Matthew Gregory Lewis, the first child of Matthew Lewis and the former Frances Maria Sewell, was born in London, England, on July 9, 1775. His father served for a number of years as both chief clerk in the War Office and as deputy-secretary at war, positions whose salaries, in combination with the revenues from estates owned by the elder Lewis in Jamaica, rendered the Lewis household financially prosperous. Prosperity did not assure marital harmony, however, and his parents agreed to a permanent separation when young Matthew Gregory was seven or eight years old. According to a bill of divorcement that was never brought to enactment, the primary cause of his parents’ estrangement was an adulterous affair carried on by Mrs. Lewis, which resulted in her giving birth to a child.
In addition to this illegitimate sibling, Lewis had two sisters, Maria and Sophia, and a brother, Barrington, all whom lived with their father. Young Matthew Gregory, who had begun his education at Marylebone Seminary, resided at Westminster College and Christ Church College, Oxford, during much of his childhood and adolescence and maintained affectionate contact with both of his parents. Throughout his lifetime, in fact, whatever slight cohesiveness existed within the Lewis family was largely the result of Matthew Gregory’s efforts.
Although young Lewis was not a systematic, self-disciplined scholar, he did exhibit considerable talent in foreign languages, music, and literature, and by age sixteen, largely through the stimulation of a summer spent in Paris, he was busily at work as both writer and translator. His earliest efforts, about which he carried on a regular correspondence with his mother, who also had literary ambitions, were refused publication. Of the works that eventually made Lewis famous, however, a surprising number were completed, or at least begun, during his teens—a genesis that goes far to explain the adolescent feverishness of many of his most characteristic productions.
In Paris, Lewis became familiar with French drama, and there he may also have encountered translations of contemporary German literature. At any rate, he became thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the German Sturm und Drang movement during a stay in Weimar that began in July of 1792 when Lewis was seventeen. His father had sent him there to learn German so that he might enter the diplomatic service, and during his stay, he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland, spent many hours translating German literary works, and continued to fashion a literary style of his own, a style heavily influenced by his experiences in both Paris and Weimar.
Lewis returned to Oxford in the early months of 1793 and was graduated in the spring of 1794, shortly before his nineteenth birthday. Between May and December of 1794, he held a minor diplomatic post at The Hague, where he found ample time to complete the novel that was to assure his fame. That novel, The Monk, was published in 1796 and made Lewis an immediate, and slightly infamous, celebrity. His presence was very much in demand at London social gatherings, a fact that delighted the gregarious young author.
In this same eventful year, Lewis became the parliamentary representative for Hindon in Wiltshire, a position he retained until 1802. His parliamentary duties and his literary fame brought him the acquaintance, during these and subsequent years, of many of the prominent men of England, a number of whom mention Lewis in their correspondence and other writings. The impression that these accounts give of Lewis is of a physically unattractive, dreadfully nearsighted man, whose kindliness and affability made him difficult to dislike but whose boring garrulousness often made his company difficult to enjoy. A tone of amused, sometimes exasperated, affection suffuses many of these verbal portraits, especially those by Lord Byron.
As he had at The Hague, Lewis found sufficient time while a Member of Parliament to carry forward his literary projects. He was occasionally instrumental, too, in advancing the careers of other literary men, the most important of whom was Sir Walter Scott. In addition to inviting Scott, whom he had met in 1798, to contribute to Tales of Wonder, Lewis helped to arrange for the publication of Scott’s 1799 translation of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (pb. 1773; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799). It is amusing to read Scott’s account of the deference with which he, then almost entirely unknown as a writer, received Lewis’s often imperious pronouncements concerning literary style.
During this same period, Lewis’s talents as a playwright came to the public’s attention, with The Castle Spectre, the third of his plays to be published but the first to be staged. Village Virtues, a social farce, and The Minister, a translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (pr., pb. 1784; Cabal and Love, 1795), had attracted little attention to Lewis’s dramatic skills, but The Castle Spectre, which opened on December 14, 1797, earned eighteen thousand pounds for Drury Lane Theater in less than three months.
Lewis’s next dramatic project, a translation of August von Kotzebue’s 1794 play Die Spanier in Peru: Oder, Rollas Tod (pr. 1794, pb. 1795; The Spaniards in Peru: Or, Rolla’s Death, 1799), appears originally to have been intended as a collaboration with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, but the pair found it impossible to work together, and Sheridan turned to another translator for assistance. Sheridan’s version of the play, Pizarro: A Tragedy in Five Acts, opened in May, 1799, without acknowledgment of Lewis’s initial contributions to the production, and achieved spectacular success. Lewis’s version, Rolla, was published but not performed, and the ill will generated by this incident and by various other difficulties experienced by Lewis at Drury Lane eventually...
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