MATTHEW GREGORY LEWIS (1775 - 1818)
English novelist, playwright, diarist, prose writer, and poet.
Lewis is best known as the author of The Monk (1796), a notorious eighteenth-century novel of horror that is considered one of the greatest examples of English Gothic fiction. Unlike Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, his predecessors in the Gothic school who created genteel novels of suspense, Lewis emphasized the graphic and the sensational. The Monk's blend of overt sexuality and terror created a scandal in England, and its author, branded licentious and perverse, came to be known solely as "Monk" Lewis. While the lurid elements of Lewis's work are still controversial, modern critics acknowledge his talent as an innovative writer of prose and verse who contributed to the Gothic literary tradition as well as the development of the English Romantic movement.
Lewis was born into a wealthy and socially prominent London family. His mother and father separated while he was young, and his attempts to remain on good terms with both parents created an emotional strain that endured throughout his life. Some biographers contend, in fact, that this stress resulted in an emotional immaturity that manifested itself in Lewis's work. Although Lewis displayed a talent for writing at an early age and was encouraged to write by his mother, his father urged him to pursue a diplomatic career instead. After graduation from Oxford in 1794, Lewis became an attaché to the British Embassy in Holland, an assignment he despised. To ease his boredom, Lewis wrote The Monk during a ten week period. The notoriety that accompanied The Monk's publication in 1796 made Lewis a financially successful, if infamous, author. Led by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, contemporary critics labeled Lewis's tale of Ambrosio, the wayward monk, immoral and obscene. Lewis had recently been elected to the House of Commons, and The Monk proved so controversial that, in order to retain his position, he was required to issue an expurgated edition. Shortly therafter, Lewis left politics and began writing drama. In the years before his death, Lewis spent most of his time on the Jamaican estates he had inherited, which were maintained by slaves. By all accounts, Lewis was a compassionate man who advocated the abolition of slavery and retained his plantations solely at the request of his slaves, who feared the financial responsibility of freedom. During his final trip to Jamaica, Lewis tried desperately to improve the living conditions of his slaves. Despite his efforts, he was able to implement little change and, despondent, decided to return home. By the time Lewis boarded a ship for England, he had already developed yellow fever. He died several days later. His crew prepared to bury him at sea, but as they lowered the casket, its shroud caught in the wind and the coffin sailed slowly back to Jamaica.
The Monk's protagonist, Ambrosio, who is a monk as well as a foundling of mysterious past and parentage, has risen to the position of abbot of the Capuchins, becoming a well-respected figure in medieval Madrid, revered by the populace. At the monastery, a young novitiate named Rosario approaches Ambrosio and reveals that he is actually a woman named Matilda de Villanges, whose love for Ambrosio has led her to disguise herself in order to be nearer to him. The two consummate a sexual relationship, though Ambrosio later feels remorse and disgust for his actions. After his interlude with Matilda, while visiting the nearby convent of St. Clare, Ambrosio discovers that Agnes, a nun, desires to elope with her lover, Don Raymond de las Cisternas. The monk discloses this information to Mother St. Agatha, prioress of the convent, who punishes Agnes by imprisoning her in a dungeon beneath the convent. Later, Ambrosio travels to the house of the ailing Donna Elvira Dalfa and there falls in love with her young daughter, Antonia. With the aid of Matilda and her knowledge of black magic, the monk summons a demon so that he might violate the girl. Ambrosio returns to Donna Elvira's house, kills her, and abducts Antonia, now unconscious through the action of a magical potion. In the meantime, Agnes's brother, Lorenzo, accuses Mother St. Agatha of murdering his sister and wins a warrant for her arrest. An angry mob forms in response to the accusation, and the crowd razes the convent, murdering the prioress and many innocent nuns. Amid the chaos, Lorenzo enters the convent grounds in search of his sister. When he finds her she is close to death and clutching the decaying body of her dead child. Hearing the screams of a young girl nearby, Lorenzo discovers Antonia's ravished and stabbed body and observes her attacker, Ambrosio, as he flees; later he notifies the Inquisition of Ambrosio's crimes. Ordered to be burned at the stake, Ambrosio, at the urgings of Matilda, makes a pact with Satan, exchanging his soul for freedom. The devil appears and saves him from the flames of the Inquisition, only to reveal that in killing Donna Elvira and raping Antonia, he has murdered his own mother and committed incest with his sister. The story ends as the monk's forfeit soul is cast into hell.
