Maturin, Charles Robert (1780 - 1824)

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(1780 - 1824)

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy) Irish novelist and playwright.

Maturin is remembered primarily for his novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which is considered among the finest examples of Gothic fiction in the English language. By virtue of its complicated revenge plot, seemingly supernatural phenomena, and use of landscape to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense, Melmoth the Wanderer is strongly reminiscent of the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis. Critics distinguish it from the works of these earlier writers, however, by its attention to the psychology of despair and the torments of religious doubt. More popular in France than in England or Ireland, Melmoth the Wanderer exercised a great influence on nineteenth-century French writers. Maturin's most notable French admirer, Honoré de Balzac, was so impressed with the novel that he wrote a sequel to it entitled Melmoth reconcilié.


Maturin was born in Dublin, where he spent most of his life. He graduated from Trinity College in 1800 and in 1803 was ordained a minister of the Church of England. After a brief apprentice-ship as curate of the county parish of Loughrea, Galway, where he became familiar with the Irish peasantry that he later wrote about in such novels as The Wild Irish Boy (1808) and The Milesian Chief (1812), Maturin went to St. Peter's Church in Dublin, where he served as curate for the rest of his life. Although Maturin greatly preferred the fashionable St. Peter's to the rural parish in Loughrea, he found it impossible to support his wife and family on his meager salary. In order to supplement his income, he embarked on a literary career. Fearful of jeopardizing his chances for advancement within the Church, Maturin published his first three novels, Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio (1807), The Wild Irish Boy, and The Milesian Chief, under the pseudonym of Dennis Jasper Murphy.


While critics consider Lewis's influence evident in the abundance of horrible details in Fatal Revenge, they attribute the rational denouement of the story to Radcliffe's influence. Critics consistently complain that Maturin's attempt to "explain away" the miraculous events of the story results in a disproportion between cause and effect that gives the novel, in the words of the critic Niilo Idman (see Further Reading), an "air of charlatanism." Nevertheless, Fatal Revenge is considered superior to The Wild Irish Boy and The Milesian Chief, which are seldom included in critical discussions of Maturin's works. In 1814, Maturin sent Sir Walter Scott the manuscript of his first drama, Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816), a play that unites the Byronic hero and the Gothic villain in a single character. Scott was so impressed with the play that he referred Maturin to Lord Byron, who belonged to the committee that selected plays for production at London's Drury Lane Theater. Through Byron's influence, Drury Lane produced Bertram in 1816. Although the play's immediate success prompted Maturin to drop the pseudonym he had used for his first three novels and identify himself, his newfound literary recognition ultimately proved a disaster. Convinced that Bertram was the beginning of a brilliant dramatic career, he recklessly spent his profits and plunged deeply into debt. His subsequent plays, Manuel (1817) and Fredolfo (1819), were dismal failures, and to add to his difficulties, Bertram's irreverent sentiments were imputed by ecclesial officials to Maturin himself, and he lost any chance of being promoted within the Church.

Maturin resumed his career as a novelist with Women; or, Pour et contre (1818), for which he temporarily abandoned the Gothic idiom. A satire on the religious views of a narrow middle-class Calvinist sect, Women reflects Maturin's opposition to religious fanaticism and is today considered an insightful analysis of Evangelicalism. Maturin returned to the Gothic form in the novel that is viewed as his masterpiece, Melmoth the Wanderer. Based on the Wandering Jew and Faust legends, Melmoth the Wanderer tells the story of a seventeenth-century scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a prolonged life. The novel's structure is complex, consisting of five interlocking tales. In Maturin's novel The Albigenses (1824), an historical romance modeled on the works of Scott, he treats the theme of religious fanaticism.


With the exception of Bertram, none of Maturin's works was a critical or popular success during his lifetime. Nineteenth-century critics generally considered Maturin a talented but injudicious writer, whose novels and plays were marred by excesses of horror. Critical reaction to Melmoth the Wanderer in the nineteenth century was mixed: while some reviewers denounced Maturin's presentation of the diabolical Melmoth as impious, others praised the novel for its graphic descriptions of horror and suffering. Later nineteenth-century commentators frequently attributed Maturin's lack of critical acclaim to the diminishing popularity of Gothic fiction. Critics writing around the turn of the twentieth century applauded Melmoth's emotional intensity, and modern commentators support this opinion. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics have focused largely on Melmoth the Wanderer, and some critics have asserted that Maturin's reputation as a Gothic novelist has overshadowed his importance as a proponent of Irish regional literature. Some commentators argue that the impact of Melmoth the Wanderer derives primarily from Maturin's examination of human responses to terror and oppression. Douglas Grant (see Further Reading) terms Maturin a "brilliant psychologist of the perverse" whose interest in extreme emotional states anticipated the psychological novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka. In addition to its investigation of human psychology, Melmoth the Wanderer is also lauded for its analysis of the spiritual consequences of religious fanaticism. William F. Axton (see Further Reading), for example, distinguishes Melmoth the Wanderer from earlier Gothic novels because of its "compelling statement of the grand theme of perverted faith." Today Maturin is generally regarded as the unjustly forgotten author of one of the finest Gothic novels in English. Melmoth the Wanderer is said to have influenced the work of such diverse writers as Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Pushkin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. The breadth of the novel's appeal attests to its enduring interest.


Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio. 3 vols. [as Dennis Jasper Murphy] (novel) 1807
The Wild Irish Boy [as Dennis Jasper Murphy] (novel) 1808
The Milesian Chief: A Romance. 4 vols. [as Dennis Jasper Murphy] (novel) 1812
Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (play) 1816
Manuel (play) 1817
Women: or, Pour et contre (novel) 1818
Fredolfo: A Tragedy (play) 1819
Melmoth the Wanderer. 4 vols. (novel) 1820
The Albigenses (novel) 1824



SOURCE: Maturin, Charles Robert. "Leixlip Castle." In Gothic Tales of Terror, Volume One: Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 271-85. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, Inc., 1973.

The following excerpt is from a short story first published in the collection The Literary Souvenir or Cabinet of Poetry and Romance in 1825. The first portion of the excerpt contains Maturin's brief commentary on the story, and the last portion comprises the story's conclusion.

The incidents of the following tale are not merely founded on fact, they are facts themselves, which occurred at no very distant period in my own family. The marriage of the parties, their sudden and mysterious separation, and their total alienation from each other until the last period of their mortal existence, are all facts. I cannot vouch for the truth of the supernatural solution given to all these mysteries; but I must still consider the story as a fine specimen of Gothic horrors, and can never forget the impression it made on me when I heard it related for the first time among many other thrilling traditions of the same description.



Lady Maxwell survived Sir Richard forty years, living to the great age of ninety-six; and, according to a promise, previously given, disclosed to a descendent with whom she had lived, the following extraordinary circumstances.

She said that on the night of the 31st of October, about seventy-five years before, at the instigation of her ill-advising attendant, she had washed one of her garments in a place where four streams met, and peformed other unhallowed ceremonies under the direction of the Collogue, in the expectation that her future husband would appear to her in her chamber at twelve o'clock that night. The critical moment arrived, but with it no lover-like form. A vision of indescribable horror approached her bed, and flinging at her an iron weapon of a shape and construction unknown to her, bade her 'recognize her future husband by that.' The terrors of this visit soon deprived her of her senses; but on her recovery, she persisted, as has been said, in keeping the fearful pledge of the reality of the vision, which, on examination, appeared to be incrusted with blood. It remained concealed in the inmost drawer of her cabinet till the morning of the separation. On that morning, Sir Richard Maxwell rose before daylight to join a hunting party—he wanted a knife for some accidental purpose, and, missing his own, called to Lady Maxwell, who was still in bed, to lend him one. The lady, who was half asleep, answered, that in such a drawer of her cabinet he would find one. He went, however, to another, and the next moment she was fully awakened by seeing her husband present the terrible weapon to her throat, and threaten her with instant death unless she disclosed how she came by it. She supplicated for life, and then, in an agony of horror and contrition, told the tale of that eventful night. He gazed at her for a moment with a countenance which rage, hatred, and despair converted, as she avowed, into a living likeness of the demon-visage she had once beheld (so singularly was the fated resemblance fulfilled), and then exclaiming, 'You won me by the devil's aid, but you shall not keep me long,' left her—to meet no more in this world. Her husband's secret was not unknown to the lady, though the means by which she became possessed of it were wholly unwarrantable. Her curiosity had been strongly excited by her husband's aversion to his countrymen, and it was so stimulated by the arrival of a Scottish gentleman in the neighbourhood some time before, who professed himself formerly acquainted with Sir Richard, and spoke mysteriously of the causes that drove him from his country—that she contrived to procure an interview with him under a feigned name, and obtained from him the knowledge of circumstances which embittered her after-life to its latest hour. His story was this:

Sir Richard Maxwell was at deadly feud with a younger brother; a family feast was proposed to reconcile them, and as the use of knives and forks was then unknown in the Highlands, the company met armed with their dirks for the purpose of carving. They drank deeply; the feast, instead of harmonizing, began to inflame their spirits; the topics of old strife were renewed; hands, that at first touched their weapons in defiance, drew them at last in fury, and in the fray, Sir Richard mortally wounded his brother. His life was with difficulty saved from the vengeance of the clan, and he was hurried towards the seacoast, near which the house stood, and concealed there till a vessel could be procured to convey him to Ireland. He embarked on the night of the 31st of October, and while he was traversing the deck in unutterable agony of spirit, his hand accidentally touched the dirk which he had unconsciously worn ever since the fatal night. He drew it, and, praying 'that the guilt of his brother's blood might be as far from his soul, as he could fling that weapon from his body,' sent it with all his strength into the air. This instrument he found secreted in the lady's cabinet, and whether he really believed her to have become possessed of it by supernatural means, or whether he feared his wife was a secret witness of his crime, has not been ascertained, but the result was what I have stated.

The reparation took place on the discovery:—for the rest,

     I know not how the truth may be,
     I tell the Tale as 'twas told to me.



SOURCE: Lougy, Robert. "The Later Years, 1820–1824." In Charles Robert Maturin, pp. 64-87. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1975.

In the following essay, Lougy surveys the events that took place during Maturin's final years, and analyzes the works that he composed during this period.

Even at the time of Fredolfo 's failure, and as early as September 1818, Maturin was already thinking about—if not actually engaged in writing—a new drama and also a romance. The drama, however, was never published and was not produced until six years after Maturin's death. The manuscript of this drama, entitled Osmyn the Renegade (also known as The Siege of Salerno ), had been given to Edmund Kean for his perusal, and he had for unknown reasons refused to return it. Between the years of 1821–1822, it disappeared in London and was not recovered until late in 1825 by William, Maturin's eldest son. It was almost five more years before the play was successfully produced in Dublin. Mrs. Maturin realized 300 pounds from the production, but it was never published and only brief excerpts, quoted by Alaric Watts, have ever appeared in print.

The romance on which Maturin was working was Melmoth the Wanderer. He had received from Constable an advance of 500 pounds for Melmoth sometime in 1819 and was thus fairly solvent at the time of Fredolfo 's failure. In August, 1820, Melmoth was published, and it remains today the one work for which Maturin is best known. Balzac attested to Maturin's genius and to the greatness of his most famous work by placing Melmoth alongside of Moliere's Don Juan, Goethe's Faust, and Byron's Manfred as one of the four supreme allegorical figures in modern European literature. After reading Melmoth, one feels that it was a work that was always within Maturin, waiting for the proper conjunction of time and circumstances to appear. He drew, of course, upon other literary sources, especially Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Milton's Lucifer; yet Melmoth remains wholly Maturin's—his genius and style are indelibly marked throughout it. Using the legend of the Wandering Jew and the legend of Faust, he creates a unique work of art sharing only the broadest and most general similarities with its sources.

Although thematically related to some of Maturin's own writings as well as to the writings of others (for example, Lewis' The Monk and Godwin's St. Leon), Melmoth finally denies comparison and demands that we cope with it on its own terms. And like the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels, most of de Sade, and the writings of Celine, the terms established by Melmoth are neither easy nor pleasant to recognize or accept. There is no evidence to suggest that Maturin was even remotely insane while writing Melmoth ; on the contrary, his letters during this period are perfectly lucid and coherent, and his last novel, The Albigenses, is certainly not the work of an obsessed or demented mind. Yet, one has the feeling that Maturin, in writing Melmoth, calls forth a reality that is so powerful, yet so grotesque, so cruel, and so foreign to Maturin's daily existence, that the dividing line between genius and madness is throughout it very thin. (Indeed, a contemporary account of him during the time he was writing this novel suggests that he was virtually obsessed by his creation.) And Maturin himself frequently alluded to his own creativity in terms of witchcraft—of how he wanted his reader to "sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise." The danger, of course, in evoking spirits is that one can never be certain whether he can control them or of the price they will demand from him. The dangers would appear to be multiplied when one calls upon the spirits in their own territory, as Maturin seems to have done in Melmoth.

For to write such a novel is to probe those areas of knowledge, both "the visions of another world" and the darkest recesses of the human psyche, which strain the endurance of the mind, and to cross, perhaps irrevocably, forbidden boundaries. The writer then becomes isolated from the world around him, having used the incantatory power of the word to bring forth a reality that borders on the irrational and the insane. He is at once the possessor of secrets he will share with those readers who dare to sit down by his "magic Cauldron" and also possessed by those demons whose presence his art will reveal.

It is possible that Maturin, too, perceived in himself latent traces of insanity or, at least, interests that went beyond what most would call normal, and that he alluded to them in Melmoth. In his preface to the 1820 edition, Maturin states that "the original from which the Wife of Walberg is imperfectly sketched is a living woman, and long may she live." The "living woman" is almost certainly Maturin's own wife and the Wife of Walberg is Ines, from "The Tale of Guzman's Family." The tale itself is one of the mildest in Melmoth, and the role of Melmoth himself is minimal. The story revolves around Guzman, a wealthy merchant of Seville, whose sister had long ago incurred his wrath by eloping with a German Protestant musician named Walberg. When Guzman thinks that he is about to die, he invites his sister and her family to Seville and establishes them in luxury and wealth, although he refuses to see them. Walberg invites his parents to come from Germany to live with them and for a time, all live happily and comfortably. But when Guzman dies, it is discovered that he has left all of his money to the Church, and so the Walbergs are left penniless. In the midst of poverty and despair, the son sells his blood to a surgeon, the daughter is almost tempted into prostitution, and Walberg becomes virtually insane with worry. During this time, he is visited by Melmoth, but like the others whom Melmoth seeks out, Walberg refuses the terms Melmoth demands in order to help him. Finally the original will, in which Guzman bequeathed all of his money to his sister, is discovered, but not before Walberg almost commits murder. Eventually he recovers from his sickness and the family returns to Germany to live prosperously.

The tale is important for the background and history it gives us of Melmoth, but also for the emotional intensity with which Maturin once again deals with poverty. Like Manuel, this part of Melmoth is written with such vividness and force of feeling that Maturin's own life shines forth from every page. There are many instances within this story of strong correspondences to Maturin's own experiences—Walberg's feelings of guilt for his inability to provide for his family, his pressing anxieties of how he will get food for them, his squandering of the little money they did have, and his fears of going insane from worry. Most fascinating, however, is the relationship drawn between Walberg and his father. During those times when he himself did not know where the next meal was coming from, Maturin must have, in spite of himself, harbored strong resentment towards his father, who, in his financial ruin, had pulled down his son and his son's family with him. The guilt that this feeling undoubtedly gave rise to seems to be artistically expiated by Maturin in this tale. During one scene in which the family is seated at the dinner table, with barely enough to eat, Walberg grabs some food from his father's hand and gives it to his children, and later, when "the sufferings of his children seemed to inspire him with a kind of wild resentment," Walberg actually raises his arm against his father, "the deaf old man, who was sluggishly devouring his sordid meal." After Walberg recovers from his sickness and finds his father by his side, he is stricken with remorse and begs him for forgiveness. Thus we see Maturin externalizing the agony of his own sufferings, venting his hostilities toward his father, and yet simultaneously expiating his guilt and creating for his tale an ending that he must have hoped would find a parallel in his own life.

