Matthew Gregory Lewis, author of the Gothic horror novel The Monk, was born in London on July 9, 1775.
The Monk was a wildly successful and scandalous novel, full of all of the usual Gothic elements – a romantic Spanish location, a sexually transgressive plot set in a Catholic Abbey, demons, witchcraft, and lots of violence.
The long book has an unbelievably complicated plot, featuring fornicating monks and nuns, disguised sexual identities, rape, murder, incest, and torture.
Lewis was homosexual at a time when homophobic repression was very high. Some critics see this as what drew him to the Gothic genre, with its intrigues, melodrama, concerns with doubleness, and elements of what we would today call “camp.”
Gothic thrillers like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, were very popular at the time. (Coincidentally, Ann Radcliffe was also born on this day, July 9, 1764.)
Still, on the face of it Matthew Lewis was an unlikely candidate to have written such a book, especially at the age of 19.
Lewis’s father, also named Matthew Lewis, was a prominent diplomat and politician. When Lewis was born, his father was Britain’s Deputy Secretary of War.
(Lewis’s parents separated when he was six years old when his mother ran away with his music master, by whom she was pregnant. Lewis remained devoted to her throughout his life.
The younger Lewis was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps in preparation for a diplomatic career. Like his father he was educated at Westminster School, on the grounds of Westminster Abbey and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received a BA and an MA.
As part of his diplomatic training Lewis was sent to The Hague, Holland, at the age of 19, to work in the British Embassy for five months.
Lewis found the posting and the city dull, and spent most of his time among refugees from the French Revolution. Lewis was fascinated with their stories of the horrors they had experienced.
Lewis was also captivated by the German horror stories, known as Schauerroman (“shudder-stories”), that he picked up on his trips to Germany.
He wrote The Monk in, he later said, a mere 10 weeks while in The Hague. It was published two years later, in March, 1796, anonymously (with only Lewis’s initials, M.L.) It became an immediate bestseller.
In a second edition, in October of that year, Lewis added his name, as “Matthew Gregory Lewis, M.P.” He had been elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 21. The thought that a parliamentarian had written such a scandalous novel was shocking.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while praising the novel, wrote “the author is a man of rank and fortune. Yes! the author of the Monk signs himself a LEGISLATOR! We stare and tremble.”
The book faced official censorship at times and Lewis toned down or expunged some of the most offensive scenes in later editions. Most modern editions of The Monk, like the one I read when I was in university, are based on the first edition.
Lewis’s father, who was not pleased with his son’s noteriety, died in 1812. Lewis inherited a large fortune and a plantation in Jamaica with 500 slaves.
Lewis made two voyages to Jamaica and died at sea from yellow fever at the age of 42 while returning to England from the second trip in 1818.