By his notorious Gothic romance The Monk, written when he was nineteen, Matthew Gregory Lewis — "Monk" Lewis — has won himself a place in nearly every history of English literature. Biographical notices of him usually record also that he was a friend of Walter Scott, published a collection of ballads called Tales of Wonder, wrote the absurd and highly successful melodrama The Castle Spectre, translated parts of Goethe's Faust to Lord Byron, told ghost stories to the Shelleys at Diodati [on Lake Geneva], visited the West Indies to improve the condition of his slaves, and died at sea on the way home. — Louis F. Peck (1961).

Educated at Westminster School and Christ Church College, Oxford, Matthew Gregory Lewis (9 July 1775 – 16 May 1818) received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1769 and his Master's in 1772, having started his university education on 27 April 1790 at the age of 15. Matthew Lewis, Senior, the novelist's wealthy and influential father, who served as England's Deputy Secretary at War, owned considerable property in Jamaica, within four miles of Savanna-la-Mer, or Savanna-la-Mar, which was hit by a devastating earthquake and hurricane in 1779. His son eventually inherited this valuable property. Lewis held two estates in Jamaica, the Cornwall estate in Westmoreland Parish and the Hordley estate in Saint Thomas Parish. According to the slave registers, in 1817 Lewis purchased the shares of Hordley's co-owners, George Scott and Matthew Henry Scott, giving him sole ownership of more than 500 slaves. This West Indian background informs a number of Lewis's works. On 1 January 1816, Lewis arrived in Jamaica to inspect the situation of the slaves on his estates he had inherited there. In August of that same year, he visited Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva, where he translated Goethe's Faust aloud to Lord Byron. During the next fourteen months, he travelled extensively throughout Italy, and then sailed for Jamaica in 1815, arriving in November 1817. On the voyage back to England, on 16 May 1818 he died of yellow fever he had contracted in the West Indies, and was buried at sea. Published long after his death, Lewis's Journal of a West Indian Proprietor reveals a refreshing and detailed realism not found in his Gothic works.

Lewis and The German Romantics

Intended for a diplomatic career by his parents, Lewis had studied classical languages at Oxford, and had been immersed in French at his London grammar school, Marylebone Seminary, under the Reverend Dr. John Fountaine. Leaving university, he went abroad to master German and French. His most formative period proved to be his residence in Weimar, 1792-93, where he was exposed to the works of the German Romantics. Here he translated Wieland's poem Oberon, and made the acquaintance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Through his father's influence, Lewis then secured the diplomatic post of attaché at the British embassy in The Hague, where he lived from May through December 1794. Permanently separated from the boy's father in 1791, Lewis's mother had always encouraged her son to become a professional writer, and since the age of fourteen he had habitually been scribbling novels and plays. Now he began to write in earnest. Although he passed his free hours agreeably in the company of the French aristocrats who had fled the Revolution, he was generally bored with Dutch society after the lively intellectual environment of Weimar. Devoting himself to the writing of his first book, Lewis finished Ambrosio, or The Monk in 1795, and published it anonymously in the summer of 1796. Lord Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers praised the work, as did the Marquis de Sade. However, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Critical Review Savaged the best-selling novel as blasphemous and obscene.

Between 1797 and 1806 he utilised his fluency in German by publishing two German romances and two plays in translations, the most important of these being Friedrich von Schiller's play Kabale und Liebe. In 1801 he published a collection of sixty literary ballads in the manner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Tales of Wonder, which are united by their use of the supernatural: nine were by Lewis himself, and five by Sir Walter Scott. The best of the many songs he wrote for his plays appear in Twelve Ballads (1808). The last work he published during his lifetime is a collection of lyrics, Poems (1812). When Lewis inherited a considerable fortune upon his father's death in 1812, he effectively stopped publishing.

Lewis and The Drama

From 1796 through 1802 Lewis served without distinction as a member of the House of Commons; in consequence, he displayed the initials "M. P." prominently on the title-pages of books he published. From 1796 to 1812, he saw eighteen of his sensational plays published or produced on the London stage. His first-produced and most popular Gothic drama was The Castle Spectre, which, like his novels, features ghosts and murders enacted in a suitably eerie castle. Such exuberant plays held strong appeal for the prevailing popular taste in the Regency, and as melodramas "offered great scope for effective acting and lavish scenery enhanced by incidental music" (Hartnoll, 305).

In the 'grand Romantic Melo Drama' Timour the Tartar, concocted by M. G. Lewis and staged at Kemble's Covent Garden in 1811, 'a splendid combat scene exceeded all that ever had been witnessed of the kind' and 'the new performers (the horses) displayed wonderful ability.' [Frederick & Lise-Lone Marker, "Actors and Their Repertory — 'The Kemble Religion': 1776-1812," 110]

Lewis strove constantly for spectacular effect, as with a whole cavalry regiment of horses and riders for the Tartar melodrama. During its first season in London in 1797, the costume-drama The Castle Spectre had sixty performances, and was often reprised during the first half of the nineteenth century, with considerable theatrical apparatus: "sliding panels, spectres, animated suits of armour, and a misanthropic slave" (Davies, "Playwrights and Plays, 1790-1800," p. 187). Although the action occurs on the shores of Wales, Lewis even included Black attendants for his villain; in his preface to the published version, he remarked casually, "I thought it would give a pleasing variety to the characters and dresses" (cited in Davies). In Raymond and Agnes (staged at Covent Garden in 1797, and revived in 1809), Lewis demonstrates a thorough understanding of the popular taste, for consistently in his plays

