MELMOTH THE WANDERER (1820)

CHARLES ROBERT MATURIN (1782–1824)


Charles Robert Maturin supplemented his inadequate income as curate at Saint Peter’s, Dublin, by writing novels and plays, though only Bertram, performed at Drury Lane in 1816 was a financial success. His last years were poverty-stricken, and he contemplated suicide. Contemporary critics accused Maturin of sadomasochism in Melmoth; this term had not yet been coined, but the Edinburgh Review pointed out his obsession with scenes such as cannibalism and burning alive, and the New Monthly Review noted that ‘He is a passionate connoisseur in agony.’ Maturin himself acknowledged, in his preface to the Milesian Chief, that his talent lay in ‘painting life in extremes, and representing those struggles of passion when the soul trembles on the verge of the unlawful and unhallowed.’ He does not seem to have been wholly in control of what he called ‘the criminals of the imagination’ as he worked long into the night on Melmoth. Modern critics feel that this work is best illuminated by using the tools of ‘morbid’ psychology, though we should also bear in mind that many scenes in the novel bear witness to his Calvinist hatred of Roman Catholicism.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)


Preface

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.
          For the rest of the Romance, there are some parts of it which I have borrowed from real life.
          The story of John Sandal and Elinor Mortimer is founded in fact.
          The original from which the Wife of Walberg is imperfectly sketched is a living woman [i.e. Maturin’s wife], and long may she live.
          I cannot again appear before the public in so unseemly a character as that of a writer of romances, without regretting the necessity that compels me to it. Did my profession furnish me with the means of subsistence, I should hold myself culpable indeed in having recourse to any other, but – am I allowed the choice?

