Tuesday 9 July 2013

Bleeding Nuns and Gothic Monsters: Matthew "Monk" Gregory Lewis

Matthew Gregory Lewis (London, England, 9th July 1775 – Died at sea, 16th May 1818)

Portrait of Matthew Gregory Lewis by Henry William Pickersgill
Matthew "Monk" Gregory Lewis by Henry William Pickersgill, 1809

There are few things guaranteed to annoy grandma Gilflurt more than literature of a scandalous nature so when she caught me at a very tender age with a copy of The Monk clutched to my bosom, barely five seconds elapsed before said book was confiscated and I was dispatched to bed without my posset. Being a resourceful lass it wasn't long before another copy was hidden under the attic floorboard and I've never been without it since.

The contents of The Monk may have caused a scandal upon its publication in 1796, but the early life of its author was far from uneventful in itself. When Lewis was just six years old his mother eloped with her lover, changing her name and eventually bearing a child. Though his father started divorce proceedings, his petition was rejected by the House of Lords and the couple were to remain legally bound and utterly estranged until his father died in 1818.

As a boy Lewis enjoyed an extensive education and travelled widely in preparation for a career in the diplomatic service like that of his father. However, the lure of the theatre became increasingly more attractive than that of the War Office and he began writing plays and submitting them for production. Not content with the stage, he produced novels, translated poetry and even wrote an opera! Posted to the Hague, his burgeoning diplomatic career enabled him to mix with the society he so enjoyed and the money from his literary pursuits was sent on to support his mother in her own writing.

I have always found the Dutch a most charming people but for one reason or another they were not to our hero's liking and he occupied his time with writing, eventually producing the novel that would bring him the literary celebrity, or notoriety, that he so desired.

Ambrosio, or The Monk by Anon was an overnight, scandalous smash when it was published in 1796. Hugely controversial for the explicit nature of its horrors, the book was subsequently banned and immediately became even more popular. By now a Member of Parliament, Lewis made sure that the second edition carried not only his name but also the suffix, MP. He did make a number of cuts to the more lurid content but his reputation for horror was already made and Lewis found fans in the Shelleys as well as that infamous chap, the Marquis de Sade. There are one or two tales of de Sade that one of the better-travelled Gilflurt aunties can tell but I am forbidden to share them - she is saving them up for dotage money!

By the time of the fourth edition he had censored the book even further yet its mystique remained; stripped of sentimentality, Monk's forays into gothic literature leave little to the imagination. His is a world where Bleeding Nuns virtually drip from the page, where the supernatural is not a briefly glimpsed shadow but an intruder into the physical world, ugly, solid and undeniably real. Not for him the diaphanous spectres of Radcliffe, these are spirits who have very definite business with the living.

Followed by accusations of immorality, unoriginality and plagiarism in his work, he remained popular through his life and is still recognised as an important figure of the gothic horror genre. Though The Monk was Lewis's only novel he produced a number of other works, none of which have endured in the public consciousness like that first, horrifying foray into gothic.

In fact, the corpse of Matthew "Monk" Lewis did not rest easy after death but that is a story for another time and you can read of it here. It is a suitably unorthodox end for the gentleman in question!

I still like to revisit The Monk once the nights draw in; in fact, I'm sure I saw a copy hidden in grandmother Gilflurt's reticule. She's a dark horse, that one...


Stephen Barker said...

I believe his play 'The Castle Spectre' was performed some years ago at Richmond.

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, I would like to have seen that!

Mari Christian said...

What a beautifully told tale.Thank you so much. I love the Gothic.Dr Polidori, Lord Byron's friend and guest wrote, a rather wonderful novella, "The Vampyre". it doesn't surpass fellow guest's "Frankenstein", but it began a whole genre of fangs and blood.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you! I love the Gothic too, and Polidori is a favourite!

Unknown said...

I have his Journal of a West India Proprietor. It shows him as quite a sympathetic character. Of course it was concern for his WI property that made him take the journey which then shortened his life.

Catherine Curzon said...

He's always been a favourite of mine.