D. L. Macdonald. Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8020-4749-1. Price US$60.00.
King's College, London
Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) is most famously remembered for The Monk (1796), one of the most influential of the Gothic novels flourishing in the late eighteenth century. The immediate popularity of the work caused Lewis to be dubbed "Monk" Lewis among the fashionable society he courted, including Byron and Sir Walter Scott. But it would be misleading to think that the interest of Lewis is limited to his contribution to English Gothic writing. As Macdonald's biography demonstrates in detail, Lewis is a writer of considerable diversity and of interest to other scholars working in different genres in the early nineteenth century. The extensive bibliography included in this volume also demonstrates through its comprehensive list of Lewis's extant manuscripts and primary and secondary sources on Lewis the true importance of Lewis's place within Romantic culture, as well as a fascinating insight into a socially vibrant personality.
The first part of Macdonald's biography argues that Lewis came from what we would now term a "broken home." His opening chapter gives a lucid account of the sexual infidelity of Lewis's mother and the separation from her husband, Matthew Lewis. His father's petition for a divorce was refused by the House of Lords in 1783 and Mrs. Lewis had an illegitimate daughter in 1782. Macdonald then gives examples of troubled marriages in Lewis's fiction and examines the ambivalent emotions Lewis felt for his mother, whom he supported by his writing. Macdonald implies a psychoanalytical interpretation of Lewis's writing and relationships without explicitly framing the discussion in these terms. Some of the conclusions he draws are open to question. For instance, he quotes from a letter which Mrs Lewis wrote while in labour with her illegitimate child which expresses a fear of being buried alive. He argues that: "The live burial of Agnes de Medina [in The Monk]... is evidently a reminiscence of his mother's terror"(7). But it is difficult to see how this could form a "reminiscence" when his father took away his wife's letters after discovering where she was living secretly in lodgings. It is more than likely Lewis never saw these letters until after his father's death in 1812. Interestingly, Macdonald also quotes in full an unpublished poem Lewis wrote about the death of Marie Antoinette, "France and England in 1793." After drawing a comparison to Lewis's literary "captives" MacDonald comments, "No doubt she reminded him of his mother" (109) without explaining why.
However MacDonald's biography breaks new ground in its detailed treatment of the issue of Lewis's sexuality, a subject which previous biographers like Louis F. Peck (who wrote the last biography in 1961) found distasteful. MacDonald quotes from two unpublished sources: Lewis's translations and parodies of Anacreon and two poems to Charles William Stewart (1778-1854), a lieutenant-colonel of the Royal Irish Dragoons. He also examines correspondence suggesting that Lewis was sexually attracted to two future prime ministers: William Lamb, later Viscount Melbourne, and the Whig MP Charles Grey, later Earl Grey. He concludes that Lewis saw these relationships as "romantic friendships" or as "homosocial" relationships (64). However this argument conflicts with his use of the term "homosexuality" elsewhere. Although it may seem anachronistic, "queer" is a more accurate idea to apply to Lewis. Macdonald analyzes the motif of cross-dressing and ambivalent gender in The Monk and Romantic Tales (1808) and mistakenly uses it as the basis for a reading of sexuality. On the contrary, the suspicion that surrounds the gender of Lewis's characterizations points towards queerness. Lewis's sexual desires and practices are arguably "queer" because they remain undefinable, ambiguous, and irreducible to a notion of sexuality as an identity defined solely through sexual bodily practices. For instance, the performativity of Matilda's gender in The Monk can be seen as an example of the discourse of camp and therefore queer. The Princess of Wales was amused by Lewis's unconvincing attempts to play the romantic lover at her dinner parties, suggesting that Lewis could consciously play different sexual roles.
Lewis records in one of his letters that the Princess of Wales told a ghost story at one of her parties. Ghost story telling was also something Lewis used to delight in. A good friend of Byron, he stayed with him at Villa Diodati in August 1816. Here he told four ghost stories which the Shelleys recorded in their journals. More importantly Lewis translated viva voce Goethe's Faust for Byron, which may have in part been Byron's inspiration for Manfred (1816). Lewis also influenced the development of Marino Faliero (1820) after Byron acted on Lewis's criticism. Lewis was also a lifelong friend and correspondent with Sir Walter Scott and offered advice and criticism on Scott's burgeoning writing career. For instance, he persuaded his publisher Joseph Bell to publish Scott's translation of Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen. Lewis included two of Scott's translations from Gottfried August Bürger in his anthology of supernatural stories, Tales of Wonder (1801).
