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.[Notice]

  • Max Fincher

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  • Max Fincher
    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 …