Matthew G. Lewis
Such was the success of The Monk when it was published in 1796 that for the rest of his life its author, Matthew Gregory Lewis, was commonly referred to as "Monk" Lewis. Reading the novel today, we may be surprised that he was happy to have it so closely identified with him personally. Its concern with sex and violence seems so revealing of its author's darker feelings that we might expect him to want to distance himself from his creation, and the monk himself is a character who is both a criminal and a victim.
Lewis however wrote in the early years of Romanticism, when the ideas of self-expression in art and the close connection between the artist's life and work were new and exciting. For us it may seem naive that he was content to be identified with his fiction, and his fictional hero, but at the time such an identification offered a new way of reading and new ways of seeing the world and the individual's place in it, however disturbing that might be.
Matthew Lewis's place in the world was actually rather divided, between the world of duty and responsibility represented by his father and the more unstable, yet more artistic, world associated with his mother. He was born in 1775, the eldest child of Matthew Lewis and his wife Frances. He had two sisters and a brother. Lewis's father was born in 1750 in Jamaica, where he had large estates, but in 1772 he was appointed as Chief Clerk in the War Office and three years later became Deputy-Secretary at War as well. He retained these well-paid offices until 1803, when he retired after over thirty years as a loyal and dependable civil servant.
Lewis's mother, however, was not so respectable. In 1781 she left her husband to live with a music master, moving from place to place to avoid Mr. Lewis. The scandal was such that his superiors instructed him to divorce his wife, a process which at that time involved the passage of a bill of divorce through Parliament. This was presented in 1783, but was voted down, and the marriage officially continued, though husband and wife lived separate lives until his death in 1812. The children lived with their father, but Matthew never forgot his mother and when he grew up visited and corresponded with her, acting sometimes as intermediary between his parents. His handling of this difficult family situation is one of the more attractive aspects of Lewis's life and character. He was rewarded by the support and encouragement of his mother in his literary activities, so that it is tempting to say that from her he derived his artistic talents.
His education was conventional. After Westminster School he went to Oxford, graduating in 1794. While still a student he began visiting continental Europe--Paris in 1791 and Weimar in Germany in 1792. In France he seems to have studied the contemporary theater pretty thoroughly and written a comic play, as well as songs and part of a novel; in Germany he met the poets Goethe and Wieland, if only briefly, and became familiar with a wide range of new German literature, which was to influence The Monk. Lewis had some ability as a linguist and learnt enough German to read works not yet translated into English and therefore largely unknown to the British public. He certainly saw an opportunity to act as a channel of communication between contemporary Germand and English literature; in 1793, for example, he began a translation of one of Schiller's major plays, Kabale und Liebe.
He also wrote another comedy, The East Indian, which he tried unsuccessfully to have performed in London, and began sending verses and other small items to newspapers. He was clearly desperate to make a name for himself as a writer in some form, though his allowance from his father, and the prospect of a large inheritance, meant he did not need financial success as a writer. He wanted only the fame. His mother's encouragement of his literary ambitions contrasted, predictably, with his father's plan for Matthew to become a diplomat. After his graduation he was sent to the British Embassy at The Hague in Holland, which he found dull and expensive. It was here that he claimed he wrote The Monk.
In fact there are signs that Lewis began the book much earlier. In 1792 he mentions in a letter to his mother that he has begun "a Romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto" (the short 1764 novel by Horace Walpole which is generally taken to be the beginning of the Gothic novel in English). He took it up again when he arrived in Holland in May 1794, when, he said, "I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published." Ann Radcliffe's novel, central to the history of the Gothic novel in English, had just appeared.
The novel was first published in 1795, with a second edition in March 1796. He recieved favorable reviews and Lewis, who had kept his name off the title page of the first edition, out of modesty or prudence, now let it appear, adding the letters "MP," for after his return from Holland his father obtained for him a seat as a Member of Parliament. Lewis's pride in his new position and in the success of his novel, was to lead to trouble. The novel was attacked in the press and The Monk now had an unalterable reputation for blasphemy and obscenity. Whatever this affected, it did not harm sales, as Lewis's modern biographer puts it, the public "had been told that the book was horrible, blasphemous and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test."
Lewis was now able to persuade publishers and theater managers to consider the other works he had written, and would write. Although he published some Gothic tales and poems, his energies after The Monk were directed to the theater, producing original plays, adaptations and translations. The theater offered scope for more striking and emotionally extreme effects than the novel, and Lewis was a leader in exploiting the possibilities of new stage machinery and techniques. Though he remained a Member of Parliament until 1802, the death of Lewis's father in 1812 ended his theatrical career.
He now became a rich man with considerable responsibilities; his estates in Jamaica were worked by about four hundred slaves. Though Lewis condemned the Slave Trade and approved of its abolition in Britain in 1807, he did not believe in the emancipation of those already enslaved, but when he visited his estates in 1816 he instituted a number of reforms aimed at improving the lives of his slaves. On his return he stayed only a few weeks in England before setting off on a tour of the continent, meeting Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in Switzerland (where Mary Shelley was to write Frankenstein the following year) before travelling south to Italy, returning to London in October 1817.
Next month he sailed again for Jamaica to inspect his properties and check on the reforms he had made. As on his previous visit he kept a journal, which was eventually to be published in 1834 and is a valuable source of information about Jamaica in Lewis's time. When he boarded ship for England in May 1818, however, he was already infected with yellow fever. Within a few days he was dead and buried at sea; like the unfortunate hero of his most famous work, his body was taken by the waves.
--CHRISTOPHER MACLACHLAN, from the introduction
to The Monk, Penguin Classics Edition, 1998.
A selection of Matthew G. Lewis's works.
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A selection of Matthew G. Lewis non-fiction.
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