British Fiction, 18001829

MATURIN, Charles Robert. Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 94 (Jan 1821): 81–90.

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 Maria 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 [81/82] 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
.’

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 had 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 miserable 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 [82/83] ‘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 scuticâ dignum, horribili sectêre flagello.’

While we are on this part of our subject, we think that the best opportunity offers of doing justice to Mr. Maturin on a point of great importance. The following quotation explains itself:

‘As by a mode of criticism equally false and unjust, the worst sentiments of my worst characters (from the ravings of Bertram to the blasphemies of Cardonneau) have been represented as my own, I must here trespass so far on the patience of the reader as to assure him, that the sentiments ascribed to the stranger are diametrically opposite to mine, and that I have purposely put them into the mouth of an agent of the enemy of mankind.’

We, of course, give full credit to Mr. Maturin for the sincerity of this declaration: but, as a matter of prudence, we must still retain our doubts of the propriety of venting vollies of infidelity without their accompanying antidotes of sound reasoning. The novel-reader, it is obvious, may be averse from graver studies; and, if so, it is more than possible that he may be in the habit of swallowing poison only, and not at the same time, or indeed at any time, imbibing the due correctives. We particularly, however, object to the frequent use, or rather abuse, of sacred names and things. From whatever mouth such titles and subjects, so handled, repeatedly issue, they take something away from the inviolability of the ideas which suggest them; and neither hearer nor speaker is benefited by the practice. ‘A word to the wise.’ [83/84] Of the purity of the author’s intentions we will not doubt: but on this, as on all important occasions, we must be allowed to rely on our own judgment, and to offer it modestly but firmly to all parties concerned.

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 power of his ancestor ‘the Wanderer;’ and, during the greater part of these 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 wickedness 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 powerfully 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 [84/85] 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 those ‘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.

The most original portion of the work is perhaps that in which the island in the Indian ocean is described, and the rare being who inhabits it. To our taste, however, the author has greatly impaired the charm of his own creation, by introducing this delicate vision into the gross realities of human life: but, throughout, he has shewn much strength in the balance of kindness and cruelty, of diabolical malice and manly affection, which agitates the mysterious mind of the Wanderer, in his intercourse with the lovely Immalee. We shall make a quotation from their story; which, although it may have borrowed ideas from various sources, (perhaps, among others, from the tale of Pocahontas,) certainly does set the imaginative power of the author on an eminence of distinction. We are aware how easy it would be to turn this whole romantic tale into successful ridicule: but Immalee is rather a favourite with us; and we have not so wholly forgotten the delight of the Fairy Tales of our youth as to be insensible to any similar attempt that possesses merit.

Of the introductory scenes we can give no fair idea by quotation: we would only, en passant, suggest to the author a doubt whether he should, in any manner, have alluded to some of the circumstances of Indian worship which disfigure his page; and, still more, whether he should have polluted a scriptural phrase by so misapplying it as in vol. iii. p. 137. Of this fault we meet with other instances.

The Wanderer has given dark hints of his unhappy condition; and he now stands, with his devoted and innocent companion, at the entrance of a ruined edifice, watching the progress of a tremendous thunder-storm.

‘Immalee, as she gazed around her, felt, for the first time, terror at the aspect of nature. Formerly, she had considered all its phenomena as equally splendid or terrific. And her childish, though active imagination, seemed to consecrate alike the sunlight and the storm, to the devotion of a heart, on whose pure [85/86] altar the flowers and the fires of nature flung their undivided offering.

‘But since she had seen the stranger, new emotions had pervaded her young heart. She learned to weep and to fear; and perhaps she saw, in the fearful aspect of the heavens, the developement of that mysterious terror, which always trembles at the bottom of the hearts of those who dare to love.

‘How often does nature thus become an involuntary interpreter between us and our feelings! Is the murmur of the ocean without a meaning?—Is the roll of the thunder without a voice?—Is the blasted spot on which the rage of both has been exhausted without its lesson?—Do not they all tell us some mysterious secret, which we have in vain searched our hearts for?—Do we not find in them an answer to those questions with which we are for ever importuning the mute oracle of our destiny?—Alas! how deceitful and inadequate we feel the language of man, after love and grief have made us acquainted with that of nature!—the only one, perhaps, capable of a corresponding sign for those emotions, under which all human expression faints. What a difference between words without meaning, and that meaning without words, which the sublime phenomena of nature, the rocks and the ocean, the moon and the twilight, convey to those who have “ears to hear.”

‘How eloquent of truth is nature in her very silence! How fertile of reflections amid her profoundest desolations! But the desolation now presented to the eyes of Immalee was that which is calculated to cause terror, not reflection. Earth and heaven, the sea and the dry land, seemed mingling together, and about to replunge into chaos. The ocean, deserting its eternal bed, dashed its waves, whose white surf gleamed through the darkness, far into the shores of the isle. They came on like the crests of a thousand warriors, plumed and tossing in their pride, and, like them, perishing in the moment of victory. There was a fearful inversion of the natural appearance of earth and sea, as if all the barriers of nature were broken, and all her laws reversed.

