1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lewis, Matthew Gregory
LEWIS, MATTHEW GREGORY (1775–1818), English romance-writer and dramatist, often referred to as “Monk” Lewis, was born in London on the 9th of July 1775. He was educated for a diplomatic career at Westminster school and at Christ Church, Oxford, spending most of his vacations abroad in the study of modern languages; and in 1794 he proceeded to the Hague as attaché to the British embassy. His stay there lasted only a few months, but was marked by the composition, in ten weeks, of his romance Ambrosio, or the Monk, which was published in the summer of the following year. It immediately achieved celebrity; but some passages it contained were of such a nature that about a year after its appearance an injunction to restrain its sale was moved for and a rule nisi obtained. Lewis published a second edition from which he had expunged, as he thought, all the objectionable passages, but the work still remains of such a character as almost to justify the severe language in which Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers addresses—
“Wonder-working Lewis, Monk or Bard,
Who fain would’st make Parnassus a churchyard;
Even Satan’s self with thee might dread to dwell,
And in thy skull discern a deeper hell.”
Whatever its demerits, ethical or aesthetic, may have been, The Monk did not interfere with the reception of Lewis into the best English society; he was favourably noticed at court, and almost as soon as he came of age he obtained a seat in the House of Commons as member for Hindon, Wilts. After some years, however, during which he never addressed the House, he finally withdrew from a parliamentary career. His tastes lay wholly in the direction of literature, and The Castle Spectre (1796, a musical drama of no great literary merit, but which enjoyed a long popularity on the stage), The Minister (a translation from Schiller’s Kabale u. Liebe), Rolla (1797, a translation from Kotzebue), with numerous other operatic and tragic pieces, appeared in rapid succession. The Bravo of Venice, a romance translated from the German, was published in 1804; next to The Monk it is the best known work of Lewis. By the death of his father he succeeded to a large fortune, and in 1815 embarked for the West Indies to visit his estates; in the course of this tour, which lasted four months, the Journal of a West Indian Proprietor, published posthumously in 1833, was written. A second visit to Jamaica was undertaken in 1817, in order that he might become further acquainted with, and able to ameliorate, the condition of the slave population; the fatigues to which he exposed himself in the tropical climate brought on a fever which terminated fatally on the homeward voyage on the 14th of May 1818.
The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, in two volumes, was published in 1839.