Matthew Lewis (writer)

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Matthew Lewis
Matthew Gregory Lewis by George Lethbridge Saunders, after Unknown artist.jpg
Portrait by George Lethbridge Saunders
Born(1775-07-09)9 July 1775
Died14 May 1818 (aged 42)
Member of Parliament
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford
Notable works The Monk

Matthew Gregory Lewis (9 July 1775 – 14 or 16 May 1818) [1] was an English novelist and dramatist, whose writings are often classified as "Gothic horror". He was frequently referred to as "Monk" Lewis, because of the success of his 1796 Gothic novel The Monk . He also worked as a diplomat, politician and an estate owner in Jamaica.




Lewis was the first-born child of Matthew and Frances Maria Sewell Lewis. His father, Matthew Lewis, was the son of William Lewis and Jane Gregory and was born in England in 1750. He attended Westminster School before proceeding to Christ Church, Oxford, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1769 and his master's in 1772. During his time at Westminster, Lewis's parents separated, and he idolized his mother without disregarding his father. Mrs Lewis moved to France in this period; while there, she was in continuous correspondence with Matthew. [2] The correspondence between Matthew and his mother consisted of discussion regarding the poor state of his mother's welfare and estate.

That same year, Lewis was appointed Chief Clerk in the War Office. The following year, he married Frances Maria Sewell, a young woman who was very popular at court. She was the third daughter of the senior judge Sir Thomas Sewell and was one of eight children born in his first marriage to Catherine Heath. Her family, like Lewis's, had connections with Jamaica. As a child, she spent her time in Ottershaw. In December 1775, in addition to his War Office post, Lewis became the Deputy Secretary at War. With one exception, he was the first to hold both positions and receive both salaries contemporaneously. Lewis owned considerable property in Jamaica, within four miles of Savanna-la-Mer, or Savanna-la-Mar, which was hit by a devastating earthquake and hurricane in 1779. His son would later inherit this property. [3]

In addition to Matthew Gregory Lewis, Matthew and Frances had three other children: Maria, Barrington, and Sophia Elizabeth. On 23 July 1781, when Matthew was six and his youngest sister one-and-a-half years old, Frances left her husband, taking the music master, Samuel Harrison, as her lover. During their estrangement, Frances lived under a different name, Langley, in order to hide her location from her husband, although he still learned of whereabouts. On 3 July 1782, Frances gave birth to a child. That same day, hearing of the birth, her estranged husband returned. Afterwards, he began to arrange a legal separation from his wife. After formally accusing his wife of adultery through the Consistory Court of the Bishop of London on 27 February 1783, he petitioned the House of Lords for permission to bring about a bill of divorce. However, as these bills were rarely granted, it was rejected when brought to a vote. Consequently, Matthew and Frances remained married until his death in 1818. Frances, though withdrawing from society and temporarily moving to France, was always supported financially by her husband and then later, her son. She later returned to London and then finished her life at Leatherhead, [3] rejoining society and even becoming a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales. [4] Frances and her son remained quite close, with her taking on the responsibility of helping him with his literary career. She even became a published author, much to her son's dislike. [5]

Lewis had a tumultuous relationship with the mistresses his father took on, always siding with his exiled mother in family disputes. His rudeness to such women brought him to the perpetual verge of disinheritance, a threat commonly held over his head and sometimes acted on throughout his lifetime. [6]

Lewis' sisters (especially Lady Lushington) often suggested edits for Lewis's work aimed at making them more acceptable to the public, and went so far as to compose their own drafts of his plays. He rejected all such suggestions. [7]


Matthew Gregory Lewis began his education at a preparatory school called Marylebone Seminary under the Rev. Dr John Fountayne, Dean of York. Fountayne was a friend of both the Lewis and Sewell families. There Lewis learned Latin, Greek, French, writing, arithmetic, drawing, dancing, and fencing. He and his classmates were permitted to converse only in French throughout the day. Like many of his classmates, Lewis used the Marylebone Seminary as a stepping stone, proceeding from there to Westminster School, like his father, at the age of eight. There he acted in the Town Boys' Play as Falconbridge in King John and then My Lord Duke in James Townley's farce, High Life Below Stairs.

