Matthew Gregory Lewis  

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"To pass from the work of Mrs. Radcliffe to that of Matthew Gregory Lewis is to leave "the novel of suspense" which depends for part of its effect on the human instinct of curiosity. for "the novel of terror," which works almost entirely on the even stronger and more primitive instinct of fear."--The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead

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Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775 – 1818) 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.


He was born in London and educated for a diplomatic career at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, spending most of his vacations abroad in the study of modern languages; and in 1794 he went to the Hague as attache to the British embassy. Although he only stayed a few months, it was there that he produced, in ten weeks, his romance Ambrosio, or the Monk, which was published in the summer of the following year. It immediately achieved celebrity; but some passages it contained were of such a nature that about a year after its appearance, an injunction to restrain its sale was moved for and a rule nisi obtained. Lewis published a second edition from which he removed what he thought were the objectionable passages, but 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.

Whatever its demerits, ethical or aesthetic, may have been, The Monk did not interfere with the reception of Lewis into the best society; he was favourably noticed at court, and almost as soon as he came of age he obtained a seat in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament (MP) for Hindon in Wiltshire. After some years, during which he never addressed the House, he finally withdrew from a parliamentary career. His tastes lay wholly in the direction of literature, and The Castle Spectre (1796), a musical drama of no great literary merit, but which enjoyed a long popularity on the stage, The Minister (a translation from Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe), Rolla (1797, a translation from August von Kotzebue), and numerous other operatic and tragic pieces, appeared in rapid succession. The Bravo of Venice, a romance translated from the German, was published in 1804; after The Monk it is his best known work. The death of his father left him with large fortune, and in 1815 he set off for the West Indies to visit his estates; in the course of this tour, which lasted four months, the Journal of a West Indian Proprietor, published posthumously in 1833, was written. A second visit to Jamaica was undertaken in 1817, in the hope of becoming more familiar with, and able to ameliorate, the condition of the slave population; the fatigues to which he exposed himself in the tropical climate brought on a fever which resulted in his death during the homeward voyage.

The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, in two volumes, was published in 1839.

Reception of his Work

As a writer, Lewis is typically classified as writing in the horror-gothic genre along with authors Charles Robert Maturin and Mary Shelley. Though he was most assuredly influenced by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, taking Radcliffe’s obsession with the supernatural and Godwin’s narrative drive and interest in crime and punishment, 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 horror-gothic novelist. For Lewis, by giving the reader the information, he provides a more fulfilling 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.” Without ambiguities, however, Lewis sometimes appears excessive in his materialized descriptions of the supernatural, losing a sense of wonder in the process.

Lewis is often criticized for a lack of originality. Though much of Lewis’ career dealt with the translation of other texts, 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 which reads:

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 Lewis found inspiration, he surrendered part of his authorship. This bothered Lewis so much that in addition to a note written by Lewis in the fourth edition of The Monk, he also included notes to the text when he published The Castle Spectre as a way to counteract any plagiarist accusations. However, his success is debatable.

See also

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