The Monk is said to be the archetypal Gothic novel. Sure enough, it has monks and nuns behaving badly ("behaving badly" is an understatement, really), ghosts, sex, bandits, rape, incest, violent mob and devilish pact. I had high expectation for this novel.
The titular monk is Ambrosio, a man so devout with conducts so exemplary that he's made an abbot at the age of thirty. Problem is, he's not as good as everybody (including himself) thinks he is. From the start, readers get a glimpse of his real character, which is full of vanity and self-righteousness. Ambrosio looks down on his fellow men (and women) and shows a surprising lack of self-awareness for someone thought so wise. He doesn't seem to realize that it's easy to be good and proper in the security of a cloister, and that one's integrity is measured in the face of temptation, not in its absence.
Anyway, Ambrosio meets this novice, who idolizes him, but who is actually a woman called Matilda. She bought her way to the abbey because she wanted to be close to Ambrosio, a man with whom she thought she could connect intellectually. Ambrosio tells her to leave once he finds out about her real identity, but one beauteous orb (don't ask) later, he's inclined to let her stay for three days.
In a twist of event too fantastical to believe--involving a venomous serpent and some sucking--Ambrosio ends up having sex with Matilda, who's on the brink of death. From this point onward, everything goes downhill for Ambrosio. I mean, yeah, he gets to have a lot of sex with Matilda, who made a pact with the devil to prolong her time on earth so that she could be his secret sex buddy. But he soon grows tired of her, which is a problem if you're a horny monk with no women around you bar one. And then, with the help of Matilda, who transitioned from the role of a lover to a pimp seemingly without difficulty, Ambrosio comes out to the world in search for a new sex object, getting closer and closer to eternal damnation in the process.
Apart from Ambrosio's story, the novel also features several sub-plots, all of which converges on the climactic episode in the crypt. There's the story of Antonia, a girl who comes to Madrid after her mother's death to seek the help and acknowledgement of a wealthy relative; Agnes, a young woman who enters the convent following the promise of her parents and the ruse of her aunt; and Don Raymond, Agnes' lover who had many interesting experiences throughout his road-trip across Europe (my favorite is the one with the Bleeding Nun).
However, I can't say that I enjoyed the novel. The meandering storytelling often left me bored, and the cultural and temporal distance has reduced much of its shock value for me. It seems that Gothic novels just aren't for me.
What better place for an imaginative, book-besotted girl than the lively cultural joys of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? That’s where author Val McDermid sends Catherine, aka Cat, Morland instead of Bath in this Austen Project update of Northanger Abbey. This is the second book in the series, Joanna Trollope’s modern take of Sense & Sensibility was first, and like its predecessor this Northanger Abbey sticks very close to the original, just reimaging the setting and circumstances, though in this case McDermid adds some clever contemporary twists at the end.
Instead of Gothic novels Cat is happily obsessed with vampire books and she’s especially excited to be in Edinburgh because she thinks it’s the perfect setting for all things paranormal--she can easily imagine vampires around every corner, which of course becomes a problem. This Cat is just as artless and eager as her original and all the main characters from Austen’s novels are back in modern forms. Charming Henry Tilney is now a lawyer instead of a clergyman, Isabella Thorpe is just as selfish and manipulative as ever but with more range because she can tweet and post, Eleanor Tilney has a new reason to be lonely--revealed late in the story--and the Tilney’s abbey home is now suitably isolated in the Scottish Borders, outside the range of cell phones reception.
Though McDermid is a crime novelist this Northanger Abbey is as lighthearted as Austen’s original. I don’t always enjoy Austen inspired novels by contemporary authors, but this retelling has Austen-like wit and spirit, and it was a lot fun to discover McDermid’s update choices as I read along. Plus I loved the vivid setting just as much as Cat. I received an ebook copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley. The review opinions are mine.
”This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
The position of all the troops on July 3rd, 1863. The last day of battle. You can see the famous fishhook deployment of the Union troops in blue.
Jane lets her wicked humor loose in this book, poking gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) fun at just about everyone’s poses, pretensions, and delusions, but as silly as Austen makes novel-drama-obsessed Catherine she still allows her to be artlessly charming and a lively joy to spend time with, and on this reread I gained a renewed appreciation for the playful wit and heartfelt decency of Henry Tilney. Northanger Abbey has moved up a few places in my favorite Austen novel list.