But as fascinating as the autobiographical implications of the tale make it, it is but a small part of the novel. Melmoth is composed of five tales, the second of which, "The Spaniard's Tale," contains within it the last three tales. In turn, all five tales are contained within a larger frame-story centering around John Melmoth, a descendant of Melmoth the Wanderer. While taking care of a sick uncle during the year 1818, John Melmoth comes across a portrait inscribed "John Melmoth, anno 1646." He is told that the man in the portrait is a distant ancestor who, according to legend, is still alive. John later comes across an old manuscript whose contents form the basis of the first tale, "The Tale of Stanton." The next day, John, while observing a shipwreck on the rocks near the coast, hears a horrible laugh from a man also watching the disaster and recognizes him as the man in the portrait. Frightened, John tries to ascend some rocks, loses his footing, and falls into the water. He awakens in his uncle's house to discover that he has been rescued by the sole survivor of the shipwreck, a Spaniard by the name of Alonzo Moncada. Upon learning John Melmoth's name, Alonzo becomes extremely agitated, and then he tells John the "Tale of the Spaniard." This tale forms all but the few final pages of the novel and contains within itself the "Tale of the Indians," "The Tale of Guzman's Family," and "The Lover's Tale."

Melmoth 's structure is tightly organized and possesses an almost geometrical symmetry. The organizational pattern, appropriately described by one critic as resembling a child's set of toy boxes that fit into one another, serves several purposes. First of all, it provides Maturin with a means of maintaining a tight aesthetic control over his material; and, given the nature of the world he creates in Melmoth —one filled with cruelty, insanity, torture, and death—such control is imperative. In some respects, Melmoth resembles a nightmare contained within a structure that, in its formal preciseness, serves to bring order out of chaos and a strange and haunting beauty out of subjects that are in themselves anything but beautiful. Secondly, the organization makes it possible for Maturin to explore his themes through the techniques of analogy and juxtaposition. For example, Maturin explores the nature of religious persecution in the "Tale of the Spaniard" and the "Tale of the Indians," the nature of love in the "Tale of the Indians" and "The Lover's Tale," and the different aspects of cruelty and insanity in "The Tale of Stanton," the "Tale of the Spaniard," and the "Tale of the Indians." Melmoth's presence in all of the tales creates a continuity by establishing a larger plot structure that links the tales together and by suggesting those common bonds of humanity that exist among characters otherwise separated by both chronology and nationality.

Melmoth's history and character are revealed throughout the novel by persons who have met or heard of him and also by Melmoth's own brief visitations. It is in the "Tale of the Indians" that Melmoth, through his relationship with Immalee, takes on an independent character and importance of his own. Not only does Maturin's technique of gradually revealing Melmoth increase the fear and mystery that surround him, but it is also appropriate that we meet Melmoth in this fashion, since for much of the novel he is primarily an observer, a man who periodically visits persons whom he believes might be willing to exchange their destiny for his own. Not until "The Lover's Tale," the last tale in the novel, do we fully discover the nature of Melmoth's destiny. An Irishman, Melmoth had become attracted to astrology and the occult sciences during a trip to Poland and had been "promised … the knowledge and power of the future world—on conditions that are unutterable." Like Faust, Melmoth agreed to give up his soul to diabolic powers in exchange for profound and prophetic knowledge; and he can be released from this pact only if, in the course of 150 years, he can find someone willing to trade places with him. But although his search lasts the full 150 years and takes him to the darkest and most horrible regions of suffering humanity, he is unsuccessful in his quest: "I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain the world, would lose his own soul."

Melmoth is never the immediate cause of suffering—those persons he encounters have suffered not at the hands of some superhuman power, but at the hands of other human beings. In this respect, Melmoth comes to represent those dark truths that men tend to bestow upon a demonic or diabolic world in order to mitigate their own sense of guilt or inadequacy. He is at once apart from and privy to the innermost secrets and hidden deeds of all men; he is a man who has the power to range the earth and to probe the fears and anxieties of other, yet is incapable of gaining power over them or of learning the secrets of his own heart.

What distinguishes Melmoth from Maturin's previous characters is the ambivalence of his emotions and the complex relationship that develops between Melmoth and Immalee. Although at first he views her as a means to escape his destiny he soon falls in love with her; as a consequence, his existence becomes more tormented, yet more beautiful. Immalee, having been raised on an island and knowing only beauty and peace, is an Eve surrounded by depravity, a figure of innocence and beauty in the midst of corruption and evil. By initiating her into the evils of this world, Melmoth buries his own heart deeper in cynicism and despair and thus cuts himself off from the possibilities of redemptive love. Maturin's depiction of the way in which Immalee's innocence and simple faith work upon Melmoth contains some of his very best writing, as he allows Melmoth to rediscover emotions long buried within him. For one brief moment, when he pleads with Immalee to stay, salvation is within his reach, but the moment of reawakening eludes him, and the full implications of it escape that intellect for which he sold his soul.

Immalee does not stay and the secret remains hidden. Love, for Maturin, is redemptive in that it opens the heart to emotions that bring man closer to his fellow beings and to God. Immalee says to Melmoth that "he who is without a God must be without a heart," and the converse of this is also true. He whose heart is closed to love is also separated from God. Like Faust, Melmoth is always within reach of God's salvation, for God's mercy and forgiveness are infinite and require only faith on man's part to be bestowed. His pact with the Devil does not remove Melmoth from God's grace, but his own cynicism and hardness of heart do. Thus his damnation results not from the diabolic powers without, but from within, and in this lies the tragedy of his fate.

For Maturin, most men worship not the Christian God of love and compassion, "the God of smiles and happiness," but a harsh and sadistic deity, "the God of groans and blood." Employing religion as a mask behind which he may enact his basest desires, man perverts the meaning of the worship he engages in and creates a religion of hate and violence. Again in Melmoth Maturin explores the ways in which sadism and masochism arise from man's imposition of a system of unnatural and narrow constraints; the Inquisition is a symbol of the institutionalization of such cruelty. Early in their relationship, Melmoth shows Immalee two representative religions—in one flagellation and asceticism are practiced, and in the other torture and persecution. For Maturin, these two expressions of "religion" are inextricably related. The antithesis of Christianity in this novel is represented not by Melmoth, but by a parricide and lay-brother among the ex-Jesuits. His particular theology represents Maturin's final expression of anger and sorrow at what has become of the religion embodied by the Sermon on the Mount: "Mine is the best theology—the theology of utter hostility to all beings whose sufferings may mitigate mine."

Melmoth the Wanderer must be read as a religious work. H. P. Lovecraft in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, although critical of Melmoth 's structure, nevertheless recognizes its religious quality, "a pulse of power undiscoverable in any previous work of this kind—a kinship to the essential truth of human nature, and understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear, and a white heat of sympathetic passion on the writer's part…." In Melmoth, "Fear is taken out of the realm of the conventional and exalted into a hideous cloud over mankind's very destiny." Dante's Hell has been brought above ground and we see it through the eyes of its inhabitants rather than through the eyes of an observer. At the end, as we hear of Melmoth being pulled down to Hell by demons, the ultimate consequences of cynicism and despair are brought home to bear. In order to present this vision, Maturin had to himself descend more deeply into the Hell within, into the depths of cruelty and horror, and must have been both frightened and fascinated by that curiosity that drove him to write, for example, of two lovers being starved to death in an underground dungeon, or of a man dreaming of being burned alive during an auto-da-fé. And although there may be signs of an abnormal imagination in Melmoth, such as led reviewers to speak of Maturin as a genius either mad or diabolic, if we try to dismiss such writing too easily, we are reminded, as Maturin wants us to be, of the normal world in which we live, a world in which autos-da-fé, wars, Dachau and Auschwitz do exist, a world presided over by normal kings, queens, politicians, and generals. And we are perhaps forced to reconsider our definitions of madness.

Maturin, however far his mind might have traveled into "the dark regions of romance," faced a more immediate and mundane world of unpaid bills and pressing creditors. In 1821, after having lived three years on the 500 pounds he received as an advance for Melmoth, he was once again without money, "distrained for taxes," and "under ejectment for rent." It was considerably longer than he anticipated before he published his next, and last, romance, The Albigenses. In the meantime, a long blank-verse poem entitled The Universe appeared in 1821 with Maturin listed as its author and dedicated to Coleridge "by his sincere admirer, the Author." The poem's authorship became a matter of immediate dispute when a Mr. James Wills claimed that he had written the poem and had been persuaded by Maturin, who had been advanced £500 for a poem he could not finish, to allow him to publish it under his name. It is possible that Maturin had asked Wills to finish the poem—or perhaps even to write all of it—but it is extremely unlikely that he had been advanced such a large sum of money. Whatever the true facts of the controversy are, the poem is at best mediocre and provides no evidence whatsoever of the presence of Maturin's particular genius and talents within it.

The reception of Melmoth seems to have driven Maturin into a deeper seclusion and consequently little is known of his public life during his last years. He had succeeded in alienating himself from his Church superiors even before Melmoth, had offended the Evangelicals in Women: or Pour et Contre, had angered the Catholics in Melmoth, and did not even enjoy that compensation of wealth that often accompanies notoriety. His financial situation was worse than it had ever been, and most of his energies were devoted to trying to eke out an existence for himself and his family.

It was not until 1824, the year of his death, that Maturin's last novel, The Albigenses, was published. Although it is the longest of Maturin's works, consisting of four volumes and nearly 1500 pages, it was conceived of by him as but the first part of a trilogy "illustrative of European feelings and manners in ancient times, in middle, and in modern." Much has been said of the influence of Scott and the popularity of his historical novels in Maturin's choice of subjects for his last novel. There can be no doubt that Maturin was indebted to Scott and in The Albigenses often rendered him through imitation the highest form of honor. But at the same time, it is quite consistent with Maturin's interests that he should have chosen to write a novel focusing on the Middle Ages and, more particularly, on the persecution of the Albigenses. Religious fanaticism, in its many guises, had always fascinated him and the Middle Ages presented him with a rich and often bizarre combination of human experience—of piety existing alongside of superstition, asceticism vying with sensuality, bravery bearing the banner of oppression, and courtly love imposing upon man an unnatural nobility of restraint.

There is, however, a certain ambivalence on Maturin's part towards the material of his last novel. The reason for this ambivalence is that the romantic bent in Maturin—seen in his obvious fondness and sympathy for certain aspects of the feudal ages—is always struggling against an essentially conservative strain within him. On one hand, Maturin is attracted to the age he is describing—to its richness of spirit, to the high ideals it professed, even if it left them too often unpracticed, and to the potential it offered for individual heroism and noble action. This attraction is only partially explained by the fact that Maturin was contemporary with the rise of romanticism and its interest in the literature and culture of other ages. More important in Maturin's case is the temperamental affinities he had with whatever partook of the aristocratic, an affinity seen in the legends Maturin used to tell of his own family's noble origins.

But if Maturin was politically and emotionally attracted to certain aspects of the Middle Ages, his philosophical and theological view of man prevented him from writing a conventional romance of history extolling the nobility of the age. Maturin might show affinities with the romantic temperament in his belief in nature's salutary powers and in its capacity to provide man with a glimpse of his Creator; but he does not share the romantic's belief in the innate goodness of man or in man's unlimited potential for social and ethical improvement. Goodness and even nobility are possible, although rare, but are constantly endangered by the forces of chance and mutability as well as by man's own propensity toward the base and the ignoble. For Maturin man's struggle toward the noble and the good is fraught with additional danger by the fact that such a struggle often represses those human desires that if denied for long will ultimately turn against man and destroy him.

His idealization of the age, however, does come through in his depiction of women in The Albigenses. In Women and Melmoth, Zaira, Eva, and Immalee stand among the most memorable of his characters; in The Albigenses, on the other hand, Maturin creates two women who, in their conventionality of thought and action, closely resemble those typical romantic heroines he earlier satirized in a review of Radcliffe's novels. In the case of Genevieve, the granddaughter of the aged leader of the Albigenses, Maturin apparently envisioned every possible trial and tribulation that a heroine could face and then created circumstances whereby she could experience them all. She is sent into exile for rendering aid to a wounded knight she eventually marries, saves a group of women from being assaulted, is almost seduced by the Bishop of Toulouse, saves the life of Queen Ingelberg, and soon must use this fact to protect herself from the dishonourable advances of the Queen's son, the Dauphin of France. As if this were not enough adventure for a girl not yet twenty years old, she also meets and talks with Eloise, the immortal lover of Abelard. Isabelle, the other heroine, has fewer adventures—she falls in love with and marries a young knight whose destiny it is to kill the last survivor of the Courtenaye family: Isabelle herself. But through the aid of what is perhaps Maturin's strangest combination of protagonists, a Catholic monk and a sorceress, this disaster is averted and toward the end of the novel, a double wedding takes place.

If The Albigenses consisted only of the perils and plights of its two heroes and two heroines, it would be in no way distinguished from the many historical romances tha were flooding the market in Maturin's time, most of them trying to capitalize on Scott's success. Fortunately there is much more than that. First of all, Maturin provides us with a vast and sweeping panoramic view of the historical and religious background. He is also quite successful in capturing the essence of the age's most important figures. Both Simon de Montfort and the Bishop of Toulouse come across larger than life—in their energy and strength, in their enjoyment of the power they wielded, in their mutual hatred of the Albigenses, and in the struggle waged between them to gain recognition as the Champion of the Church. Because Maturin draws them with such vividness, he forces the reader to share his ambivalent attitude toward them. Even though we recognize their cruelty, their boundless egotism, and the discrepancy between their actions and the religion they are professedly defending, we are begrudgingly forced to give them at least our qualified admiration.

If Maturin's historical interests and his romantic impulses are responsible for his creation of those larger-than-life characters, there is another recurrent impulse in Maturin that checks his admiration for the Middle Ages. He is aware that even his most heroic figures were driven, in part, by unheroic needs and desires; like Women and, to a lesser extent, Melmoth, The Albigenses is a study of religious fanaticism. For Maturin, fanaticism under any guise separates man from himself and from his fellowmen; religious fanaticism, however, is especially dangerous because it deadens one to the feelings of sympathy and compassion and because the energy and enthusiasm of religious fervor are often turned, through violence, hatred, and rigid moral certainty, against religion itself. If Maturin had angered the Evangelicals in Women, the Catholics in Melmoth, in this novel he succeeded in antagonizing them both. But we have to believe Maturin (in spite of his fantasizing about the sexual and sadistic propensities of Catholic priests) when he maintains that he was not criticizing religion, but rather the perversion of religion by those "who … painted heaven to their imaginations and their hearers as a place whose joys would be exalted by their consciousness of the interminable sufferings of their persecutors and enemies."

The fact remains, however, that Maturin became progressively more alienated—at least in his fiction—from all organized religion, namely because he felt that any religion that tries to impose its will or creed upon others is in danger of transforming what should be an order of joy and love into an order of suffering and hatred. It is not simply coincidental that the two religious leaders who most clearly represent Maturin's ideal of the religious man, Pierre, the leader of the Albigenses, and the Monk of Montcalm, both antagonize the power structures of their respective churches. Maturin's ultimate distrust of all formal religion is further seen in the fact that the novel's true moral center is found in a scene reminiscent of Voltaire—a writer with whom Maturin shared more than he would have admitted—and involves a shepherd totally isolated from the outside world of chivalry, politics, and religious wars. Professing to a very simple and almost pagan religion, the shepherd is harshly chastized by visitors for his backwardness and informed of the ways of the civilized world beyond, where religion is such an important issue that it "had been the cause of wars that had desolated the fairest provinces of France; that it had marshalled armies with princes and pontiffs at their head; and already cost the lives of thirty thousand men, sacrificed by their own countrymen…." But the shepherd, preferring his own ways, decided to remain uncivilized and "as the first light of dawn gleamed through the crevice, he unbarred his door, and silently motioned his guests to depart."

There are many strengths in The Albigenses —Maturin's imaginative recreating of the crusade of the Catholic Church against the Albigenses, his characterization of those men on both sides who play crucial roles in the campaign, and his probing of those emotions and often unacknowledged desires that were concealed beneath the banners of religion and chivalry—but in spite of this, Maturin's genius, that force we feel on virtually every page of Melmoth, is only sporadically present. This novel is finally weakened by the fact that Maturin is always so evidently in control of it. He knew too well those talents he possessed for creating an exciting tale and for peopling it with tormented characters; and in The Albigenses these skills appear, but in a tired and imitative fashion, lacking the imaginative force and capacity to court the unknown and horrible possessed by Melmoth.

