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
(ca. 1800)
Born (1775-07-09)9 July 1775
Died 16 May 1818(1818-05-16) (aged 42)
Occupation Deputy-Secretary at War;
Member of Parliament
Language English
Nationality British
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford
Genre Novels
Notable works The Monk

Matthew Gregory Lewis (9 July 1775 – 16 May 1818) was an English novelist and dramatist, often referred to as "Monk" Lewis, because of the success of his 1796 Gothic novel, The Monk.

Biography[edit]

Family[edit]

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.[1] The correspondence between Matthew and his other 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 Sir Thomas Sewell and was one of eight children born in his first marriage. 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.[2]

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,[2] rejoining society and even becoming a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales.[3] 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.[4]

Education[edit]

Matthew Gregory Lewis began his education at a preparatory school called Marylebone Seminary under the Rev. Dr John Fountaine, Dean of York. Fountain 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 only permitted to converse in French throughout the day. Like many of his classmates, Lewis used the Marylebone Seminary as a stepping stone, proceeding from there to the 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 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.[2]

Professional life[edit]

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 1792–93. 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 pubs (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.[5] 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, 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

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.[6]

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.[7][8]

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.

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[edit]

As a writer, Lewis is typically classified as writing in the Gothic horror genre, along with the authors Charles Robert Maturin and Mary Shelley.[9] 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 in which he stated that he saw resemblance between the villain Montoni from The Mysteries of Udolpho and himself.[2] He took 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 a Gothic horror novelist.[10] 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 Lewis's career went on 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 included notes to the text when he published The Castle Spectre as a way to counteract any accusations of plagiarism. The success of this tactic is debatable.[11]

Works[edit]

  • The Effusions of Sensibility (unfinished novel)
  • The Monk (1796)
  • Village Virtues: A Dramatic Satire (1796)
  • The Castle Spectre (1796)
  • The Minister: A Tragedy, in Five Acts (1797)
  • The East Indian: A Comedy in Five Acts (1800)
  • Tales of Wonder (1801)
  • Alfonso, King of Castile: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1801)
  • The Bravo of Venice (1805)
  • Adelgitha; or, The Fruit of a Single Error. A Tragedy in Five Acts (1806)
  • Romantic Tales (1808)
  • Journal of a West India Proprietor (1833)
  • The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis (1839)
  • "My Uncle's Garret Window"

References[edit]

  1. ^ 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, 41. 
  2. ^ a b c d Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1961. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Retrieved on 19 March 2010
  3. ^ Lewis, Matthew G. The Monk: A Romance. Ed. David L. Macdonald and Kathleen D. Scherf. Ontario, CA: Broadview, 2004. Retrieved on 16 March 2010.
  4. ^ 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 on 19 March 2010.
  5. ^ Lewis, Matthew. The Monk, ed. Howard Anderson. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
  6. ^ Taylor, George (2000). The French Revolution and the London stage, 1789–1805 (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 111. ISBN 0521630525. 
  7. ^ Copies of the Jamaican slave registers held by The National Archives are available on Ancestry. The registers 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.
  8. ^ Matthew Gregory Lewis. Legacies of British Slave-ownership. University College, London. Retrieved 12 November 2015.
  9. ^ Hume, Robert D (1969). "Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel". Modern Language Association. 84 (2): 282–90. doi:10.2307/1261285. 
  10. ^ Platzner, Robert L.; Hume, Robert D. (1971). ""Gothic versus Romantic": A Rejoinder". Modern Language Association. 86 (2): 266–74. doi:10.2307/460952. 
  11. ^ 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. 

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
James Wildman
James Adams
Member of Parliament for Hindon
1796–1801
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
1801–1802
With: James Wildman
Succeeded by
Thomas Wallace
John Pedley