‘The waves deserting their station, left, from time to time, the sands as dry as those of the desert; and the trees and shrubs tossed and heaved in ceaseless agitation, like the waves of a midnight storm. There was no light, but a livid grey that sickened the eye to behold, except when the bright red lightning burst out like the eye of a fiend, glancing over the work of ruin, and closing as it beheld it completed.

‘Amid this scene stood two beings, one whose appealing loveliness seemed to have found favour with the elements even in their wrath, and one whose fearless and obdurate eye appeared to defy them. “Immalee,” he cried, “is this a place or an hour to talk of love!—all nature is appalled—heaven is dark—the animals have hid themselves—and the very shrubs, as they wave and shrink, seem alive with terror.”—“It is an hour to implore protection,” said the Indian, clinging to him timidly.—“Look up,” said the stranger, while his own fixed and fearless eye [86/87] seemed to return flash for flash to the baffled and insulted elements; “Look up, and if you cannot resist the impulses of your heart, let me at least point out a fitter object for them. Love,” he cried, extending his arm towards the dim and troubled sky, “love the storm in its might of destruction—seek alliance with those swift and perilous travellers of the groaning air,—the meteor that rends, and the thunder that shakes it! Court, for sheltering tenderness, those masses of dense and rolling cloud,—the baseless mountains of heaven! Woo the kisses of the fiery lightnings, to quench themselves on your smouldering bosom! Seek all that is terrible in nature for your companions and your lover!—woo them to burn and blast you—perish in their fierce embrace, and you will be happier, far happier, than if you lived in mine! Lived!—Oh who can be mine and live! Hear me, Immalee!” he cried, while he held her hands locked in his—while his eyes, rivetted on her, sent forth a light of intolerable lustre—while a new feeling of indefinite enthusiasm seemed for a moment to thrill his whole frame, and new-modulate the tone of his nature; “Hear me! If you will be mine, it must be amid a scene like this for ever—amid fire and darkness —amid hatred and despair—amid—” and his voice swelling to a demoniac shriek of rage and horror, and his arms extended, as if to grapple with the fearful objects of some imaginary struggle, he was rushing from the arch under which they stood, lost in the picture which his guilt and despair had drawn, and whose images he was for ever doomed to behold.

‘The slender form that had clung to him was, by this sudden movement, prostrated at his feet; and, with a voice choaked with terror, yet with that perfect devotedness which never issued but from the heart and lip of woman, she answered his frightful questions with the simple demand, “Will you be there?” —“Yes!—THERE I must be, and for ever! And will you, and dare you, be with me?” And a kind of wild and terrible energy nerved his frame, and strengthened his voice, as he spoke and cowered over pale and prostrate loveliness, that seemed in profound and reckless humiliation to court its own destruction, as if a dove exposed its breast, without flight or struggle, to the beak of a vulture. “Well, then,” said the stranger, while a brief convulsion crossed his pale visage, “amid the thunder I wed thee—bride of perdition! mine shalt thou be for ever! Come, and let us attest our nuptials before the reeling altar of nature, with the lightnings of heaven for our bed-lights, and the curse of nature for our marriage benediction!” The Indian shrieked in terror, not at his words, which she did not understand, but at the expression which accompanied them. “Come,” he repeated, “while the darkness yet is witness to our ineffable and eternal union.” Immalee, pale, terrified, but resolute, retreated from him.’

That this scene manifests an extravagance passing all the sober bounds of sense, we are as ready to acknowledge as the reader will be to discover: but does it not also exhibit elo-[87/88]quence and imagination, with a strong perception of the powers and energies of nature, and of their corresponding impulses in the heart of man? It is not every one who can so feel and so describe these secret harmonies. With regard to eloquence, (for we will advance no farther in the regions of mysticism,) we think it is plain that, under the curb, and the bit, and the well applied lash, the rhetorical Pegasus of Mr. Maturin would carry him a strong, a lofty, and a steady flight, and nearer to heaven than earth in some of its ascending path. Why will he not direct that ‘courser of ætherial strain’ into a more regular career? Works of amusement let him write, by all means, and with every good omen: but let them be regulated by some principles of taste; and, above all, by a recollection of that prudent imitation of danger on a certain subject, which we have already given him with the most friendly purpose. To hint that we must add the equally well intended caution that, as it was through the sides of Romanism that Voltaire and Co. (partners in the great foreign firm of Infidelity) attacked the whole faith, it behoves every votary of that faith to be on his guard to render due honours to what is true, while he exposes what is false; and to take active care lest the knife which he uses against an unsound limb should, in the judgment of any weaker brother, really make an incision into the healthy vitals of the system.