Scholars observe that the thematic character of The Monk departs somewhat from that of the traditional Gothic novel. While it favors the evocation of grotesque horror rather than the rendering of a sentimental theme of justice based upon divine Providence, Lewis's novel nevertheless presents a critique of human vice and explores the conflict between religion and human sexuality. This conflict is dramatized in the character of Ambrosio through the juxtaposition of the monk's pride and destructive sexual appetite with the innocent virtue of Antonia and the forthrightness of Lorenzo. Many commentators note, however, that the dullness of the novel's virtuous characters fails to match the depth and complexity of Ambrosio and Matilda, and instead locate evidence of the novel's primary theme in the psychological exploration of its fallen protagonist and his accomplice. Likewise, many have observed that Matilda's strong will and intelligence make her far more compelling than her counterpart Antonia, despite her manipulative behavior and demonic nature. Others have commented on Lewis's attempts to establish an unsettling parallel between the violence of the riotous mob in his novel and that of the French Revolution, or on his deft integration of legends and folk tales, such as those of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew, in order to illicit terror and add universal appeal to his story.
Of Lewis's plays, the best known is The Castle Spectre (1797), a Gothic production that met the current demand for melodrama, spectacle, and two-dimensional characterization. Although it helped establish Lewis as one of the era's most popular playwrights, The Castle Spectre is largely overlooked by modern critics. In 1801, Lewis published Tales of Wonder, a collection of poems dealing with the supernatural that also includes works by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey. Lewis also composed poetry that he included in his plays and later published, as well as two novels that never enjoyed the success or notoriety of The Monk. He ceased writing fiction in 1812, when his father died and left him a great deal of money. Lewis's posthumously-published Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (1834) recounts his voyages to Jamaica, inspections of the plantations, and plans for change. Written in lively prose, the Journal reveals Lewis as a sensitive and perceptive observer of the natural world. Though it is seldom read today, critics who have studied the work consider it one of Lewis's greatest achievements.
With the exception of the Journal, Lewis's works were ignored from the time of his death until the twentieth century, when critics began to recognize Lewis's influence on the Romantic movement. When it was first published, The Monk created a considerable stir and earned Lewis instant fame, even infamy, as its author. Labeled obscene by a cast of critics, including Coleridge—who acknowledged that despite its immorality the novel was the "offspring of no common genius"—it was nevertheless extremely popular, and went through five editions before the end of the century. The controversy that the first edition sparked prompted Lewis to expurgate certain passages from these later printings, though scholars now agree that his changes were largely superficial. Early critics emphasized the lewdness and irreligion of the work, especially of a scene in which Antonia reads an edited version of the Bible given to her by her mother, and maintained that The Monk was a product of the revolutionary atmosphere of the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century critics reevaluated the influence of the work on the writers of the Romantic movement. Modern scholars have since observed that The Monk represents a successful synthesis of the techniques and materials used by Gothic horror writers, leading many to take a renewed interest in the work. Recent critics have applied the tools of psychological criticism to The Monk, examining its sexual imagery and applying biographical information about Lewis's childhood development and psyche to understanding the novel. Later studies have probed the conflict between sexuality and religion and the juxtaposition of violence and passion within the novel. Angela Wright traces parallels between The Monk and the Marquis de Sade's novel Justine, noting that the two works influenced one another in significant ways, including in their narrative technique and portrayal of heroines. Montague Summers asserted that Lewis "introduced new and essential features both by his prose works, his verse and his dramas into the Gothic novel, upon which he exercised so tremendous, one might almost say so illimitable, an influence" and declared that "the vast imaginative force derived from Lewis which energized and inspired numerical novels and impelled the incidence of romance in particular directions,… [can] very clearly be related to and are in effect resultant from the genius, often morbid and wayward, yet ever vital and compelling, of Matthew Gregory Lewis."