Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer

In 1816, John Melmoth, a Dublin student, visits his miserly uncle on his deathbed. He finds a portrait dated 1646 hidden in his uncle’s closet depicting a mysterious ancestor with eyes ‘such as one feels they wish they had never seen.’ At his uncle’s funeral, a servant tells John an old family story about a stranger called Stanton who arrived looking for ‘Melmoth the Traveller’ decades earlier…

It must be remembered, that at this period, and even to a later, the belief in astrology and witchcraft was very general. Even so late as the reign of Charles II. Dryden calculated the nativity of his son Charles, the ridiculous books of Glanville were in general circulation, and Delrio and Wierus were so popular, that even a dramatic writer (Shadwell) quoted copiously from them, in the notes subjoined to his curious comedy of the Lancashire witches. It was said, that during the life-time of Melmoth, the traveller paid him a visit; and though he must have then been considerably advanced in life, to the astonishment of his family, he did not betray the slightest trace of being a year older than when they last beheld him. His visit was short, he said nothing of the past or the future, nor did his family question him. It was said that they did not feel themselves perfectly at ease in his presence. On his departure he left them his picture, (the same which Melmoth saw in the closet, bearing date 1646), and they saw him no more. Some years after, a person arrived from England, directed to Melmoth’s house, in pursuit of the traveller, and exhibiting the most marvellous and unappeasable solicitude to obtain some intelligence of him. The family could give him none, and after some days of restless inquiry and agitation, he departed, leaving behind him, either through negligence or intention, a manuscript, containing an extraordinary account of the circumstances under which he had met John Melmoth the Traveller (as he was called).

The manuscript and portrait were both preserved, and of the original a report spread that he was still alive, and had been frequently seen in Ireland even to the present century, –but that he was never known to appear but on the approaching death of one of the family, nor even then, unless when the evil passions or habits of the individual had cast a shade of gloomy and fearful interest over their dying hour.

It was therefore judged no favourable augury for the spiritual destination of the last Melmoth, that this extraordinary person had visited, or been imagined to visit, the house previous to his decease – Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, Chapter II, (1820).

Charles Robert Maturin (1782 – 1824) was an Irish novelist and dramatist, nowadays mostly remembered as the author of the remarkable and idiosyncratic gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the tale of an immortal who plays at once both Faust and Mephistopheles as he roams time and space in search of a human being wretched enough to assume his burden so that he might break his satanic pact. The author of this fragmented masterpiece of gothic excess and Christian allegory was himself an Anglican clergyman, who wrote under the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy to protect his ecclesiastic reputation. ‘In Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer,’ wrote literary historian Walter Raleigh in The English Novel (1905), ‘the Romantic orgy reached its height.’

Maturin was born in Dublin on September 25, 1780, the only surviving child of William Maturin and Fidelia Watson; he was raised as a strict Calvinist, his family being descended from a Huguenot minister who had left France as a refugee after Louise XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (a law granting Protestants the freedom to worship, and the historical period that preoccupies Melmoth the Wanderer). Maturin studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a classical medallist, graduating BA in 1800. In 1803 he was ordained and appointed to the curacy of Loughrea in Galway, marrying the singer Henrietta Kingsbury in the same year. Maturin became the curate of St. Peter’s in Dublin in 1806, a position he held until his death eighteen years later, despite his desire for advancement in the Church. His first novel was an ambitious gothic number entitled Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio (1807), which draws upon the codes of the eighteenth century gothic tradition while also reflecting more contemporary English Romanticism, and which attracted the favourable critical attention of Sir Walter Scott. The two authors began a correspondence that lasted until Maturin’s death, although they never met in person. This was succeeded by some more restrained romances, exhibiting the author’s Irish nationalism in the manner of Maria Edgeworth and his friend and fellow Dublin novelist Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson). After the success of Lady Morgan’s romance The Wild Irish Girl (1806), Maturin produced The Wild Irish Boy in 1807, which was followed by The Milesian Chief (1812), and the pseudo-satire Women; or Pour et Contre (1818); taken together, these works offer an often insightful social critique of Ireland after the 1801 Act of Union.

