Acquired: Audubon’s Birds Of America watercolors (New York Historical Society folio, 1966)
Literature which was considered shocking on its debut is but rarely shocking three hundred years later. The Monk is no exception (as opposed to, say, Fanny Hill), though it’s easy to see how in a time of great piety and fear of the church, a tale of this type might be both universally reviled and devoured.
There are a few stories loosely interwoven, all based in or around a convent and monastery in 18th-century Madrid. The primary story is of Ambrosio, a supremely virtuous monk who has never left the monastery since infancy. His bubble of sanctity is punctured by a young monk who (spoiler warning) reveals himself to be a woman, a beautiful woman at that, and what’s more, utterly dedicated to Ambrosio in every way. There are also the stories of Lorenzo, whose sister is trapped in the convent under the watch of an evil Abbess, and Don Raymond, who is in love with that sister, having met her in a series of adventures ranging from banditti ambush to ghostly possession. The three stories play themselves out, the characters occasionally encountering or indirectly affecting one another.
The Monk was written by a 20-year-old nobleman, and was instantly banned upon its release for being lewd and sacrilegious. And so it is: Ambrosio indulges in a laundry list of violent and carnal sins, all the while justifying it with a perverted religiosity, and the other religious figures are either evil and conniving or useless nonentities. There is frequent sexual violence, which is not to say (for the most part) rape, but a frank and unflinching treatment of the dark side of human sexuality, where it overlaps with other appetites and vices.
For all its worldliness, the book is clearly an amateur effort, though a largely successful one. Lewis was a talented writer (even his most vehement critics admitted so), and his style adapts equally well to the internal struggles of Ambrosio as to the romantic adventures of Don Raymond. Sentence by sentence Lewis is unimpeachable, and occasionally inspired (some of his poetry, inserted awkwardly into the narrative, is quite good), but the narrative barely hangs together and the characters seem arbitrarily motivated, traversing the book like wind-up toys. The pace is unsteady and the tone unregulated. The strength of expression and lack of structure remind me very much of another young author’s first novel: Fitzgerald’s excellent but lopsided This Side Of Paradise. Both are worth a read, though both are more enjoyable for the promises they make on their authors’ behalf.
This winning book was a find in the “Old and interesting” section of Half Price Books. I learn from the foreword and some little research that it was a wildly popular production early in the history of Scribner, in which the author muses about love and life, riffing on whatever is nearby. This admittedly sounds like a recipe for a sentimentalist disaster, or a collection of trite epigrams, but the author’s talent for expression, direct and conversational tone, and the (slightly glib) truths he utters are actually compelling, even affecting.
The first reverie is upon a fire in a charmingly-described country cabin. First there is “Smoke – Signifying Doubt,” in which the benefits of bachelordom are expressed. Then comes Blaze, which brings to mind hope to our narrator, and all the possibilities of a loving union. Last is Ashes, a heartbreaking meditation on loss and desolation, most simply and poignantly summarized: “Ashes always come after blaze.”
Then follow three more reveries – with similar sentiments arising from coal in a city fire grate, three methods of lighting a cigar, and the phases of the day. The collection isn’t really meant to be read straight through; if you do so, you risk emotional overload.
The book succeeds on its most powerful passages, and glides by during the rest on the strength of the author’s easy style. The first reverie begs to be read aloud, and resonates with the trepidation towards commitment and fear of abandonment common to most humans. There is little literature of this sentimental, musing type these days and Reveries of a Bachelor is a refreshing break.
I have yet to meet a single person who has heard of, much less read, Ten Thousand A-Year. Yet it was extremely popular in 1855, from which period much literature is generally remembered. It is a British legal drama-comedy concerning the rise and fall of one Tittlebat Titmouse, a miserably poor London dandy who lives in squalor but aspires to aristocracy, not to say gentility.
He comes unexpectedly into an enormous fortune after some legal hijinx displace the Aubreys, a placidly virtuous family occupying the country seat of Yatton. They are thrown down and he is elevated to wealth and popularity. As one might expect, the experience is edifying for the pious Aubreys and nearly fatal to the unprincipled Titmouse.
The book is quite long: nearly a thousand pages of very dense text (as you see), and encompassing several years of the characters’ lives. The farcical early life of Titmouse, the legal proceedings, a contested election in Yatton, and a huge amount of scheming, mannered dialogue, and much more all figure. Warren writes in a sort of unedited fashion, taking pages and pages to dilate on minor events or moralize (he was a preacher, and it shows); he has a decent style and an occasionally hilarious or remarkable turn of phrase, but it’s easy to tell when he is inspired and when he is simply getting through the story. Poe wrote in Blackwoods that it was “shamefully ill-written” and called the characters “stupid and beastly indecencies.” He was probably right; Warren is frequently sentimental and affected, and the absurd names of characters don’t help.
The book seems to set out with a different focus than the one it gradually acquires, which, in its defense, was probably a common occurrence in serial fiction of the sensational type. The readers are taught to sympathize with Titmouse, and Kate is set up early as a major character – but both are reduced to window dressing within a few hundred pages, ceasing to act and lacking any power to move the story.