It is, of course, impossible to foresee what Maturin would have written had he lived to complete his trilogy, but he seems to lack both the energy and the desire to bring his project to a conclusion, and Maturin lived on after Melmoth in poverty and isolation, fulfilling in life the debilitating and oppressive fate of those poverty-ridden and tormented characters about whom he wrote with such apprehension. On October 30, 1824 Charles Robert Maturin died at the age of forty-four. As his health faded in the last months of his life, he became even more isolated and consequently very little is known of this time. It was apparently a time of great depression for him, compounded by the anxieties of poverty and by illness exacerbated by long hours of work and little sleep during his composition of The Albigenses. Shortly after Maturin's death, his wife wrote to Scott:

You no doubt by this time are acquainted with the death of my dear departed husband; he has left me with four children, the youngest of whom is only five years old, totally unprovided for—he laboured with incessant assiduity for his family even after it had pleased the Almighty to deprive him of health—his sufferings with regard to pecuniary circumstances preyed on a constitution naturally delicate, till at last it put a period to his existence—

Scott had planned to visit Maturin in the summer of 1825, but Maturin died before he could meet the man who had for twelve years advised, consoled and encouraged him, and on several occasions had provided the only money that stood between Maturin and starvation.

After Maturin's death, two rumors circulated, both of which are false. The first was that Maturin's eldest son, William, had burned all of his father's manuscripts because of the shame he felt in his father's connection with the stage. William's letters to Scott after his father's death completely refute this rumor and suggest that he made every effort to have his father's literary remains either produced on stage or published. The second rumor—that Maturin had consciously precipitated his own death through a mistake in his medicines—is the sort of story that Maturin's eccentric habits and behavior would encourage, but it too, as Idman suggests, is unfounded. James Clarence Mangan, who knew Maturin during those final years, recalls seeing him shortly after he had officiated at a funeral:

His long pale, melancholy, Don Quixote, out-of-the-world face would have inclined you to believe that Dante, Bajazet, and the Cid had risen together from their sepulchres, and clubbed their features for the production of an effect. But…. The great Irishman, like Hamlet, had that within him which passed show,… He bore the 'thunder-scars' about him, but they were graven, not on his brow, but on his heart.

The comparison of Maturin to Hamlet need not be examined, but Mangan's allusions to Dante and Don Quixote are relevant in considering Maturin's life and art. The romantic poets had explored that "deep and romantic chasm," that "savage place" Coleridge writes of in "Kubla Khan," but had pulled up short, except for the later books of Don Juan, in their description of what they found. The gothic novelists had, on the other hand, written of the emotions of fear and terror, but had relied heavily on external machinery and on a topography of horror often used for its own sake. Maturin's contribution to British literature is found in his ability to synthesize these two traditions, taking the literary medium provided by the gothic novel, but using it to examine more deeply those aspects of human experience embodied in those figures, such as Faust and the Wandering Jew, that had captured the romantic imagination. Yet Maturin is cut off from those romantics who preceded him by a strong Calvinistic vein that finally prevented him, in spite of his own romantic leanings, from seeking redemption, or even solace from love, be it of Man, nature, or God. Few of the love relationships that he depicts are successful and even fewer of his novels end happily.

In one respect Melmoth is Maturin's attempt to find a basis for hope and belief; and in so far as none of the persons confronted by Melmoth is willing to sell his soul for worldly happiness, Maturin's world differs from Dante's Hell in the all-important fact that hope has not been abandoned. Immalee is the embodiment of Melmoth's antithesis: in her joy, beauty, and innocence we see Man as he once was and as Maturin would like to be; but she too is fated to die in an Inquisition dungeon, isolated and estranged from all but God.

Because Maturin's world is in many ways monstrous and cruel, his influence was felt most strongly not among the Victorian novelists, but among the French romantics, who found in Edgar Allan Poe and Maturin kindred investigators of that monstrous landscape Baudelaire was to traverse in Les Fleurs du Mal. Some of the later nineteenth-century British writers, such as Rossetti and Oscar Wilde, were to speak highly of Maturin, and one can see in The Picture of Dorian Gray why Wilde might have been attracted to the writings of his fellow countryman. In fact, during Wilde's final days of exile in Paris, after his release from prison, he assumed the name of "Sebastian Melmoth."

If Maturin's works evoke in their probing of the diabolic an image of Dante's Inferno, his own life in some respects painfully reminds one of Don Quixote. There was a certain naiveté and innocence about Maturin that worked against him in his quest for success, and he was unable to understand how his literature could possibly offend his superiors in the church. He maintained an unrealistic expectation that wise and rational men would and could keep separate the content of a novel from the moral character of the man who wrote it. To the very end of his painful life, he kept the hope, against all reason, that some person or event would intervene to alleviate his distress. One can only wish that Maturin had had his own Sancho Panza, someone who was as familiar with the realities of this world as Maturin was with the realities of the other world.

But Maturin is neither English, Italian, nor Spanish; he is Irish, and his work must finally be judged in terms of the Irish tradition. He has, of course, no place in that tradition if one excludes from his study all writers except the "Irish-speaking Irish." Maturin is an Anglo-Irishman who wrote in English primarily for an English audience; and although according to Thomas Flanagan's The Irish Novelists, 1800–1850, he and Lefanu are outside the mainstream of even this tradition because they "turned to tales whose somber and uncanny atmosphere seeks to transcend the immediacies of social fact," it is difficult to speak of Maturin as other than an Irish novelist, if only by virtue of the problems he shared in common with other Irish writers of his time. He faced the problems of trying to define Ireland as he saw it for a people who viewed it for the most part as an alien culture. Throughout his writings, and especially in The Wild Irish Boy and The Milesian Chief, he wrestles not only with the problem of Ireland's identity but also tries to educate his reading audience in Ireland's history, her traditions, her strengths, and her weaknesses. Maturin's love for Ireland shapes what he wrote and is manifest in the characters he created, from his aged chiefs to his blind and prophetic bards, in the Irish myths, music, and poetry that he spoke of, and in his descriptions of Ireland's lanscape and cities. He was, however, as firmly rooted in the present political and economic realities of Ireland as he was steeped in Irish folklore and history. As an Irish Protestant with Tory political leanings, he did not believe that Ireland could exist independently of England, but he writes, not as a political theorist or pamphleteer, but as a novelist, and his writings provide us not with answers, but with the articulation of problems. In the problems he writes of and in the conflict between his heart and head where the question of Ireland is concerned, we can see his sense of personal estrangement as an Irishman, and this estrangement is reflected in many of his major Irish characters who are drawn by the past but must find their role in the present.

Maturin was the author of six novels and three published plays; yet he is remembered today, if at all, only for Melmoth the Wanderer. It is unlikely that there will be a resurgence of interest in Maturin in the near future, even though at least two of his novels, The Milesian Chief and Women: or Pour et Contre, definitely do not deserve the obscurity they have suffered. But it is fitting that history has chosen to remember Maturin for that strange and foreboding Wanderer, for in Melmoth Maturin created, with fear and fascination, a figure who embodies in his isolation, his wanderings, and his descent into the recesses of the human heart, those haunted and darkened passages of his own genius. Through the magic of the written word, he evoked demons from within the human mind, and they, in turn, retaliated upon their summoner by isolating and estranging him from that world into which they were called. Of Maturin, James Clarence Mangan wrote:

He—in his own dark way—understood many people; but nobody understood him in any way. And therefore it was that he, this man of the highest genius, Charles Robert Maturin, lived unappreciated—and died unsympathized with, uncared for, unenquired after—and not only forgotten, because he had never been thought about.

We may hope that his insights are not proved by history to be as prophetic as they are sensitive.

Selected Bibliography

The Principal Works of Charles Robert Maturin

(Dates refer to the first editions, unless otherwise noted)


Bertram; or the Castle of St. Aldobrand. London: John Murray, 1816.

Manuel. London: John Murray, 1817.

Fredolfo. London: Constable and Co., 1819.


The Family of Montorio; or the Fatal Revenge. 3 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.

The Wild Irish Boy. 3 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808.

The Milesian Chief. 4 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1812.

Women; or Pour et Contre. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Constable and Co., 1818.

Melmoth the Wanderer. 4 vols. Edinburgh: Constable and Co., 1820. There is also a recent edition of this novel, edited and introduced by William F. Axton, Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska, 1961.

The Albigenses. 4 vols. London: Hurst, Robinson and Co., 1824.


The Correspondence of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Robert Maturin, ed. and intro. by Fannie E. Ratchford and Wm. H. McCarthy, Jr., Austin: Univ. of Texas, 1937.

Secondary Studies

Melmoth the Wanderer. vol. 1. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1892. This particular edition, in addition to containing as its frontispiece the famous Brocas portrait of Maturin, also possesses some valuable biographical and bibliographical information: 1) "Memoirs of Charles Robert Maturin"; 2) "Separate Notices of Each Book"; 3) "A Note on Charles Robert Maturin"; 4) "A List of Works by Charles Robert Maturin, With Translations and Adaptations by Other Authors."

Axton, William F. "Introduction," Melmoth the Wanderer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1961.

Hume, Robert D. "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA, 84 (1969), 282-290.

Idman, Nilo. Charles Robert Maturin: His Life and Works. London: Constable and Co., 1923. A pioneering study containing a valuable bibliography.

Lovecraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Ben Abramson, 1945.

Railo, Eino. The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1927.

Scholten, Willem. Charles Robert Maturin: The Terror-Novelist. Amsterdam: H. J. Paris, 1933.

Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic Flame. New York: Russel and Russel, 1957.


Melmoth the Wanderer


SOURCE: Baldick, Chris. Introduction to Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin, pp. vii-ix. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Baldick discusses Maturin's place in the Gothic tradition and examines several themes in Melmoth the Wanderer.

Upon his release from prison in 1897, Oscar Wilde travelled to France under an assumed name carefully contrived to announce him as both martyred saint and blasted sinner: it was 'Sebastian Melmoth'. For, as Wilde well knew, the name of Melmoth still echoed in France, as it did no longer in Ireland or England, with the notoriety of high Romantic despair and damnation; it was the badge of the eternal outcast, of his grandiose self-hatred, and of his withering scorn for heaven and earth. It was, still more appropriately, something of an heirloom, because the author of Melmoth the Wanderer had been the uncle by marriage of Wilde's mother. Having helped a few years earlier to prepare a biographical introduction to an edition of his great-uncle's novel, Wilde knew the history and reputation of the Revd Charles Robert Maturin, Anglican curate of St Peter's in Dublin, novelist, playwright, eccentric, and failure: Maturin had died in poverty in 1824, his literary efforts frowned upon by his ecclesiastical superiors in Dublin, slighted by most of the critics in Edinburgh, and laughed off the stage in London. In Paris, however, his reputation had flourished posthumously. Balzac, his most prominent admirer, had placed the figure of Melmoth the Wanderer alongside Goethe's Faust and Byron's Manfred as one of the great outcasts of modern literature, and he had even written a satirical sequel, Melmoth réconcilié (1835). Baudelaire had later acclaimed Melmoth as the outstanding model of the sneering melodramatic villain and had planned a new translation of Melmoth the Wanderer to replace the incomplete French version of 1821. In the French pantheon of sensational modern authors, Maturin had been given an honourable niche only a little below that of Edgar Allan Poe.

This exaltation Maturin owed almost entirely to the unusually fascinating power of his fifth novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, which appeared in 1820. His first, Fatal Revenge (1807), won a few admirers (including Walter Scott) for its treatment of Gothic intrigues, but the others—The Wild Irish Boy (1808), The Milesian Chief (1812), Women (1818), and The Albigenses (1824)—made little impression. Only once did Maturin, assisted and encouraged by Scott and Byron, achieve unmistakable literary success, with the sudden and spectacular triumph of his tragedy Bertram in 1816. Even this was a mixed blessing, though. Already financially burdened by his father's unfair dismissal from a lucrative Post Office position in 1809, Maturin had later stood surety for another relative who went bankrupt, thus soaking up in advance much of the fortune which Bertram earned. To add to his troubles, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose own work had been passed over by the Drury Lane theatre in favour of Bertram, launched a spiteful attack upon what he saw as subversive, even atheistic sentiments in Maturin's play. Since Maturin had now to abandon his pseudonym of Dennis Jasper Murphy in order to secure the rewards of his dramatic success, his chances of preferment in the Church of Ireland were compromised beyond repair. The humble stipend of a curate could not meet the expenses of his growing family (there were four children to feed by the time he finished Melmoth ), so it was by writing that he would have to sustain it. Bertram, however, was followed by the failure of his next tragedy, Manuel (1817), after which his last drama, Fredolfo (1819), flopped disastrously in a hubbub of giggles and catcalls: the sight of a character killing his defeated adversary with a sword proffered in surrender drove the London audience into an indignant rage. Evidently out of touch with English notions of fair play, Maturin returned in Melmoth to the safer ground of mediterranean Catholic treachery—in other words, to the Gothic mode of fiction with which his literary career had begun.

Gothic fiction had flourished in England since the early 1790s, led by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew 'Monk' Lewis after the model had been established by Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764), but by the time that Melmoth the Wanderer was written, the genre could be seen to be declining in its impact. This was the result partly of a flood of predictable imitations of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) in which the Gothic formula became ridiculously repetitive and earned Jane Austen's affectionate mockery in Northanger Abbey (1818); and partly of a new vogue for regional and historical novels, which absorbed some elements of Gothic while eclipsing Radcliffe's followers in popularity: the pioneers here were the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and Maturin's own literary mentor and pen-friend Walter Scott (although Maturin's nationalistic romance The Milesian Chief actually antedated the publication in 1814 of Scott's landmark novel Waverley). Part of Maturin's achievement in Melmoth the Wanderer, then, was to have breathed some belated vitality—albeit of a strangely nervous and galvanic sort—into what seemed an exhausted convention. I hope to define in the next few pages the nature and the novelty of that resuscitation, but first it will be worth clarifying the relation of Melmoth to its Gothic forerunners, since this book has always been read against the background of the thirty-year reign of 'Terror-novelists'.


The hint of this Romance (or Tale) was taken from a passage in one of my Sermons, which (as it is to be presumed very few have read) I shall here take the liberty to quote. The passage is this.

'At this moment is there one of us present, however we may have departed from the Lord, disobeyed his will, and disregarded his word—is there one of us who would, at this moment, accept all that man could bestow, or earth afford, to resign the hope of his salvation?—No, there is not one—not such a fool on earth, were the enemy of mankind to traverse it with the offer!'

This passage suggested the idea of Melmoth the Wanderer. The Reader will find that idea developed in the following pages, with what power or success he is to decide.

The 'Spaniard's Tale' has been censured by a friend to whom I read it, as containing too much attempt at the revivification of the horrors of Radcliffe-Romance, of the persecutions of convents, and the terrors of the Inquisition.

I defended myself, by trying to point out to my friend, that I had made the misery of conventual life depend less on the startling adventures one meets with in romances, than on that irritating series of petty torments which constitutes the misery of life in general, and which, amid the tideless stagnation of monastic existence, solitude gives its inmates leisure to invent, and power combined with malignity, the full disposition to practise. I trust this defence will operate more on the conviction of the Reader, than it did on that of my friend.

                                      Dublin, 31st August 1820

SOURCE: Maturin, Charles Robert. "Preface." In Melmoth the Wanderer. 1820. Reprint edition, pp. 5-6. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

There are two kinds of account given of Maturin's place in Gothic fiction, both of them potentially misleading. The first, adopted in several standard literary histories, speaks of Melmoth the Wanderer as the last—and possibly the greatest—of the Gothic novels in the line from Walpole through Radcliffe and Lewis; the final mad fling of a decadent fad for dungeons and ghosts. But of course Melmoth was not really the last of anything; Gothic fiction lingered on in James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and soon revived in the work of Poe; it has remained defiantly undead as a significant presence in Western literature ever since. Nor is it very helpful to see Melmoth as a direct or linear outgrowth of the Radcliffe school alone. The alternative account of Maturin's place in Gothic fiction, indeed, emphasizes his indepen-dence from 'the horrors of Radcliffe-Romance', citing his preface to Melmoth and claiming him as a precursor of Dostoevsky and Kafka, as a psychological novelist rather than a retailer of ghoulish gimmicks. There is no need, however, to counterpose the psychological and the Gothic in this way, as Maturin's modern admirers have often done, nor to deny Melmoth 's evident resort to Radcliffean effects: its crumbling parchments, its subterranean passages, its crucial scene of a wedding sealed by a dead hand.