Charles Robert Maturin

During this period, and indeed his whole life, Maturin’s only major literary success was his tragedy Bertram, or the Castle of St Aldobrand (1816), which was produced by Edmund Kean (who took the title role) at Drury Lane on the recommendation of Scott and Byron. Unfortunately, Maturin did not keep most of the £1000 he earned from this production. He was by then supporting his extended family after his father had been unfairly dismissed from a comfortable position in the Post Office in 1809, and had also recklessly stood surety for another relative in 1810. The principal had gone bankrupt, leaving Maturin liable for the sum guaranteed. It is more than likely, therefore, that the lamentable ‘Tale of Guzman’s Family’ in Melmoth the Wanderer – in which the heir to a wealthy Spanish merchant descends into poverty and madness, almost killing his family to save them from destitution – may in part, at least, ironically allude to Maturin’s own. Maturin was also forced to abandon his anonymity in order to capitalize on his success, which irrevocably damaged his ecclesiastical career. Coleridge, whose own work had been passed over in favour of Maturin’s at Drury Lane, launched a sustained attacked Bertram for its allegedly atheist sentiments, and Maturin’s next plays, Manuel (1817), and Fredolfo (1819), were humiliating failures. Unable to support his growing family on a modest curate’s salary, Maturin was forced to write to survive, a condition he laments at length in the Preface to Melmoth the Wanderer.

Melmoth the Wanderer is Maturin’s return to the gothic genre which his letters to Scott show that he loved, although his stated desire to ‘out-Herod all the Herods of the German school’ and the infernal excesses of the novel indicate more of an allegiance to the horror of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis than to the suspenseful tales of Mrs. Radcliffe. It is a Faustian tale, a variation on the myth of the ‘Wandering Jew’ (with which William Godwin had also engaged in St. Leon in 1799), and its fragmented, polyphonic narrative has much in common with Mary Shelley’s equally metaphysical Frankenstein (1818). Through a series of nested and inter-related narratives ranging across centuries, comprising witness testimonies, traveller’s tales and damaged found manuscripts, the contemporary protagonist, John Melmoth, learns by degrees of the exploits of his damned ancestor until the ‘Wanderer’ appears in the present of the text, only to die due to his failure to find a single person willing to change places as the novel itself finally collapses under its own weight. The book as a whole is deeply anti-Catholic, reflecting the author’s very serious religious views, which he later published in Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church, (1824). The text is divided into the following narratives:

  • John Melmoth’s narrative. This frames the text and ultimately converges with the various stories of the ‘Wanderer’ when he appears in person at the novel’s climax.
  • ‘Stanton’s Tale.’ Found by John, this manuscript describes his first encounter with Melmoth, who is laughing at the sight of two lovers who have been struck by lightning, and the subsequent family catastrophes that attend his reappearance.
  • Alonzo Monçada’s story: ‘The Tale of the Spaniard.’ Monçada is the sole survivor of a shipwreck John sees as a prophetic dream. Rushing to the wreck he almost drowns and is saved by Monçada, a prisoner of the Inquisition, who concludes his story on meeting a Jewish scholar called Adonijah who compels him to transcribe a manuscript in return for food.
  • ‘The Tale of the Indians’ is the story Monçada transcribed, set on an exotic island between 1680 and 1684. Here, the ‘Wanderer’ has his most visible role, attempting to seduce the innocent castaway Immalee, much as the serpent tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden. Immalee is reunited with her family in Madrid, becoming once more ‘Isidora.’ Melmoth reappears and the couple elope and marry. Her father pursues, and is waylaid by a stranger at an inn who tells him The Tale of Guzman’s Family.’ He falls asleep, and when he awakes the stranger has been replaced by Melmoth, who tells him another story, ‘The Lover’s Tale,’ before the narrative arc of ‘The Tale of the Indians’ resumes.
  • ‘The Wanderer’s Dream.’ Monçada and John are then interrupted by the appearance of Melmoth the Wanderer himself, who confesses that his damned and extended life is almost at an end, and that he has never successfully tempted another, lamenting that ‘I have traversed the world in the search, and no one to gain that world, would lose his own soul!’ He asks John and Monçada to leave him alone, but they hear terrible sounds from the room; when they break in, it is empty. They follow Melmoth’s footprints to the top of a cliff, and see his handkerchief on a crag below them, ‘the last trace of the Wanderer!’ The novel ends with: ‘Melmoth and Monçada exchanged looks of silent and unutterable horror, and returned slowly home.’