While we are executing the ungracious but necessary task of advice, we would also put it to the author’s better judgment whether, in any subsequent work, he will not do well to keep himself within the bounds of nature and probability, however fresh a colouring his fancy may give to a real picture; and, finally, whether a hero, involved in whatever distress he may be, yet displaying various and unconquered virtue, would not at the present moment be a more novel character than any other that he could devise? The uninterrupted representation of vicious characters, which for a succession of years has filled and disgraced our popular works of every description in lighter literature, and the adornment of those characters with the dangerous attributes of sensibility and courage, must at length have exhausted the sympathies of the most indulgent public. Let a new novelist, or new poet, seek for fame in the exploded path of merit in affliction, enduring the ordeal. The very change will be something; and who knows what may follow? Genius, deriving its inspiration from the forgotten source of goodness, may actually be again astonished to find itself in union with taste! and, as wonders never cease when they have once be-[88/89]gun, we may positively see revived in England the long faded dream of classical composition.

As a beacon to this author, and to others, we must now point out a few of the prominent extravaganzas in thought, or phrase, in which ‘Melmoth’ indulges.

Vol. i. p. 225. ‘The rushing of their robes, as he dragged them out, seemed like the whirlwind that attends the presence of the destroying angel’!!! We remember to have heard, when boys, of a person who ‘split his breeches as if heaven and earth were coming together;’ and we presume that this was the prototype of Mr. Maturin’s illustration just quoted.

Vol. ii. p. 253. ‘I swam for some moments in a sea of flames and blood. My frenzy returned, and I remember only uttering curses, that would have exhausted Divine vengeance in its plenitude to fulfil.’ These are liberties, revolting liberties, which we cannot pass in silence. Let us hope that this work is the last from Mr. Maturin’s pen in which they will appear. Even madness, in a fictitious character, is no excuse for this.

Vol. iii. p. 133.—‘Multitudes of them dropt dead as they crawled. Multitudes still living, faintly waved their hands, to scare the vultures that hovered nearer and nearer at every swoop, and scooped the poor remnants of flesh from the living bones of the screaming victim, and retreated, with an answering scream of disappointment at the scanty and tasteless morsel they had torn away.’

‘Many tried, in their false and fanatic zeal, to double their torments, by crawling through the sands on their hands and knees; but hands through the backs of which nails had grown, and knees worn literally to the bone, struggled but feebly amid the sands and the skeletons, and the bodies that were soon to be skeletons, and the vultures that were to make them so.’

This is mere disgust. [1] The business of the writer of imagination is to select, and combine, and represent, vividly: but out of the realms of Terror and Pity his tragic descriptions should never wander, and least of all should they approach the caverns of Loathsomeness.

Vol. iv. p. 146. From the tale of Walberg:

‘ “Ines! Ines! What? am I talking to a corse?” He was indeed, for the wretched wife had sunk at his feet senseless. “Thank God! he again emphatically exclaimed, as he beheld her lie to all appearance lifeless before him. “Thank God a word then has killed her,—it was a gentler death than famine! It would have been kind to have strangled her with these hands! Now for the children!” he exclaimed, while horrid thoughts chased each other over his reeling and unseated mind, and he [89/90] imagined he heard the roar of a sea in its full strength thundering in his ears, and saw ten thousand waves dashing at his feet, and every wave of blood. “Now for the children!”—and he felt about as if for some implement of destruction. In doing so, his left hand crossed his right, and grasping it, he exclaimed as if he felt a sword in his hand,—“This will do—they will struggle—they will supplicate,—but I will tell them their mother lies dead at my feet, and then what can they say? Hold now,” said the miserable man, sitting calmly down, “if they cry to me, what shall I answer? Julia, and Ines her mother’s namesake,—and poor little Maurice, who smiles even amid hunger, and whose smiles are worse than curses!—I will tell them their mother is dead!” he cried, staggering towards the door of his children’s apartment—“Dead without a blow! —that shall be their answer and their doom.” ’

The conclusion of this passage is in better taste. The idea of seizing one hand with the other, and mistaking it for a sword, is burlesqued from the ‘Avare’ of Moliere; and the preceding caricature of horrors cannot be too forcibly ridiculed.

If we had room for another laudatory quotation, we should select the final scene, the fate of the Wanderer:—but, perhaps, we should only be taking something from the general interest of the work, and in that case should frustrate our own intention; which has been to recommend it, with the exceptions and drawbacks that we have been in duty bound to specify, to the favourable notice of the novel-reader of mature growth and understanding, who can discern and foster its claims to praise, while he detects its faults, and feels them only to avoid them.

[1] So also, if not worse, the description of the Spanish mob-murder, in the same volume, p. 29.

Notes: Format: 4 vols 12mo; price 1l. 8s. Boards. Publisher: Hurst & Co.

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