A more discriminating account of the varieties of Gothic fiction, such as that offered in David Punter's survey The Literature of Terror, is able to reconcile these contending versions of Melmoth 's Gothic status, in the first place by reminding us that although Gothic fiction may be most easily recognized by its paraphernalia of props and settings, its distinctive animating principle is a psychological interest in states of trepidation, dread, panic, revulsion, claustrophobia, and paranoia. The most helpful contribution such an approach can make is to bring into view another cycle of novels whose concerns overlap with those of the most celebrated Gothic works, and share important qualities with Melmoth the Wanderer. this group includes, alongside the well-known Frankenstein (1818) of Mary Shelley, two novels by her father William GodwinCaleb Williams (1794) and St Leon (1799)—together with Hogg's Justified Sinner. Our improved map now includes two linked groups of novels, each concerned with extreme states of mental disturbance. The first mainstream group could be called 'full-dress' Gothic, since it decks out its essential psychological tremors in a uniform costume of lurid effects and trappings; the second unorthodox group carries a much lighter cargo of chains and cowls, so that its similar obsessions with persecution and delusion stand out more clearly. Novels in this second group tend to rely less on the evocation of atmosphere from a monastic or castellar setting than on a fabulous principle of transgression, usually involving the Faustian acquisition of forbidden knowledge.

Melmoth the Wanderer belongs with this Godwinian line of novels, with which it shares some unusual features in its construction. Whereas the romances of Radcliffe had palliated their apparent terrors with the reassuring presence of a pious and rational omniscient narrator, the narratives of Caleb Williams and Frankenstein, like the second part of Hogg's Justified Sinner, give us the intensity of first-person testimony, leading us back through 'flashback' recollections and embedded tales-within-tales to a realm of inward disturbance not commonly accessible to the more placid conventions of third-person narration. It seems from the subsequent history of Gothic fiction that the myth of transgression calls forth (if it does not absolutely require) a distinctive narrative strategy which wraps its central horror in protective or transitional layers of secondary and tertiary report: the 'concentric' accounts of explorer, experimenter, and monster in Frankenstein, the third-hand stories which reach us through Nelly and Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, the recollection of benighted yarn-spinning that constitutes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the elaborately indirect reconstruction of Sutpen's outrages in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!—all these justly celebrated cases of narrative involution construct an imaginative topography of conventional surface and criminal depth which imparts a special resonance to the mythic crime while unsettling or corroding the moral certainties by which it might be condemned. Maturin's novel falls—inadvertently as much as consciously—under this law of Gothic design, although his execution of the embedded narrative pattern remains freakishly irregular even by these standards.

The reader should be forewarned that the design by which Maturin connects the various stories-within-stories in this novel is a preposterously convoluted contrivance, to the despair of his earliest critics, and to the embarrassment of his later admirers. It has neither the symmetry of Frankenstein nor the careful organization of Wuthering Heights. Fortunately, though, the essential logic of the plotting is still clear enough to follow, provided that one is willing not just to suspend disbelief but to throw it to the winds. The story leads us back twice from the early nineteenth century to the late seventeenth; first, through an introductory episode in which the young heir John Melmoth reads an account of the traveller Stanton, who encounters Melmoth the Wanderer in Spain in 1677 and later in London; then at much greater length through Monçada, a shipwrecked Spaniard, who not only tells young Melmoth of his own recent experiences at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition but also repeats to him the accounts of the Wanderer collected by an ancient Jew, Adonijah. The principal story relayed by and from Adonijah is the 'Tale of the Indians', set on an oriental island and in Spain between 1680 and 1684; it allows Melmoth the Wanderer a much more visible role than before, and concerns his attempted seduction of the innocent young castaway Immalee (who reverts to the name of Isi-dora when restored to her Spanish family). Further embedded in this tale are two more stories set slightly earlier in the seventeenth century: another Spanish incident, the 'Tale of Guzman's Family' —more exactly, the tale of his sister, who marries the impoverished Protestant Walberg; and 'The Lovers' Tale', a miniature historical romance concerning an aristocratic Shropshire family divided by the aftermath of civil war. As if this was were not complicated enough, 'The Lovers' Tale' contains within it the testimony of a clergyman who knew Melmoth the Wanderer before he made his satanic bargain to prolong his life by 150 years. The whole creaky and lopsided structure of the novel is finally allowed to collapse: Monçada breaks off before exhausting Adonijah's compendium of tales, as Melmoth the Wanderer appears in person in the present day (that is, 1816), his time at last expiring.

Even if we put aside the multiple improbabilities of all this, we are still left with a strangely overwrought narrative structure. For example, the Shropshire clergyman's relation of Melmoth's early life in 'The Lovers' Tale' forms part of an account spoken by Melmoth himself to Immalee's father, within a story relayed by an unknown source to Adonijah, which is in turn transcribed and later recalled by Monçada, who repeats this fifth-hand information to young John Melmoth; or so we gather, at one further remove, from the impersonal narrator of the novel. Despite the Radcliffean device of the crumbling or illegible manuscript to which Maturin resorts so often, the story is seen to pass unimpaired through these several layers of report and recall, down to the last detail of dialogue and gesture. It seems as if Melmoth's seventeenth-century escapades have the status of an indelible stain, like original sin itself according to the Calvinist doctrine to which Maturin subscribed. For a novel ostensibly concerned with its protagonist's inability to pass on his burden of guilt and horror to another, Melmoth is unusual in that it allows (and in fact demands) that burden to be passed on repeatedly from hand to hand as narration: Adonijah, for instance, is actually obliged, as penance for his crimes of curiosity, to transmit the legend of Melmoth to a younger scribe. This novel is secretly as much about transmission as it is about transgression, but its very structure assumes a principle of transmissibility which its theology denies. A noticeable symptom of this is that the layers of narration which one might expect to be marked by distinct narrative voices are in fact tonally continuous, so that the reader will often forget (as Maturin himself seems to do) just who is speaking at any given point, and just how many pairs of inverted commas are hung around each incident.

The structural oddities observed above tend to run into serious collisions with the doctrinal aims of this novel; but before examining the inconsistencies and contradictions which thus arise, we should grasp Maturin's religious purpose in its context.

Modern approaches to Gothic novels too often take the first short cut to the incestuous and murderous undercurrents of these stories without pausing to consider the important concerns which are visible on the surface; the chief victim of this neglect being the Gothic preoccupation with religious delusions and bigotry. A significant part of the Gothic novel's appeal to its first readers, after all, was that its claustrophobic evocation of scheming, idolatrous Spaniards and Italians allowed Protestant readers in Britain to congratulate themselves on their liberty and their pious rectitude. As one character exclaims in Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest (1791), 'O exquisite misery! 'tis now only I perceive all the horrors of confinement—'tis now only that I understand the value of liberty!' Protestant cultures often seem to favour dramas of persecution and captivity as their adoptive myths of origin, but Maturin was more than usually predisposed to follow this paranoiac inclination of his faith. He was descended from a refugee Huguenot minister who fled France after the Edict of Nantes (which had guaranteed the Protestants some freedom of worship) was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685—the same period to which Melmoth repeatedly returns. This removal from one predominantly Catholic country to another eventually placed Charles Robert Maturin in the service of that Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland which nervously guarded its privileges from the dispossessed Catholic majority in the years between the 1798 uprising and the launching of Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Emancipation movement in 1824. In that same year Maturin published, shortly before his death, a series of sermons on the errors of Catholicism, sermons which were said to have packed his church with eager listeners.

To attack Catholicism was not for Maturin, as it was for Lewis in his prurient Gothic novel The Monk (1796), an antiquarian fancydress frolic. It was a very serious duty of his vocation, to which he was earnestly committed. When he writes in Melmoth of the sinister power which Catholic priests have over the lives of Spanish families, we can guess that his 'Spain' is partly a nightmarish extension of the anxieties he feels about the enduring priestly influence in Catholic Ireland, where the novel begins and ends.

Maturin at first designed this novel, he explains in his Preface, as an extended moral fable illustrating an argument in one of his sermons, to the effect that even the most despairing sinner would never 'accept all that man could bestow, or earth afford, to resign the hope of his salvation'. Our overriding fear of eternal damnation (so the argument runs) will always deter us from selling our souls to the devil, even for the most lavish bribes. When Maturin sets this argument to work within the framework of Gothic fiction, however, it becomes warped almost beyond recognition. To begin with, the central device through which he attempts to illustrate his point—the character of the Wanderer himself—is a glaring anomaly: Melmoth has done exactly what Maturin claims nobody would do, and his subsequent regrets do little to repair the inconsistency. Maturin tries to adjust the terms of his argument by making Melmoth interested only in the purest souls, which he then fails to tempt. As Poe complained in the introductory letter of his Poems (1831), any self-respecting devil would have consigned two thousand souls to perdition in the time Melmoth takes to put his infernal question to only two of his intended victims. From the perfunctory fashion in which several of the supposedly crucial temptations and refusals are skimmed over in this novel, it seems that Maturin's interest in his original plan had subsided in favour of other concerns.

What appears to have happened in the doctrinal foundations of Melmoth 's design is that the original sermon on bargains with the devil was usurped by another sermon, this time about bargains with God. The new sermon which takes over the theological direction of the story came from Maturin's stock repertoire of anti-Papist polemics. Its argument is summarized twice by Monçada: 'But Oh! how false is a treaty made with God, which we ratify with our own blood, when he has declared there is but one sacrifice he will accept, even that of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world!' Later, Monçada reinforces the point, asking rhetorically

if men were taught to look to the one great Sacrifice, would they be so ready to believe that their own, or those of others, could ever be accepted as a commutation for it? You are surprised, Sir, at these sentiments from a Catholic …

And so we should be, since the doctrine expressed here is one of the cardinal principles of Protestantism: Christ, through his unique sacrifice, being the sole intermediary between man and God. (The ventriloquism by which Catholics often find themselves speaking in Lutheran tongues is a minor Gothic convention inherited from Radcliffe's The Italian (1797).) As Maturin extends this sermon, he contrasts the doctrine of the one great Sacrifice with the alleged Catholic belief that God can be hoodwinked into granting salvation to those who put themselves or others through penances, mortifications, and ritual observances. Extrapolated to the point of absurdity, the false doctrine of salvation through torture is voiced by the sadistic parricide who conducts Monçada through the vaults of the monastery, and who has been taught by the monks that his sins are remitted with every punishment he inflicts upon the Church's enemies: 'But your guilt is my exculpation, your sufferings are my triumph. I need not repent, I need not believe; if you suffer, I am saved.'

Maturin thus characterizes Catholicism, along with Hinduism and Judaism, as a religion of suffering, in the central chapter XVI where Melmoth shows Immalee the faiths of the world through a telescope. True biblical Christianity, on the other hand, is represented as a religion of love and tolerance. Accordingly Maturin himself has to make some gestures towards condemning sectarian intolerance, in the episode of the crazed preachers in Stanton's madhouse, and in the reconciliations of 'The Lovers' Tale' ; but the temptation to take clumsy swipes at Papists, Hindus, and Jews frequently gets the better of him. For example, the opening episode of the novel appears to maintain some even-handedness in its caricatures of desiccated Protestant miserliness in the dying uncle and of incoherent Catholic superstition in his attendant crones. But as the novel unfolds, attention to Protestant failings slips almost out of view while the image of the Catholic witch is heavily reinforced in later characters—notably the mothers of Monçada and Immalee, who both stand as types of 'the mother of witchcrafts and spiritual seduction': the Church itself. Maturin tends to cast mothers as greedy persecutors of their innocent offspring, the image of the blood-soaked son recurring with obsessive insistence in Melmoth.

The most significant maternal betrayal is enacted by Monçada's mother in the hope of expiating her sin of fornication through the sacrifice of her own son to the monastic discipline. Her motive here illustrates Maturin's doctrinal point, while the magnificent bejewelled dress in which she prostrates herself before Monçada and secures his monastic vows serves as an allegory of Catholicism's false humility, and above all of its artificiality. Throughout the novel Maturin sustains a thematic contrast between the internal repentance of true faith and the external observances of false superstition; a contrast which is often reduced further to the opposition between Nature and Artifice, especially in the description of monastic life. When Maturin sets up such contrasts, he often allows the dualism of his Calvinist ideology to freeze the novel's action into awkwardly static tableaux. The most protracted and unsatisfactory exercise in this vein is the attempted seduction of Immalee by Melmoth, in which Maturin evidently tries to recapture something of the encounters between Satan and Eve in Paradise Lost. In these chapters the 'unimaginable purity' of Immalee can only be a source of irritation to the modern reader, and even Melmoth's outbursts of self-loathing disappoint in their repetitiveness. There are some grand flourishes of bombast here ('amid thunder I wed thee—bride of perdition!'), but the allegorical postures in which Innocence and Experience signal to one another in these episodes lack convincing energy.

One thing rescues this portion of the novel from mediocrity, and that is the ironic catechism by which Melmoth introduces Immalee to the cruelty of the world beyond her island idyll. Although Maturin obliges his villain to expound (much to his surprise) a number of unimpeachable Protestant doctrines, it is the subversive blasphemies that resound most convincingly—as Maturin seems to have recognized when he appended a disclaimer to the Wanderer's antimonarchist diatribes. The novel comes alive most forcefully when the fixities of Maturin's thematic contrasts begin to dissolve amid the inconsistencies of his narrative structure. When, for example, Melmoth defends the Protestant view of the Bible against the Catholic Church, and we recall that this uncharacteristic behaviour is being related to us in a Jewish text transmitted by a Catholic, something more is involved than mere clumsiness or forgetfulness: an inadvertent dissolution of distinctions is taking place in which the same voice can utter sacrilegious sarcasms and pious platitudes almost in the same breath, erasing the clear line that was expected to lie between them in an 'improving' work of fiction. The whispered execrations of the dying monk in Monçada's monastery, like the confession of the parricide, shocked the novel's first critics, partly because the disorderly nature of the narrative provided no stable means by which these utterances could be isolated; their corrosion spreads uncontrollably through the novel.

These multiple contradictions between doctrinal piety and structural instability in Melmoth seem to radiate from the ambiguous figure of the Wanderer. As we have noticed, he invalidates the very dogma he is invented to illustrate, and he confounds heresy with orthodoxy in his wayward and sarcastic tirades. The problem seems to be that Maturin has overloaded the character with several functions working at cross-purposes. As many readers have observed, Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is a Mephistopheles at the same time; more exactly, he is a Faust whose punishment is to become a Mephistophelean tempter. This doubling of roles is ambitious enough, but Maturin's recklessness piles further responsibilities upon his villain's shoulders: in his visits to the innocent Immalee, the Wanderer has to act the role of Milton's Satan in Eden while also doubling up as the archangel Raphael who justifies the ways of God to Eve and warns her against the archtempter. We could say that Immalee's absolute innocence—a device intended to expose the self-thwarting nature of Melmoth's malignity—tempts Maturin into what is literally a daredevil narrative venture in which the sermons and the blasphemies become dangerously entangled. As Baudelaire remarked in his 1855 essay 'Of the Essence of Laughter', Melmoth the Wanderer is a living contradiction. It is precisely the alarming contradictions of his status that bring him, and the novel, to life.

A further peculiarity of the Wanderer is that while we may loosely refer to him as the novel's central character, his position is most often a marginal one: like the Irish landlords of his day, Melmoth is an absentee villain. Unlike Marlowe's Dr Faustus (Maturin would not have known Goethe's version), Melmoth is, of course, invisible to us as readers, but he is often invisible or unrecognizable even to the characters of the story. A Faust of rumour, his is an existence made up largely of report, reputation, and expectant surmise. He often functions as an offstage whisper, and the fear of his imminent arrival tends to be more powerful than his actual presence upon this melodramatic stage. The strongest parts of the novel, indeed, are those in which Melmoth himself is absent: Monçada's adventures in the monastery (some of them plagiarized from Diderot's novel La Religieuse (1796)) have a force and tension which is unforgettable partly because we forget Melmoth's existence amid the panic, his role as advocate of Despair having been dispersed more convincingly among the inhabitants of the monastery.