Thus one of the strengths of this biography is the connections Macdonald underlines between Lewis and the leading cultural figures of Romanticism, both British and European, and his excellent contextualization of Lewis. In a close reading, Macdonald reassesses the importance of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) upon the composition of The Monk through the metaphor of unveiling. He situates the political and sublime implications of this metaphor via a discussion of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and the philosophical writings of Kant and Schiller (121-122). Providing a detailed analysis of The Monk, he describes the novel as an example of the 'anti-uncanny' in that events which appear to be natural turn out to be supernatural (114). There is some familiar but necessary ground covered with Coleridge's famous attack on the novel's morality in The Monthly Review in 1797, but Macdonald also widens the range of contemporary critical response. He includes for example Mary Wollstonecraft's opinions in the Analytical Review for October 1796 which showed Wollstonecraft's admiration for Matilda's seduction of Ambrosio. Macdonald also draws our attention to the success of Lewis's monodrama The Captive (1803) which was based on Wollstonecraft's novel Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798).
The detailed description of the intertexual play between Lewis's dramatic works marks a significant improvement on Peck's biography. Lewis wrote three original dramas, all tragedies: The Castle Spectre (1798), Alfonso King of Castile (1801), and Timour the Tartar (1811). He also translated and adapted European sources to produce several melodramas which were intermittently successful. For example, Venoni; or, The Novice of St. Mark's (1808) was adapted from Boutet de Monevl's Les victimes cloistreés, which depicted live burial onstage and provided a motif Lewis was to use in The Monk. One of Lewis's most popular melodramas Rugantino (1805) was based on his own The Bravo of Venice (1805), itself a translation of Abällino der Grosse Bandit (1794) by Johann Heinrich Daniel Zschokke. Kotzebue's Spaniards in Peru provided the material for Rolla; or, The Peruvian Hero: A Tragedy (1799). Lewis became notorious for the melodramatic staging of the supernatural, especially in his Gothic dramas. Macdonald often provides amusing anecdotes from Lewis's correspondence about the reception of performances. For example, audiences laughed at the ghost in Adelmorn (1801) who nearly sets fire to himself with a blazing dagger. While watching The Captive, several members of the audience fainted away in hysterics at the fate of its heroine. Meanwhile in Aurelio and Miranda, an adaptation by James Boaden of The Monk, Sarah Siddons (playing the character of Agnes) was hooted with laughter from the stage when the head of the wooden doll she was carrying struck against the wings and rolled across the stage. These details from Lewis's letters give the reader a good sense of the reception of melodrama in the period. They also reveal Lewis's sense of humour at the absurd.
Macdonald argues that the revolutionary politics of Lewis's melodramas are superficial; figures symbolizing conservative and patriarchal ideologies are reinstated in positions of power at the end of his works. Lewis referred to William Godwin as "Half a Democrate" after reading Caleb Williams (1794). Ironically, considering Lewis was elected a Member of Parliament for the borough of Hindon, Macdonald observes that Lewis "rarely bothered to vote at all" and that he "dined with the Whigs but tended to vote with the Tories" (157). Arguing that this political ambivalence is best perceived in Lewis's position as the inheritor of two slave plantations in Jamaica, Macdonald seems undecided on just how progressive Lewis's pro-abolitionist stance on slavery was. Lewis remained silent on the issue in Parliament, although in private conversation he favoured abolition. Although The Castle Spectre (1798) and The East Indian (1800) are subversive for their exploration of master-slave relations from the slave's viewpoint, Macdonald suggests that the issue of emancipation was problematic for Lewis. He concludes that the Hollands (Whig slave owners with estates in Jamaica and friends of Lewis) and Lewis "were obviously sincerer in their desire to abolish the slave trade [. . .] but they naturally wanted to be left in as advantageous a position as possible" (52). As Lewis reflects in his Journal of a West Indian Proprietor, written during his two visits in 1815-1816 and 1818, if his slaves were freed he would lose his income. He considered freeing his slaves after his death, and wrote to Wilberforce for his advice, but finally he did not leave them their freedom. Macdonald describes the journal as "a realistic, cheerful, and (within limits) humane document" (199). Lewis certainly possessed a humane attitude to his slaves. He improved their working and living conditions and banned the use of corporal punishment. But Macdonald points out passages in the journal where Lewis clearly thought of his slaves in quantitative or animalistic terms, which draws a more ambivalent portrait of Lewis. MacDonald's analysis of the images of death which occur in Lewis's descriptions of Jamaica also underlines Lewis's idea of Jamaica as a fascinating but deadly landscape which inspired him with fear.
Byron reported that Lewis picked a deliberate quarrel with Madame de Staël about the slave trade at one of his parties, and Macdonald cites this as evidence that Lewis could be perversely "argumentative" even with close friends. He also characterises Lewis as snobbish, quoting Scott: "he had always dukes and duchessess in his mouth" (103). But Macdonald's generous quotation of Lewis's letters also reveal a loyal friend. Byron characterised him as "'a good and good-humoured man, but persistently prolix and paradoxical and personal'" (188). When Lewis contracted yellow fever on his return from his second voyage to Jamaica he was buried at sea. The coffin floated to the surface and "it was last seen heading back towards Jamaica" (210). Lewis's irrepressible energy to live still wanted to keep going.
|Title Reviewed:||D. L. Macdonald. Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8020-4749-1. Price US$60.00.|
|Journal:||, Number 28, November 2002|
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