Charles Maturin

Melmoth The Wanderer and Irish Gothic.

James Lecky

Share Via:

Mine was the great angelic sin pride and intellectual glorying! It was the first mortal sin boundless aspiration after forbidden knowledge! (Melmoth The Wanderer)

        Gothic fiction emerged as a literary movement in the eighteenth century with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a landmark novel which laid down many of the motifs and thematic obsessions of the form.

        Purported to be a translation of an earlier Italian manuscript, The Castle of Otranto relates the history of Manfred, Prince of Otranto, and his Machiavellian efforts to avert an ancient curse which threatens his dynasty and claims the life of his son (crushed to death by a gigantic helmet on his wedding day). Crammed with invention, pathos, terror and the supernatural, the novel provided a blueprint for the Gothic movement.

        Other writers followed in Walpole's wake: William Beckford (Vathek, 1786) Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho,1794, The Italian, 1797) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1796) as well as a slew of other writers – Anne Letita Barbauld, Nathan Drake and Francis Lathorn, to name only three – who mined the Gothic seam to a greater or lesser extent.

        The movement, however, proved to be relatively short-lived, and by the early nineteenth century its conventions were being openly mocked, most notably in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) and in particular her reference to the dozen or so 'horrid novels' which included Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.

        Even so, the Gothic novel proved – and has proven – a hardy form, thriving even when critics proclaimed its death, and produced what are, arguably, its most easily recognisable examples – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) and Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) –  after its critical demise.

        Despite critical disapproval, however, a strong Gothic streak continued to exist throughout the nineteenth century, particularly during the Victorian age: John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) – born of the same literary palour-game that produced Frankenstein – widely regarded as the first modern vampire story, Thomas Preskett Priest's infamous Penny Dreadfuls The String of Pearls (1847) – which introduced the world to Sweeney Todd – and Varney the Vampire (1847), one of the first vampire novels, enjoyed huge popular success. Even writers such as Charles Dickens were not averse to the form – A Christmas Carol (1843) is replete with ghosts, hauntings and grotesque characters – and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) can claim kinship with Walpole, particularly if one accepts that Heathcliff is one of the many literary avatars of Prince Manfred.

        In Ireland, the Gothic impulse was best represented by Stoker and, earlier, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, author of Carmilla and a significant number of works which mixed the fantastical and the realistic in almost equal measure. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) combined the gothic with the decadence of the fin de siecle and Lord Dunsany's early work exhibits a strong Beckwithesque streak, most notably in such stories as Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller and How Nuth Would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles.

        However, one of the most remarkable flourishes of what could be termed 'Irish Gothic' came in 1820, with the publication of Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer.

        A Church of Ireland clergyman of Huguenot extraction, Charles Robert Maturin (1782 – 1824) was a playwright and novelist. Born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College he was ordained as curate of Loughrae, Galway, and in 1805 returned to Dublin as curate of St Peter's Church where he served until the end of his life.

        Thought of by many as an outlandish figure, indeed, upon his death the University Magazine said of him that he was "eccentric almost to insanity and compounded of opposites — an insatiable reader of novels; an elegant preacher; an incessant dancer; a coxcomb in dress and manners, he was equally, in an age notorious for official corruption and immorality, a man of spotless reputation who laboured to establish a school at the same time as writing and carrying out his parish duties.

        His earliest work, the novels Fatal Revenge; or, the Family of Montorio (1807), The Wild Irish Boy (1808) and The Milesian Chief (1812) were critical and commercial failures.

        Published at his own expense and under the pen name of Dennis Jasper Murphy, Fatal Revenge is the most starkly Gothic of Maturin's early writing, owing a great deal to the works of Lewis and Radcliffe, to the extent where the ending mirrors the 'rational denoument' which marred much of Radcliffe's work, and echoing Lewis' damned monk Ambrosio in the character of Father Schemoli.

