Matthew Lewis hanging out with Byron and the Shelleys

Wait, what? I can’t recount how many times now I’ve read about that night at the Villa Diodati when Byron, Percy, Mary, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori were hanging out and decided to tell each other scary stories.

And after reading about this for months this is the first indication that Matthew Lewis might have been there!

In Spectres of Antiquity, James Uden writes —

“At the Villa Diodati in 1816, when Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley participated in the ghost story contest that gave rise to Frankenstein, Lewis was there — translating. He earned his keep at the villa by translating Faust, according to Lord Byron, who was ‘naturally much struck’ by the poem, though he found Lewis an argumentative bore” (Then Uden cites Byron’s Letters and Journals, which I should probably dig up.)

I still don’t have a clear picture of what daily life might have been like that summer. I’m pretty sure Byron arrived with a large retinue of servants and attendants, dogs, horses, and various animals but I need to find the references in the letters and diaries. And from looking at Mary’s journal it looks like Lewis arrived in August. The story-telling contest was in June.

Wednesday, August 14.—Read Le Vieux de la Montagne; translate. Shelley reads Tacitus, and goes out with Lord Byron before and after dinner. Lewis comes to Diodati. 

I wonder what Mary thought about MGL. (I’m about halfway through The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. It. Is. Scandalous!)

The principal characters there that summer were certainly familiar with The Monk, Lewis, and some of his other work. In this compiled list of Mary’s reading taken from her journals, we see she read Lewis’s Tales of Terror the year before that summer at Villa Diodati. However, she doesn’t make much of his visit in her journal entries. It’s not even clear if she spent time with him. Instead, it looks like she stayed at the smaller house, reading, translating, and taking care of the baby. (William was born in January of 1816.)

In 1816, at age 44, Matthew Lewis was no longer the enfant terrible but an established man of letters. He published The Monk when he was 21 and it was an instant sensation. To put the ages into context, that summer Byron was 28, Percy was about to turn 24, Mary about to turn 19, Claire had just turned 18, and John Polidori was 20. So young!

Lewis published The Monk in 1796, a year before Mary Shelley was born. In his mid-20s he met Goethe and had some conversations and some correspondence. He was a key figure in popularizing English translations of German “shudder novels” (schauerromane), as well as an important translator of German prose, poetry, and folk tales. His work and these German translations exerted a significant influence on the shaping of the Gothic genre.

I suppose in some future post I’ll unpack the chronology of events of that summer a little bit. It looks like maybe the contest was in June and Lewis’s visit was in August?

Lewis would have looked something like the following that summer. He died of yellow fever a couple of years later.

Shelley recounts some of the ghost stories Lewis told them during his visit to the Villa. Here is one of them —

A young man who had taken orders, had just been presented with a living, on the death of the incumbent. It was in the Catholic part of Germany. He arrived at the parsonage on a Saturday night; it was summer, and waking about three o’clock in the morning, and it being broad day, he saw a venerable-looking man, but with an aspect exceedingly melancholy, sitting at a desk in the window, reading, and two beautiful boys standing near him, whom he regarded with looks of the profoundest grief. Presently he rose from his seat, the boys followed him, and they were no more to be seen. The young man, much troubled, arose, hesitating whether he should regard what he had seen as a dream, or a waking phantasy. To divert his dejection, he walked towards the church, which the sexton was already employed in preparing for the morning service. The first sight that struck him was a portrait, the exact resemblance of the man whom he had seen sitting in his chamber. It was the custom in this district to place the portrait of each minister, after his death, in the church.

He made the minutest inquiries respecting his predecessor, and learned that he was universally beloved, as a man of unexampled integrity and benevolence; but that he was the prey of a secret and perpetual sorrow. His grief was supposed to have arisen from an attachment to a young lady, with whom his situation did not permit him to unite himself. Others, however, asserted, that a connexion did subsist between them, and that even she occasionally brought to his house two beautiful boys, the offspring of their connexion.—Nothing further occurred until the cold weather came, and the new minister desired a fire to be lighted in the stove of the room where he slept. A hideous stench arose from the stove as soon as it was lighted, and, on examining it, the bones of two male children were found within.

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