Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lewis, Matthew Gregory

LEWIS, MATTHEW GREGORY (1775–1818), author of the ‘Monk,’ was born in London on 9 July 1775. His father, Matthew Lewis, was deputy secretary-at-war, and proprietor of large estates in Jamaica (see Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 396). His mother was Anna Maria, daughter of Sir Thomas Sewell, master of the rolls from 1764 to 1784. She was ‘much admired at court,’ famous for her grace in dancing minuets, and was an accomplished musician. Matthew was the eldest of four children, the others being Maria, wife of Sir Henry Lushington; Sophia, wife of Colonel Sheddon; and Barrington, who became deformed and died young from an injury to the spine. Matthew, his mother's pet companion, was a precocious child, and showed an early talent for music. After going to a school kept by Dr. Fountaine, he entered Westminster, where he distinguished himself as an actor in the ‘town boys' play,’ and afterwards went to Christ Church. While he was still a schoolboy his parents were separated. Mrs. Lewis went to France, and received a handsome allowance from her husband. Matthew showed much sense and good feeling in keeping up affectionate communications with his mother, while remaining on good terms with his father, and conveying messages between them. In 1791 (letter from Paris in ‘Life,’ p. 52, is wrongly dated 1792) he visited Paris, and a letter to his mother shows that he was already writing a farce and a novel. In the same year (his sixteenth) he wrote the ‘East Indian.’ In the summer of 1792 he went to Weimar, where he was introduced to Goethe, the ‘celebrated author of “Werter”’ (Life, i. 72). His taste for German literature either took him to Weimar or was acquired there. In any case he became a good German scholar. Goethe's ‘Sorrows of Werter’ (first translated 1779), Schiller's ‘Robbers’ (first translated 1792), had impressed him, and had become popular in England. He stayed at Weimar till the beginning of 1793, and after a visit to Lord Douglas at Bothwell Castle and the Duke of Buccleuch at Dalkeith, returned to Oxford. In 1794 he became attaché to the British embassy at the Hague. Here in ten weeks (ib. i. 133) he wrote the ‘Monk,’ having been induced to go on with it by his interest in the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794). It appeared as ‘Ambrosio, or the Monk,’ in the summer of 1795. The story was taken from ‘Santon Barsisa’ in the ‘Guardian’ (No. 148). The book hit the public taste, which had just been turned towards Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, a form of literature of which Walpole's ‘Castle of Otranto’ (1765) set the first example. The Monk's indecency provoked many protests, and the attorney-general moved for an injunction against its sale. The prosecution, however, was dropped, and in his second edition the author expunged the most objectionable passages. Meanwhile he became famous at the age of twenty, and was received in the highest society. He sat in the House of Commons from 1796 to 1802 for Hindon, Wiltshire. His father made him an allowance of 1,000l. a year. He took a cottage at Barnes about 1798 (Life, pp. 183, 222), which was ornamented according to the taste of the day, had chambers in the Albany, and lived equally with great people and with actors and musicians. He knew the Duchess of York, whom he visited at Oatlands, the Princess of Wales, and other royal personages, and, according to Scott, was a good deal too fond of the nobility. He wrote plays and a great many poems, which, if of moderate merit, show a facility of versification almost equal to Moore's. He set many of them to music. In 1798 he brought out the ‘Castle Spectre’ at Drury Lane under Sheridan's management. It was founded upon a romance (never published) written in his earliest days of authorship. It ran for sixty nights, and was long popular with lovers of ghosts, horrors, and thunderstorms.

Lewis frequently visited the fifth Duke of Argyll at Inverary, and there, according to his biographer, fell in love with the duke's daughter, Lady Charlotte, married in June 1796 to Colonel Campbell, and afterwards Lady Charlotte Bury [q. v.] A walk with her in which they met a maniac suggested his once popular ballad ‘Crazy Jane’ (ib. i. 186–7). After her marriage he continued to be her friend, and at her house he first met Scott in 1798. Scott, then unknown, was much flattered by the condescension of a recognised poet. Lewis had already, through their common friend William Erskine, asked for Scott's help in collecting the ‘Tales of Wonder.’ The book, which included contributions from Scott, Leyden, and various translations and imitations, was published with little success in 1801. Lewis also procured the publication in 1799 of Scott's translation of ‘Goetz von Berlichingen.’