In fact, with Titmouse being reduced to a mean-spirited sot and the Aubreys being tiresome in their virtue, the prime mover and chief villain, Mr. Gammon, essentially becomes the protagonist. Unlike the rest of the characters, who are merely described as being “of superior understanding” yet never show it, Gammon actually is superior to all around him, and manipulates them at will by every means at his disposal, from lying to perjury to blackmail. He is a consummate scoundrel, but he is also realistic and unique, and I found myself more interested in his next move than in the fates of the rest of the characters, mere pawns.
I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t interested in this particular kind and style of book. It was a rewarding read and I am glad to have read it, but there are surely better examples of this genre, and hundreds of superior books from the era. That said, it was fascinating to get into the mindset of the average reader of the mid-19th century. It’s not all Dickens and Twain and Melville — Ten Thousand A-Year was the John Grisham or Tom Clancy paperback of its time, and was easy to appreciate as such.
The edition I have (which has received more comments than probably any other book I own) is an undated Thomas Crowell & Co. printing, probably from the late 1840s or early 1850s. The binding is very fragile but remains bright, though the paper is of somewhat low quality and has darkened over time. The close-leaded type is unlike most I’ve seen, as the characters are fairly large but the spacing close enough to overlap. It was still easy to read, though Warren seems to have trouble dividing his writing into paragraphs, and there are occasional two-page spreads without a single break, giving the book a medieval air.
Postscript: this novel really is remarkable for the sheer number of characters, rivaling Dickens at his most indulgent, and while none approach the effortless characterization accomplished by that author, the cast of Ten Thousand A-Year is at least a memorable rabble. Here is a partial list, since if I don’t create one, it’s doubtful anyone else ever will:
Tittlebat Titmouse — destitute aspiring dandy
Charles Aubrey, Esq. — MP and occupant of the estate of Yatton, in Yorkshire
Agnes Aubrey — his wife
Miss Catherine Aubrey — his sister
Geoffry Delamere — young gentleman, in love with Kate Aubrey
Lord De La Zouch — Delamere’s father, a great lord, friend of Aubrey
Lady Stratton — wealthy aunt and helpmeet to the Aubreys
Lord Dreddlington — a proud and powerful noble, distantly related to Aubrey
Lady Cecilia Dreddlington — his daughter, eventually married off to Titmouse
Robert Huckaback — Titmouse’s colleague in poverty
Thomas Tag-Rag — Titmouse’s employer before his fortune
Oily Gammon — solicitor and chief schemer, in love with Kate Aubrey
Caleb Quirk — senior partner at Quirk, Gammon, and Snap
Messrs. Fussy Frankpledge, Mouldy Mortmain, Tresayle, Lynx, Subtle, Quicksilver — solicitors and counsel for the plaintiffs
Messrs. Runnington, Parkinson, Sterling, Crystal — solicitors and counsel for the defendants
Mrs Squallop — Titmouse’s landlady early on
Dr. Tatham — Parish priest of Yatton
Barnabas Bloodsuck, Cephas Woodlouse, Mr. Centipede, Mr. Going Gone — agitators and operators of the Yorkshire Stingo paper
Toady Hug, Alderman Addlehead, Mr. Viper, &c. — various self-interested gentlemen
Mr. Grasp, Mr. Grab — operators of a private debtor’s prisons
Mr. Pimp Yahoo, Mr. Algernon Fitz-Snooks, Sir Harkaway Rotgut Wildfire, &c. — hooligans and hangers-on of Titmouse
Mr. Venom Tuft — sycophantic socialite
Phelim O’Doodle — strategist for Titmouse in the Yatton election
Mr. Crafty — strategist for Delamere
Swindle O’Gibbet, Micah M’Squash, Mr. O’Shirtless, Mr. O’Toddy — Irish stereotypes
Dr. Diabolus Gander, Esq. — quack to the nobility
Duke of Tantallan — friend to Lord Dreddlington
Rev. Smirk Mudflint — leader of Yatton’s radical Unitarian church
Dr. Flare, Mr. Quod, Mr. Pounce — officers of the Ecclesiastical court
Isn’t this stuff absolutely amazing? It just gets more insane, and the stories run into one another like movements in a ridiculous space symphony.
Wow. I just made a great find at Half Price Books. It’s not every day I feel the need to drop $50 on a book, but this one just called out to me. The Collected World of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I know – what the hell, right? But it’s awesome. I’m a big fan of Little Nemo, as my family knows, which is really the only comparable strip from the era (20 years earlier, but still).
This sci-fi epic lasted for some 35 years, chronicling the adventures of the eponymous Buck Rogers. The world has been enslaved by a sort of conglomerated Asiatic race, the Mongols, who sport Chinese hats and Fu Manchu mustaches. Buck, a refugee from 1929, preserved by mysterious gases in a mine shaft, awakens just in time to save flying soldier/flapper Wilma from certain death at the hands of the “half-breeds.” The whole thing is just busting with imagination, detail, and innocent sci-fi fun. And boy is there a lot of it.
The picture above isn’t the book itself, but the one I have is rare and out of print, especially with an immaculate dust cover. Even Amazon only has a 100-pixel-wide picture. It was worth every penny.
Finished: The Gone-Away World
Verdict: Interesting but scattershot. Tangential and creative in an uncontrolled way. Could have been 20% shorter, but still very good.
Starting: Bleak House