Schultz, Nancy Lusignan (ed.) Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-century convent tales NotaBell Books, Purdue University Press, 1999 Amazon
While Rebecca Read’s earlier Six Months in a Convent (1835) was a relatively sober and realistic work, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836) heads straight into paranoid xenophobic “virtue in distress”. This is what happens if young women heed the siren song of Catholicism, and it was popular enough to sell 300,000 copies by 1860. The fears of a young republic with large, unassimilated immigrant populations that were often Catholic, and an economy shifting to industrialization with consequent shifts in gender roles, found expression in anti-Catholicism. “In times of rapid social change, such as that experienced in antebellum America, intolerance and demonization of marginal groups find fertile soil.” (pg. viii) One of the anti-Catholic agitators, incidentally, was minister Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
This was more than just empty posturing. Rebecca Read ran away from the convent overlooking Boston in 1832, and her tales of abuse were widely believed. In the summer of 1834, another escaped young woman with a tale of horrors set off mob violence, with rioters dressed like Indians (interesting semiotics) attacking the convent and destroying property and lighting fires, burning it to ruins. This act of violence was never punished, in part because of Rebecca Reed’s testimony about the horrors of convent life.
For the real xenophobic “virtue in distress” fever-dream, we turn to Reed’s successor, Maria Monk, born circa 1817. The actual Maria Monk’s vitals bear little resemblance to what she proclaims in her (probably largely ghost-written) book. Her own mother said she had suffered a head injury as a child that damaged her personality, and that she had never been in the Hotel Dieu convent in Montreal. Instead she had been in the Catholic Magdalen asylum in Montreal, dedicated to reforming prostitutes. (It’s possible that Monk conflated her experiences in a reformatory with her idea of what a convent was like, confusing one total institution with another.) There are also reports of Monk’s suicide attempts and Monk claiming her mother kept her chained up in a cellar for four years.
Monk, a prostitute with a tendency towards fantasy and fabrication, had a guardian, the Reverend William K. Hoyt. They visited New York City in October 1835, and her story was transcribed or written by Reveren JJ Slocum, likely with assistance. She also found an eager (not to say gullible) audience in NYC’s Protestant elites. The book was published under a dummy firm controlled by a respectable publishing house.
This sparked off a mini-publishing boom of new versions and expansions of Monk’s book, some illustrated, and various counter arguments and debunkings. Monk herself didn’t make much money and she died alone in a New York prison in 1849. (I’d be curious to see if the illustrations tended towards sexing up the story as they did for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other works.)
Viewing Disclosures as a text, and setting aside issues of credibility and realism, it’s definitely a perverse initiation, as I’ve discussed previously. (Compare it to the opening of The Story of O.) Monk is a Protestant girl who converts to Catholicism for no apparent reason, and is initiated into a new community and new social realm as a nun. She’s given a new name and new garments, and undergoes a symbolic death.
After taking the vows I proceeded to a small apartment behind the altar, accompanied by four nuns, where there was a coffin prepared with my nun’s name engraved upon it:
My companions lifted it by four handles attached to it, while I threw off my dress, and put on that of a nun of Soeur Bourgeoise; and then we all returned to the chapel.
The coffin was then placed in front of the altar, and I advanced to place myself in it. this coffin was to be deposited, after the ceremony in an out-house, to be preserved until my death when it was to receive my corpse. There were reflections which I naturally made at that time, but I stepped in, extended myself, and lay still. A pillows had been placed at the head of the coffin, to support my head in a comfortable position. A large thick black cloth was then spread over me, and the chanting of Latin hymns immediately commenced. My thoughts were not the most pleasing during the time I law in that direction. The pall, or Drap Mortel, as the cloth is called, had a strong smell of incense, which was always disagreeable to me, and then proved almost suffocating. I recollected the story of the novice, who, in taking the veil, lay down in her coffin like me, and was covered in the same manner, but on the removal of the covering was found dead.
Now initiated as a nun, Monks is informed of her new role in life, and her new source of authority, the new elite she was to serve in every way possible.
