Book Reviews

The Monk Knight of St. John
Rare novel by Canada's first novelist, Major John Richardson
Introduction by David Beasley


The best-selling 1850 New York edition reprinted with an Introduction by David Beasley, author of the definitive biography of Major John Richardson, Canada's first novelist, The Canadian Don Quixote. 2nd Canadian edition.

John Richardson chose the twelfth century in Palestine and France as the setting for his book. His canvas was large, colorful and dramatic: the Crusaders on one side, the Saracens led by Saladin on the other. It was a momentous period in history. It was a time of gross immorality, of savage war and plunder; excesses of whatever nature could be indulged, because there were no governing laws or social framework to inhibit them. The novel's main protagonist, Abdallah, is a Moor stolen as a boy from North Africa and raised by the Templars in Malta as a Knight in the Order of St. John. His brother-in-arms, Alfred, Baron de Boiscourt, is a crusading knight from France. Richardson begins his story just before the decisive Battle of Tiberias in 1187. The Baron de Boiscourt, auburn-haired and blue-eyed, has been inciting his wife, Lady Ernestina, through letters to her in France with thoughts of his close friend, Abdallah, a dark-skinned, noble-countenanced, Herculean Monk Knight. At the same time he tries to incite desire for his Lady Ernestina in Abdallah, who refuses to be tempted not only because of his vow of chastity but because of his friendship with the Baron. The Baron had met Abdallah after Abdallah rescued a beautiful Saracen woman from the Baron's soldiers, whom he killed as they were raping her. The Baron came upon the scene and helped Abdallah smuggle the beautiful Saracen woman, Zuleima, into the Christian camp. During the night, Abdallah and Baron de Boiscourt sat up drinking while the Baron's page, Rudolph, encouraged by the Baron, made love to the voluptuous Zuleima. In the morning de Boiscourt sent his page for their horses and made love to Zuleima in his turn. Abdallah chanced to see them making love: "Abdallah felt the blood to ebb and flow within his veins with a violence that threatened to destroy him.... For the first time, the veil had fallen from his eyes, the sealed book of God's holiest mystery had been fully opened to him." Later, the Baron remarks to Rudolph, "Have I not, in my turn, followed where you have led?" But the Baron, Richardson makes clear, was of a generous and ardent nature who sought indulgence "not in the grossness of sensuality which governed the mass, but in that refined and tender voluptuousness which lives in the soul rather than in the senses." He found the greatest pleasure in fostering a love between his closest friend, Abdallah, and Lady Ernestina that would result in a passionate tri-union of hearts. "What Rousseau has since been, his noble countryman, de Boiscourt, then was...." The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau influenced Richardson in his early novels, in particular Wacousta, which is about the siege of Fort Detroit by the Indian nations under Chief Pontiac in 1763. In that early novel (1832), love is expressed as an ideal, as seen in the mind. In The Monk Knight of St. John, it is Rousseau's discovery of the connection between the beauties of nature and the purity of sexual love that inspire the writing. Abdallah and de Boiscourt decide to return Zuleima to the Saracens, and, waving a white scarf, they meet with a Turkish troop, from whom they learn that she is one of Saladin's favorite wives. The two knights join the Crusader army, who are about to attack the Saracen forces, comprising fifty thousand horsemen and nearly two hundred thousand foot soldiers, laying siege to Tiberias, near Jerusalem. The Battle of Tiberias on July 4, 1187, was to be one of the worst disasters to befall the Crusaders.

Today, Canadian literary scholars are debating the layers of meaning in the novel. Professor Michael Hurley writes that "the forces of life and death interpenetrate and are often surprisingly confused, sex no less than religious teaching is both an instrument of life and death." He sees in Richardson certain patterns of thought and psychological behavior that are reflected, as if by osmosis, in the works of modern-day Canadian writers such as Reaney, Ondaatje, Kroetsch and Findley. As with these latter writers, "readers (of Richardson's The Monk Knight of St. John, Wacousta, and The Canadian Brothers) are confronted not only with a paradoxical blurring of identity but also with the problematical status of that natural energy which is embodied in the reckless vitality and violence of disturbingly ambiguous figures. Again, the terms appropriate to Richardson are not those of good and evil but the more ambiguous ones of order and energy." On the other hand, a distinguished professor of literature declared that The Monk Knight of St. John was "the leading proto-pornographic novel of the nineteenth century, a cloudy voluptuous bosom-heaving exaltation of the omnipotent divinity of love. A romantic idealizing narrative of incest (brother-sister mother-son) of married love in curiously triangulated form of adultery of homosexuality of lesbianism of monastic celibacy dissolving before the torrid charms of dusky Saracenic-Arabian female fleshly forms. To garnish the soulful-sensual feast are millennial hints of Utopian days ahead when all will live together in freedom and harmony and plenty. In addition all of this always high-minded sexual orgy is played out against a background of the medieval Crusade for the Holy Sepulcher with plentiful dashes of blood-lust brutality and cruelty." The novel is an original contribution to sensual literature and a precursor for much of the sexual liberation writings. Out of print since 1866, it returns to haunt the hypocrites of our age.