        Similarly, The Wild Irish Boy was written in imitation, or pastiche, of another more successful work – in this case, Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and with both this and The Milesian Chief there is a real sense that Maturin was struggling to find his own distinctive voice as a novelist.

        His work for the stage, at least initially, seemed to offer greater reward.

        In 1816, his gothic romance Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand proved enormously successful in London, with the celebrated Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean in the title role, and the money Maturin received (some £1000 as compared to his annual salary from the Church of £80 – 90) gave him hope that at last he could support himself and his family as a writer (he had married the acclaimed singer Henrietta Kingsbury in 1804 and the couple produced four children). However wider debts owed by his bankrupt brother, whom Maturin had stood security for, and the dismissal of his father from his position as a Post Office official, plunged Maturin back into the genteel poverty which had dogged him for most of his life.

        Matters were complicated by the failure of his next two plays – Manuel (1817) and Fredolfo (1819) – and by the realisation that his superiors in the Church were deliberately blocking his chances of advancement and promotion. The success of Bertram had encouraged Maturin to throw off the Dennis Jasper Murphy pseudonym but the officials of the Church had little sympathy with such lurid work, or, for that matter Maturin's strong Calvinistic streak.

        A fourth novel, Women, Or Pour Et Contre appeared in 1818 and, although more successful than his earlier works, failed to provide him with the critical plaudits or, more importantly, the income he so desperately craved.

        In 1816, Maturin had been contracted by his publisher, Archibald Constable, to provide a volume of sermons and to furnish copy for a new novel to be entitled Tales. The sermons were duly published in the same year, but Tales languished, regardless of the fact that Constable had paid a sizeable advance for the work, pushed to one side by ill-health and the belief that he had now found his true calling as a playwright.

        Despite long delays and thanks in no small part to the intervention of Sir Walter Scott, one of Maturin's early literary champions, Tales finally saw the light of day in 1820, under the title of Melmoth the Wanderer.

        It is on Melmoth the Wanderer that the literary reputation of Charles Robert Maturin largely rests, and here that his jackdaw proclivities served him in good stead – the grand guignol of Matthew Lewis, the eerie supernatural of Ann Radcliffe, the Arabesque of William Beckwith, the layered narrative of The One Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio's Decameron, combined with ripostes to both John Polidori and Mary Shelley – creating a bleak Gothic vision of both the damned and damnation that has rarely been equalled.

        H.P Lovecraft, in his essay “Supernatural Horror In Literature” described Melmoth the Wanderer as a “vivid horror masterpiece. . . in which the Gothic tale climbed to altitudes of sheer spiritual fright which it had never known before” and regarded Maturin as “a man of authentic genius. . . the greatest and the last of the Goths.”

        In essence, Melmoth the Wanderer is the story of a damned soul, engaged in a Faustian pact for 150 more years of life and the ability to travel freely to any point in the world at will, moving in and out of locked cells, floating across oceans and continents. As the end of the pact draws near, Melmoth seeks another soul to take his place and join him in damnation.

        Structurally complex, the narrative comprises of a series interlinked and interlocking stories beginning with a framing tale concerning a young man, John Melmoth, who arrives at his uncle's deathbed in Wicklow and inherits, among other things, a vague family legend concerning a demonic ancestor – also named John Melmoth – and a crumbling manuscript, “The Tale of Stanton”. Following this he takes in a shipwrecked former monk, Alonzo Moncada who tells his own story. “The Tale of the Spaniard” which, in turn, incorporates “The Tale of the Parricide” and then recounts “The Tale of the Indians” which also include “The Tale of Guzman's Family” and “The Tale of the Lover”. These concluded, Melmoth the Wanderer himself returns to conclude the novel and pay his debt to the powers of darkness.

