LEWIS, Matthew Gregory (1775-1818), of Hermitage Cottage, Barnes and Albany, Piccadilly, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 9 July 1775, 1st s. of Matthew Lewis, chief clerk and dep. sec. at war, of 9 Devonshire Place, Upper Wimpole Street, Mdx. by Frances Maria, da. of Sir Thomas Sewell† of Ottershaw, Surr., master of the rolls. educ. at Rev. Dr Fountaine’s seminary, Marylebone; Westminster 1783-90; Christ Church, Oxf. 1790; Paris 1792; Weimar 1793. unm. suc. fa. to two estates in Jamaica 1812.
Attaché to The Hague embassy May-Dec. 1794.
‘Monk’ Lewis was intended by his father, a successful civil servant, for a diplomatic career or, failing that, to follow in his footsteps at the War Office, but he was (in his own words) ‘horribly bit by the rage of writing’. At the age of 20, he acquired literary notoriety overnight with his Gothic novel The Monk. Soon after its publication and shortly before coming of age he was returned for Hindon on the Calthorpe interest. William Beckford* at the same time ignored the pleas of Lewis’s uncle, Robert Sewell*, a fellow West India proprietor, for his interest at Hindon. On 4 Mar. 1800 Lewis’s father complained to Windham:
While those of the same official rank with myself (all my juniors) have been successful in obtaining places for life, pensions on families, seats in Parliament, advancement in station, I have the mortification of finding myself at fifty years of age, where I was at five and twenty; neither having met with, or been encouraged to expect, any thing in the shape of reward for past services; unless indeed the bringing my son into the House is to be so considered: the expense of his seat exceeded £2,600; but as I asked it I acknowledge it with gratitude, to have been a favour, especially in the manner of granting it.1
In Parliament, as the son of a warm supporter of Pitt, though an admirer of Fox (who courted him), Lewis, to quote his friend Lord Holland, ‘supported the minister and the French war. He inculcated in his writings opinions which led to a directly opposite conclusion’.2 To quote his first biographer, ‘the senate had no charms for the young poet. His parliamentary career was brief and inglorious; he never once attempted to address the House: his attendance soon became extremely irregular; and in a few years he retired from it altogether.’3 The only evidence of his presence is his appointment to four select committees, three to decide election petitions (1796-7); his vote for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798; a minority vote in favour of the ban on distillation from corn, 14 Dec. 1801, and a few words, 8 Feb. 1802, in support of the debtors relief bill: he considered ‘the severity with which many debtors were treated was a disgrace to civilization’.4
Lewis devoted the rest of his life to literature and fashionable society, particularly that of Holland House where Richard Payne Knight* met him and described him as ‘that most vapid of all vapid retailers of stale and exploded paradoxes’. A small man, he was a great egotist, ‘disliked by all man and womankind’. Having inherited over 500 slaves in Jamaica, he spent his last years visiting them and making arrangements for their welfare. Byron reported, 4 Nov. 1815:
Lewis is going to Jamaica to suck his sugar canes. He sails in two days ... he is really a good man—an excellent man—he left me his walking stick and a pot of preserved ginger. I shall never eat the last without tears in my eyes, it is so hot.
He regarded Lewis as ‘a damned bore ... he was a jewel of a man had he been better set. I don’t mean personally, but less tiresome; for he was tedious, as well as contradictory, to everything and everybody.’ On 16 Oct. 1817 when Lewis was again proceeding to Jamaica he wrote to Wilberforce asking him whether he should emancipate his slaves, having previously assigned them to Wilberforce’s care after his death. He died 14 May 1818, on his way home from his second visit to Jamaica, leaving the estates to his sisters and ‘many to regret his oddities’.5