Lewis serves as an excellent barometer, marking the extreme of public taste rather than its median. though the names of the characters are vaguely Spanish, the scene is the realm of Gothic romance. Agnes, the daughter of the Bleeding Nun, disguises herself as that apparition to escape from Lindenberg Castle; but the true Bleeding Nun misleads her lover, Raymond, and then, when Raymond rescues Agnes from bandits, appears to give them a spectre's blessing. There is play with drugged wine, much inexplicable vengeance and Lewis's customary lavish but ignorant use of the apparatus of Catholicism for theatrical effect. It is a measure of what the public would swallow. [Davies, "Playwrights and Plays, 1800-1810," pp. 207-208]

Though rarely staged since the nineteenth century, at the time his plays established him as Regency London's foremost dramatist. In the twentieth century, however, The Monk has been the basis for a number of films. For example, Paul McGann starred in a 1990 film version written and directed by Francisco Lara Polop. Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson's 1990 DC graphic novel Batman: Gothic owes much to the novel, with elements purloined from Don Giovanni. In 2011, another film adaptation, directed by French-German director Dominik Moll and shot in Madrid, starred Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Geraldine Chaplin, and Sergi López. A rare stage adaptation ran at Baron's Court Theatre, London, from 16 October to 3 November 2012, directed by Benji Sperring.

Lewis and Poetry

In addition to his crude but effective plays, he wrote poems such as "Alonso the Brave and the Fair Imogine," which first appeared in the third volume of the 1796 triple-decker Ambrosio; or, The Monk. That literary ballad contains the oft-quoted lines which suggest the grisly nature of Lewis's imagination:

The worms, They crept in, and the worms, They crept out,
And sported his eyes and his temples about,
​ While the Spectre addressed Imogine. [lines 53-55]​

The novel also contains the "Danish ballad" entitled "The Water-King" (based on the German poet Herder's "Der Wasserman"). "The Erl-King's Daughter" first appeared in the journal the Monthly Mirror​2 (October 1796), but Lewis included it in Tales of Wonder​ (1801).

Related Material

Lewis and The Masculine Gothic Novel

Horror in literature attains a new malignity in the work of Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818). . . . The story is one of a Spanish monk, Ambrosio, who from a state of overproud virtue is tempted to the very nadir of evil by a fiend in the guise of the maiden Matilda; and who is finally, when awaiting death at the Inquisition’s hands, induced to purchase escape at the price of his soul from the Devil, because he deems both body and soul already lost. Forthwith the mocking Fiend snatches him to a lonely place, tells him he has sold his soul in vain since both pardon and a chance for salvation were approaching at the moment of his hideous bargain, and completes the sardonic betrayal by rebuking him for his unnatural crimes, and casting his body down a precipice whilst his soul is borne off for ever to perdition. The novel contains some appalling descriptions such as the incantation in the vaults beneath the convent cemetery, the burning of the convent, and the final end of the wretched abbot. In the sub-plot where the Marquis de las Cisternas meets the spectre of his erring ancestress, The Bleeding Nun, there are many enormously potent strokes; notably the visit of the animated corpse to the Marquis's bedside, and the cabbalistic ritual whereby the Wandering Jew helps him to fathom and banish his dead tormentor. Nevertheless The Monk drags sadly when read as a whole. ​. . . . One great thing may be said of the author; that he never ruined his ghostly visions with a natural explanation. He succeeded in breaking up the Radcliffian tradition and expanding the field of the Gothic novel. ​. . . . His drama, ​ The Castle Spectre​, was produced in 1798, and he later found time to pen other fictions in ballad form​— Tales of Terror​​(1799), Tales of Wonder (1801), and a succession of translations from the German.​[Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror In Literature"]

In Ambrosio: or, The Monk, A Romance Matthew Gregory Lewis made himself a household name, or rather nickname — "Monk Lewis." He often asserted that he wrote the Gothic novel very quickly, in just ten weeks in 1796, although he was perhaps utilizing notes that he had made a year or two earlier. Achieving fame easily just before reaching the age of twenty, Lewis wrote nothing that surpassed the energy and sheer horror of this first novel. Although its plot is convoluted and salacious, it became a best-seller at the end of the eighteenth century, and has often been both imitated and adapted for the stage ever since. Since his Gothic plays found their way into the repertory of British Toy Theatre, they enjoyed a considerable after-life in children's nurseries.


Booth, Michael R., Richard Southern, Roberston Davies, and Frederick & Lise-Lone Marker. The Revels History of Drama in English, Vol. VI (1750-1880). Ed. Clifford Leech & T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975.

Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford & London: Oxford U. P., 1972.

Lovecraft, H. P. "Supernatural Horror in Literature: IV. The Apex of Gothic Romance." The Recluse, 1927.

Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis.​ Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1961.

Last modified 23 September 2017