Monday, November 4, 2013

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter by Ambrose Bierce and Adolphe De Castro

A shocking ending doesn’t redeem an unexceptional story
The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter is the translation and/or retelling of an 1891 novel by German author Richard Voss. It was translated by Adolphe De Castro (a.k.a. Adolphe Danziger), who submitted it to Ambrose Bierce for editing. The resulting English version was published in a San Francisco newspaper later that same year, and in book form in 1892. Afterwards De Castro and Bierce fought over the story’s rights. Eventually it ended up in a collection of Bierce’s complete works, and since he’s the most famous of the three authors involved, he generally gets the credit for it.

The story takes place in 1680. Brother Ambrosius, a Franciscan monk, is sent to the Monastery of Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps near Salzburg. Approaching his destination, he meets a pretty girl frolicking in a meadow beneath a corpse hanging from a gallows. Her name is Benedicta, and she is the hangman’s daughter. After taking up residence in the monastery, Brother Ambrosius continues to take an interest in the young woman. She and her father are shunned by the townspeople because of his useful but loathsome profession. Ambrosius pities Benedicta, and tries to provide her with aid and comfort. He must admit to himself that he is attracted to her, but is determined to overcome his desire and behave like a proper spiritual advisor. His superiors do not approve of his association with the hangman’s daughter, however, and punish him for it.

This is an odd and disjointed novel, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s not particularly good either. In the beginning it is pretty pedestrian and rather lighthearted in tone. There are frequent sprinklings of humor in which the author (Voss or De Castro?) pokes fun at Brother Ambrosius’s blind faith, Benedicta’s babe-in-the-woods innocence, and the randiness of the townspeople. Women are often throwing themselves at the handsome monk, who piously pretends not to notice their amorous advances. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the jolly, wine-sipping friars and romping shepherdesses of a nineteenth-century German genre painting. Yet the unmerited persecution of Benedicta is undeniably cruel. There is nothing funny about the way she is reviled, slandered, and ostracized for no other reason than her father’s unpleasant but necessary occupation. The story turns darker as it goes along, and an incongruity develops between the elementary vocabulary of the fairy-tale prose and the serious, almost operatic events of the plot. The surprising ending is the best part of the book, but it’s just twisted enough to offend pretty much anybody, whether devout Christian or Atheist.

I’m not sure to whom I would recommend this novel, if anyone. Renaissance enthusiasts, perhaps? It’s not even a must-read for Bierce fans, since he didn’t really write it. When all is said and done, it’s just a mediocre story with a memorable ending. Should you choose to read it, it won’t be a complete waste of your time, but it’s nothing to get excited about either.

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