Melmoth's direct presence, corrosive as it is, is not necessary to that dissolution of stable identities which so enlivens the best parts of the novel. In the delirious claustrophobia of Monçada's tale, unmatched in any Gothic work in English before Poe, we have a fascinating study of those 'extraordinary vicissitudes of the human mind' in which emotions normally regarded as opposites begin to bleed into one another. From his dissection of Catholic hypocrisy as a blend of extreme libertinism and extreme austerity, Maturin proceeds to show monastic religion as a double-edged sword of ecstasy and despair, and exposes the secret complicity of laughter with guilt. Monçada discovers in himself contradictory mixtures of courage and pusillanimity, of curiosity and aversion; a revelation which culminates in the profound unease with which he recognizes that the conspiracy against him has been joined by his own strongest feelings: 'where the whole world is against us, we begin to take its part against ourselves, to avoid the withering sensation of being alone on our own side.'

Similar possibilities of self-betrayal are raised earlier in a very revealing description by Melmoth of a demented preacher whose yells disturb Stanton in the madhouse:

Half the day he imagines himself in a pulpit, denouncing damnation against Papists, Arminians, and even Sublapsarians … He foams, he writhes, he gnashes his teeth; you would imagine him in the hell he was painting, and that the fire and brimstone he is so lavish of, were actually exhaling from his jaws. At night his creed retaliates on him; he believes himself one of the reprobates he has been all day denouncing, and curses God for the very decree he has all day been glorifying Him for.

It is tempting to take this as Maturin's confession, his acknowledgement that this novel is all the time mocking its own religious tenets with some species of nocturnal sabotage. Certainly he was alert to the treacherous subversions of what we now call the unconscious: 'Oh, Sir,' Monçada confides to young Melmoth, 'there are some criminals of the imagination, whom if we could plunge into the oubliettes of its magnificent but lightly-based fabric, its lord would reign more happy.'

A final remark should be made on one unexpected feature of this novel's psychological concerns. This is the recurrent theme of monotony which Maturin introduces and defends in his Preface, where he contrasts the startling adventures of Radcliffe-Romance with his own more credible portrayal of 'that irritating series of petty torments which constitutes the misery of life in general'. The events of the novel turn out after all to be more incredibly startling than anything in Radcliffe, but Maturin's indication of an interest in petty torments, in stagnation and boredom as the basis of curiosity and despair, is borne out in many of Melmoth 's stories. Maturin repeatedly dwells on a curious dialectic in which the monotonous becomes intense, while intensity becomes monotonous. He seems at times to be seeking the sources of Gothic horror in a realm usually assumed to be very remote from it: that of domestic realism, where the pressure of petty circumstances acts more powerfully than any devil as a temptation to crime. This 'realist' picture of life is visible even in some of the most macabre Gothic episodes, like that of the lovers whose hunger drives them to cannibalism; but the most remarkable of these fusions between realism and Gothicism occurs in the 'Tale of Guzman's Family'.

The Guzman or Walberg Story is often dismissed as unimportant padding, but some more perceptive critics have identified it as a central clue to the obsessions which drive this novel. Deeply embedded in the heart of Melmoth 's lopsided structure, the tale of Guzman's heirs concentrates many of Maturin's own fears of impending poverty, and some of his presumed resentments against his family's financial claims upon him. It is money, after all, that sets this story in motion, from John Melmoth's first arrival at his rich uncle's deathbed to the fatal inheritance which ruins the Mortimers in 'The Lovers' Tale'. More particularly, it is family wealth which repeatedly brings disaster to the novel's leading characters: Stanton, Monçada, Immalee, and Elinor are all in their various ways imprisoned by their own mercenary relatives, in an arrangement which marries the inheritance plot of realist fiction to the confinement plot of the Gothic novel. The disturbing feature of the Guzman tale is that it locates its Gothic obsessions—parricide, filicide, vampirism—so firmly within the bosom of the family institution itself, grafted as it is by legacies on to the root of all evil. Melmoth the Wanderer is, at its best, a 'gripping' novel, its furious intensity betraying a compulsion which possessed Maturin as he composed it: the grip, that is, of urgent financial necessity which, as the Preface admits, 'compels' him to write.

There is some aptness in the fact that the sequel which Maturin seems to have planned came to be written instead by Balzac, the great forerunner of realism in European fiction. For there is in this dungeon of a book something like a realist novel trying to escape. Intermittently it hints that the most powerful 'enemy of mankind' is not the devil but poverty and inherited property; but it never manages to break out of its Gothic bastille. We may, so to speak, hear it tapping feebly on the walls, but its protest is overwhelmed by the howling blasphemies of its neighbours, Maturin's more desperate criminals of the imagination.


SOURCE: Haslam, Richard. "Maturin and the 'Calvinist Sublime.'" In Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, pp. 44-56. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

In the following essay, Haslam studies the effects of Calvinist religious doctrine and nineteenth-century Irish society on Maturin, as evidenced in his use of the "Gothic sublime" in Melmoth the Wanderer.

Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me. Why do ye persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh? Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!

                                  (Job 19:21-24)

Job's request that his words be printed in a book is of course answered self-reflexively in the Book of Job itself, but his lament and his yearning echo also through the labyrinthine narrative of Melmoth the Wanderer, that celebrated gothic extravaganza published in 1820 and penned by Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824), a Church of Ireland clergyman.1

I wish first to examine what I call the 'Calvinist sublime' at work in Maturin's novel and how it produces distinctively gothic effects, and then to consider how the trajectory of this Calvinist sublime is inflected by Maturin's historical situation in nineteenth-century Ireland and specifically by his involvement in religious polemics.

The first of the so-called 'five points' of Calvinist doctrine asserted the predestined election to Heaven or reprobation to Hell of every individual, not conditional on belief. Calvin usually silenced queries and fears about the workings of predestination by an appeal to the aggressive question of St Paul in Romans 9: 20-21: 'O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?' But such was the controversy generated by the doctrine of predestination outlined in Book III of his Institutes of the Christian Religion2 that Calvin was forced to produce a separate work justifying his interpretation: in Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (1552), Calvin mobilises St Augustine to support his denial of the claim that those who believe are chosen; rather, they are chosen in order to believe—election comes before faith. The cause of this arrangement is 'just though unknown'.3 Calvin defensively states that 'if those who attribute the hardening of men to His eternal counsel invest God with the character of a tyrant, we are certainly not the author of this opinion' (p. 60).

But the perception of God as an inscrutable tyrant, whimsically determining at the dawn of time that some should be elect, the rest reprobate, was nonetheless a possible and rebarbative byproduct of Calvin's system. In attempting to justify the wiles of God to men, Calvin asserts that God is 'the cause of all happenings, yet not the author of evil', a paradox that unleashes intolerable moral and intentional contradictions within his system, and places an unbearable burden on those adherents who brood upon it too intensely (pp. 168-170). William Bouwsma, in his biography of Calvin, claims that the Sermons on Job (1563) support the hypothesis that Calvin believed there to be a kind of satisfaction owed by creature to Creator that is neither moral nor possible. 'He saw guilt in creatureliness itself, guilt shared even by human beings created in God's image before the Fall, guilt towards the Father even on the part of his good children, guilt in existing'.4

Two centuries after Calvin, the Book of Job acted as a stimulus to aesthetic as well as theological reflection. According to Paul Fry, 'not only Schiller but the entire eighteenth century makes Job the Ur-text of the sublime …'.5 Forty years before Schiller's essay 'On the Sublime' (1797–1800), Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) also drew upon the Book of Job in order to substantiate his innovative claim that a mode of terror was an essential component of the sublime sentiment.6 Burke is significantly reluctant, however, to confront directly the central drama of Job: the spectacle of a swaggering, bullying, self-justifying God who, through his instrument 'the Satan', humiliates and tortures his innocent creature. Instead, in the section entitled 'Power', Burke claims that, while such divine attributes as wisdom, justice and goodness are evident to reason, the imagination is struck principally by the apprehension of divine power:

But whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him. And though a consideration of his other attributes may relieve in some measure our apprehensions; yet no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand.

                                          (p. 68)

In using the term Calvinist sublime, I refer both to Burke's terminology and to the Freudian concept of 'sublimation': the Calvinist sublime is a theologized aesthetics in which elements of the Calvinist system are sublimated out of a creed and into an artistic programme. A Calvinist sublime, however, can only function when some degree of religious doubt is at work. If, as a sincere Calvinist, one believes completely in the creed's more terrifying aspects then the conditions for a Calvinist sublime will be absent, for as Burke observes in his Enquiry, 'when danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we see in everyday experience' (p. 40). Burke's sublime is a mode of terror, operating only if there is an aesthetic remove between event or object and perceiver. Unalloyed belief or pure terror disperse the Calvinist sublime; only when the parasite of doubt excavates an internal space can it coalesce.

The contribution of Burke's ideas on the sublime to the formation of gothic fiction was attested by Ann Radcliffe in her posthumously published essay, 'On the Supernatural in Poetry' (1826),7 and has been substantiated by critics like David Punter, in his absorbing 1980 survey The Literature of Terror,8 but what of the intersections between Calvinism and the Gothic? Joel Porte's 1974 essay 'In the Hands of an Angry God'9 locates in William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817) and The Lost Man (1826), and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798) the agency of an 'internalized Calvinism' (p. 54), a representation of terror that is fundamentally theological. Victor Sage, in Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (1989),10 asserts the relevance of Calvinism, contending that 'the cause and the effect of the horror experience in English culture is a form of 'theological uncertainty', an anxiety which is recognisable at many different levels of consciousness' (p. xvii); along with earlier critics such as Irene Bostrom and Sister Mary Muriel Tarr,11 Sage relates the rise and dominance of literary Gothic to the growth from the 1770s onwards of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation. The Emancipation Act was passed in 1829, but Sage suggests that the continuance of the horror novel 'is equally, if not more strongly, related to the subsequent struggles, doctrinal and political, which flared up between Catholic and Protestant throughout the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth' (pp. 28-29). Maturin died before the passing of the Emancipation Act, but his novels and sermons are patently bound up with the religious controversies that smouldered and then flared up in Ireland in the wake of the 1801 Act of Union. The Calvinist sublime in Maturin's fiction is refracted through this historical prism. In the year 1813, Maturin wrote to his literary mentor Walter Scott, 'I am a High Calvinist in my religious opinions, and therefore viewed with jealousy by Unitarian Brethren and Arminian Masters';12 by 1824, in his Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church, 13 Maturin was referring to Calvinism as one of the 'melancholy aberrations of the human spirit' (p. 13). This suggests that Maturin's first novel, Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio (1807), was composed when the novelist was—as it were—a card-carrying Calvinist, while the more renowned Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) was composed in the period when Maturin was—at least officially—removing himself from hardline Calvinism. The aesthetic distance thereby gained may be one of the reasons for the greater achievement of Melmoth.

James Boulger, in his study The Calvinist Temper in English Poetry (1980),14 has identified the following tenets as crucial to the formation of what he terms a 'Calvinist aesthetics': the sensation of terror; anxiety in the face of an arbitrary and inscrutable divine power; resentment against a god whose motives and actions seem those of an enemy; helplessness; a state of sinconsciousness unrelieved by any sustained sense of assurance; the ceaseless search for signs of election or reprobation within the self and the outside world; and detailed analysis of one's state of mind, heart and soul in written journals or letters. These tenets are presented in crude form in Maturin's Fatal Revenge and in more sophisticated guise in Melmoth. Thus when describing Ippolito, one of the two unfortunate brothers in Fatal Revenge, the narrator declares:

The anguish of terror that cannot name its object, and of guilt that cannot ascertain its danger, gathered over his mind. A sensation of rare and excruciating influence; the sensation of all our measures being anticipated; our progress measured and ruined; the exact reach of our boundary calculated and shadowed out; the inmost recesses of our mind violated and laid waste; and Omniscience engaged on the side of our enemies to destroy us, overcame him.

                                 (II, pp. 297-298)

The narrator revealingly employs scripture to evoke Ippolito's despair, his 'sense of invisible and universal persecution':

His distraction almost applied to the stupendous frame of the Psalmist, when he exclaimed, 'Whither shall I go from thy presence?' Of the latter clause he felt the truth too forcibly, 'If I go down to Hell, thou art there also.

                                        (II, p. 282)

In Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin develops these allusions to the inscrutable operations of an arbitrary Calvinist machine. Alonzo, protagonist of the 'Tale of the Spaniard', having been terrorised by his family and their spiritual 'Director' into joining a monastic community, laments:

… I felt my destiny was fixed—I had no wish to avert or arrest it—I was like one who sees an enormous engine (whose operation is to crush him to atoms) put in motion, and, stupefied with horror, gazes on it with a calmness that might be mistaken for that of one who was coolly analyzing the complications of its machinery, and calculating the resistless crush of its blow.

                                              (p. 91)

Later, imprisoned in total darkness in a convent dungeon, Alonzo tries to occupy his mind by attempting to keep time, in order to measure the hours of his confinement. Assailed by doubts that he might be counting sixty-second periods faster than the clock, he 'wished to be the clock, that I might have no feeling, no motive for hurrying on the approach of time' (pp. 146-147). Released eventually from confinement, Alonzo reads of his brother's escape plan and prepares to flee from the convent:

After reading these lines, I appeared to myself like a piece of mechanism wound up to perform certain functions, in which its co-operation was irresistible … the shortness of time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also none for choice. I was like a clock whose hands are pushed forward and I struck the hours I was impelled to strike.

                                        (p. 180)

Such horological conceits, which keep pace with the claustrophobic conviction that time is fast running out, culminate near the end of the novel in the apocalyptic dream of Melmoth the Wanderer, in which he sees a vast 'dial-plate', a clock with one hand, which is nearing 'the appointed period of 150 years'; as Melmoth plummets into a burning ocean

… his last despairing reverted glance was fixed on the clock of eternity—the upraised black arm seemed to push forward the hand—it arrived at its period—he fell—he sunk—he blazed—he shrieked! The burning waves boomed over his sinking head, and the clock of eternity rung out its awful chime—'Room for the soul of the Wanderer!'—and the waves of the burning ocean answered, as they lashed the adamantine rock—'There is room for more!'

                                        (p. 539)

Claude Fierobe has observed that because Melmoth is represented as having chosen his destiny, a choice which his victims later rejected, we cannot speak of predestination in the strict sense of the term (p. 575). We might also recall the claim of the sinister Fr. Schemoli in Fatal Revenge that 'the first movement is voluntary, all that follow are consequential and inevitable' (II, p. 240). But, despite such technical exemptions, the grain of both novels is in the direction of a metaphysics of predestination, of the 'omnipotence of fate' (Fatal Revenge, III, p. 110). The very structure of the novel, with its narratives incarcerated one within another, recapitulates this thematic determinism.

However, the sequence most relevant to the evocation of a Calvinist sublime is the tale which stands outside that 'Chinese box' of narratives nested in 'The Tale of the Spaniard', namely the mutilated manuscript discovered by young John Melmoth that tells of the experiences of the Englishman Stanton. Deceived into entering, and now incarcerated within, a madhouse outside London, Stanton is another of Maturin's victims of involuntary confinement; next door to his cell is a puritanical weaver, who had been driven mad by a single sermon from the celebrated Hugh Peters, and was sent to the mad-house 'as full of election and reprobation as he could hold—and fuller'. The mad weaver 'regularly repeated over the five points while day-light lasted, and imagined himself preaching in a conventicle with distinguished success; towards twilight his visions were more gloomy, and at midnight his blasphemies became more horrible': these ravings reveal an occluded, sanguine sexuality seething beneath the purified rites of the conventicle:

Sister Ruth, why doth thou uncover thy bosom to discover my frailty?… Dip all thy garments in blood, and let me weave thee fresh when thou art stained—when shall thy saints tread the winepress of thy wrath? Blood! blood! the saints call for it, earth gapes to swallow it, hell thirsts for it!—Sister Ruth, I pray thee, conceal thy bosom, and be not as the vain women of this generation…. Sister Ruth, tempt me not with that calf's head, it is all streaming with blood—drop it, I beseech thee, sister, it is unmeet in woman's hand, though the brethren drink of it….