        A heady and often disorientating mix, Melmoth himself is often seen or referred to at a distance, a demented conductor guiding both the story and its characters. In “The Tale of Stanton”, however, he is very much to the fore, firstly responsible for the sudden and mysterious death of a young Spanish bride and then for the gradual insanity of the English traveller, Stanton:

         He was standing up. There was nothing particular or remarkable in his appearance, but the expression of his eyes could never be mistaken or forgotten. The heart of Stanton palpitated with violence,a mist overspread his eyes,a nameless and deadly sickness, accompanied with a creeping sensation in every pore, from which cold drops were gushing. . .

         . . . "I have many things to ask, but nothing to learn, I hope, from you."

        "You deceive yourself, but you will be undeceived when next we meet."

        "And when shall that be?" said Stanton, grasping his arm; "name your hour and your place."

        "The hour shall be mid-day," answered the stranger, with a horrid and unintelligible smile; "and the place shall be the bare walls of a madhouse, where you shall rise rattling in your chains, and rustling from your straw, to greet me,yet still you shall have the curse of sanity, and of memory. My voice shall ring in your ears till then, and the glance of these eyes shall be reflected from every object, animate or inanimate, till you behold them again."

        "Is it under circumstances so horrible we are to meet again?" said Stanton, shrinking under the full-lighted blaze of those demon eyes.

        "I never," said the stranger, in an emphatic tone, "I never desert my friends in misfortune. When they are plunged in the lowest abyss of human calamity, they are sure to be visited by me."

  (Melmoth the Wanderer)


As a figure of implacable and supernatural evil, it is not difficult to see the influence on both Bram Stoker and Dracula:

        You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butchers. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you!. . .  My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be minemy creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. . .



       Structurally, too, Dracula owes a significant debt to Melmoth the Wanderer – not least in its episodic nature and the long narrative periods where Dracula himself remains peripheral to the story, yet is still its driving force.

        Equally, there are parallels with the doomed Melmoth and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: both have exchanged, if not precisely a soul in Gray's case, then at least an essential part of their humanity in return for a supernatural reward – extended life for Melmoth and eternal youth and beauty for Gray. Both meet similar, grisly ends:

        There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. . . . When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

  (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

        'Menretireleave me alone. Whatever noises you hear in the course of the awful night that is approaching, come not near this apartment, at peril of your lives. Remember,' raising his voice, which still retained all its powers, 'remember your lives will be the forfeit of your desperate curiosity. For the same stake I risked more than lifeand lost it! Be warnedretire!'. . .

         . . .  In a short time the sounds became so terrible, that scarcely had the awful warning of the Wanderer power to withhold them from attempting to burst into the room. These noises were of the most mixed and indescribable kind. They could not distinguish whether they were the shrieks of supplication, or the yell of blasphemythey hoped inwardly they might be the former.

        Towards morning the sounds suddenly ceasedthey were stilled as in a moment.  The silence that succeeded seemed to them for a few moments more terrible than all that preceded. . . They enteredit was emptynot a vestige of its last inhabitant was to be traced within. . .  they perceived a small door. . . It communicated with a back staircase, and was open. As they approached it, they discovered the traces of footsteps that appeared to be those of a person who had been walking in damp sand or clay. . . They traced the foot-marks distinctly through the narrow gravel walk, which was terminated by a broken fence, and opened on a heathy field which spread half-way up a rock whose summit overlooked the sea. The weather had been rainy, and they could trace the steps distinctly through that heathy field. They ascended the rock together.

        Through the furze that clothed this rock, almost to its summit, there was a kind of tract as if a person had dragged, or been dragged, his way through ita down-trodden track, over which no footsteps but those of one impelled by force had ever passed. Melmoth and Monçada gained at last the summit of the rock. The ocean was beneaththe wide, waste, engulfing ocean! On a crag beneath them, something hung as floating to the blast. Melmoth clambered down and caught it. It was the handkerchief which the Wanderer had worn about his neck the preceding nightthat was the last trace of the Wanderer!