Again like his father, he entered Christ Church, Oxford on 27 April 1790 at the age of 15. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1794 and earned a master's degree from the same college in 1797. [3]

Professional life

Intended for a diplomatic career like his father, Matthew Gregory Lewis spent most of his school vacations abroad, studying modern languages. His travels sent him to London, Chatham, Scotland, and the continent at least twice, including Paris in 1791 and Weimar, Germany in 1792–1793. During these travels, Lewis enjoyed spending time in society, a trait that he retained throughout his life. In the same period he began translating existing works and writing his own plays.

In 1791, he sent his mother a copy of a farce that he had written named The Epistolary Intrigue. Though he intended the play to be performed at London's Drury Lane, it was rejected there and then later by the neighbouring Covent Garden. He supposedly completed a two-volume novel in the same period. This survives only in fragments in the posthumously published The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis. In March 1792, Lewis translated the French opera Felix and sent it to Drury Lane, hoping to earn money for his mother. While he tried to write a novel like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto , he mainly adhered to theatre, writing The East Indian. However, it would be seven years before this appeared on stage at Drury Lane. In Germany, he even translated Wieland's Oberon , a difficult work of poetry which earned him the respect of his acquaintance, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

While Lewis pursued these literary ambitions, mainly to earn money for his mother, his father's influences secured him the position as an attaché to the British embassy in The Hague. He arrived on 15 May 1794 and remained until December of the same year. Though finding friends at the local bars (his favourite being Madame de Matignon's Salon), amongst visiting French aristocracy who were fleeing revolutionary France, Lewis saw The Hague as a place of boredom and disliked its Dutch citizens. [8] It was here that he produced, in ten weeks, his romance Ambrosio or The Monk , which was published anonymously in the summer of the following year. It immediately achieved celebrity for Lewis. However, some passages were of such a nature that about a year after its appearance, an injunction to restrain its sale was obtained. In the second edition, Lewis, in addition to citing himself as the author and as a Member of Parliament (for Hindon, Wiltshire), removed what he assumed were the objectionable passages, yet the work retained much of its horrific character. Lord Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers wrote of "Wonder-working Lewis, Monk or Bard, who fain wouldst make Parnassus a churchyard; Even Satan's self with thee might dread to dwell, And in thy skull discern a deeper hell." The Marquis de Sade also praised Lewis in his essay "Reflections on the Novel".

Matthew Gregory Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1809 Matthew Gregory Lewis by Henry William Pickersgill.jpg
Matthew Gregory Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1809

On 22 March 1802 Harriett Litchfield appeared in a Gothic monodrama at The Haymarket called The Captive by Lewis. This recounts the story of a wife imprisoned by her husband. The stage directions included details designed to improve the Gothic situation. Litchfield was complimented for her delivery "in the most perfect manner", but she plays a woman denied any human contact and kept in a modern dungeon. She is not mad but realises that she will soon be a maniac. The play is thought to have been suggested by one of Mary Wollstonecraft's books. It was said that even the staff of the theatre left in horror. The play was only staged once. [9]

Lewis held two estates in Jamaica: Cornwall estate in Westmoreland Parish and Hordley estate in Saint Thomas Parish. According to the slave registers, Hordley was co-owned with George Scott and Matthew Henry Scott and their shares were purchased by Lewis in 1817, thus making him sole owner of more than 500 slaves. [10] [11]

Lewis visited Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley at Geneva, Switzerland, in the summer of 1816 and recounted five ghost stories, which Shelley recorded in his "Journal at Geneva (including ghost stories) and on return to England, 1816", beginning with the entry for 18 August, which was published posthumously.

Lewis visited his estates in Jamaica in 1818. During his visit he saw William Adamson's production of Adelgitha, and complained about the performance of John Castello, the "West Indian Roscius" who played the role of Lothair. [12] He died of yellow fever on board ship whilst sailing back and was buried at sea.

