The first edition of The Monk was published some time between 1795 and 1796. Older scholarship tended toward a 1795 publication year, but because no copies of the book so dated could be found, and because contemporary sources did not begin announcing or referencing the work until March 1796, the latter date began to be preferred. It was published anonymously, but for Lewis’s initials after the preface and was highly praised by reviewers in The Monthly Mirror of June 1796 as well as the Analytical Review.
The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding “M.P.” to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticized for “plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance.”
Lewis wrote to his father on 23 February 1798, attempting to make reparations: the controversy caused by The Monk was a source of distress to his family. As recorded by Irwin: “twenty is not the age at which prudence is most to be expected. Inexperience prevented my distinguishing what should give offence; but as soon as I found that offence was given, I made the only reparation in my power: I carefully revised the work, and expunged every syllable on which could be grounded the slightest construction of immorality. This, indeed, was no difficult task, for the objection rested entirely on expressions too strong, and words carelessly chosen; not on the sentiments, characters, or general tendency of the work.”
The fourth edition of the novel was published in 1798, and, according to Peck, “contains nothing which could endanger the most fragile virtue... He expunged every remotely offensive word in his three volumes, with meticulous attention to lust. Ambrosio, formerly a ravisher, becomes an intruder or betrayer; his incontinence changes to weakness or infamy, his lust to desire, his desires to emotions. Having indulged in excesses for three editions, he committed an error in the fourth.” Lewis wrote an apology for The Monk in the preface of another work; as recorded by Peck: “Without entering into the discussion, whether the principles inculcated in “The Monk” are right or wrong, or whether the means by which the story is conducted is likely to do more mischief than the tendency is likely to produce good, I solemnly declare, that when I published the work I had no idea that its publication could be prejudicial; if I was wrong, the error proceeded from my judgment, not from my intention. Without entering into the merits of the advice which it proposes to convey, or attempting to defend (what I now condemn myself) the language and manner in which that advice was delivered, I solemnly declare, that in writing the passage which regards the Bible (consisting of a single page, and the only passage which I ever wrote on the subject) I had not the most distant intention to bring the sacred Writings into contempt, and that, had I suspected it of producing such an effect, I should not have written the paragraph.”