Gothic fiction, of course, thrives on this type of multiple point of view in order to undermine set interpretation and unsettle the reader. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, is framed by Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, while the main body of the text is Victor Frankenstein’s confession, which is, in turn, annexed mid-point by the first person narrative of his creature. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), meanwhile, offers a third person frame plus ‘Dr Lanyon’s Narrative’ and ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is the most narratologically eclectic of all, comprising:

  • Jonathan Harker’s Journal
  • Letters from Lucy Westenra to Mina Harker
  • Mina Harker’s Journal
  • Newspaper cuttings
  • A long letter from Dr. Seward to Arthur Holmwood
  • Lucy Westernra’s Diary
  • Dr Seward’s Diary
  • Professor Van Helsing’s notes, recorded on a phonograph

This level of narrative fragmentation functions within gothic fiction as a series of competing frames of explanation, creating a tension between natural and supernatural possibilities, like a series of witness testimonies in a complicated murder trial. Multiple points of view are also a feature of postmodern narratives, where the unstable nature of the Self (the individual subject) is reflected in the instability of the text, classic examples being Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the early novels of Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49, V, and Gravity’s Rainbow – and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Trilogy,’ Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  

Neither Melmoth the Wanderer nor Maturin’s following and final novel, The Albigenses (1824), had much critical or commercial impact in their own day, and the author died in poverty on October 30, 1824. Melmoth the Wanderer was, however, adored in France. Balzac even wrote a sequel, Melmoth Reconcilié in 1835, suggesting that if only Melmoth had looked in Paris, he would have been overwhelmed by ‘takers’ willing to accept immortality for the price of their soul. In France, therefore, Maturin was accorded similar literary status to Edgar Allan Poe, and when Oscar Wilde (a descendent of Maturin), travelled there on his release from prison he called himself ‘Sebastian Melmoth,’ the name being still loaded with meaning in fin-de-siècle Paris.

Melmoth the Wanderer is often cited as the last of the ‘original’ eighteenth century Gothic novels, ending a cycle that began with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764; yet the book and its author are much more elusive. Like Frankenstein, we might instead argue that Melmoth the Wanderer is a significant marker in the developing Protestant, Romantic and gothic trend towards the psychological, the turning-inward of narrative in nineteenth century literature, a process expanded by later gothic writers, most notably James Hogg, Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. Maturin’s noisy, Shandyesque combination of comedy, tragedy, the grotesque and the sublime also remains unique, his ‘moral’ more fluid than he perhaps intended. In anticipation of the existential condition of postmodern humanity, Maturin’s masterwork is a shadow falling forward over the fragmented, ontologically uncertain narratives of Kafka, Pynchon, and, more recently, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the structure of which owes much to Melmoth the Wanderer. What stays with us, therefore, above all else is the echo of Melmoth’s maniacal but ambivalent laughter.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, edited by Chris Murray (2003). The full text of Melmoth the Wanderer can be found here.


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1 thought on “Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer”

  1. Very interesting, Not a book I’d previously heard about but, having enjoyed The Monk, I’ll add this to my Gothic reading list,

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