The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, in two volumes, was published in 1839. The Effusions of Sensibility, his first novel, was never completed.

Reception of his work

Engraving of Lewis in later life, by William Holl Portrait of M. G. Lewis (4673361).jpg
Engraving of Lewis in later life, by William Holl

As a writer, Lewis is typically classified as writing in the Gothic horror genre, along with the authors Charles Robert Maturin and Mary Shelley. [13] Lewis was most assuredly influenced by Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin's Caleb Williams. In fact, Lewis actually wrote a letter to his mother a few months before he began writing The Monk , stating that he saw a resemblance between the villain Montoni from The Mysteries of Udolpho and himself. [3]

Lewis took Radcliffe's obsession with the supernatural and Godwin's narrative drive and interest in crime and punishment, but Lewis differed with his literary approach. Whereas Radcliffe would allude to the imagined horrors under the genre of terror-Gothic, Lewis defined himself by disclosing the details of the gruesome scenes, earning him the title of a Gothic horror novelist. [14] By giving the reader actual details rather than the terrified feelings rampant in Radcliffe, Lewis provides a more novelistic experience. In the article "Matthew Lewis and the Gothic Horror of Obsessional Neurosis", Ed Cameron argues that "Lewis disregards and often parodies the sentimentality found in Radcliffe's work."

Lewis is often criticized for a lack of originality. Though much of his career was spent translating the texts of others, these criticisms more often refer to his novel The Monk and his play The Castle Spectre . Beginning with The Monk , Lewis starts the novel with an advertisement:

The first idea of this Romance was suggested by the story of the Santon Barsisa, related in The Guardian. – The Bleeding Nun is a tradition still credited in many parts of Germany; and I have been told, that the ruins of the Castle of Lauenstein, which She is supposed to haunt, may yet be seen upon the borders of Thuringia. – The Water-King, from the third to twelfth stanza, is the fragment of an original Danish Ballad – And Belerma and Durandarte is translated from some stanzas to be found in a collection of old Spanish poetry, which contains also the popular song of Gayferos and Melesindra, mentioned in Don Quixote. – I have now made a full avowal of all the plagiarisms of which I am aware myself; but I doubt not, many more may be found, of which I am at present totally unconscious.

While some critics, like those of The Monthly Review, saw combinations of previous works as a new invention, others, including Samuel Coleridge, have argued that by revealing where he found inspiration, Lewis surrendered part of his authorship. This bothered Lewis so much that in addition to a note in the fourth edition of The Monk , he included notes to the text when he published The Castle Spectre as a way to counteract any accusations of plagiarism. The success of the tactic is debatable. [15]

Lewis wrote in 1801 a satire on the reception of his work under the pseudonym "Maritius Moonshine", in which he slanders his own writings as loathesome spectacles" and insults himself for being a poor MP ("thy brighter parts are lost, / And the state's welfare by a Goblin croft"). In the preface to Alfonso: King of Castile, Lewis writes "that this play is stupid, let it be said." Lewis consistently indicates that he is fully aware of the public opinion of his works as poor and sensational, embraced these definitions, and did not care about them. Almost every one of his works is prefaced by admissions and lists of "minor plagiarisms".





Feudal Tyrants; or, The Counts of Carlsheim and Sargans. A romance (1806, free translation of Benedikte Naubert: Elisabeth, Erbin von Toggenburg, oder Geschichte der Frauen von Sargans in der Schweiz, 1789)

Short Story




Related Research Articles

Gothic fiction genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance

Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled "A Gothic Story". Gothic fiction tends to place emphasis on both emotion and a pleasurable kind of terror, serving as an extension of the Romantic literary movement that was relatively new at the time that Walpole's novel was published. The most common of these "pleasures" among Gothic readers was the sublime—an indescribable feeling that "takes us beyond ourselves." The literary genre originated in England in the second half of the 18th century where, following Walpole, it was further developed by Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Thomas Beckford and Matthew Lewis. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe as well as Charles Dickens with his novella, A Christmas Carol, and in poetry in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker's Dracula. The name Gothic, which originally referred to the Goths, and then came to mean "German", refers to the Gothic architecture of the medieval era of European history, in which many of these stories take place. This extreme form of Romanticism was very popular throughout Europe, especially among English- and German-language writers and artists. The English Gothic novel also led to new novel types such as the German Schauerroman and the French roman noir.

