Matthew Gregory Lewis and his important works

by George Lethbridge Saunders, after Unknown artist, watercolour on ivory, (circa 1800)

Matthew Gregory Lewis was born in London in 1775. He was the son of Matthew Lewis Sr, who served as Deputy Secretary at War and Frances Maria Sewell. Lewis was educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford.

The separation of Lewis’ parents in 1781, had an adverse impact upon him with Lewis himself feeling compromised at being turned into ‘an umpire’ between his parents. Perhaps because of the acrimony he had seen between his parents, Lewis himself never married.

Lewis wrote his popular Gothic novel The Monk in 1796. In this, he was influenced by the leading Gothic novelist, Ann Radcliffe, and also by contemporary German Gothic literature. The novel narrated the story of a monk who descends into a world of degradation. He becomes obsessed with a fellow monk, who turns out to be a woman in disguise and later falls for an innocent young woman.

The Monk was attacked as being too sensational and condemned for its depiction of rape and incest. Coleridge in his critique of the novel stated that “The Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.” Despite that, the novel became so popular that Lewis was thereafter known as ‘Monk’ Lewis.

Lewis also wrote a popular music drama in the same vein, The Castle Spectre (1798). In 1801, he published two sets of poems, Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror. He was also successful as a playwright. His melodramatic flair found an appreciative audience in the days of Romantic drama, although Lewis abandoned the theater when he inherited his family’s West Indian sugar plantations.

Lewis served as a Member of Parliament from 1796 to 1802. He held two estates in Jamaica, Cornwall estate in Westmoreland Parish and Hordley estate in Saint Thomas Parish. After inheriting a large fortune in Jamaica in 1812, he sailed twice to the island to inquire about the treatment of slaves on his estates there and he died at sea at the 42.

Important works:

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)