With its depictions of demonic rites and illicit sexuality, The Monk ignited a firestorm of controversy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an impassioned but very mixed review of the novel; though he thought that some elements (such the...
Matthew Gregory Lewis was an English novelist, dramatist, and public official. He is best known for his seminal novel, The Monk, which parodied early Gothic fiction and became one of the genre's most famous examples.
He was born on July 9, 1775 in London, the eldest child of Matthew Lewis, a successful diplomat, and Frances Maria Sewell Lewis. In 1781, when Lewis was six years old, his mother left his father for a music teacher. His parents remained married but separated until his father's death in 1812. Lewis maintained a warm relationship with both his parents throughout his life, especially his mother, whom he often consulted for literary advice.
Lewis enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and continued his father’s legacy at both the Westminster School and the Christ Church College of Oxford University. Preparing for a diplomatic career like his father's, he traveled extensively during the school vacations. On these trips, he studied foreign languages, translated texts into English, and began writing original plays. His stay in Weimar, Germany from 1792 to 1793 was particularly influential. There he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and other writers of the German Sturm und Drang movement, which celebrated emotional excess and emphasized the agony of self-examination and individual subjectivity. He also discovered the German Schauer-Romantik (horror-Romantic) style, distinguished by gruesome violence, clandestine plots, and diabolism. He would combine these elements in his later work, especially The Monk.
In 1794, Lewis’s father obtained him a diplomatic appointment as an attaché to the British Embassy in The Hague. Finding the placement dull, Lewis began writing The Monk and finished it in a mere 10 weeks. When it was published in 1796, it and he quickly became notorious for its shocking gore and provocative themes of ecclesiastical perversion, incest, rape, and devilry. Among critics, The Monk gained Lewis both acclaim for his talent and denouncement for the perceived connection between the novel's transgressive morality and his own morality. With the general readership, however, the book was a uniform success. Reflecting the degree to which the author and the work were associated with each other, Lewis became popularly known as "Monk" Lewis.
During the moral furor surrounding the novel’s first edition, Lewis, again as a result of his father’s influence, became a Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hindon. His authorship was then all the more scandalous upon the release of The Monk’s second edition, which he signed with his full name and the initials “MP” for "Member of Parliament." Legal prosecution and an injunction on the book’s sale eventually led Lewis to censor the fourth edition in 1798, but by then he had already moved on creatively to playwriting. His dramatic successes included The Castle Spectre (1798), a Gothic drama, and Alfonso, King of Castile: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1802). Throughout his career, however, Lewis was still commonly referred to as “Monk," a nickname that frustrated him with its longevity.
In 1812, Lewis inherited the fortune and property of his deceased father, including two slave plantations in the West Indies. Although he believed that emancipation was too dangerous to enact, Lewis was against slavery in principle and made several trips to his plantations to attempt to better the lives of those working there.
In 1818, he contracted yellow fever on the return voyage from his plantation in Jamaica and died at sea.