If the power of darkness had ever really consisted in a devil with horns, hoofs and a spiked tail, reigning over thousands of demons and evil spirits – as the Christian Church asserted during the Middle Ages – what an all-time high fiesta His Satanic Majesty would have given his legions on the day the Pope decreed that priests might no longer marry: that for them the sexual act was a sin. And again on the initiation of Convents in which women were vowed to a life of chastity.
The decree that debarred countless thousands of young and virile men from exercising nature’s function legitimately, caused the greater part of them to suffer acutely; then reluctantly surrender to Satan by taking a mistress – thinly disguised as their housekeeper; or, worse, enter on a life of criminal adultery by deliberately seducing married women and young girls who came to their confessionals as penitents.
And what of the Convents? They provided a means for parents who could not afford adequate dowries for several daughters to rid themselves of one or more most respectably. The poor girls were made ‘Brides of Christ’, denied the right to enjoy a husband’s caresses and become mothers; imprisoned for life. Can it be wondered at that they too, tortured by dreams of sex, often broke their vows and were easily seduced by visiting priests? During the French Revolution, when atheist mobs invaded these religious prisons and the Convent gardens were dug up, many hundreds of little skeletons were found – they were those of babies born to generations of nuns, strangled at birth and buried secretly by night.
In modem times there is every reason to believe that things are very different. Only young men who feel confident that they will not be sexually attracted by women enter the Roman Catholic priesthood, and only young women who feel they have a genuine vocation take the veil.
Owing to a complete change in social and economic conditions, no young man or woman need any longer deny themselves the prospect of marriage and children. Today young people of either sex, given even moderate intelligence, can secure a job that will keep them in reasonable comfort; and no disgrace attaches to going into trade. In fact it is now considered only sensible that every girl, however blueblooded her parents, should be equipped to earn her living, if need be, as a secretary, a receptionist or a really capable cook.
But Matthew Lewis’s novel describes the type of horrifying scenes that took place only too frequently in past centuries. The major part of the story is set in Madrid and its period, although not stated, is probably about 1600.
The monk is a proud and very good-looking Abbot who, up to the age of thirty, has remained chaste and has earned by his piety, charity and eloquence the reverence normally accorded to a saint; but then – page after page keeps us riveted as we read of his fall from grace, the lust that becomes an obsession with him, his unscrupulous attempts to seduce a girl of fifteen which causes him to become a murderer, of his seeking Satanic aid among the tombs of an underground sepulchre, and of the hideous rape he commits there. No less horrifying is the conduct of the Abbess of a neighbouring Convent, her deceit and appalling cruelty to a beautiful nun who, carrying a child, is buried alive.
The book was published in 1796 and the authorities were so shocked by it that for many years the sale of it was banned.
Facing a small courtyard just north of Piccadilly there stands a big house with, behind it, a long covered passageway on either side of which are blocks of four-storey buildings divided into what are known as ‘sets’. This wonderful oasis of old-time exclusiveness in the very heart of London’s modern West End is called ‘Albany’.
Matthew Lewis was the first tenant of a ground-floor set there numbered K.1. In it he wrote The Monk, and by strange chance I happen to know the apartment well.
When India was given independence our British Civil Servants lost their jobs and had to come home. A friend of mine, Edward Lydell, was one of them and he took K.1. Deciding to sit for the British Bar, he had to give his qualifications for taking the examination. He simply wrote ‘Having been a Lord Chief Justice’. And he had been in an Indian Principality.
The present tenant of K.1. is another dear friend of mine – that pioneer of large, beautifully illustrated books – George Rainbird. It was his inspiration which led to the publication of this series about the occult; and it was when lunching with him in K.1. that he paid me the great compliment of asking me to select the books for this Library.