Lewis, Matthew Gregory (1775–1818)
English author commonly known as ‘‘Monk’’ Lewis. He was
born in London July 9, 1775. His father, Matthew Lewis, was
deputy secretary of war and proprietor of several valuable estates
in Jamaica; his mother, Anna Maria Sewell, was devoted
to music and various other arts. The future author showed precocity
during childhood, and he attended Westminster School.
During this period his parents separated, although Lewis remained
friendly with both his parents. In 1791 he visited Paris
and attempted a novel and a farce.
In 1792 he went to Weimar in Germany where he met Johann
Goethe and also learned German thoroughly. Two years
later he was appointed attaché to the British Embassy at the
Hague, where he wrote his famous sensational story, Ambrosio;
or, The Monk. Completed in ten weeks and published in 1795,
it earned him his nickname of ‘‘Monk’’ Lewis.
In 1796 Lewis became a member of Parliament for Hindon
in Wiltshire. Residing chiefly in or near London, he met most
of the notable people of the day. Meanwhile his interest in the
occult had been developing, and in 1798 his play Castle Spectre
was staged at Drury Lane. Ghosts and the like played a prominent
part in this popular production, for the public greatly enjoyed
Gothic romances. In 1788 Lewis published Tales of Terror
and in 1801 the volume Tales of Wonder, which anthologized
popular occult verses, including some by novelist Sir Walter
Scott.
When Lewis’ father died in 1812, the author found himself
a very rich man. His conscience was troubled, nevertheless, because
the wealth derived from slave labor. Lewis sailed to Jamaica
in 1815 to arrange for generous treatment of the workers
on his estates. Returning to England in 1816, he went soon afterward
to Geneva, where he met Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
Lewis made another visit to the West Indies in 1818 and
died at sea May 14, 1818, while returning home.
The books of Lewis are memorable chiefly for the sensational
way in which he exploited the rapidly developing public taste
for gothic romance inaugurated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle
of Otranto (1764). Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho appeared
in April 1794, and Lewis was greatly impressed by it before
publishing his own Ambrosio; or, The Monk only a few
months later.
Sources
Sullivan, Jack. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural.
New York Viking, 1986.
Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest. 1938. Reprint, London
Fortune Press, 1950.