                                        (pp. 50-51)

Stanton is tempted by Melmoth, who offers him release from the madhouse, on the terms of an 'incommunicable condition', which is ultimately communicated at the close of the novel: the condition is that Stanton exchange his fate for that of Melmoth, at the price of his soul. Stanton eventually rejects this proposal, but not before Melmoth brings home to him the full horror that confronts Stanton in the madhouse:

'Listen', said the tempter, pausing, 'listen to the wretch who is raving near you, and whose blasphemies might make a demon start. He was once an eminent puritanical preacher. Half the day he imagines himself in a pulpit, denouncing damnation against Papists, Arminians, and even Sublapsarians (he being a Supra-lapsarian himself). He foams, he writhes, he gnashes his teeth; you would imagine him in the hell he was painting, and that the fire and the brimstone he is so lavish of, were actually exhaling from his jaws. At night his creed retaliates on him; he believes himself one of the reprobates he has been all day denouncing, and curses God for the very decree he has all day been glorifying him for…. He grapples with the iron posts of his bed, and says he is rooting out the cross from the very foundations of Calvary; and it is remarkable, that in proportion as his morning exercises are intense, vivid, and eloquent, his nightly blasphemies are outrageous and horrible.—Hark! Now he believes himself a demon; listen to his diabolical eloquence of horror!' Stanton listened, and shuddered.

                                     (pp. 57-58)

This resonant passage encapsulates what I mean by the term 'Calvinist sublime': in a process which Jungian psychology would term 'enantiodromia', Maturin's Calvinism retaliates on him and in response is aesthetically sublimated into the 'diabolical eloquence of horror'. William Haller, in The Rise of Puritanism claims that 'it was of the very essence of Puritan self-discipline that whatsoever thoughts and actions the old Adam within has most desire to keep hidden, the very worst abominations of the heart, one must when retired to one's chamber at night draw forth into the light of conscience. To set them down in writing, albeit in secret 'character', was a great help in this. They were the devil incarnate in men and could drag him down to hell'.15 This account of purging one's deepest abominations of heart through nocturnal writing in secret character might serve as a metaphor of Maturin's novel-writing, which was done principally at night.16

Paralleling this cryptographic Calvinism, however, is a recurrent fascination with the Roman Catholic church, which Maturin throughout his gothic novels depicts (in a manner strangely akin to his representation of the Calvinist sublime) as a vast system for subjugation. According to J. M. Roberts, in his The Mythology of the Secret Societies,17 the common assertion underlying belief in such diverse secret societies as the Freemasons, the Jesuits, the Carbonari, or the Comintern, is that 'there is an occult force operating behind the seemingly real outward forms of political life. No discovery, no penetration of the veils of secrecy can ever be assumed to have revealed the full truth about the hidden directors who are, in extreme statements, said to preside over societies which appear to be in conflict with one another' (p. 150). We can see Maturin articulating this kind of conspiratorial paranoia in Melmoth, when the parricide monk harangues Alonzo:

'And you dreamt', he cried, 'in your temerity, you dreamt of setting the vigilance of a convent at defiance? Two boys, one the fool of fear, and the other of temerity, were fit antagonists for that stupendous system, whose roots are in the bowels of the earth, and whose head is among the stars,—you escape from a convent! you defy a power that has defied sovereigns! A power whose influence is unlimited, indefinable, and unknown, even to those who exercise it, as there are mansions so vast, that their inmates, to their last hour, have never visited all the apartments; a power whose operation is like its motto,—one and indivisible. The soul of the Vatican breathes in the humblest convent in Spain,—and you, an insect perched on a wheel of this vast machine, imagined you were able to arrest its progress, while its rotation was hurrying on to crush you to atoms.

                                 (pp. 219-220)18

In his second novel, The Wild Irish Boy, Maturin had claimed that Evangelical students at Trinity College found 'the system of Calvin' to be 'amazingly splendid and awful', because 'a youthful mind in its first pursuit of religion neither inquires for evidence nor wishes conviction; it demands something that may fill to the utmost its capacity of the marvellous, something under which its faculties may succumb in mute acquiescence' (I, pp. 122-23). It is clear that in Catholicism as well as Calvinism Maturin sought this 'capacity of the marvellous'; for Maturin, Catholicism was the matrix of the malign Inquisi-tion, the Jesuit cabal, and especially of every form of superstition. During the composition of Melmoth, Maturin wrote to Walter Scott thus:

I am writing at present a poetical Romance, a wild thing that has a Chance of pleasing more than Regular performances … tales of superstition were always my favourites, I have in fact been always more conversant with the visions of another world, than the realities of this, and in my Romance I have determined to display all by diabolical resources, out-Herod all the Herods of the German school, and get the possession of the Magic lamp with all its slaves from the Conjurer Lewis himself.19

However, Maturin's obsession with Catholicism cannot be explained solely by the artistic possibilities and psychological satisfaction it afforded him. As already noted, his novels appeared in the period between the Act of Union and Catholic Emancipation and they are vehicles of propaganda as well as of entertainment. Maturin's gothic Spain of sinister priests and superstitious populace is also a veiled commentary on Ireland, while his Spanish Catholic heroes often utter rather unorthodox sentiments. Victor Sage notes that the Spaniard Alonzo is a 'Lutheran puppet' (p. 34) and Chris Baldick observes that 'the ventriloquism by which Catholics often find themselves speaking in Lutheran tongues is a minor Gothic convention inherited from Radcliffe's The Italian (1797)'.20

However, the different nature of pro- or anti-Emancipation pamphleteering in England and Ireland was conditioned by the simple fact that in the former country Catholics were a minority and in the latter a majority. Desmond Bowen, in The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800–1870, locates a crucial turning point as the 24th of October, 1822, when the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, William Magee, attacked both Presbyterians and Catholics and, in effect, announced a 'Second Reformation'.21 His address launched a furious pamphlet war and Maturin's 1824 Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church can be seen as a strategic intervention and possibly as a bid for promotion. Maturin's stance, however, clearly antedates Magee's intervention, since it had already been articulated in less hyperbolic terms five years earlier in his Sermons (1819). The Catholicism against which Maturin inveighs in his sermons is less the 'stupendous system' of Melmoth and more the oppressor of spirit, gaoler of the soul, and traducer of the Bible: in a 'Charity Sermon' Maturin combines a charitable appeal for funds with an espousal of proselytizing, and while playing on the political fears of his Protestant congregation, introduces the concept of religion as an ideological weapon:

Your money cannot satiate the rage of the drunkard,—your money cannot make the indolent work,—your money cannot convince of his folly the giddy wretch who listens to the frantic and wicked lies of the demagogue,—your money cannot bribe to peace those fierce and horrid passions which have defaced the order of society, and made the aristocracy of this country tremble in their down and ermine. Money can never do this; but what money never can do, religion can.

                         (Sermons, pp. 238-39)

In his Five Sermons, published five years later, Maturin is forced to concede that in Ireland, 'this unhappy country', 'political causes, perhaps, operate more powerfully than religious ones' (pp. 151-52), but he nonetheless apostrophises the Catholic community:

Roman Catholics of Ireland hear me! Ye call on the rulers of the land for emancipation—emancipate yourselves from the yoke that has pressed on your intellect and your consciences for centuries. Whatever be the civil restraints ye complain of, I do not judge; but remember this, that the restraints ye voluntarily bear are a thousand times more deadly than any earthly despot could possibly lay on man. The shackles of political restraint when once broken, leave no marks; but the iron of priestcraft 'entereth the soul.'

                                       (pp. 123-24)

Nonetheless, the obsessive representation of Catholicism in Maturin's novels indicates a 'cathexis' in excess of any merely proselytizing agenda. An index of the complexity of his theologized aesthetics and his aestheticized theology can be found in Women (1818), the novel which preceded Melmoth : when his heroine Zaira encounters an old woman at a Dublin dissenter meeting-house, she 'revived in Zaira's memory the idea of the old nun in the convent near Paris. There was the same sterility, vacancy, and uniformity in their characters. A person unacquainted with religious distinctions would scarce have known one from the other; yet, in one respect, they were antipodes to one another—Catholicism and Calvinism placed an immeasurable distance between them' (III, p. 303). This is the daylight Maturin, repudiating Catholicism and Calvinism; yet, in his midnight-writing, the two creeds are—like Alonzo and the parricide monk—in a relationship that happens 'to unite very opposite characters in the same adventure … an union inevitable and inseparable', a 'union of antipodes' (Melmoth, pp. 187, 202). There are, however, aesthetic if not theological benefits to be gained from the fusing of convent and conventicle: Zaira, the elegant and cosmopolitan actress who arrives in Dublin from Italy, is ultimately revealed to be both the daughter of a dissolute Protestant Ascendancy landlord and a Catholic peasant girl whom he had seduced, and the mother of a daughter who has been raised as an evangelical Methodist. Zaira's family ties link a number of Ireland's major denominations; presumably this triggers her self-created theology, which blends various religious systems. According to the narrator, Zaira's theology 'was more inquisitive, daring, and autocrative than Catholicism; more full of exterior forms, self infliction and 'voluntary humility' than the reformed religion; its speculative part verged very much towards Calvinism; its outward towards popery—for her imagination dictated even in religion, and it was gratified by combining the ambitious and exclusive theory of Calvin (which may be said to establish a kind of religious aristocracy,) with the meretricious and attractive exterior of Catholicism'.22

Thus Maturin's intense and memorable gothic fiction is a function of an aesthetic rapprochement between conflicting elements which, as his sermons indicate, he was not able to reproduce in the religious or political dimensions. The Calvinist sublime at work in his gothic novels is given a particular inflection by the forces of religious and political controversy operating at his particular historical moment.

The gothic fiction of another Irishman, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873), also exhibits the characteristics of a Calvinist sublime, but because Le Fanu wrote at a later historical moment, the expression of this Calvinist sublime is subtly modulated. The same process occurs in writers like William Godwin, James Hogg, Charles Brockden Brown, Poe and Hawthorne, where the relevant cultural differences might allow us to speak of English, Scottish and American Calvinist sublimes, each inflected by their distinct historical moments.

Clearly, I do not have the space to substantiate my claim that these authors (and twentieth-century writers such as Thomas Pynchon) also explore the contours of the Calvinist sublime. But I would like to conclude with mention of a novel published 102 years after Melmoth the Wanderer. In the 'Oxen of the Sun' chapter of Ulysses, Joyce parodies the successive phases of English Literature; in the following extract, in which Malachi (Buck) Mulligan is entertaining medical students with accounts of a recent murder, a revelation is made (about the visiting Englishman Haines) that humorously encapsulates some of the ideas about Irish history and the Gothic that I've been pursuing:

But Malachias' tale began to freeze them with horror. He conjured up the scene before them. The secret panel beside the chimney slid back and in the recess appeared … Haines! Which of us did not feel his flesh creep? He had a portfolio full of Celtic literature in one hand, in the other a phial marked Poison. Surprise, horror, loathing were depicted on all faces while he eyed them with a ghastly grin. 'I anticipated some such reception', he began with an eldritch laugh, 'for which, it seems, history is to blame'.23


1. Melmoth the Wanderer (London: 1820; 1968).

2. Jean Calvin, 1536–1559, A Compend of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (London: 1965), 1st ed. 1536, final ed. 1559.

3. Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: 1961; 1st ed. 1552;) p. 156; see also pp. 62-68.

4. William Bouwsma, Jean Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford: 1988), p. 42.

5. Paul Fry, 'The Possession of the Sublime', Studies in Romanticism XXVI, no.2 (1987), pp. 187-220.

6. Edmund Burke, 1757, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: 1958).

7. Ann Radcliffe, 'On the Supernatural in Poetry', New Monthly Magazine VII (1826), pp. 149-50.

8. David Punter, The Literature of Terror (London: 1980), pp. 44-45, 85-86.

9. Joel Porte, 'In the Hands of an Angry God', in The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, ed. G. R. Thompson (Washington: 1974), pp. 42-64.

10. Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (London: 1989).

11. Irene Bostrom, 'The Novel and Catholic Emancipation', Studies in Romanticism 11 (1963), pp. 155-76; Sister Mary Muriel Tarr, Catholicism in Gothic Fiction in England (1762–1820), (New York: 1946; 1979).

12. Cited in Claude Fierobe, Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824): L'Homme et L'Oeuvre (Lille: 1974), p. 577.

13. Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church (London: 1824).

14. James Boulger, The Calvinist Temper in English Poetry (The Hague: 1980).

15. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: 1938), p. 100; cited Boulger, p. 55.

16. See Fierobe, p. 155.

17. J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (London: 1972).

18. In Maturin's last novel, The Albigenses, the cynical Bishop invokes a similar rhetoric:

'The vast system of which I am no feeble engine, hastens to the consummation of its working—the conquest of the world. That old and mighty Rome, of whom pedants prate, subdued but the meaner part of man—his body; but our Rome enslaves the mind—that mind, which, once enslaved, leaves nothing for opposition or for defeat … for ours is the power that not only binds the spirit but makes it clasp its chain; ours are the powers of the world to come; all that is potent in life, all that is mysterious in futurity, the fears the hopes the hearts of mankind, all are ours …'

                            (III, pp. 203-204)

19. In his Sermons, Maturin makes the following confession:

'The very first sounds almost that attract the ears of childhood are tales of another life—foolishly are they called tales of superstition; for, however disguised by the vulgarity of the narration, and the distortion of fiction, they tell him of those whom he is hastening from the threshold of life to join, the inhabitants of the invisible world, with whom he must soon be forever.'

(p. 358, cited in Peter Mills Henderson, A Nut Between Two Blades: The Novels of Charles Maturin (New York: 1980) p. 16)

20. Chris Baldick, 'Introduction' to Melmoth the Wanderer (Oxford: 1989), pp. vii-xxiv, p. xiv.

21. Desmond Bowen, The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800–1870 (Dublin: 1978), pp. 83-123.

22. Women, III, p. 235. A bleaker picture of Maturin's predicament is afforded in a letter written by Sir Charles Morgan, a few weeks before Maturin died:

'Poor Maturin is ill, severely ill; we (the Drs.) have sent him into the country, I fear, to die. Not content with drawing "the saints" down upon him, he has attacked the "papishes" and is now in the condition somewhat of a nut between the blades of a nutcracker.'

(cited in Niilo Idman, Charles Robert Maturin: His Life and Works (London: 1923), p. 308)

23. James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922 (New York: 1961), p. 412.

Other works cited:

Charles Maturin, Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio, 3 vols (London: 1807).

――――――. The Wild Irish Boy, 3 vols, New York (1808; 1979).

――――――. Women; or, Pour et Contre, 3 vols, New York (1818; 1979).

――――――. Sermons, London (1819).

――――――. The Albigenses London (1824).


SOURCE: Lanone, Catherine. "Verging on the Gothic: Melmoth's Journey to France." In European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange, 1760–1960, edited by Avril Horner, pp. 71-83. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

In the following essay, Lanone analyzes the influence of French culture, politics, and literature on Melmoth the Wanderer and Maturin's influence on French writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac.

Often considered to be the last true Gothic novel,1Melmoth was translated into French as early as 1821, first by Mme E. F. Bégin under the title L'Homme du mystère, ou histoire de Melmoth le voyageur, then by J. Cohen under the title Melmoth ou l'homme errant. But the text was cut and altered; only in 1965 was a full translation given by Jacqueline Marc-Chadourne. Jean-Jacques Pauvert chose to publish this with André Breton's famous 1954 preface, which praised its influence on French literature. Not surprisingly, the leader of Surrealism considered all the hallucinatory desires, the dark castles and visions found in Gothic novels as a potent 'drug'; indeed, Breton compared the visual impact of The Castle of Otranto to the cinematic thrill caused in 1929 by Bunuel's eerie image of the razor cutting through the eye in Un chien andalou. But Breton seems to find Melmoth particularly compelling, describing it as a great meteorite flashing through the frame of the Gothic window, an endless shower of ashes mysteriously suspended for a brief moment ('On doit attendre jusqu'à 1820 pour qu'un nouveau météore se détache du cadre rituel de la fenêtre ogivale, suspendant son interminable pluie de cendres' (Breton 1996: 15)). I wish to pursue here the motif of the shower of ashes, and discuss the way Melmoth, itself influenced by Diderot's La Religieuse (Lévy 1995: 579), crossed the Channel to spark fresh inspiration in France at the precise moment when the great Gothic fires of damnation were yielding to the ashen precision of realism in both countries.

