According to my Harmon and Holman A Handbook to Literature, “romance” has had a special meaning in terms of literature since the beginning of the novel. As opposed to a “novel,” a term which suggested realistic manners and society, a “romance” was more unlikely to happen in reality.
In common usage, [romance] refers to works with extravagant characters, romantic and exotic places, highly exciting and heroic events, passionate love, or mysterious or supernatural experiences. In another and more sophisticated sense, romance refers to works relatively free of the more restrictive aspects of realistic verisimilitude. (“Romance,” page 450, William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, eighth edition 1999)
Since I do not normally enjoy science fiction and rarely read fantasy beyond children’s books, I’m starting to suspect that the original classics that were the precursors are likewise not likely to be my favorite of classics. The Monk by Matthew Lewis (published 1796, when Matthew Lewis was 20 years old) is subtitled “A Romance” and such a description, had I realized the original connotation, should have been evidence enough that it would not be a cherished read. I loved the beginning and the end (more on that in a minute) but for the most part, The Monk was a drudge for me to read.
But, this may very well be just the right classic novel for you.
Lest you take my word for it, I will suggest that The Monk is far different from the stereotypical 1790s classic, such as the contemporary and perennial favorite Jane Austen. I picked up The Monk based on Amanda’s review, in which she explains what a fun novel it was. It was funny: I laughed out loud on many occasions. But I simply dislike the extreme drama that is a part of the early “romance” novel. I also didn’t like Dracula for similar reasons. I kept rolling my eyes with both books.
I also will say I went in knowing very little about how it would play out. All I knew was it dealt with monks, love, and fantastic pacts with the devil. There is so much more to it, but knowing little is, I think, a perfect way to approach it. The humorous episodes are much more random when one does not expect them. If you haven’t read this yet and may be interested in doing so, keep in mind that the remainder of this post may contain spoilers.
Amanda suggested that The Monk is a “romance with the devil” and I think that is a perfect summary. Ambrosio is a righteous but sheltered monk that, once he discovers the pleasures available to him, enters into a flirtation with all things carnal. He is making up for lost time! I loved the set up of Ambrosio’s character in the beginning, and I loved his eventual demise. His fate was so appropriate.
Reading it so closely on the heels of my Paradise Lost reread gave me an added layer of insight, I thought. In Paradise Lost, the devil is humbled. By the end, God looks over the world with satisfaction, and in fact, Satan, who is a ferocious being in the beginning, is not a huge presence in the last books of Paradise Lost. In The Monk, the Devil finally gets his control over a person, and he is happy.
‘Our contract? Have I not performed my part? What more did I promise than to save you from your prison? Have I not done so? Are you not safe from the Inquisition—safe from all but from me? Fool that you were to confide yourself to a Devil! Why did you not stipulate for life, and power, and pleasure? Then all would have been granted: Now, your reflections come too late. Miscreant, prepare for death; You have not many hours to live!’
On hearing this sentence, dreadful were the feelings of the devoted Wretch! He sank upon his knees, and raised his hands towards heaven. The Fiend read his intention and prevented it—
‘What?’ He cried, darting at him a look of fury: ‘Dare you still implore the Eternal’s mercy? Would you feign penitence, and again act an Hypocrite’s part? Villain, resign your hopes of pardon. Thus I secure my prey!’ (Volume III, Chapter V)
Oh, what a beautiful scene that last one was! I really liked it, and considering I’d been hating the novel at that point, that says something.
As for what I hated, the faults lay in the drama. I didn’t like the forced poetry interspersed in the text. I began to be bored when the characters started telling their life stories — first Don Raymond’s story, then Don Lorenzo’s story, and Agnes’s story, etc. These sections were huge digressions for any action and they seemed to be far too much “telling” not “showing.” But even those boring sections could have been forgiven. I began hating the book about the point of Ambrosio’s determination to have Antonia, even through rape. I can’t stand reading about rape.
Despite the presence of rape, incest, murder, and so forth, The Monk was, as I mentioned, a funny book. I laughed aloud when I discovered Rosario’s secret and I loved the ghost story, the crypts, and Ambrosio’s ultimate fate. I just disliked so much of the in-between stuff, I am relieved to have finished it. I am not looking forward to more gothic or “romantic” literature. I don’t think it’s for me. I hate the melodrama.
Do you think you’d like this story? Are you a fan of gothic literature? Which “romance” novels have you read?