The Superior now informed me… that one of my great duties was to obey the priests in all things, and this I soon learnt, to my utter astonishment and horror, was to live in the practice of criminal intercourse with them…. The priests, she said, were not situated like other men, being forbidden to marry; while they lived secluded, laborious, and self-denying lives for our salvation. They might, indeed, be considered our saviours, as without their service we could not obtain pardon of sin, and must go to hell. Now it was our solemn duty, on withdrawing from the world, to consecrate our lives to religion, to practise every species of self-denial. We could not be too humble, nor mortify our feelings too far; this was to be done by opposing them, and acting contrary to them; and what she proposed was, therefore, pleasing in the sight of God. I now felt how foolish I had been to place myself in the power of such person as were around me.
From what she said, I could draw no other conclusions but that I was required to act like the most abandoned of beings, and that all my future associations were habitually guilty of the most heinous and detestable crimes.
This is actually the most explicit reference to sex in the entire book, which glosses over the sexual contact between the nuns and the priests. (See pg.28-29) The priests enter the nunnery from the adjacent seminary via a secret underground tunnel. There are several references to ritual infanticide of the babies resulting from this “criminal intercourse”. Supposedly, they were baptized and immediately strangled (pg. 25) or smothered, and disposed of in lime pits in the cellar (pg.49).
It’s pretty circumspect about the sex, but it goes into great detail about the violence, in the form of penances or punishments. The nuns kneel on dried peas (pg. 32), walk on their knees through tunnels (pg.54), are gagged (pg.62-63, 106-107), kept in tiny cells (pg. 88), bound with leather bands (pg. 107), wear a spiked belts or armbands akin to a cilice (pg. 109, 114), forced to eat garlic or eels (pg. 114) or drink water the Superior had washed her feet (pg.114), brand with hot iron or whip with small rods (pg.114), sleep on the floor with only one sheet in winter (pg. 114) or chew a bit of glass into powder (pg. 114), and most peculiarly, be forced to wear “the cap”, a leather skullcap which causes intense pain to the wearer through unknown mechanisms (pg. 115-116).
Granted power over other women in this quasi-polygamous social arrangement, the superior nuns turn to cruelty and lesbianism. The emphasis on arbitrary, unjust authority links this story with harem fantasies and the anti-slavery texts that also circulated in the same period. But the “dystopia” also makes sadomasochism possible.
Some of these are not penances or punishments, but pure tests of obedience to the priests.
The more they could torture us, or make us violate our own feelings, the more pleasure they took in their unclean revelling; and all their brutal obscenity they called meritorious before God.
We were sometimes invited to put ourselves to voluntary sufferings in a variety of ways, not for a penance, but to show our devotion to God. A priest would sometimes say to us–
‘Now, which of you have love enough for Jesus Christ to stick a pin through your cheeks?’
Some of us would signify our readiness, and immediately thrust one through up to the head. Sometimes he would propose that we should repeat the operation several times on the spot; and the cheeks of a number of the nuns would be bloody.
This culminates in murder by smothering, by placing a nun who refused to kill infants between two mattresses and having a priest and several nuns jump up and down on it until the victim is crushed. (pg. 63)
In the new emphasis on heterosexual monogamy, the nuclear family and reproductive sexuality as the norm, the celibacy and chastity of priests, monks and nuns were seen as perverse and evil. The confessional itself was seen as a perverse and sexualized ritual, and convents were likened to brothels (pg. xxii).
Readers of popular nineteenth-century convent narratives read these titillating books under the guise of reading enlightening literature, but the books themselves offered access to violent and erotic literature, which was generally proscribed in this era.
As I said before, Monk’s book is very circumspect about sex, but the author repeatedly uses phrases like “There were other acts occasionally proposed and consented to, which I cannot name in a book.” (Pg. 118) This is an in-text cue to the reader to start imagining and filling in the empty space with his or her own fantasies. Recall that Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t sexually explicit either, so people could embroider it into their own sexual fantasies. I can easily imagine somebody owning a copy of Awful Disclosures and keeping the pages corners turned down to indicate the juicy bits, or an artist putting sex appeal into the illustrations.
Recall that in England, one of the first targets of the Obscene Publications Act was an anti-Catholic tract. Even if texts like this are not intended as erotic reading, they could be read as such.
In another, even more perverse way, this does tap into the religious ascetic tradition in Christianity, and gives women an opportunity for heroic suffering. It’s possible that women read this text against the grain too.