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Authors: Matthew Lewis

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The Monk

BOOK: The Monk

2002 Modern Library Paperback Edition

Biographical note, notes, and reading group guide
copyright © 2002 by Random House, Inc.
Introduction copyright © 2002 by Hugh Thomas

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

and the
Design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Lewis, M. G. (Matthew Gregory), 1775–1818.
The monk / Matthew Lewis; introduction by Hugh Thomas.
p.   cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-76978-7
1. Monks—Fiction. 2. Madrid (Spain)—Fiction. I. Title.

PR4887 .M7 2002
823′.7—dc21         2001044908

Modern Library website address:



Matthew Gregory Lewis, born in London on July 9, 1775, led a short but full life as a novelist, playwright, translator, poet, and humanitarian that was often clouded by his notorious and sensational talent for gothic romance. After his parents separated, Lewis was raised by his father, a War Office secretary who owned plantations in Jamaica. Although his mother encouraged young Lewis’s writing abilities from afar, later acting as his literary agent, his father sought a diplomatic career for him. After following in his father’s footsteps through Westminster School and Christ Church College at Oxford, and traveling to Paris and Weimar, Germany, the multilingual Lewis became an attaché to the British Embassy in Holland in 1794.

During his travels, Lewis had already begun to write songs and plays, some of which would not be published for years, in an effort to financially support his mother. Lewis later claimed that, at nineteen, bored by his work at The Hague, he wrote
The Monk
in ten weeks; he later wrote of the novel, “I am myself so much pleased with it that, if the booksellers will not buy it, I shall publish it myself.” When he returned to England in late 1794, his father tried, unsuccessfully, to get him appointed to the War Office; meanwhile, he continued to write.
The Monk
was published in 1796, anonymously in the first edition, just as Lewis entered the House of Commons. Later editions acknowledged Lewis as the author of this frightening tale of a monk gone astray, and the book brought him wealth, fame, and a nickname: “Monk” Lewis. Many critics, however, most notably Samuel Coleridge, found Lewis’s debut—which blends sex and religious scandal—guilty of immorality, blasphemy, and plagiarism.

The Monk
did not directly affect Lewis’s political career, he was more interested in his role as a literary socialite and was ineffectual during his six years in Parliament. Those years were perhaps well spent in penning plays that reinforced Lewis’s reputation for macabre writing. Between 1796 and 1802, a host of his dramas were published and/or produced for stage at the Drury Lane or Covent Garden Theatre, including
Village Virtues: A Dramatic Satire, The Minister: A Tragedy, The Castle Spectre: A Drama, The Twins; or, Is It He, or His Brother?, The East Indian, Rolla; or, The Peruvian Hero, Adelmorn, the Outlaw: A Romantic Drama
, and
Alfonso, King of Castile: A Tragedy
. The plays, some of which were translations, often reflected a gothic sensibility, especially the widely popular
The Castle Spectre

During those years, Lewis also dabbled in poetry, a form he had successfully incorporated into the narrative of
The Monk
. In 1799, he published a satire,
The Love of Gain: A Poem
, and in 1801, he combined original and translated poems of supernatural subject matter by himself and other authors, such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, in an anthology titled
Tales of Wonder
. Critics continued to praise Lewis’s poetry, but his poor attribution skills led some to charge him as a plagiarist once again.

Although Lewis endured the death of his brother and a break with his father in the early 1800s, he continued to compose plays, poetry, and prose, to mixed reviews. His gruesome play
The Captive: A Scene in a Private Mad-House
was performed at Covent Garden in 1803, followed by a reincarnation of
The Minister
The Harper’s Daughter; or, Love and Ambition. Rugantino; or the Bravo of Venice
, a translation, played to favorable audiences at Covent Garden in 1805. In April 1807, two dramas were produced at Drury Lane:
The Wood Daemon; or, “The Clock Has Struck”
(a scenic romance whose title was later changed to
One O’Clock: or, the Knight and the Wood Daemon)
Adelgitha; or, The Fruits of a Single Error: A Tragedy
, a historical play that was successful both in publication and on stage. Lewis’s translation of a terrifying French play involving monks and nuns,
Venoni; or, The Novice of St. Mark’s: A Drama
, was produced at Drury Lane in 1808. His elaborately staged
Timour the Tartar; A Grand Romantic Melo-Drama in Two Acts
was well liked by audiences in 1811. Much of his other writing during this period consisted of translations, rewrites, and ephemeral ballads.