Horror fiction Genre of fiction

Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing". It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is frequently supernatural, though it might also be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.

Ann Radcliffe English author and a pioneer of the Gothic novel (1764-1823)

Ann Radcliffe was an English author and pioneer of Gothic fiction. Her technique of explaining apparently supernatural elements in her novels has been credited with gaining Gothic fiction respectability in the 1790s. Radcliffe was the most popular writer of her day and almost universally admired; contemporary critics called her the mighty enchantress and the Shakespeare of romance-writers, and her popularity continued through the 19th century. Interest has revived in the early 21st century, with the publication of paperback reprints and three biographies.

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.

<i>The Monk</i> novel by Matthew Lewis

The Monk: A Romance is a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. A quickly written book from early in Lewis's career, it was published before he turned twenty. It is a prime example of the male Gothic that specialises in the aspect of horror. Its convoluted and scandalous plot has made it one of the most important Gothic novels of its time, often imitated and adapted for the stage and the screen.

<i>The Castle of Otranto</i> Gothic novel

The Castle of Otranto is a book by Horace Walpole first published in 1764 and generally regarded as the first gothic novel. In the second edition, Walpole applied the word 'Gothic' to the novel in the subtitle – "A Gothic Story". The novel merged medievalism and terror in a style that has endured ever since. The aesthetic of the book has shaped modern-day gothic books, films, art, music and the goth subculture.

Christian Heinrich Spiess was a German writer of romances.

<i>The Italian</i> (novel) novel by Ann Radcliffe

The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797) is a Gothic novel written by the English author Ann Radcliffe. It is the last book Radcliffe published during her lifetime. The Italian has a dark, mysterious, and somber tone which fixates on the themes of love, devotion, and persecution during the time period of Holy Inquisition. The novel deals with issues prevalent at the time of the French Revolution, such as religion, aristocracy, and nationality. Radcliffe's renowned use of veiled imagery is considered to have reached its height of sophistication and complexity in The Italian; concealment and disguise are central motifs of the novel. In line with late 18th-century sensibility and its parallel fetishisation of the sublime and the sentimentally pastoral, the heightened emotional states of Radcliffe's characters are often reflected through the pathetic fallacy. The novel is noted for its extremely effective antagonist, Father Schedoni.

<i>The Mysteries of Udolpho</i> gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, appeared in four volumes on 8 May 1794 from G. G. and J. Robinson of London, which paid her £500 for the manuscript. Her fourth and most popular novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho tells of Emily St. Aubert, who suffers, among other misadventures, the death of her mother and father, supernatural terrors in a gloomy castle and machinations of an Italian brigand. Often cited as the archetypal Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Radcliffe's novel The Romance of the Forest play a prominent role in Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, where an impressionable young woman reader comes to see her friends and acquaintances as Gothic villains and victims, with amusing results.

Francis Lathom was a British gothic novelist and playwright.

The Romance of the Forest is a Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe that was first published in 1791. It combines an air of mystery and suspense with an examination of the tension between hedonism and morality. The novel was her first major, popular success, going through four editions in its first three years. Furthermore, "this novel also established her reputation as the first among her era's writers of romance. There is surprisingly little essential difference in characterization, Gothic décor, or plot outline to distinguish this novel from its predecessors. Its superior merit lies in the expansive and subtle use which the author makes of these elements so that the characters are relatively well realized, the Gothic décor is blended into the sensibility of the reader rather than imposed upon it, and the plot is an intricate and often dramatic series of congruent incidents and living tableaux, not a congeries of barely related and stillborn scenes and surprises.” Most critics who have given any attention to Mrs. Radcliffe as a novelist have decided that she is important chiefly for her use of the supernatural, and for her emphasis upon landscape. Her use of the supernatural and emphasis upon landscape can clearly be seen throughout this novel. We see the aforementioned when confronted with the principal character in the novel, Adeline. She is a "highly-interesting character, whom the writer conducts through a series of alarming situations, and hair-breadth escapes, in which she has skillfully contrived to hold the reader’s curiosity continually in suspense, and at the same time to keep their feelings in a state of perpetual agitation.”

