Matthew Gregory Lewis Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)
ph_0111207095-Lewis_M.jpg Matthew Gregory Lewis Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the most successful British dramatists of the Romantic era, his primary claim to fame today is his authorship of that most extravagant of gothic novels, The Monk: A Romance, which was originally published, in 1796, as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk. This was Lewis’s first significant published work, and it created such a sensation among his contemporaries that he is still referred to more often by his nickname of “Monk” Lewis than by his given name. Despite the objections of moralists and literary critics alike, this lurid tale of human perversity, with its seductive demons and bleeding ghosts, sold prodigiously during Lewis’s lifetime and remains standard reading for anyone studying the development of the English novel.

Two of Lewis’s nondramatic publications were The Love of Gain: A Poem Initiated from Juvenal (1799), written in imitation of the Thirteenth Satire of Juvenal, and Tales of Wonder (1801), an anthology of horror poems. The former, an insignificant throwback to the subject matter and the style of the Age of Johnson, attracted little attention, but the latter stirred considerable interest, some of it admiring but much of it amused. Tales of Wonder was compiled in response to a vogue for gothic ballads that occurred after the publication in the 1790’s of several translations of G. A. Bürger’s Lenore (1773). Unfortunately, the vogue had begun to wane by the time the anthology appeared, and it was unmercifully parodied during the months following its publication. Nevertheless, it remains a work of considerable historical interest because of its inclusion of some of the early poetry of Robert Southey and Sir Walter Scott and because of its influence throughout the nineteenth century on poetic gothicism.

Much of Lewis’s work was derived from or was influenced by German sources, and in 1805 and 1806, he published translations of a pair of German romances, one of which he subsequently dramatized. The first, The Bravo of Venice: A Romance, was based on J. H. D. Zschokke’s Abällino der Grosse Bandit, and...

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Matthew Gregory Lewis Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Matthew Gregory Lewis is one of those delightful literary figures whose ability to appeal to the bad taste of the public brings them immense popularity during their own day and critical damnation forever after. In an age when most of Britain’s greatest writers found themselves incapable of pleasing London audiences, Lewis brought immense sums into the coffers of the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters. He was a master of the sentimental and the sensational, and sentiment and sensation were what London audiences wanted. Although not all his plays, referred to by his biographer Louis F. Peck as “brainless stories,” were popular successes, enough of them were to make Lewis the darling of the theater managers.

As one might expect of the author of The Monk, Lewis is primarily important for his contributions to dramatic gothicism . Indeed, Bertrand Evans, author of Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley (1947), writes that “the name of Matthew Gregory Lewis is perhaps the most important in the history of gothic drama.” Lewis, Evans observes, drew together the “materials of his predecessors and contemporaries, English and German, and out-Gothicized them all.” He did this most triumphantly in The Castle Spectre, which was an immediate and overwhelming theatrical sensation. According to Evans, its forty-seven performances made it “the most successful play of its time,” a success achieved by ruthlessly sacrificing...

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Matthew Gregory Lewis Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Matthew Gregory Lewis’s work in genres other than fiction deserves more critical attention than it has generally received. In his own day, his reputation as a dramatist almost equaled his fame as the author of The Monk. The Castle Spectre (pr. 1797), a gothic drama, was a major success. Clearly the work of the author of The Monk, the drama is populated by stock characters who move through an intricate plot decorated with ghosts and spectacle. The Castle Spectre allowed Lewis to show what The Monk would only let him describe. Alfonso, King of Castile (pb. 1801), a tragedy, was much hailed by critics, and helped establish Lewis’s reputation as a major figure in the literary world of the early nineteenth century.

Lewis also wrote poetry. Some of his finer pieces appear in the text of The Monk. One, “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine,” is still read as an excellent example of the then-popular gothic ballad and is included in The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926). Lewis is also highly respected as a writer of nonfiction. Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (1834) is a detailed and vivid account of Jamaica in the days of slavery and of the reactions of a genuinely humane person to this environment.

