Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2475
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 led to a temporary shift of his loyalties to Covent Garden.
Before this occurred, however, three more of his plays were presented at Drury Lane, The Twins and The East Indian in 1799 and Adelmorn the Outlaw in 1801, but none achieved any extraordinary success. The first two, a social farce and a sentimental comedy, were originally acted as benefit presentations for a pair of Drury Lane’s veteran performers; although they served that purpose adequately, the critical and popular reception of the plays was at best lukewarm. Like his other attempts at comedy, they were neither great triumphs nor notable catastrophes. Adelmorn the Outlaw on the other hand, threatened to become an embarrassment of the first order. The stage set and the incidental music were well received, but the play itself was a critical failure. Adelmorn the Outlaw included many of the same melodramatic plot elements and gothic flourishes that had attracted enthusiastic audiences to The Castle Spectre, but Adelmorn the Outlaw was so absurdly and, at times, so tastelessly constructed that Lewis’s utmost exertions were able to sustain it through a first run of only nine performances.
The reviewers treated Lewis’s first Covent Garden production, Alfonso, King of Castile, with considerably more kindness. Although praise was not universal, some reviewers thought Alfonso, King of Castile the greatest tragic play of its age, and it was certainly Lewis’s most concerted attempt at high dramatic art. The play is written in blank verse, occasionally with impressive poetic effect, but the plot is marred by a melodramatic intensity that makes it difficult for a modern-day reader to take seriously. Alfonso, King of Castile was published several weeks before its January 15, 1802, premiere, and though its first run of only ten performances suggests that it was a very modest popular success, it remained the play in which Lewis took the greatest artistic pride.
During 1803, Lewis’s only new theatrical productions were The Captive, a dramatic monologue, and The Harper’s Daughter, a shortened version of The Minister. They both appeared at Covent Garden, on March 22 and May 4, respectively, and each was successful after its own fashion. The Harper’s Daughter was a benefit presentation and drew a large enough audience to provide a tidy sum. The Captive, billed as a “mono-drama,” was an extended speech by a young wife who had been consigned to a madhouse by her cruel husband. So effective was its presentation of the wife’s gradual loss of sanity that several spectators experienced hysterical fits during and after the performance and the drama was withdrawn in order to preserve the mental health of Covent Garden’s customers.
Lewis’s next play, a melodrama in two acts entitled Rugantino, opened at Covent Garden on October 18, 1805, and was performed thirty times before enthusiastic houses. Lewis again caught the public’s fancy by relying on spectacle rather than subtle art, and though an occasional viewer might complain of headaches brought on by the play’s many pistol shots and thunderclaps, most were enthralled; nor did the dazzling costume changes and the gorgeous Venice scenery hurt the play’s attendance. Lewis knew his audience well and gave it what it wanted.
Rugantino was followed on April 1, 1807, this time at Drury Lane, by the even more spectacular The Wood Daemon. Full of more gothic paraphernalia than any of Lewis’s previous dramatic creations, The Wood Daemon is more truly a play of special effects than of plot and dialogue, and it was judged in such terms by contemporary reviewers: There was considerable praise for the production’s visual impact but very little positive comment on the play as literary art. The visual impact was enough, however, to assure The Wood Daemon a first run of thirty-four performances.
Lewis’s next three productions met with a more modest reception. Adelgitha, a play that Lewis had published in 1806, opened at Drury Lane in April of 1807 to favorable reviews. Centering on a character whose tragic life was meant to illustrate the fatal consequences of youthful sin, the play relies for its effect on melodramatic plot complication rather than visual spectacle, and although its nine first-run performances compare unfavorably with the thirty-four of The Wood Daemon, it was not nearly so ambitious a theatrical project and seems fully to have satisfied the expectations of those involved in its staging.
Venoni did not, at first, fare so well. The play, whose plot Lewis adapted from a French original, premiered at Drury Lane on December 1, 1808, and was immediately attacked by the reviewers. One scene in particular, in which a pair of lovers, unaware of each other’s presence, speak alternating soliloquies from their adjoining dungeon cells, was judged especially ludicrous. The play required extensive rewriting, which Lewis undertook with some success, and Venoni had reached its eighteenth performance when a fire destroyed the theater. Lewis then provided the Drury Lane troupe, temporarily housed at the Lyceum Theater, with a farce entitled Temper, which opened on May 1, 1809, attracting so little attention that it was lost from Lewis’s dramatic canon until 1942.
At this point, Lewis announced that he would write no more plays, a decision that, if he had adhered to it, would have denied posterity his most dubious contribution to British theater, the grand equestrian drama Timour the Tartar. Timour the Tartar was not the first play to introduce horses onto the British stage; that honor belongs to Blue Beard, whose cast of characters was horseless until February 18, 1811. On that date, the Covent Garden management made its initial test of the public’s readiness to accept equestrian performers. The popular response was gratifying, and Timour the Tartar, whose equestrian elements were not extraneous interpolations but integral parts of the plot, was awaited with considerable anticipation. The play opened on April 29, 1811, to the howls of the critics and the applause of the paying customers. In the ensuing months, parodies and imitations abounded, one featuring a performing elephant, and Timour the Tartar itself was staged a profitable forty-four times.
Lewis’s final two theatrical offerings were reworkings of old material. They do, however, illustrate Lewis’s frequent use of songs to increase the entertainment value of his plays. Working with Michael Kelly and Matthew Peter King, Lewis transformed The Wood Daemon into “a grand musical romance” with the slightly altered title, One O’Clock: Or, The Knight and the Wood Daemon; collaborating with Charles Edward Horn, he extensively revised The East Indian, turning it into a comic opera entitled Rich and Poor. The musical romance premiered on August 1, 1811, and was performed twenty-five times during its first season by the company of the English Opera House; the comic opera opened on July 22, 1812, and was performed twenty-seven times by the same organization.
Lewis’s literary endeavors had been made possible largely by a yearly allowance of a thousand pounds granted him by his father. This allowance was reduced for a time as a result of an argument between father and son over a sexual affair in which the elder Lewis had become involved, but the two managed to reconcile their differences before the father’s death in May of 1812, and Lewis inherited all his father’s considerable wealth. Very soon thereafter, he used a portion of the money to purchase a permanent home for his mother.
Another consequence of the inheritance was the first of Lewis’s two voyages to Jamaica to inspect his island properties. The primary purpose of his visit, which occurred during the first three months of 1816, was to ascertain that slaves on his plantations were properly treated. Although Lewis made no provision for the freeing of these slaves, he did establish strict rules intended to make their lives more bearable. Also, to prevent a deterioration in their living conditions after his death, he added a codicil to his will insisting that any future heir to his estates visit the plantations every third year for the purpose of looking after the slaves’ welfare. In addition, no slaves were to be put up for sale.
The alterations in Lewis’s will were witnessed on August 20, 1816, by Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Dr. John W. Polidori during a trip Lewis took to the Continent, a trip that lasted for more than a year. The most noteworthy literary events of that tour were his oral translation of Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1838) for Byron, the latter’s first direct experience with that work, and Lewis’s telling ghost stories for the entertainment of Byron and the Shelleys. Although Lewis cannot be claimed to have inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as she had begun her novel several weeks before Lewis’s arrival in Geneva, his enthusiasm for the gothic is likely to have encouraged her to continue the project.
After a short stay in England following his wanderings on the Continent, Lewis again set sail for Jamaica on November 5, 1817. During this second visit, he introduced further reforms to improve the plight of his slaves, and having assured himself that he had done what he could for them, he embarked for England on May 4, 1818. He was ill with yellow fever when the voyage began, and within two weeks, he was dead.