In the winter of 1804–5 Lewis had a quarrel with his father, who had formed a connection with a woman in a good social position and desired his son to treat her with the respect due to a stepmother. Lewis resented the insult to his mother, and appears from his letters to have behaved with much feeling and sense. The father broke with him, and for a time reduced his allowance, though it seems to have been restored before long to the original amount (ib. i. 286, 307, 309, ii. 84). A reconciliation was not effected till shortly before the father's death on 17 May 1812. The whole property was left to the son. Lewis now became a rich man. He enabled his mother to settle in comfort at the ‘White Cottage,’ near Leatherhead. The house was furnished with such taste as to call forth the highest eloquence of the son's biographer.

Lewis wrote no more plays. He wished to inquire into the condition of the negroes upon his West Indian property. He sailed from England on 10 Nov. 1815, and landed at Jamaica on 1 Jan. 1816. He made careful arrangements for the welfare of his slaves, and left a code of rules to secure them against cruelty. He sailed for England on 31 March, and soon after landing went to visit Byron and Shelley at Geneva. While at the Maison Diodati (20 Aug. 1816) he drew up a codicil to his will, witnessed by Byron, Shelley, and Polidori, which provided that any future holder of the property should be obliged to spend three months in Jamaica every third year, in order to see that the negroes were properly treated; and he directed that none of them should be sold. He visited Florence, Rome, and Naples in the winter, and in July 1817 was again with Byron in Venice. At the end of the year he sailed again for Jamaica. After a long and stormy voyage of twelve weeks he reached it early in 1818. He sailed again for England on 4 May. He was almost immediately attacked by yellow fever, and died on 14 May 1818. He was buried at sea the same day. He left 1,000l. a year to his mother, and the rest of his estates equally between his sisters (will, dated 5 June 1812, in ‘Life,’ ii. 373–81).

Lewis, says Scott, was a man of very diminutive though well-made figure, with singular eyes, projecting like those of some insect (a portrait is prefixed to the ‘Life’). He looked like a schoolboy all his life, and retained many of the qualities of a precocious and ill-educated schoolboy. His intellectual vivacity enabled him to catch the literary fashion of the day, and his books secured a temporary success, partly due to the dash of indecency. His writings are chiefly memorable as illustrations of a temporary phase of taste, and from their influence upon Scott's first poetical efforts. Both Scott and Byron pronounce him to have been an intolerable bore, apparently from his boundless loquacity; and Byron of all people oddly complains that though a ‘jewel of a man,’ he had been spoilt by living in a bad set. His biographers have been rather needlessly surprised that with such qualities he had also many solid virtues. Benevolence and good sense often underlie much foppishness and some laxity of morals. Besides his good conduct to his parents under great difficulties, his biographer tells of many acts of generosity. Though not in favour of emancipation, Lewis was a friend of Wilberforce, and did his best for his slaves. He was accused, and apparently with some justice, of injudicious indulgence to them, and he introduced some fanciful regulations, such as an annual festival in honour of the Duchess of York. But his real goodwill is unmistakable, and Coleridge (Table Talk, 20 March 1834) says truly that his Jamaica journal is ‘delightful,’ and shows ‘the man himself’ and a much finer mind than appeared in his writings. It is an interesting document as to the state of Jamaica after the abolition of the slave-trade and before the emancipation of the negro. Lewis's works are:

