One critic has compared reading Charles Maturin’s Melmoth to climbing Mount Everest, yet the novel continues to appeal, in part perhaps because of its role in creating a genre that is still potent in global culture –in Hollywood movies, popular music and manga animation.
Melmoth the Wanderer was written by Charles Maturin, an impoverished and mentally unstable Irish clergyman, who died – it would seem by suicide ‑ a few years after writing this novel. His Gothic masterpiece has never been out of print since it was first published in 1820, and is generally regarded as a classic of the genre.
Maturin has been acknowledged as the literary ancestor of Irish horror and fantasy writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu, Lord Dunsany and Bram Stoker – the creator of Dracula. His legacy is also evident in the work of his grand-nephew Oscar Wilde – particularly, in Wilde’s only novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray. Following his release from prison, Wilde even adopted the name of Melmoth.
Maturin’s wish to create a sense of “visionary terror” has not only been appreciated by other Irish writers. He also influenced work by Edgar Allen Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher); Pushkin (Eugene Onegin); Balzac (who wrote his own sequel to Melmoth); Baudelaire, (Histoires Grotesques); Hawthorne (who edited Melmoth); HP Lovecraft, (“The Picture in the House”) and Vladimir Nabokov, (Humbert Humbert drives Lolita across the USA in an imaginary Melmoth saloon). In more recent times, Maturin has been widely recognised as playing an important role in the development of American Gothic fiction. His contemporary champions include Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Rice – whose vampire hero Lestat sometimes uses the alias of Melmoth.
Maturin wrote at a time when Ireland was caught up in a vortex of political unrest, mass starvation, religious conflict, economic collapse and epidemic disease – and much of this turbulence surfaces, in vivid and unexpected ways, in his novel. Maturin wanted to “paint life in extremes”, and he conjured up his own paranoid vision of a disordered and hugely dysfunctional universe.
Melmoth is set in 1816: a highly significant year – both for Maturin and for Ireland. In 1815, the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies had been blown apart by a gigantic volcanic eruption, an explosion that is considered to have been the biggest in human history and which sent many millions of gaseous particles into the stratosphere. These were carried by the trade winds, and reached Ireland in the spring of 1816 ‑ where they effectively blocked the sun’s rays, and led to “the year with no summer”. Without sufficient light, the crops failed, famine ensued, and a epidemic of typhus swept through the country.
After Ireland, the country most affected by this unprecedented natural catastrophe was Switzerland. The wet, cold and dark weather conditions meant that a party of English tourists near Geneva had to spend a great deal of time indoors. To distract themselves, they began to tell each other horror stories. Among their number was Mary Shelley, and, of course, the story which she related that miserable summer would become known as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
For Maturin, 1816 was a year of great personal extremity. Lord Byron had arranged for his play Bertram to be staged in Drury Lane, in London. The lead role was taken by Edmund Kean – the leading actor of his day ‑ who delivered a bravura performance. The play proved a commercial success and earned Maturin a good deal of money. However, it also attracted the attention of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – who denounced Maturin’s work as “depraved” and “atheistical”. This was a serious charge since, at that time, atheism was considered a criminal offence. Coleridge’s scabrous reviews also helped to ensure that Maturin would receive no further preferment within the Church of Ireland.
Later that year, Maturin stood bail for one of his cousins in a sensational murder trial. His relative absconded to America, and the bail was forfeit. This reduced him to a state of penury from which he was never to recover. Indeed, in his introduction to Melmoth, he writes that the only reason he has written the book is because he is in dire financial straits. At that time, he was serving as the curate of St Peter’s Church in Dublin’s Aungier Street – which Robert Emmet had once attended. St Peter’s was then one of the most fashionable churches in Dublin – which may also have exacerbated Maturin’s awareness of his own poverty. At any rate, there can be little doubt that his financial insecurity helped to inform the sense of desperation that infuses so much of his novel.
This feeling is accompanied by an underlying fear of dispossession – of power, property and privilege – which is characteristic of other Irish Protestant writers of the period. In Maturin’s case, the neurosis is given further resonance by his French Huguenot background. He was part of the dominant religious minority in Ireland, but he was also somewhat isolated within that minority by his own history and culture. It seems more than a coincidence that a large part of Melmoth takes place in the years that immediately followed the repeal of the Edict of Nantes – the event which had led Maturin’s ancestors to seek refuge in Ireland. 1816 was the last year in which religious services were performed in French in St Patrick’s Cathedral for the Irish descendants of those Huguenot immigrants. The sense of historical loss may also help to explain Maturin’s attraction to the darker aspects of the fractured society in which he lived.
The world that emerges from Melmoth is fuelled by Maturin’s creative energy, and his writing frequently generates its own form of inchoate mania. He writes about a series of nightmares – and a variety of horrors. The Catholic Church is the subject of some of his most obsessive fantasies – attracting and repelling him in roughly equal measure. No doubt, he would have been appalled to learn that one of his grandsons would become a Jesuit priest and a prominent Catholic writer.
Perhaps above all, Maturin seems frightened by the prospect of his own encroaching insanity. In this context, it is worth noting that Ireland’s first public mental health facility also opened in 1816, and, within a few years, the asylum in Grangegorman was full to overflowing. Indeed, the incidence of insanity recorded in ireland in the 1820s was the highest in Europe.
Melmoth contains many of the features of the so-called “terrorist” school of Gothic fiction. It is deliberately written to excess, and constantly emphasises the capacity of the past to overwhelm the present, and the irrational to overcome human reason. Its sombre themes and extreme emotions allow deeply repressed thoughts to rise to the surface – which may explain the particular interest which Gothic novels like Melmoth held for Freud. It has even been claimed that modern psychoanalysis was born in the Gothic imagination.
Maturin was writing at the same time that Francisco Goya was creating his remarkable images of madness, brutality and desolation. In London, William Blake was writing and illustrating “Jerusalem” – his vision of a stupendous, impending Apocalypse. This is the context in which Maturin’s intense and claustrophobic vision may best be understood. Despite its unusual and demanding nature – one recent reviewer compared reading Melmoth to climbing Mount Everest ‑ the novel continues to appeal to modern readers. This may be, in part, because of its formative role in creating a genre that remains a potent feature of global culture – whether in Hollywood movies, popular music, or manga animation.
Perhaps the continuing appeal of this strange and disturbing book is simply because ‑ as Angela Carter once observed ‑ “we still live in Gothic times”.
David Blake Knox