<i>A Sicilian Romance</i> novel by Ann Radcliffe

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<i>The Abbess</i> gothic novel by William Henry

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The Castle Spectre is a 1797 dramatic romance in five acts by Matthew "Monk" Lewis. It is a Gothic drama set in medieval Conway, Wales.

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<i>Rookwood</i> (novel) 1834 novel by William Harrison Ainsworth

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Zofloya; or, The Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century is an 1806 English Gothic novel by Charlotte Dacre under the nom de plume Rosa Matilda. It was her second novel. It was published in three parts, and later collected into a single volume. It was highly criticised during its publication, due to its provocative subject matter and religious and racial themes. Zofloya opens with the adulterous actions of the mother, Laurina di Cornari, and continues to portray the repercussions of her sinful actions throughout the novel.

Gothic bluebooks were short forms of gothic fiction popular in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

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  1. "Matthew Lewis". Wordsworth Wordsworth Editions. 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2017. The exact dates of his death are debated, with some believing it to be 14 May and others, 16 May.
  2. Henry, Colburn (1839). Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, Author of "The Monk," "Castle Spectre," &c. With Many Pieces in Prose and Verse, Never Before Published. Great Marlborough. pp. 51 and 41.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Louis F. Peck A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1961. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Retrieved on 19 March 2010.
  4. Lewis, Matthew G. The Monk: A Romance. Ed. David L. Macdonald and Kathleen D. Scherf. Ontario, CA: Broadview, 2004. Retrieved on 16 March 2010.
  5. Cameron, Ed. "Matthew Lewis and the Gothic Horror of Obsessional Neurosis". Studies in the Humanities, 32.2 (2005), pp. 168–200. MLA International Bibliography. Retrieved 19 March 2010.
  6. Margaret Baron-Wilson, The Life and Correspondence of M. G. L. With many pieces in Prose and Verse never before published – Volume 1, London: Henry Colburn, 1839a.
  7. Margaret Baron-Wilson, p. 212.
  8. Matthew Lewis, The Monk, ed. Howard Anderson. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
  9. Taylor, George (2000). The French Revolution and the London stage, 1789–1805 (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 111. ISBN   0521630525.
  10. Copies of Jamaican slave registers held by The National Archives are available on Ancestry Archived 19 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine . They show that in 1817 there were 285 slaves on the Cornwall estate and 282 on Hordley. See Your Archives (The National Archives' wiki) for further information about the slave registers.
  11. Matthew Gregory Lewis. Legacies of British Slave-ownership. University College, London. Retrieved 12 November 2015.
  12. Hill, Errol (1992). The Jamaican Stage, 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre. Boston: Univ of Massachusetts Press. ISBN   978-0870237799.
  13. Hume, Robert D (1969). "Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel". Modern Language Association. 84 (2): 282–290. doi:10.2307/1261285. JSTOR   1261285.
  14. Platzner, Robert L.; Hume, Robert D. (1971). ""Gothic versus Romantic": A Rejoinder". Modern Language Association. 86 (2): 266–74. doi:10.2307/460952. JSTOR   460952.
  15. Fitzgerald, Lauren (2005). "The Gothic Villain and the Vilification of the Plagiarist: The Case of The Castle Spectre". Gothic Studies. 7 (1): 5–17. doi:10.7227/gs.7.1.2.


Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
James Wildman
James Adams
Member of Parliament for Hindon
With: James Wildman
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Member of Parliament for Hindon
With: James Wildman
Succeeded by
Thomas Wallace
John Pedley