For Annie Le Brun, nineteenth-century French literature defines itself in terms of its relationship with the Gothic—especially with Melmoth the Wanderer —whether this influence is acknowledged or not (Le Brun 1982). At a time when France was still scarred by the violence of the Revolution and of Napoleonic wars, and a new bourgeois order was emerging, the sheer darkness of Melmoth was bound to trigger fear and fascination, especially since the novel glosses over the circumstances which lead Melmoth to surrender his soul; it focuses on the aftermath, the long quest for someone who might sell a soul and free the tempter. Maturin becomes 'a practitioner of psychopathological taxonomy' (Punter 1996: 128), but the taxonomy is curiously unstable, as cruel religious institutions (Sage 1988) and everyday evil outdo the arch villain, whose death eventually fails to provide secure catharsis.

Thus Melmoth the Wanderer darkly conveys the disturbing forces plaguing society, and depicts potential disruption and the violence inherent in humanity. Baldick defines the Gothic as a 'sickening descent into disintegration' (Baldick 1992: xix). In this case, we have several descents into degradation and abjection; the pattern of claustrophobic enclosure occurs both symbolically—through poverty and lack of love—and literally—in the cells of the Inquisition or the subterranean labyrinth of convents. This core of darkness was bound to appeal to Romantics and Surrealists, who were fascinated by the apparition of Melmoth on a lonely rock towering above the stormy sea, or by the play on nightmares and dreams—those dreams which magically take Immalee back to her island every night.

Indeed, the text builds claustrophobic boundaries which it challenges, through the figure of the ubiquitous eponymous character whom no walls can stop; who appears quietly at the bottom of a hidden cell in Spain or in the middle of a wild, luscious island; who appears unchanged from one century to the next. Just as we share the sense of entrapment which shatters all secondary characters, we are fascinated by the dreamlike, bewildering erasure of all spatial boundaries as the powerful protagonist switches effortlessly from tale to tale.

The most subversive element in Melmoth the Wanderer may well be the structure of the text itself. Balzac especially was fascinated by Maturin's daring energy, calling him, in the Preface to La Peau de chagrin, the most original writer in contemporary Britain. Indeed, Melmoth plays obsessively with textual boundaries, embedding narrative layers to create a fractal set of Chinese boxes. Centuries go by while the focus switches from one sorry plight to another, weaving an ironic rosary of evil, as Monçada warns his listener: 'have patience, and you will find that we are all beads strung on the same string' (Maturin 2000: 332).


We do not envy those who are incapacitated by extreme delicacy of taste, or, we should rather perhaps say, by extreme indulgence in the habits of strict criticism, from enjoying such works as those of Mr. Maturin. They are all, prose and verse, full of faults so numerous, that it would be quite fatiguing—so obvious, that it would be quite useless to point them out…. The author, in a very great proportion of every work he has written, has been contented with copying the worst faults of his predecessors and contemporaries, in the commonest walks of fictitious writing. In his best passages there is always a mixture of extravagance—in the whole of his works there is not, perhaps, to be found one page of perfectly natural thought, or perfectly elegant language. And yet, where is the lover of imaginative excitement, that ever laid down one of his books unfinished—or the man of candour and discrimination, who ever denied, after reading through any one of them, that Maturin is gifted with a genius as fervently powerful as it is distinctly original—that there is ever and anon a truth of true poetry diffused over the thickest chaos of his absurdities—and that he walks almost without a rival, dead or living, in many of the darkest, but, at the same time, the most majestic circles of romance?

Mr. Maturin is, without question, one of the most genuine masters of the dark romance. He can make the most practised reader tremble as effectually as Mrs. Radcliffe, and what is better, he can make him think as deeply as Mr. Godwin. We cannot carry the commendation sought for by this species of exertion much higher than we do when we say, that in our opinion, a little more reflection and labour are all Mr. Maturin wants, in order to enable him to attain a permanent eminence.

SOURCE: "Melmoth the Wanderer, &c." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 8, no. 44 (November 1820): 161-68.

Thus the novel metatextually exposes its own devices, foregrounding gaps rather than excusing them, the way in which the Gothic text seeks both to establish and challenge boundaries, subverting systematic claustration into an exploration of emptiness, discovering a dark, giddy void at the heart of life. The novel delights in its literally amazing structure. The traditional witness account, which is faithfully reported, is mocked by the totally illogical discovery of an old Jew's cabinet of curiosities, in which Monçada must sit by skeletons and copy the wondrous tales of Melmoth, including the tediously slow courtship of Immalee, though no possible explanation can ever be found for such a text. The oral repetition of the written copy of the mysterious illogical text (which paradoxically allows a straight heterodiegetic approach to the Wanderer's own love story) creates a dizzy narrative structure. Victor Sage points out 'the relentless fragmentation of the process of transmission' (Sage 2000: xviii). Rosemary Jackson also emphasizes the way in which Melmoth deconstructs the very notion of representation, equivocating over interpretation, interrogations and evasions: 'Its relentlessly fragmented structure permits the reader little security. One scene spirals and merges into another, each tale breaking off to lead to another tale, equally truncated, incomplete' (Jackson 1988: 104). The tainted palimpsest expands yet shrinks, the tales which are read, copied, told and retold or burnt, weave a cancerous texture, as if the text were eroded by an uncertain disease.

Thematically the reader must enter this deterritorialized, wandering text in order to share, not the story of the wanderer, but his bitter, inconclusive experience, along a dark line of flight which leads nowhere. As the narratives function as screens, we follow descent after descent towards anger and despair, but the object of temptation, the lure of the pact with the devil, is supposedly barred from language, only to reappear repeatedly elsewhere, sometimes through slips of the tongue. In Deleuzian terms, what we have here is a rhizome, a subterranean set of ramifications connecting at random. Melmoth's doomed, weary quest is shared by the reader who shifts from story to story at the very moment when satisfactory closure is denied. Baited, the reader follows the narrator, from one gloomy place of horror to the next, trapped by the slippery, treacherous narrative pact. And yet the end tantalizingly escapes the reader's grasp, as Monçada and young Melmoth play detectives by the sea.

Because of its unusual structure and bitter darkness, Melmoth the Wanderer aroused a fascination which was to last for more than a century in France. Whereas Melmoth's son by Immalee dies mysteriously, perhaps strangled by his father, Melmoth's textual 'hideous progeny'—to borrow Mary Shelley's expression—may well be found across the Channel, especially among the poets of darkness. One instantly thinks of Lautréamont or the Surrealists who redeemed the Gothic in a new era of doubt and darkening political prospects, but the most significant figure may well be Baudelaire—that advocate of modernity enamoured with satanic rebellion, who chose as poetical objects skeletons, prostitutes and the depth of the abyss. Indeed, in his critical writings Baudelaire repeatedly refers to Maturin as a key influence, though he was no poet. He uses him to define his subversive aesthetic perspective, claiming that the dominant mode of modern art must be infernal: 'Je veux dire que l'art moderne a une tendance essentiellement démoniaque'2 (Baudelaire 1990: 770). Lumping together Beethoven, Byron, Maturin and Poe, Baudelaire celebrates literary correspondences, the deep dark unison illuminating the clouds lurking within the human soul. We too may trace in his 'flowers of evil' the withered blossoms plucked by the Wanderer, which mar the exotic purity of Immalee's island. Balancing Christianity with erotic blasphemy, Les Fleurs du mal (1861)3 display dark beds as deep as tombs, perfume flasks containing the decaying body of lost love, journeys beyond Eros towards Thanatos. Indeed, the long poem entitled 'The Voyage' roams from place to place, attempting to answer the haunting question, 'but what have you seen?', yet the world shrinks, a mere oasis of horror in a wearisome desert. In the end, the speaker yearns to dive into the unknown, no matter whether it be heaven or hell, so long as he finds something new. Rather than Baudelaire's beloved Poe, whom he translated,4 the key influence here is Maturin's Melmoth, hopelessly wandering on the margins of the human world. Indeed, Baudelaire turned him into the epitome of the romantic outcast:

Let us remember Melmoth, this admirable emblem. His unbearable suffering comes from the disproportion between his marvellous skills, which he acquired instantly through the pact with the Devil, and the surroundings where he is doomed to live as a creature of God. And none of those whom he wishes to seduce consents to buy back from him, at the same price, his own dreadful privileged condition … The man who would be God has thus soon fallen, by virtue of an uncontrollable moral law, lower than his own real nature. This is a soul selling itself bit by bit.

                            (Baudelaire 1976: 438)5

Presumably each narrative episode of Melmoth corresponds to the itemized decay of the unredeemed soul. Here the praise of Melmoth is connected with the 'sulphurous dawn' of drugs, as the modern way of selling one's soul to the devil, but elsewhere Baudelaire shows that he is not simply fascinated by doom and eternal wandering, by the quest for a victim, but by Melmoth's laughter, which he defines in his 'Essay on the essence of laughter'6 as 'a laughter which never sleeps, like a sickness which goes its own way and obeys some providential order'. For him, Melmoth is a contradiction in terms, 'a living contradiction', whose icy laughter tears one's entrails: 'And thus Melmoth's laughter is the highest expression of pride, and perpetually fulfils its task, by tearing and burning the lips of the irremediably laughing man' (Baudelaire 1990: 250) (my translation). Laughter is the true sign of hubris, the true curse. Melmoth is of course in many ways a satirist, and Punter praises his 'supremely self-conscious wit' (Punter 1996: 126), while Lévy points out that such laughter comes from an inner split, as when Melmoth both seduces Immalee and wishes to protect her from himself; laughter becomes the seam between good and evil, self and other, at the very edge of pain, enjoyment and defiance. Such devilish laughter echoes in Baudelaire's prose poem 'The Flawed Glass Maker' (1862), in which the poet's persona, exhilarated by his own madness, drops a flowerpot on a maker of window glass—shattering all his panes—on the grounds that he should make magic glass, pink panes that prove that life is beautiful, rather than ordinary glass.

While Baudelaire's fascination with Melmoth is fairly obvious, it is perhaps more surprising to find Balzac among the early worshippers of the novel. While the Gothic implies darkness and mad desire, Balzac's fiction establishes the realm of realism and explores nineteenth-century society throughout the 'Human Comedy'. Though Hugo's romantic melodramatic tastes may be automatically deemed to descend from the Gothic, Balzac's achievement seems at first sight to have little, if anything, to do with the Gothic. Yet if Balzac set the bulk of his work within the boundaries of realism, his early writings show very different aspirations. Balzac chose as his early pen names the pompous British title 'Lord R'hoone' and then the more European-sounding 'Horace de St Aubin', which presumably echoes both Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. In so doing, Balzac was obviously paying lip service to the tastes of fashionable friends such as Nodier. But there was more to this than a mere fad. For perhaps the Gothic was the inevitable threshold of 'The Human Comedy': French realism was actually built on the very ruins of the Gothic, and Balzac had to exorcise the shadowy ghost of Melmoth before he could find his own voice.

Indeed, among what Balzac later called his literary 'rubbish',7 the first significant text is unquestionably Le Centenaire ou les deux Beringheld, published in 1822, and re-issued in 1837 with little alteration under the title Le Sorcier ou les deux Beringheld (Balzac 1990). Clearly, though he openly criticized his early work, Balzac considered it worth publishing again. Unfortunately there is little magic in the Sorcerer's tale, and the frightful figure of the 'centenaire', the ageless old man who supposedly dominates the story, fails to arouse horror or even terror. The text is a clumsy attempt to rival the man he considered to be the greatest of English writers; indeed, Lévy points out that Balzac considered Maturin to be as important as Byron, Hoffmann or Goethe (Lévy 1995: 600). Certainly, The Sorcerer is so redolent of Melmoth that critics such as Breton and Barbéris (1965) dismiss the book as mere plagiarism. The text imitates the split between generations, and tries to spice it up by having the icy ancestor beget his own descendant, replacing an impotent father. Balzac also uses some of Immalee's love speeches (actually, he even drew upon them in writing his own love letters!). The Spanish Inquisition is replaced by Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. Balzac's wanderer retains Melmoth's fiery burning eyes, but he is extremely old throughout the novel, and he is preternaturally tall, clearly borrowing a few features from Frankenstein's monster. Indeed, no longer content with attempting to steal souls, he abducts desperate maidens to steal the fluid of life so that he can regenerate himself. If Gothic castles bore Balzac and he considers their inhabitants degenerate, he nevertheless attempts tackling the subterranean maze at the end, only to complicate it with scientific apparatus (strangely enough, the wanderer has also proved to be a mysterious doctor who appears throughout the book). Misreading both Melmoth and Frankenstein, Balzac's work also botches the technique of embedded narrations, proudly announcing, for instance, Beringheld's memoirs, only to shift to a heterodiegetic flashback delivered by an intrusive if obsequious narrator who claims he is summing it all up for our own sake. Whilst we might retrospectively wish to dignify this work by describing it as pastiche, the book was probably meant to be taken seriously at the time of publication. It is Balzac's first piece of real writing, and might perhaps best lie forgotten, were it not for the fact that its very flaws suggest a desire to modernize the plot, and thus stage the action on the impossible boundary between a remote Gothic scenario and bourgeois society. The economy of restraint bars the powers of darkness, but they are not so easily subdued.

Melmoth réconcilié is Balzac's sequel to Maturin's novel, and it becomes extremely interesting as it attempts to lead us out of the Gothic into the world of proper bourgeois writing. But the parody seems to mock its own purpose. Perhaps Balzac was not simply yielding to fashion when he wrote Le Centenaire, since the fascination with Melmoth appears again in 1828, by which time Balzac had bought Cohen's 1821 translation, and was hoping to print a second edition. Melmoth réconcilié was first published in 1835, and Balzac gives as an afterthought a short summary of Melmoth in a postscript, for those who may not know the book and who thus cannot understand his own tale. Balzac adds that though it may have seemed reasonable to Maturin not to send his protagonist to Paris, the demon must needs have found on his own the path to a city where the odds for accepting the bargain must be about a thousand to one. Amusingly enough, as Le Yaouanc points out,8 Balzac's Melmoth reaches Paris in 1821, precisely when the translation of the book appeared (Balzac 1979: 1400).

Melmoth réconcilié is usually seen as a metaphysical tale, in which Balzac asserts potential redemption.9 Instead of vanishing near the home of his ancestors, Melmoth dies in peace; after having found a victim at last, he confesses his crimes and spreads the divine light of revelation among the people surrounding his death bed. In writing the novel, Balzac borrows a few features from the original Melmoth, such as the burning eyes, the grim laugh and the absolute knowledge of his victims' circumstances, as well as the heavenly music which is followed by a ghastly vision. A few new fantastic effects are introduced, as when Melmoth displays his power by replacing the rainy evening street by the spectacle of a bright summer's day, or creates double vision at the theatre where, instead of a comedy with a quick-change artist, the victim witnesses the comedy of his own life as his mistress cuckolds him, the very mistress who now sits and laughs beside him, and for whom he sells his soul. The process of wandering from place to place and story to story is condensed into a bifocal show.10 What is shrinking here, however, is the very nature of the world beyond boundaries offered by the supernatural traveller and his Faustian pact. The abnormal rule which triggers an abnormal unquenchable thirst for rebellion is no longer cruel religion but money. Melmoth has fallen into a materialistic world: the cell is bound by the iron bars of a cashier's window, Paris becomes the hellish city of temptation: 'cette ville aux tentations, cette succursale de l'Enfer' (Balzac 1979: 346), and it is through mediocre orgies that the mediocre cashier learns to yearn for the divine, panting for the unknown with a soul parched by debauchery. For Castanier no longer attempts to spread evil, he is only a demon in the making, weak and mean, helpless and powerless. He ends up in the stock exchange, buying the soul of a bankrupt investor, and in a single evening the hellish alliance is exchanged so many times that it loses all value. Thus, the narrator cynically concludes, the enormous power unleashed by Maturin was lost.

Though fantastic, the story is neither a failure nor truly Gothic; instead, it is a Gothic recantation. What Balzac is staging is not so much devalued desire or the triumph of money, as the devaluation of Gothic clichés. It is no surprise that the story should focus on Castanier rather than Melmoth, and that he should be a mere cashier forging a letter to steal money from a London bank. Borrowing from England can only be a simulacrum. For the pact is the coin which shifts from hand to hand, losing its value. What Balzac is coming to terms with here, with savage irony, is his own failure to transpose the Gothic to modern Paris, and adapt it to modern society. In a society which has given up honour for money, or in Barthes's words a noble name for a financial figure, the wild darkness of absolute desire can only be commodified, and thus hollowed out. Gothic images shrink into worthless clichés, coins which are worn out as they slip from hand to hand. Hence the mirror image, when Melmoth's name first appears as he signs his name backwards, from right to left. Hence also the first portrait we have, which deliberately mingles myth and cliché, from the unbearable eyes to topical puritanical clothes, so that the apparition is simply cut out as an Englishman: '[everything], including the shape of his clothes, bespoke an Englishman. He reeked of Englishness' (Balzac 1979: 350) (my translation). The tale ends with the ludicrous babble of some German 'Demon-expert' and the jokes of 'a devil of' a clerk; but this is not a completely irrelevant ending. The repetition of 'fiat' and 'fiat lux' actually emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the dénouement, in which the writer's 'fiat' dismisses the darkness of Gothic clichés.