  (Melmoth the Wanderer)


       It is perhaps little wonder that Maturin's doomed Wanderer exerted such influence on later Irish writers (in exile, Wilde took the name 'Sebastian Melmoth and, in fact, Maturin was his great-uncle) particularly considering the cultural associations that these and other writers.

        Maturin, Wilde, Le Fanu, Stoker and Dunsany were all of Anglo-Irish stock and there is an argument to suggest that the Anglo-Irish imagination was one of the driving forces of nineteenth century Irish literature, certainly when it came to the more fantastical elements of the form.

        Anglo-Irish Gothic was essentially a literature of the outsider, working at a remove and its heroes and villains (sometimes one and the same) were similarly outsiders, very often by their own design (Melmoth and Dorian Gray) or by dint of their 'diabolical' nature (Carmilla, Dracula) and time and time again the notion of characters as strangers emerges in Anglo-Irish writing.

        Melmoth the Wanderer was Maturin's most successful novel, artistically and commercially, and even managed to garner some grudging critical praise:

        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. (Blackwood's Magazine,  1820)

        Its merit is not in the idea. . . but in the marvellous execution of particular scenes, and in thickly-clustered felicities of expression, which are spread luminously over the darkness of its tenor, like fire-flies on a tropical ocean. (New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register, 1820)

        The novel's popularity led to a number of theatrical productions: an anonymous adaptation in 1831, another by Gustav Davidson and Joseph Koren in 1915 and, more recently, Nicola McCartney's comical adaptation for the Portstewart-based Big Telly Theatre Company in 2012.

        Its impact at the time, particularly in France, was striking, and the 1821 translation served as a model for many French writers. Balzac wrote Melmoth Reconcilié in 1835, as a satire on nascent capitalism, and the novel was much admired by Charles Baudelaire amongst others.

        Even Mary Shelley, ironically one of Maturin's inspirations, wrote a response of sorts to Melmoth in her 1833 short story The Mortal Immortal, although she eschewed Maturin's bleakness in favour of a more lighthearted approach.

        The influence of Melmoth the Wanderer can also be felt in late twentieth century pulp fantasy – most notably and effectively in the work of the American fantasy and horror author Karl Edward Wagner who took inspiration from Maturin in the creation of his sword-and-sorcery anti-hero, Kane, to a lesser extent, in the Casca historical fantasies of Barry Sadler while the 1995 novel Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice borrows several of Maturin's major themes.

        Described by the critic Robert Freeman as 'a gothic matryoshka', Melmoth the Wanderer is a high mark in Irish fantastic fiction, albeit a challenge to the modern reader with dark and labyrinthine narrative, but no less rewarding than Frankenstein or Dracula.

        The success of Melmoth the Wanderer came late for Charles Maturin and he had few years left to enjoy it. Still plagued by poverty and debt (at one point he was responsible for a household of eleven), he died in October 1824. His final novel, The Albigenses, an historical tale in the mode of his patron, Sir Walter Scott, was published in the same year, his supernatural novella, Lexslip Castle and the play Osmyn the Renegade saw posthumous publication in 1825 and 1830 respectively.

        Of all his work, only Melmoth the Wanderer has retained any lasting fame, but its reputation is richly deserved.

        “Let me fall into the hands of God, and not into those of man.”

  (Melmoth the Wanderer)


Fatal Revenge; or, the Family of Montorio (1807)

The Wild Irish Boy (1808)

The Milesian Chief (1812)

Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816)

Manuel (1817)

Women; or, Pour Et Contre; a Tale (1818)

Fredolfo (1819)

Sermons (1819)

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

The Albigenses (1824)

Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church (1824)

Leixlip Castle (1825)

Osmyn the Renegade (1830)

Further Reading:

Charles Robert Maturin by Dale Kramer (University of Illinois, 1973)

Gothic Ireland: Horror and the Irish Anglican Imagination in the Long Eighteenth Century by Jarlath Killeen (Four Courts Press, 2005)