Matthew Gregory Lewis Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Matthew Gregory Lewis’s outstanding achievement is his famous novel, The Monk. Often mentioned but seldom read today, this work helped to define a particular type of gothic novel that is still popular today. Rather than merely suggesting a dangerous supernatural presence by the careful use of tone, The Monk relies upon graphic description and bold action. Lewis’s imagination worked with clear visual images rather than with hints and elusive impressions. Indeed, he has contributed more to the gothic conventions of stage and cinema than he has to later horror fiction. The great gothic writers of the nineteenth century—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Brontë—relied more on psychological effects and less on graphic horror than did Lewis. Lewis’s true successors are contemporary novelists such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, who have taken the graphic depiction of horror to new extremes.

Among the countless readers of The Monk, perhaps none has enjoyed the book so thoroughly as Lewis himself. In September, 1794, he announced in a letter to his mother that he had produced “a romance of between three and four hundred pages octavo” in a mere ten weeks. With the outrageous immodesty of youth, he proclaimed, “I am myself so pleased with it, that, if the Booksellers will not buy it, I shall publish it myself.” Two years later, the novel was published with a preface in imitation of Horace: “Now, then, your venturous course pursue,/ Go, my delight! dear book, adieu!” The Monk’s course has been “venturous” indeed. An immediate success, it went into a second edition the same year it was published, and by 1800, readers were buying the fifth edition. The first edition had been published anonymously; the second, however, not only bore the proud author’s name but also his title of MP (member of Parliament).

While the earliest reviews of The Monk had been generally favorable—the book was deemed artful, skillful, interesting—the second wave of criticism brought judgments less kind. The Monk was “a poison for youth, and a provocative for the debauchee,” said poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Critical Review for February, 1797. Moreover, the poison had been brewed by a member of Parliament, the critics were fond of noting. Such criticism did no harm to the sale of the book, but an embarrassed Lewis expurgated later editions of The Monk.

Matthew Gregory Lewis Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Blakemore, Steven. “Matthew Lewis’s Black Mass: Sexual Religion Inversion in The Monk." Studies in the Novel 30, no. 4 (Winter, 1998): 521-539. This in-depth analysis of Lewis’s The Monk examines his views as they manifested themselves in this work. In doing so, he sheds light on Lewis’s dramatic works.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Seven Gothic Dramas: 1789-1825. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992. See part 6 of Cox’s introduction for a discussion of “Lewis and the Gothic Drama: Melodrama, Monodrama, and Tragedy.”

Evans, Bertrand. “Lewis and Gothic Drama.” In Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947. Evans’s pioneering volume remains the definitive study of gothic drama in England and is among the best sources for gaining a sense of Lewis’s peculiar niche in British dramatic history.

Howard, Jacqueline. Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. See chapter 5, “Anticlerical Gothic: Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.” Recommended for advanced students with some grounding in literary theory.

Irwin, Joseph James. M. G. “Monk” Lewis. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Presents the life and writings of Lewis, with a concluding overview of his achievements. Concentrates on The Monk, which brought Lewis fame and notoriety and set the standard for tales of terror. Also surveys his success and failure in the theater. Includes notes, an annotated bibliography, and an index.

Macdonald, David Lorne. Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2000. A biography of Lewis, covering his life and works. Bibliography and index.

Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. This first modern full-length biography of Lewis uses materials not available to earlier biographers, such as diaries, memoirs, and the correspondence of Lewis’s contemporaries. Contains a collection of selected letters, a list of his principal works, a bibliography of works cited, notes, and an index.

Reno, Robert Princeton. The Gothic Visions of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew G. Lewis. New York: Arno Press, 1980. Although the focus of this study is the gothic works of Lewis and Ann Radcliffe, the book provides valuable information on Lewis’s life and dramatic works.

Sandiford, Keith Albert. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Contains a discussion of Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica. Bibliography and index.