The year 1812 marked a turning point for Lewis. His collection of sentimental poetry, simply titled
, was published then; he had resolved to give up fiction writing. That same year, the death of his father brought about major changes in his life. In particular, a large inheritance made Lewis, who advocated abolition, a wealthy owner of land and slaves in Jamaica and set the stage for his remaining years.

Lewis took his first journey to Jamaica in 1815 to inspect his estate, and during the two-month voyage, he began a journal that surveyed the land and people of the island. He stayed in Jamaica for more than a year before sailing back to England, at which time he completed a gothic poem, “The Isle of Devils.” He traveled farther on to Italy, where he socialized with family and literary friends Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. His concern for the treatment of his slaves, however, grew more intense, and Lewis returned to Jamaica in 1817 to set in motion a list of reforms. Lewis continued to keep his journal, a perceptive and lively account of his voyages and estate life, which he hoped to publish back in England. Sadly, he contracted yellow fever just before he set sail for home and died and was buried at sea on May 14, 1818. His memoir was finally published fifteen years later, as
Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica
. It was much praised.

Showcasing Lewis’s range in two vastly different styles,
The Monk
and the
are now considered his greatest contributions to literature—
The Monk
as a significant novel in the English gothic movement, and the
as an important social and humanitarian document.

Hugh Thomas

What an extraordinary book it is!
The Monk
is well written, it is salacious, it is passionate, it is exciting, it is violent, and it is often very amusing. I do not quite know what the purpose of the book is, but then, what actually is the purpose of
Treasure Island
? The novel captures one’s imagination. When I was reading it recently, I took it to church, thinking that there might be a moment when nothing was happening and I could see whether the hero might escape from that terrible cottage near Strasbourg where he and his attendants had been caught by murderers in the middle of the night. Lewis would, I think, have been amused by this scene.

There are two remarkable points about
The Monk
. The first is that its author was only nineteen years of age when he wrote it—an astounding achievement. The second is that he seems to have written it rather fast: in ten weeks. Its success was the making of its author, who ever afterward was known in London as “Monk Lewis.”

This success occurred in March 1796, though some copies of the book printed in 1795 have apparently been found. England was at war with France in those days, and had been so since 1793. The government of William Pitt the Younger had at that point immediately embarked upon policies that sought to prevent the contagion of French revolutionary ideas, and must therefore be seen as having become a rather reactionary administration. Habeas corpus was suspended, for example, and the Traitorous Correspondence Bill was passed. The first attempts to abolish the slave trade in Britain, embarked upon by William Wilberforce in the House of Commons with the motion “This House advocates the abolition of the slave trade,” had come to an end in 1792 with the insertion of the word “gradual” before the word “abolition.” This philanthropic endeavor was also a casualty of the war with France.

The United States, meantime, was drawing to the end of the administration of George Washington. He would be succeeded next year by the vice president, John Adams. The most remarkable event of recent years had been the introduction by Eli Whitney of the cotton gin, which rendered so profitable the cultivation of short staple cotton in the American South. So far as Europe is concerned, the worst stage of the French Revolution was over and the Directory had been formed. The final suppression of the royalist counterrevolution in La Vendée occurred in the month when
The Monk
appeared. This too was when the promising young general Bonaparte married Josephine de Beauharnais, one of the lights of Parisian society.

Matthew Lewis’s father had a sugar plantation at Savanna la Mer, in the far west of the island of Jamaica. In the eighteenth century, this property employed about four hundred slaves. Thanks to this investment and others, Lewis, like his father, was always able to enjoy a private income. The father returned to England and became both chief clerk in the War Office and deputy secretary of war, posts that he held throughout what was for England the disastrous American war. Lewis’s mother was also of a family with property in Jamaica; indeed, their land and that of the Lewises adjoined.

Lewis was brought up in England and sent to the well-known school of Westminster, in the shadow of the houses of Parliament and of Westminster Abbey. He then went to Oxford. Many of his holidays were spent at Stanstead Hall, Montfichet, Essex, then the seat of the Sewells, his mother’s family. It was an Elizabethan house, and in the twentieth century it would belong to the statesman Rab Butler and his family. Here, probably, Lewis gained his appetite for ghosts, doors and windows that fly open without being touched, and winds that sound like screams.

