Lewis, Matthew Gregory (Monk Lewis)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Lewis, Matthew Gregory (Monk Lewis)

Lewis, Matthew Gregory ("Monk" Lewis) (1775-1818) English playwright and gothic fiction writer

A star of England's popular GOTHIC LITERATURE movement, Matthew Gregory Lewis become one of the first terror writers to demonize imperialism. Born to a wealthy father who became deputy secretary of war, Lewis had a lively imagination that was fueled by readings of demonology, witchcraft, melodrama, and orientalism. He favored Arabic romance in THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942), Teutonic gothic tales by JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, and Friedrich von Schiller’s romantic fiction, which he read at Oxford. He served briefly as a civil servant at the British embassy at the Hague in Holland in 1794 before abandoning his career to write professionally, a choice that enraged his father. His first novel, Ambrosio, or the Monk (1796), a lurid tale of lust and corruption in a Spanish monastery, shocked the country and became an immediate best seller, earning the approval of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and the marquis de Sade. The book’s success earned him the nickname “Monk.”

A member of Parliament from 1796 to 1802, Lewis inherited property and slaves in Jamaica after his father died. In 1815 and 1817, he traveled to Jamaica to inspect his estates and was moved by conditions there. In Journal of a West India Proprietor (published posthumously, 1834), he outlined his efforts to end the coercion and torment of Caribbean slaves. Yet of the double crimes of colonialism and bondage, he declared: “Every man of humanity must wish that slavery … had never found a legal sanction, and must regret that its system is now so incorporated with the welfare of Great Britain as well as of Jamaica, as to make its extirpation an absolute impossibility” (Lewis 1834, 402). Like other absentee landlords, he recoiled from the prospect of economic disaster following the abolition of slavery, which he did not live to witness. During a voyage home from a one-year sojourn in the West Indian colonies, he succumbed to yellow fever in May 1818, 15 years before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which emancipated slaves throughout the British Empire.

Empire As Monster

In a varied collection entitled Romantic Tales (1808), Lewis pictured the demise of English colonialism in a masterly anticolonial cautionary tale, “The Anaconda: An East Indian Tale.” Although he profited from real estate investments in a similar colony, he described the breath of the huge yellow and green she-monster as poisonous to the protagonist, Everard Brooke, an exploiter of the East Indies. Brooke encounters the massive reptile under shady palm trees in Columbo, Ceylon, where the reptilian symbol of colonialism stalks and strikes islanders. A proof of the anaconda’s power is seen when it crushes a dog, which dies from the splintering of its entire skeleton. At the discharge of a musket, the anaconda, like the threatened colonist, grows more terrifying: “Her body swelled with spite and venom, and every stripe of her variegated skin shone with more brilliant and vivid colours” (Lewis 1808, 98). An encroaching demon infuriated by resistance, the snake comes to dominate Brooke, who gradually expires from fear and despair. Ironically, his elderly servant Zadi survives entanglement in the anaconda’s coils, a proof of the resilience of an ancient Asian culture and a reward for loyalty.

The British gothic writer Roald Dahl reprised Lewis’s snake symbolism in the collection Someone Like You (1953). The story “Poison” features the paralyzing fear experienced by Harry Pope, an Englishman living in India. He lies sweating and immobile, convinced that a venomous krait (snake) is crawling across his stomach. A sensational plot for both radio and television, the reptilian contact with skin panicked fans, who anticipated Harry’s immediate death. Dahl carries the action through Dr. Ganderbai’s efforts to inoculate Harry with antivenom and to anesthetize the snake with chloroform, at which point the protagonist realizes there is no snake in his bed or under his pajamas. Harry’s humiliation in front of an Indian physician leads to a face-saving outburst that reveals the “poison” in the Englishman, a repository of racist snobbery. In outrage at the compassion of an underling, Harry spews out, “You dirty little Hindu sewer rat!” (Dahl 1992, 269). Dahl’s story, with its strong reliance on terror of the unknown, returned Lewis’s original image to television in 1980 as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.


Dahl, Roald. The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl.

India: Penguin, 1992.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory. Journal of a West India

Proprietor. London: John Murray, 1834.

----- . Romantic Tales. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808.

Wright, Julia M. Ireland, India, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.