncommon even in these days, charged one guinea!" [18] The British Critic called the volumes a "very daring imposition on the public" since "a guinea is charged for two thin volumes, which might, and which ought, to have been comprised in one; and not a third of the contents will be found to be original composition". [19] Both reviewers focus on the physical and economic materiality of the volumes in order to paint Lewis as a literary thief, hack, and peddler who has imposed on the reading public by charging an outrageous price for used goods. Of course, without the Romantic expectation that the volumes would contain wholly original compositions, they might still be called overpriced, but could not be seen as an "imposition" on the public. Ironically, the outcry over "Tales of Wonder" depends on Lewis's careful attribution of authorship throughout the text, without which his critics could not have calculated to such a nicety what proportion of the volume was original and what was reprinted from other sources. Clearly, part of their indignation stems from the close proximity of parody and original, a conjuncture which Lewis encouraged through his editorial choices and headnotes, but which, to reviewers, represented an unacceptable confusion between originals and copies. Like the outcry surrounding The Monk, these objections imply Lewis's personal responsibility for this cheat. By calling the imposition "daring" and carried out with "an unusual degree of assurance," the reviewers registered an indirect protest against Lewis's egotism by implying that his celebrity is undeserved. The virulent critical reaction to Tales of Wonder did not substantially damage Lewis's reputation as a poet, since most of his own poems were also reprinted—from The Monk . However, the response furthered the belief that Lewis's lionization was based on his adept pandering to readers' debased tastes, even though his admirers applauded his successful negotiation of critical and marketplace demands.

Despite continuing debate over Lewis's right to his literary laurels, his self-authorizing strategies were successful enough that Romantic writers including Coleridge, Hazlitt, Byron, and Scott all praised his natural poetic talent and admired his literary success. In the same month that Coleridge wrote his review of The Monk, he wrote to Wordsworth praising Lewis's poetic style: "The simplicity and naturalness is his own, and not imitated; for it is made to subsist in congruity with a language perfectly modern, the language of his own time. This is, I think, a rare merit." [20] For Coleridge, Lewis's "natural" language finds authority through its association with the ancient ballad tradition; as "his own," its modernization is a reflection of his genius, untainted by any association with either the falseness of the ballad forger who passes his own work off as others', or the plagiarizing hack who passes others' work off as his own. [21]

Perhaps the most striking tribute to Lewis is that of Walter Scott. In his 1830 "Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad," he writes of the influence Lewis's example had on his own literary career: "Finding Lewis in possession of so much reputation, and conceiving that, if I fell behind him in poetical powers, I considerably exceeded him in general information, I suddenly took it into my head to attempt the style of poetry by which he had raised himself to fame" [i.e. ballads]. [22] As a literary lion who had founded his poetic reputation on the ballad tradition, Lewis provided Scott with a model of how to become a successful poetic genius. In this anecdote, Scott connects Lewis's impressive literary "reputation" with his "poetic powers," implying Lewis's natural genius, but also shrewdly connecting that reputation to its expression through a popular "style" of poetry. In doing so, Scott exposes Lewis's success as the result not merely of a unique quality of genius (which Scott believes he might not fully possess) but also of Lewis's capitalization on a popular literary genre (which Scott can likewise possess through imitation of the authorizing genre). Unlike some other aspiring Romantic writers, Scott learned well the lessons that Lewis's literary fame had to offer: literary authority and literary celebrity are inextricable from one another—and a little mystery surrounding the author doesn't hurt either.

The case of Lewis and The Monk reveals much about the conflicting and complementary relationship between the emergent figures of the author and the critic in the late eighteenth-century, especially concerning gender issues. It further shows that critics and authors were not necessarily on the same side in these struggles over propriety and position, and that the individual writer's adoption of the positions of authorship might be defensive, ambivalent, and inconsistent. Despite Lewis's ambivalence (or perhaps because of it) he stands as a key figure in the cultural construction of Romantic authorship, a model of the pleasures and dangers of literary lionhood.