Dreams, magic terrors, spells of mighty power, Witches, and ghosts who rove at midnight hour. -- Horace
What do you think of my having written, in the space of ten weeks, a romance of between three and four hundred pages octavo? It is called 'The Monk' ... -- Mathew Lewis, letter to Frances Lewis, 23 September 1794
Mathew Lewis (1775-1818), commonly known as Monk Lewis due to his authorship of The Monk (1796), was educated at Westminster and Christ College, Oxford.
Whilst still a student at Oxford, Lewis visited Paris (1791) and Weimar (1792). In Weimar, Lewis met Goethe.
Originally published in 1795, The Monk was a sensation. It was savagely attacked by the critics for its sexual explicitness and blasphemous nature. In subsequent editions, Lewis, now a Member of Parliament, was forced to tone down the text. There was an attempted legal action against Lewis for his attack on public morality. As with all such 'obscene' publications, the public flocked to buy it in order to express their moral outrage.
Riding on the success of The Monk, Lewis embarked on a second career as a dramatist. The Castle Spectre (1798), a musical drama, was dramatised by Sheridan.
Lewis's father held large estates in Jamaica. On the death of his father (1812), Lewis inherited the estates. Although a strong opponent of slavery, Lewis did not support emancipation. On visiting the Jamaican estates, where he owned 400 slaves, Lewis implemented a number of reforms which did not endure him to his fellow estate owners.
Lewis kept a detailed journal of his estates, published posthumously as The Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (1834).
Following the inheritance of his estates and a detailed tour of inspection (1816), Lewis returned for a brief visit to England, from where he travelled on to tour the continent. In Switzerland he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Lewis returned to London (October 1817), and the following month set sail for Jamaica to check on his reforms.
On boarding a ship to return to England (May 1818), Lewis had contracted yellow fever. He died a few days later and was buried at sea.
The Monk was written when Lewis was only twenty. It was written in 10 weeks whilst he was working as a minor diplomat in The Hague. Though long sunk into obscurity, The Monk was a major sensation at the time of publication and greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade.
Literature can either reflect the times or be an opportunity for escapism. The Monk was written at the time of the French Revolution, a period of savagery and barbarity. It portrays the descent of a Capuchin superior into debauchery. Lusting after desirable young virgins and unable to satisfy his awakened sexual appetite, Ambrosio will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires, making use of magic and the service of the Devil. Ann Radcliffe softens her horror with a natural explanation, Lewis makes no such concessions.
Although only ten weeks in writing, The Monk was several years in gestation. Lewis was originally inspired to write a Gothic novel after reading in 1792 The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). He was then inspired to continue, after reading in 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823).
Sir Walter Scott was greatly influenced by Lewis's poetry, especially 'Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine', and thought that few writers 'exhibited more mastery of rhyme, or greater command over the melody of verse'. Both Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley were influenced by their reading of The Monk.
The Monk rates as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Although long forgotten, it deserves to be more widely read.
Horace Walpole (1717-1797), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Sir Robert Walpole, introduced and named the genre with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764).
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) wrote several Gothic novels, the best known being The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).
Fred Botting, Gothic, Routledge, 1996
E J Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1995
Maggie Kilgour, The Rise of the Gothic Novel, Routledge, 1995
Mathew Lewis, The Monk, ed Christopher Maclachlan, Penguin, 1998
Mathew Lewis, The Journal of a West Indian Proprietor
Andre Parraux, The Publication of The Monk: A Literary Event 1796-1798, Librairie Marcel Didier, 1960
Louis F Peck, The Life of Mathew Lewis, Harvard University Press, 1961
David Punter, The Literature of Terror, Longman, 1996
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed Bonamy Dobrée intr Terry Castle, Oxford University Press, 1998
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, ed W S Lewis intr E J Clery, Oxford University Press, 1998