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Lewis, Matthew G. (1775-1818)  

Matthew Lewis's scandalous masterpiece, The Monk, is one of the great works in the gay and lesbian literary tradition.

Matthew "Monk" Lewis was born to a fairly prosperous family of some distinction. His father, who deeply loved his son, was England's Deputy Secretary at War; and his mother, also deeply loving, was literary, musical, and in all things encouraging to her son. Lewis's parents divorced when the boy was six years old, and throughout his life he acted as emissary between them.

He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, and after leaving university, at eighteen, he went to The Hague to pursue a diplomatic career, at the same time convinced that he had a future as a writer. During his six months in The Hague, he composed his scandalous masterpiece The Monk (1795), which earned him the nickname that lasted until his death.

After that "succès de scandale," Lewis was appointed to Parliament, and he served as a member of the House of Commons from 1796 to 1802. As a member of Parliament, he received special censure for his novel, but his heart was not in politics, and he spent most of the time after the publication of The Monk working on other literary products, one of which, The Castle Spectre (1797), was a huge success on the stage.

Chief among his attachments was his love for William Kelly, the ne'er-do-well son of Mrs. Kelly, an author with whom he corresponded, and to whom he offered various kinds of financial aid, among them the cost of educating her son. Lewis was involved with William for fifteen years, and though there is no proof of sexual involvement, Lewis did include the younger man in his will and speak of him always in affectionate, if frustrated terms.

The question of Lewis's "homosexuality" has been debated by his biographers, such as Summers and Peck, but surely they have been asking the wrong questions. That Lewis was of an unconventional sexual makeup is clear in his life as well as his works.

But whether or not anything about Lewis's own sexual behavior can be proved, The Monk is one of the great works in the gay and lesbian literary tradition. It is the story of frustrated desire expressed, at first anyway, as male-male love. Ambrosio, the hero of the novel, is a handsome monk above reproach in his private affairs. Then suddenly he finds himself involved with the emotions of a young (male) novice, whom he befriends and who becomes more and more tormenting to his solace.

George E. Haggerty


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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century

Throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century, sodomitical characters were both presented and pilloried in literature.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Romanticism

Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

literature >> Overview:  Gothicism

The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds, including male and female homosexuality.

literature >> Overview:  Novel: Gay Male

Since World War II, the gay male novel has progressively flourished in England and especially in America.


Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron's Letters and Journals. Leslie Marchand, ed. 12 vols. London: John Murray, 1973-1982.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Haggerty, George E. "Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis." Studies in the Novel 18 (1986): 341-352.

Marchand, Leslie. Byron: A Biography. 3 vols. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Rousseau, G. S. "The Pursuit of Homosexuality in the Eighteenth Century: 'Utterly Confused Category' and/or Rich Respository." Eighteenth-Century Life 9 (1985): 132-168.

Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel. London: Fortune, 1938.


    Citation Information
    Author: Haggerty, George E.  
    Entry Title: Lewis, Matthew G.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 12, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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