While Lewis was at Westminster, his parents separated. Lewis devoted much time to trying to prevent the break between them from becoming absolute. This endeavor failed. Meantime, he traveled in France, Holland, and Germany (where he met Goethe) and wrote a great deal: plays principally, but also some novels. He told his mother that he wrote
The Monk
in the summer of 1794, being then nineteen years old. It was an immediate success, if a
succès de scandale:
and attempts were made to prohibit it, an action that only enhanced the book’s circulation. Lewis became famous.

For a time, everything went well for him. He was elected to Parliament for Hindon, Wiltshire, and lived in the fashionable Albany block of apartments in Piccadilly. He was taken up by the Whig hostess Lady Holland and often visited Holland House in Kensington, the great Whig headquarters. He came to know everyone worthwhile, from Walter Scott to Byron. A letter to his mother of August 1797 indicates his social success: “I was unexpectedly summoned to Oatlands [the house of the king’s second son, the Duke of York] on Saturday last; where I remained till the end of this week and during my absence my letters were all kept for me at Stoke park.… The party at Oatlands was very large, and very gay. We had excellent music every night and the Egham races every morning. But unluckily I was so extremely ill the whole time with head-achs
and a vile stomach complaint that I could enjoy nothing.… The Duke of Clarence [brother of the Duke of York and the future King William IV] (to whom I had never been presented nor had even dined in his company) came up to me on the Racecourse and called me ‘Lewis’
tout court
, talked to me as familiarly as if he had known me all my life and, before we parted, he told me that he meant to ask the Spanish deputies to dinner and that, as I was a man of romance and sentiment he should invite me.… Dinner is on the table so I must go and dress.”

Lewis remained, however, rather childish in appearance and never married, raising doubts as to his true sexual proclivities. He never wrote anything comparable to
The Monk
, though one of his juvenile plays was eventually performed by Sheridan at Drury Lane.

After abandoning the House of Commons, he went to visit his property in Jamaica and made arrangements for, he thought, the good treatment of his slaves, providing in his will that his heir should have to spend at least three months there every three years, to ensure that these arrangements continued after his death. He visited Byron and Shelley in Italy, but died of yellow fever in 1818 when returning from another visit to Jamaica. His last letter to his mother recalls that he had done all in his power “to secure the poor creatures [the slaves] against further ill-usage.”

Lady Holland said of him: “He is little in person, rather ugly and shortsighted, upon the whole not engaging.” Byron wrote, “Lewis was a good man—a clever man—, had he been better set.” He concluded, “I would give many a sugar cane/were Monk Lewis alive again.” Byron also thought that Lewis resembled Madame de Staël: “both obstinate, clever, odd, garrulous, and shrill.”

The Monk
was obviously influenced by the Gothic novels popular at the time. It was the kind of work that the heroine of Austen’s
Northanger Abbey
read to excess. It appears to me, however, to be superior to all of these. The character of Ambrosio the abbot, for example, is a remarkable feat, as is that of his fellow villain, the prioress of the Carmelite convent. Ambrosio’s fall from proud and successful churchman, loved and praised for his sermons, is brilliantly conveyed. The characters of the women, Antonia and Agnes as well as Margarita, ring true too. The heroes, Lorenzo and Raymond, also live in these pages, whatever curious things their author makes them do.

Several of the scenes remain in the mind very vividly: the seduction or, rather, the surrender of Matilda/Rosario, as well as the rape of the charming Antonia. The scenes in the sinister cottage near Strasburg are compelling, as are all the horrible occurrences underground in the Carmelite cemetery. The angry mob of ordinary people at the end of the book constitutes an alarming foretaste of what the nineteenth century would bring to established institutions such as convents and monasteries.

The plot and subplot nearly become detached from each other, but in the end they do not. The only complaint that I would make is that Lewis’s picture of Madrid is as eccentric as his rendering of Spanish names. But, of course, Madrid in
The Monk
is not intended to bear any real resemblance to the Spanish capital: It is an imaginary city of fantasy, just as
Duke of Medinaceli has nothing to do with the nobleman who rejoiced in that great name at the time. I am sure that the novel will continue to have a long life among discerning readers of novels, and not just students of literature.

(Lord Thomas of Swynnerton) is widely known for his work on the history of Spain, including his epic masterpiece
The Spanish Civil War
, available as a Modern Library Paperback. He is currently working on a book on the history of the Spanish Empire, to be published by Random House.

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