  1. ‘Ambrosio, or the Monk,’ 1795.
  2. ‘Village Virtues,’ a dramatic satire, 1796.
  3. ‘The Minister,’ 1797 (from Schiller's ‘Kabale und Liebe,’ produced as ‘The Harper's Daughter’ at Covent Garden on 4 May 1803).
  4. ‘The Castle Spectre,’ 1798; first acted at Drury Lane, 14 Dec. 1797.
  5. ‘Rolla,’ a tragedy, 1799 (from Kotzebue; not acted, and superseded by Sheridan's ‘Pizarro’ from the same play).
  6. ‘Tales of Terror,’ Kelso, 1799; London, 1801(?) (republished with the ‘Tales of Wonder’ by Professor Morley in 1887. The 1799 edition, mentioned by Lowndes, is not forthcoming; that of 1801 (published at Weybridge) is very rare, and not in the British Museum. According to a writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 3rd ser. x. 508, the 1801 edition was the first; an introductory dialogue is dated 1 March 1801; and the last poem ridicules Lewis himself. It may therefore be intended as a parody of the ‘Tales of Wonder.’ A second edition appeared in 1808).
  7. ‘The Love of Gain’ (imitated from Juvenal's 13th satire), 1799.
  8. ‘The East Indian,’ a comedy, 1799 (written at sixteen (see his letters), then accepted by Mrs. Jordan, and played for her benefit, and afterwards for Mrs. Powell's, in 1799; also at Drury Lane on 24 April 1799. It afterwards appeared as ‘Rich and Poor,’ a comic opera, at Covent Garden in 1812, and at Drury Lane on 23 June 1813).
  9. ‘Adelmorn, or the Outlaw,’ romantic drama, 1800 (music by Michael Kelly; acted at Drury Lane on 4 May 1801).
  10. ‘Alphonso, King of Castile,’ tragedy, 1801; played at Covent Garden on 15 Jan. 1802.
  11. ‘Tales of Wonder,’ 1801. (The first volume is chiefly by Scott, Southey, and Lewis himself; the second reprints many familiar poems.)
  12. ‘The Bravo of Venice,’ a romance translated from the German, 1804; dramatised as ‘Rugantino,’ a melodrama, 1805, at Covent Garden in 1805.
  13. ‘Adelgitha,’ a tragedy, acted at Drury Lane on 30 April 1807.
  14. ‘Feudal Tyrants,’ a romance, translated from the German, 1807.
  15. ‘Romantic Tales,’ 1808 (many from the French and German).
  16. ‘Venoni, or the Novice of St. Mark's,’ tragedy (from ‘Les Victimes Cloîtrées’); acted at Drury Lane on 1 Dec. 1808. On a later performance (16 Feb. 1809) a ‘Monody on the Death of Sir John Moore,’ 1809, was spoken by one of the actors, and suppressed after three days by the lord chamberlain. It is given in ‘Life’ (i. 378–80).
  17. ‘One o'Clock, a musical romance,’ 1811 (altered from the ‘Wood Demon,’ acted, but only songs printed, in 1807, at Covent Garden).
  18. ‘Timour the Tartar,’ melodrama, 1812 (acted at Covent Garden on 29 April 1811; written to satisfy the manager's wish for a ‘spectacle’ with horses to rival ‘Bluebeard’ at Drury Lane, in which horses had appeared for the first time).
  19. ‘Poems,’ 1812.
  20. ‘Journal of a West Indian Proprietor,’ 1834. A ‘monodrama’ called ‘The Captive,’ being the ravings of a lunatic, which was recited by Mrs. Litchfield at Covent Garden in 1803, but failed because it sent the audience ‘into fits,’ is printed in ‘Life’ (i. 236–41). It may be read with impunity.

[Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis, 2 vols., 1839, and Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (as above); Lockhart's Scott, ch. ix.; Scott's essay On Imitation of Ancient Ballads, in Poetical Works, 1833–4; Scott's Journal, 1890, pp. 7, 95, 171; Moore's Diaries, ii. 56, 183, 301, iv. 324, viii. 43, 46, 54; Moore's Life of Byron; Genest's Hist. of the Stage, vii. 332, 414, 505, 537, 552, viii. 38, 117, 121, 236, 359.]

L. S.