Melmoth the Wanderer: a Tale. By the Author of 'Bertram,' &c. 4 Vols. 1l. 8s. Boards. Hurst and Co. 1820.

The taste for horrors, or for tales abounding in supernatural events and characters, compacts with the devil, and mysterious prolongations of human life, has for some years past been on the decline in England. The necromancers of the Rhine, the Italian assassins of Mrs. Radcliffe, the St. Leons of Mr. Godwin, &c. &c., had indeed begun to disappear, overwhelmed by their own extravagance, previously to any positive symptom of a returning relish for sense and nature: but when, in addition to the satiety which a repetition of this highly-peppered diet had engendered, plain and substantial food was also administered to the novel-reader, in the exquisitely true and national descriptions of Marie Edgeworth and Walter Scott, there was no excuse even for the most devoted slave of a diseased imagination, who could boast any pretensions to cultivated intellect, to continue exclusively his unwholesome recreations; and, consequently, the works in question (even the most meritorious of them) have partially descended from the shelves of fashionable repositories of light reading, to make room for worthier occupants; yet still retaining, with soiled leaves and second-hand honours, their station in the first rank of the provincial circulating library. There, while they receive the faded garlands and spiritless incense of unrefined adulation, they cast a vain retrospect on their brighter days; when the boudoir of the lady, instead of the closet of the housekeeper, enshrined their volumes; and when the real Captain of the guard, instead of the yeomanry-serjeant, used them as the happiest of time-killers, during the intervals of active service, and considered them as the perfection of English literature.
          Still, however, it is confessedly possible for a man of decided genius to revive, for a while, this exploded predilection for impossibility, even among better readers; and if, in this uphill work, he should even for one season gain his point, we might be disposed to ascribe to him nearly the same honours as to the inventor of gas or galvanism; inasmuch as he also would illuminate one of the darkest and most hopeless corners of literature, and might even be said to have recalled, for one apparent instant, the spirit of the dead. Besides, it must be acknowledged that the fluctuations of fashion are not more rapid than they are diametrically opposed to each other; and that to the taste for works of amusement, especially, we may apply the remark of Horace on the vicissitudes of language:

Multa renascentur quæ jam cecidere, cadentque
Quæ nunc sunt in honore.

[Many forgotten words will be restored to honour, while others will fall into disuse; Horace, Ars Poetica]

          Influenced by these considerations, perhaps, and still more by the passion for the violent, the ferocious, and the dreadful in poetry, which our contemporaries have so eminently displayed; – a passion that would seem to promise equal favour to kindred flights in prose; – or, which is most likely, hurried along by the unreflecting impulse of his own fancy, Mr. Maturin has again appeared before the public as the author of a most extravagant work, in the true St. Leon tone and character. The hero, Melmoth, is a personage of a most enduring vitality, making large inroads on centuries of time in his duration; and the only novelty which we have discovered in the plan of the book (to which novelty, however, we are disposed to allow considerable praise,) is the idea of this miraculously gifted being, of bright eyes and black disposition, attempting to gain proselytes to his friend the Devil with indefatigable zeal, but, throughout his lengthened existence, attempting in vain. Not that he entirely fails in his amiable pursuits, but that he finds no single individual, in his varied and protracted ‘wanderings,’ (in which, by the way, it is odd enough that he should never encounter his old friend ‘the Wandering Jew,’) whom he can induce, however misled and rendered miserable by his temptations, to barter the hopes of eternity for the super-human longevity and magical locomotivity which he has himself gained in exchange for his own soul. This idea, Mr. Maturin quaintly enough informs us, was borrowed from one of his sermons! and he quotes the passage in his preface. At the close of that preface we find a statement, which will occasion us double regret at any severity of censure that we may be compelled to inflict on portions of the work before us: but which will add largely to the pleasure that we always feel in being able to accord the meed of praise to a writer of merit. Mr. Maturin himself ‘regrets the necessity’ that compels him to appear again before the public, ‘in so unseemly a character as that of a writer of romances;’ adding, ‘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?’
          In explanation of this allusion, we are obliged to notice a rumour that Mr. Maturin has lost his ecclesiastical employment, in consequence of his having written the play of Bertram. Of that tragedy we spoke fully in a former article, and certainly we have not changed our opinion on the subject: – but it is a very different question, indeed, whether a clergyman should be deprived of the means of subsistence in his profession for a literary offence of that nature, or whether he should be condemned for it in a critical journal. We are not sufficiently informed to speak farther: but we must, at present, consider Mr. Maturin as very harshly treated; and we are bound to remind his judges, whoever they may be, of the merciful injunction of the heathen satirist:

Ne scuticá dignum, horribili sectére flagella.’
[Don’t inflict the fearful scourge on someone deserving only the strap; Horace, Satires I.3]

* * *
. . . To come now to the story, or rather stories, of ‘Melmoth.’ The connecting link is very slight; merely that of a descendant of the family of Melmoth witnessing, at the beginning and the end of the four volumes, some impressive instances of the supernatural powers of his ancestor ‘the Wanderer;’ and, during the greater part of those volumes, hearing tales from a Spaniard who is shipwrecked on the Irish coast, which carry to the highest pitch the curiosity of young Melmoth concerning the wonder-working wickednesses of his great progenitor. From these tales we shall select one or two detached passages: but, as the principal merit and attraction of the work depend on the variety of the incidents scattered throughout the four volumes, we should ill perform our duty to the author or the reader by offering any thing like an abstract of their contents.
          We are bound, however, to record the great fertility of invention which Mr. Maturin has exhibited in these incidents; and also the strong graphic power to which he lays claim in the delineation and contrast of character. – ‘Walberg and his Wife’ (although the author, as is too frequently the case, out-horrorizes horror in this story,) are indeed powerfuly described; and if the original of the lady be living, as Mr. M. intimates, we can only say that he who is acquainted with her is so far happy. The tale of ‘John Sandal and Elinor Mortimer’ is said to have foundation in fact. At all events it is very interesting, and displays (perhaps displays rather too much) a very amusing knowledge of English historical anecdote, during a long period. The parts of the work which depicture the crimes and miseries of conventual life; which lead us from the dungeons of a monastery into those of the Inquisition, and through false doors under the floorings of rooms, down sloping passages, into subterraneous apartments, where old conjurors sit by candlelight surrounded with sculls; those parts, we say, in which the author seems lost in a kind of wearisome climax of the surprizingly wretched, and where the toiling reader yawns after him in vain, have in our opinion by far the least originality. They are, ‘in good truth,’ (to use a comfit-maker’s phrase,) nothing but ten-times repeated copies of the Radcliffe-romance; of which, as Mr. Maturin tells us, he was warned by a judicious friend. His distinction between his own convents and those of old is rather fanciful than real. He imagines that he has made the sufferings of an unwilling monk novel in their appearance, by dwelling more on that ‘irritating series of petty torments,’ which ‘solitude gives its inmates leisure to invent, and power combined with malignity the full disposition to practise, than on the startling adventures one meets with in romances.’ Many of these ‘petty torments,’ however, are most serious inflictions, and strange events (we should hope) even in a convent; while, with regard to ‘startling horrors,’ we should think that few romances could boast any thing equal to the nocturnal visits of Melmoth, unchecked by the bolts and bars of the most perfect of human prisons. . . .

[SOURCE: Review of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Monthly Review, N.S. 44 (January 1821), pp. 81–3, 84–5]

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