Before discarding the circulation of Gothic clichés as sterile imitation, though, Balzac wrote a fascinating novel in which he seems to step beyond the boundaries of both realism and the Gothic and to reach a unique balance. In The Wild Ass's Skin, which was the literary event of 1831, Balzac does not seek to imitate Melmoth, but he does rediscover the pact with evil, and rewrites it as a metaphor for desire and the passing of time. We no longer have a tale spanning centuries to arouse despair but, by a metonymic inversion, a life which is reduced to a shrinking piece of shagreen. The echoing French title La Peau de chagrin refers to shagreen or leather, but also sounds like the skin of sorrow, stressing the horror of nightmarish imprisonment beyond the boundaries of ordinary human life. The protagonist, the fair angelic Raphaël, meets his tempter in the guise of an old antique dealer, a gaunt Mephistophelian seer. The antique shop mixes the realistic delight for lists of objects with the darker intricacies of the Gothic maze, in an 'ocean of furnishings, inventions, fashions, works of art and relics' (Balzac 1977: 37). In the gilded rooms packed with trinkets, the windows grow dark, the fantasmagoric portraits quiver and dance, objects shift shapes in a 'weird witches' sabbath worthy of the fantasies glimpsed by Dr Faust' (Balzac 1977: 42). As in Melmoth the Wanderer, a portrait appears, this time an icon of youth and beauty painted by Raphaël's namesake. Raphaël's Christ is the antithesis of the deadly talisman, the magic skin which materializes the paradoxical double find of transgression: it grants all wishes, thus allowing its owner to step beyond the bounds of human life, but it consumes itself, as each wish shrinks the limits of the owner's life. Like Melmoth, the owner can but wander through the liminal space of death-in-life. Granting utmost power and utter helplessness, the talisman with its uncanny shimmer and supple solidity glitters like a comet, an image which foreshadows the shortness of Raphaël's life. Once again, the comet suggests fire and ashes, endless wandering but also regular, inevitable repetition and return. When Raphaël cries out that he would like the skin to grant his wishes, the antique dealer quickly replies that he has signed the pact, though nothing has been written.

Dismissing conventions, Balzac then switches to the growing awareness and horror of the victim of the pact, a theme which is extremely similar in spirit, though not in detail, to the core of Melmoth. Satisfied boundless desire is contrasted with the obsessive mapping of the ever-shrinking boundary of the skin, the ever-dwindling red line signalling loss of life and energy. This time, Balzac gets all the uncanny effects right. Raphaël seeks a way out, not by looking for another victim but by begging science to save him, yet neither chemistry nor an hydraulic press can manage to stretch the skin. Science pales before uncanny reality; and the horrified Raphaël becomes a wanderer fleeing his beloved Pauline, for each desire burns away his life. Like Melmoth he is the shunned traveller whose presence is unbearable. When he attempts to take the waters, he is challenged to a duel as he refuses to leave, an episode which echoes the death of Immalee's brother. He then retreats to the middle of nowhere in the centre of France, Auvergne, a place which is clearly for Balzac beyond the boundaries of the civilized world, and which he describes fancifully, depicting sheer drops of lava. More than Balzac's unsteady geography, it is the abject appearance of Raphael's body which fascinates, the shrunken bloodless figure burnt by the hellish prospect of impending demise. Like Melmoth, Raphaël ultimately returns home, not to the place of his ancestors, but to his apartment in Paris where Pauline finds him. When she suddenly understands the situation and attempts to commit suicide to end all possibility of pleasure, Raphaël forgets all his resolutions to avoid desire and throws himself upon her. In this orgasmic 'embrace' he bites her breast, a dénouement which must be connected with the tale of the betrayed lovers who were starved below the convent in Melmoth.

The awkward epilogue gives us another key to Balzac's own version of the Gothic within this tale. While Pauline is turned into the spirit of Nature, and thus descends from Immalee's virgin island, Foedora, the other woman who first doomed Raphaël to attempt suicide, is suddenly identified as Society. The peremptory allegorical conclusion might puzzle the reader who remembers the vibrant erotic and voyeuristic scene in which Raphaël ventured into the countess's 'Gothic boudoir' and her bedroom to watch her go to bed. But it also adds a realistic element to the Gothic theme of a desire which burns unto death, for the pact with the Devil has been replaced by social hubris: one now loses one's soul by contracting debts and rashly adoring coldhearted women, by following a new religion which obscures the pure Pauline. As such, La Peau de chagrin constitutes the true threshold of Balzac's 'Human Comedy'. Exposing in a nutshell the erotic economy of the modern world—and the modern text—the talisman creates a gloomy Gothic spell which is doomed to shrink and vanish, as dark textual enchantment yields to the cooler 'lost illusions' of the bulk of the work. Yet even in the ironic 'Human Comedy', some of the power of the dissections of the Parisian vanity fair may well come from unconscious Gothic reminiscences, as the arch deceiver and tempter Vautrin wanders from book to book, with the significant nickname of 'Trompe la Mort' …

Thus Maturin becomes a soothsayer, disseminating in France the ashes and sparks of his words, to use a Shelleyan image. Melmoth journeys to France not only to inform Baudelairian darkness or Surrealistic fantasies, but also to signify how a life can be corroded by barren capitalism as well as instinct and desire. Graham Robb considers that The Wild Ass's Skin is 'an astonishing exercise in psychic autobiography' (Robb 1995: 179), foreshadowing Balzac's theory of energy, abstinence and excess, which led to his own early death: 'The pattern of Balzac's life is laid out, as if in a premonitory dream' (Robb 1995: 179). The evil pact ultimately concerns writing itself, just as it did, perhaps, for Maturin. According to Michel Butor, the artist must choose to sacrifice his own share of heaven in order to bring revelation to men: 'such is the way Balzac interprets Faust and rewrites Melmoth ' (Butor 1998: 123). As Sage points out, allusions to painting in Melmoth the Wanderer already question the mimetic connection between life and art, in 'that extraordinary anticipation of decadence which so attracts the French' (Sage 2000: xxiii). No wonder that Oscar Wilde, whose Portrait of Dorian Gray owes much to his great-uncle Maturin and Balzac's piece of shagreen, should have chosen to live in Paris under the fateful name of Sebastian Melmoth. Thus by crossing the Channel, Melmoth ceased to be a religious novel and turned into a metaphor for the curse of the artist. In Balzac's words, desire burns yet power destroys.


1. 'In literary histories, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) often marks the end of the Gothic romance proper, as a genre' (Sage 2000: vii).

2. This is taken from an essay on Théodore de Banville which was first published in 1861.

3. Though a first collection appeared in 1857, and poems were added in 1868, the 1861 edition is usually considered to be the most significant one.

4. In 1852, Baudelaire read Poe avidly, convinced he had found a kindred spirit; he felt tremendous admiration for his conception of poetry. He had already completed a short translation in 1848, and between 1852 and 1865 he translated Poe's major works, including among other things The Raven, The Black Cat, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Eureka, The Philosophy of Composition, and Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque. One should pay particular attention to Histoires extraordinaires, which was published in 1856, and Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires, which was published in 1857. The prefaces Baudelaire wrote show intellectual osmosis, to the point of sometimes plagiarizing Poe's Poetic Principle. Lemaître explains that towards the end of his life Baudelaire also wished to translate Melmoth, since he found the existing version deeply unsatisfactory (Baudelaire 1990: 249).

5. Translation mine. This appeared in 1860 as part of Baudelaire's preface to his long commentary (which included long extracts which he had translated) on De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

6. De l'essence du rire was first published in 1855 in Le Portefeuille.

7. The expression appears in a letter which Balzac addressed to his mother on 30 October 1835. When prefacing a recent edition of The Sorcerer, René Guise was so struck by the term that he checked the manuscript letter, assuming one should read 'oeuvres' (works) instead of 'ordures' (rubbish). But the hypothesis was proved wrong as the word 'ordures' appeared beyond all doubt.

8. Moïse Le Yaouanc is one of the editors of the famous 1979 'Pléiade edition', along with P.G. Castex, T. Bodin, P. Citron, M. Fargeaud, H. Gauthier and R. Guise.

9. The religious implications of Melmoth's failure to find a victim are discussed by Fowler; for her the righteous steadiness of the potential victims is crucial: 'Balzac's wry suggestion notwithstanding, it is not that Melmoth is remarkably stupid in selecting his targets … Like Satan, Melmoth fails to part his victims from God not because he is weak, but because they are strong' (Fowler 1986: 527-528). Balzac's deliberate shift is particularly revealing.

10. Interestingly enough, Sage draws attention to theatricality in Melmoth: 'For the Wanderer, moving across history and geography is like moving through the auditorium of a theatre' (Sage 2000: xx).


Baldick, C. (ed.) (1992) The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

de Balzac, H. (1979) La Comédie humaine, coll. Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard.

――――――. (1990) Le Sorcier ou les deux Beringheld [1837], Preface by René Guise, Paris, José Corti.

――――――. (1977) The Wild Ass's Skin, trans. H.J. Hunt, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Barbéris, P. (1965) Aux sources de Balzac: les romans de jeunesse, Paris, Les Bibliophiles de l'originale.

Baudelaire, C. (1976) Oeuvres complètes, ed. C. Pichois, coll. Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard.

――――――. (1990) Curiosités esthétiques, L'Art romantique, et autres oeuvres critiques, ed. H. Lemaître, Paris, Bordas.

Breton, A. (1996) Preface, in C.R. Maturin, L'Homme errant, Paris, Phébus [1965], pp. xi-xx.

Le Brun, A. (1982) Les Châteaux de la subversion, Paris, Jean-Jacques Pauvert.

Butor, M. (1990) La Comédie humaine, coll. Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard.

――――――. (1998) Le Marchand et le génie, Paris, Edition de la différence.

Fowler, K. (1986) 'Hieroglyphics in Fire: Melmoth the Wanderer', Studies in Romanticism, 25, pp. 133-147.

Jackson, R. (1988) The Literature of Subversion, London, Routledge [1981].

Lévy, M. (1995) Le Roman gothique anglais 1764–1824, Paris, Albin Michel [1967].

Maturin, C.R. (2000) Melmoth the Wanderer, ed. V. Sage, Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics [1820].

Punter, D. (1996) The Literature of Terror, Vol. 1, Harlow, Longman.

Robb, G. (1995) Balzac, London, Macmillan [1994].

Sage, V. (1988) Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, London, Macmillan.

――――――. (2000) Preface, in C. R. Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.



Axton, William F. Introduction to Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin, pp. vii-xviii. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Asserts that Maturin's primary intent in Melmoth is to expose the corruption engendered by religious authoritarianism, and declares that Melmoth is "the highest artistic achievement" of the Gothic genre because in it "the Gothic mummery of the horror novel was brought to serve the uses of a profoundly tragic religious parable."

Birkhead, Edith. "The Novel of Terror: Lewis and Maturin." In The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance, pp. 63-93. London: Constable & Company Ltd., 1921.

Regarded as an important twentieth-century study of the Gothic novel. Focuses on Maturin's Fatal Revenge and Melmoth the Wanderer, noting Maturin's indebtedness to earlier Gothic novelists, but distinguishing him from his predecessors "by the powerful eloquence of his style and his ability to analyse emotion." Birkhead is one of the first twentieth-century critics to comment on the psychological insight displayed in Melmoth.

Conger, Syndy M. "An Analysis of Melmoth the Wanderer and Its German Sources." In Romantic Reassessment: Matthew G. Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin and the Germans, an Interpretative Study of the Influence of German Literature on Two Gothic Novels, edited by James Hogg, pp. 160-255. Salzburg Studies in English Literature, edited by Erwin A. Stürzl, no. 67. Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1977.

Discusses the nature and extent of Maturin's reliance on German sources for his presentation of Melmoth as part Faust, part Mephistopheles, and part Wandering Jew. According to Conger, "no Gothic novelist before Maturin had ever attempted such a portrait of villainy; and it was German legendary figures which helped him to do so successfully."

Dansky, Richard. "The Wanderer and the Scribbler: Maturin, Scott, and Melmoth the Wanderer." Studies in Weird Fiction 21 (summer 1997): 10-16.

Investigates the possible influence of Maturin's correspondence, particularly with Sir Walter Scott, as well as Maturin's financial arrangements with his publisher, on the composition of Melmoth the Wanderer.

Dawson, Leven M. "Melmoth the Wanderer: Paradox and the Gothic Novel." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 8, no. 4 (autumn 1968): 621-32.

Asserts that the paradoxical enjoyment of fear and the eroticism of terror are fundamental elements of the Gothic novel and that Melmoth the Wanderer is the most characteristic example of the use of paradox in Gothic fiction. Dawson demonstrates how the Gothic novelists' exploitation of paradox foreshadowed the Romantics' efforts to unify experience by a resolution of opposites and disparities.

Grant, Douglas. Introduction to Melmoth the Wanderer: A Tale, by Charles Robert Maturin. Edited by Douglas Grant. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, 560 p.

Surveys the impact of Melmoth the Wanderer and assesses Maturin's literary talent.

Hennelly, Jr., Mark M. "Melmoth the Wanderer and Gothic Existentialism." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 21, no. 4 (autumn 1981): 665-79.

Analyzes Melmoth the Wanderer's "preoccupation with five particular but overlapping existential themes: absurdity, isolation, failure of communication, loss of freedom, and the lack of responsible commitment."

Howells, Coral Ann. "C. R. Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer." In Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction, pp. 131-58. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: The Athlone Press, 1978.

Argues that the impact of Melmoth the Wanderer derives from Maturin's examination of human responses to terror and oppression. According to Howells, Maturin transforms suffering "into a literary aesthetic, so that in his hands it becomes nothing less than the raw material for psychological enquiry." She also maintains that Melmoth the Wanderer must be read as Maturin's commentary on the paradoxical nature of the human condition, in which the individual is both victim and tormentor.

Idman, Niilo. Charles Robert Maturin, His Life and Works. London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1923, 326 p.

Book-length study of Maturin that focuses on the Romantic aspects of his works.

Kiely, Robert. "Melmoth the Wanderer: Charles Robert Maturin." In The Romantic Novel in England, pp. 189-207. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Distinguishes Melmoth the Wanderer from earlier Gothic novels because of its depiction of the repressive practices of the Roman Catholic church and authoritarian political systems, and views the novel as important primarily for its explorations into "the dark side of the human mind." Maintains that the separate tales in Melmoth the Wanderer are united by the theme of human misery and that Maturin's examination of the effects of pain on the human personality "illustrates a whole phase of romantic psychology and the creative process."

Kramer, Dale. Charles Robert Maturin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973, 166 p.

Comprehensive study of Maturin's life and works.

Null, Jack. "Structure and Theme in Melmoth the Wanderer." Papers on Language and Literature 13 (1977): 136-47.

Argues that Melmoth the Wanderer derives its psychological intensity from its complex structure, contending that the novel's fragmented structure reflects "organically the disorientation caused by the characters' loss of values."

Piper, H. W. and A. Norman Jeffares. "Maturin the Innovator." The Huntington Library Quarterly 21, no. 3 (May 1958): 261-84.

Maintains that Maturin's reputation as a Gothic novelist has overshadowed his importance as a proponent of Irish regional literature. Piper and Jeffares contend that Maturin's novels are explorations of Irish culture in which he combined Irish nationalism with Wordsworthian Romanticism to contrast English and Irish culture as well as "natural" and cosmopolitan character.

Roberts, Marie. "Maturin and the Rosicrucian Heresy." In Gothic Immortals: The Fiction of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, pp. 121-55. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Declares that "[w]ith its echoes of Faust and the Wandering Jew, Melmoth advances the Rosicrucian novel into the realms of theological controversy."


Additional coverage of Maturin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 178; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 6; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; and Supernatural Fiction Writers.

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Maturin, Charles Robert (1780 - 1824)

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