DUBLIN,
31st August 1820

The Spaniard’s Tale

The oscillations of a convent vibrate within a very short interval. One day all is relaxation, another all is inexorable discipline. Some following days I received a striking proof of that foundation on which, in despite of a miracle, my repugnance to a monastic life rested. Some one, it was said, had committed a slight breach of monastic duty. The slight breach was fortunately committed by a distant relation of the Archibishop of Toledo, and consisted merely in his entering the church intoxicated, (a rare vice in Spaniards), attempting to drag the matin preacher from the pulpit, and failing in that, getting astride as well as he could on the altar, dashing down the tapers, overturning the vases and the pyx, and trying to scratch out, as with the talons of a demon, the painting that hung over the table, uttering all the while the most horrible blasphemies, and even soliciting the portrait of the Virgin in language not to be repeated. A consultation was held. The community, as may be guessed, was in an uproar while it lasted. Every one but myself was anxious and agitated. There was much talk of the inquisition, – the scandal was so atrocious, – the outrage so unpardonable, – and atonement so impracticable. Three days afterwards the archbishop’s mandate came to stop all proceedings; and the following day the youth who had committed this sacrilegious outrage appeared in the hall of the Jesuits, where the Superior and a few monks were assembled, read a short exercise which one of them had written for him on the pithy word ‘Ebrietas,’ [drunkenness] and departed to take possession of a large benefice in the diocese of the archbishop his relative. The very next day after this scandalous scene of compromise, imposture, and profanation, a monk was detected in the act of going, after the permitted hour, to an adjacent cell to return a book he had borrowed. As a punishment for this offence, he was compelled to sit for three days at refection, while we were dining, barefooted and his tunic reversed, on the stone floor of the hall. He was compelled to accuse himself aloud of every crime, and of many not at all fit to be mentioned to our ears, and exclaim at every interval, ‘My God, my punishment is just.’ On the second day, it was found that a mat had been placed under him by some merciful hand. There was an immediate commotion in the hall. The poor wretch was labouring under a complaint that made it worse than death to him to be compelled to sit or rather lie on a stone floor; some merciful being had surreptitiously conveyed to him this mat. An investigation was immediately commenced. A youth whom I had not noticed before, started from the table, and kneeling to the Superior, confessed his guilt. The Superior assumed a stern look, retired with some old monks to consult on this new crime of humanity, and in a few moments the bell was rung, to give every one notice to retire to their cells. We all retired trembling, and while we prostrated ourselves respectively before the crucifix in our cells, wondered who would be the next victim, or what might be his punishment. I saw that youth but once again. He was the son of a wealthy and powerful family, but even his wealth was no balance against his contumacy, in the opinion of the convent, that is, of four monks of rigid principles, whom the Superior consulted that very evening. The Jesuits are fond of courting power, but they are still fonder of keeping it, if they can, to themselves. The result of their debate was, that the offender should undergo a severe humiliation and penance in their presence. His sentence was announced to him, and he submitted to it. He repeated every word of contrition they dictated to him. He then bared his shoulders, and applied the scourge till the blood flowed, repeating between every stroke, ‘My God, I ask pardon of thee for having given the slightest comfort or relief to Fra Paolo, during his merited penance.’ He performed all this, cherishing in the bottom of his soul an intention still to comfort and relieve Fra Paolo, whenever he could find opportunity. He then thought all was over. He was desired to retire to his cell. He did so, but the monks were not satisfied with this examination. They had long suspected Fra Paolo of irregularity, and imagined they might extort the confession of it from this youth, whose humanity increased their suspicion. The virtues of nature are always deemed vices in a convent. Accordingly, he had hardly been in bed when they surrounded him. They told him they came by command of the Superior to enjoin him a further penance, unless he disclosed the secret of the interest he felt for Fra Paolo. It was in vain he exclaimed, ‘I have no interest but that of humanity and compassion.’ Those were words they did not understand. It was in vain he urged, ‘I will inflict whatever penance the Superior is pleased to order, but my shoulders are bleeding still,’ – and he shewed them. The executioners were pitiless. They compelled him to quit his bed, and applied with scourge with such outrageous severity, that at last, mad with shame, rage and pain, he burst from them, and ran through the corridor calling for assistance or for mercy. The monks were in their cells, none dared to stir, – they shuddered, and turned on their straw pallets. It was the vigil of Saint John the Lesser, and I had been commanded what is called in convents an hour of recollection, which was to be passed in the church. I had obeyed the order, and remained with my face and body prostrate on the marble steps of the altar, till I was almost unconscious, when I heard the clock strike twelve. I reflected the hour had elapsed without a single recollection on my part. ‘And thus it is to be always,’ I exclaimed, rising from my knees; ‘they deprive of the power of thinking, and then they bid me recollect.’ As I returned through the corridor, I heard frightful cries – I shuddered. Suddenly a phantom approached me – I dropt on my knees – I cried, ‘Satana vade retro – apage Satana.’ [‘Satan get thee behind me, Satan begone.’] A naked human being, covered with blood, and uttering screams of rage and torture, flashed by me; four monks pursued him – they had lights. I had shut the door at the end of the gallery – I felt they must return and pass me – I was still on my knees, and trembling from head to foot. The victim reached the door, found it shut, and rallied. I turned, and saw a groupe worthy of Murillo. A more perfect human form never existed than that of this unfortunate youth. He stood in an attitude of despair – he was streaming with blood. The monks, with their lights, their scourges, and their dark habits, seemed like a groupe of demons who had made prey of a wandering angel, – the groupe resembled the infernal furies pursuing a mad Orestes. And, indeed, no ancient sculptor ever designed a figure more exquisite and perfect than that they had so barbarously mangled. Debilitated as my mind was by the long slumber of all its powers, this spectacle of horror and cruelty woke them in a moment. I rushed forward in his defence – I struggled with the monks – I uttered some expressions which, though I hardly was conscious of, they remembered and exaggerated with all the accuracy of malice.
          I have no recollection of what followed; but the issue of the business was, that I was confined to my cell for the following week, for my daring interference in the discipline of the convent. And the additional penance of the unfortunate novice, for resisting that discipline, was inflicted with such severity, that he became delirious with shame and agony. He refused food, he got no rest, and died the eighth night after the scene I had witnessed. He was of a temper unusually mild and amiable – he had a taste for literature, and even the disguise of a convent could not conceal the distinguished graces of his person and manners. Had he lived in the world, how these qualities would have embellished it! Perhaps the world would have abused and perverted them – true; but would the abuses of the world ever have brought them to so frightful and disastrous a conclusion? – would he have been first lashed into madness, and then lashed out of existence? He was interred in the church of the convent, and the Superior himself pronounced his eulogium – the Superior! by whose order, or else permission, or at least connivance, he had been driven mad, in order to obtain a trivial and imaginary secret.
          During this exhibition, my disgust arose to a degree incalculable. I had loathed the conventual life – I now despised it; and every judge of human nature knows, that it is harder to eradicate the latter sentiment than the former. . . .


[SOURCE: Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, 4 vols (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1820), vol. 1, pp. ix–xii, 272–82]


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