Early Niagara author's work in reprint

Following the publication in 1850 of a certain book, a pencilled notice on the title page read "Ladies are respectfully advised to pass by' this book without reading.'' Despite this cautionary note, the novel 'The Monk Knight of St. John' was much in demand. Set in the late twelfth century, the period of the Crusades against the Saracens and their great leader Saladin, it is a story of war, love, adultery, murder and worse, (hence the notice), written in the high Gothic tradition, by a Canadian, Major John Richardson, a former soldier with close connections to Welland and the Niagara area.

Author and publisher David Beasley who lives in Simcoe has republished this rare example of this genre. He is one of the exhibitors in the World of Words Book Fair, held this Saturday, November 9, at the Pen Centre in St. Catharines and will have a limited number of copies of 'The Monk Knight" for sale. Beasley loves to discuss his research and writings and is looking forward to meeting book and literature lovers at the Fair.

First popular in the 1790s, Gothic novels were characterised by a rich exuberance of invention, macabre incidents and moments of genuine horror and 'The Monk Knight of St. John" has all that and more. It chronicles the triangular relationship of a French Baron fighting in the Crusades, his seductively beautiful wife and the Baron's companion in battle, the Monk Knight, bound by his vows of chastity. The passion simmering between these three is further complicated by involvements with and between several secondary characters. It ends with a vengeful death but also a resurgence of passion. Richardson includes some commentary on the hypocrisy and rapacity of the Crusaders in their determination to force Christianity on the Moslems. Parallels still exist today.

Although the book has been described as "the leading proto-pornographic novel of the nineteenth century" there is nothing in its pages to offend, especially today's readers. It contains only throbbing breasts, wild emotional utterances, intoxicated souls and eyes flashing fire, rather than any actual descriptions of sexual acts. There are many high-flown passages, some even deep purple, in the mid-Victorian barn-storming theatrical tradition; for Gothic is almost synonymous with hyperbole and declamation. Far more explicit scenes are contained in literature from Lady Chatterley to Trainspotting and in movies and television.

Beasley says he first became aware of Richardson while researching other material. "There was a footnote about the first Canadian novelist starving to death in New York City in 1852. I was living in New York at the time and struggling to find a publisher, so empathised with this man." Investigations revealed that John Richardson was born in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1796 and lived in Fort Erie, Detroit and Amherstburg. At 15 he enlisted and fought in the War of 1812. He began writing, travelled to Europe and as foreign correspondent for The Times of London covered the Canadian rebellion but was fired for his support of reform policies. A newspaper in Kingston failed, after which the only job he could find was superintendent of police on the Welland Canal, an unhappy period, during which he was reviled by his constables, had to suppress riots and was arrested. His wife's death was largely caused by these stresses; she was buried in Butler's Burial Ground. Richardson had to sneak away at night from his house in Allanburg and find refuge with his brother Charles, a Clerk of the Peace who lived in the Kielly House in Niagara-on-the-Lake. His mother's sister, Catharine, married mill owner Robert Hamilton who called the village that grew around his business St. Catharines in her honour. Richardson moved to New York about 1850, continued to write but was rarely published and died impoverished in 1852. His best-known novel is 'Wacousta' (1832) which was adapted for the stage in the mid nineteenth century and dramatised in 1979 by James Reaney.

David Beasley has also written a popular biography of Richardson. This is currently out of print but having found some new information, he is planning to publish a revised edition in the next year or two.

'The Monk Knight" will be available at the World of Words Book Fair Saturday in the Pen Centre        By Joanna Manning - The Tribune, St. Catharines

An announcement by the New York City publishers Dewitt and Davenport in 1850:

ETC, ETC. Price Twenty-five Cents.
Whatever renown was earned by this writer in the production of WACOUSTA and
ECARTE, will be greatly enhanced by the novel above announced. It has every
requisite for a thrilling work—time, place, motive — the chivalric Crusades— the glorious East— the all-subduing smile of Beauty; embracing in its incidents the conflict between cold, chaste, ascetic Monkism, and the fond, warm, and seductive blandishments of lovely Woman. Some of the incidents strongly remind us of Lewis's MONK, possessing all the interest of detail, with none of the grossness. Their denouement certainly is the same-warm Nature proves all too powerful for the dictates of cold Philosophy. As the author is now in this city revising the MS. for the press, we hope soon to lay it before the public.