Melmoth the Wanderer
It is entirely fitting, though also totally coincidental, that the book I am reviewing so shortly before Halloween is a ghost story. I did not plan it that way, but the timing is pretty good.
“Melmoth the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin is a gothic novel and very much so. It is a book that takes the genre tropes and gives them that extra push to top everything that came before. Yet, it is also a rambling, chaotic novel that only barely is tied together, almost as if Maturin wanted to tell five-six stories and wondered how he could fit it all together in one book. My opinion is that he was not very successful at that. The one thing that does (almost) tie the whole thing together is Maturin’s denouncement of the Catholic church.
John Melmoth is a young man in Ireland. His uncle is dying and as the heir to his estate, John is attending his uncle in his final days. Turns out his uncle is very much afraid of a family ghost, a member of the Melmoth family who has been wandering around for centuries, always a harbinger of disaster. When the uncle dies, John reads an old manuscript in a backroom of the house concerning a fellow called Stanton who once met Melmoth and spent his life looking for him, eventually ending up in a madhouse. This is followed closely by a storm during which John saves a shipwrecked Spaniard, Moncada, who proceeds to tell his story to John.
Alonzo Moncada was an illegitimate son of an important aristocratic family who was forced into a monastery against his will. We get a lengthy story about his futile attempts to escape the monastery with a clear, underlying tone that the Catholic church in their attempt at usurping the power and wealth of the Moncada family tries to pacify and get rid of the heirs. The suffering of Moncada takes no end and even his eventual escape lands him in the custody of the Inquisition. There he is tempted with escape by Melmoth. Ultimately, the prison burns down and Moncada gets away. He finds refuge with the Jewish community who lives a hidden life underground. Here he becomes a secretary, copying a story about a girl, Immalee, who has grown up, lonely, on a deserted island off the Indian coast. Immalee is befriended by Melmoth with whom she falls in love. Eventually, she is “rescued” from the island, and turns out to be the long lost daughter of a rich Spanish merchant. The life of a such in Spain is, however, not compatible with Immalee’s free mind. When Melmoth finds her, she resumes her love for him and eventually they marry in secrecy.
Immalee’s (now Isidora) father is finally on his way home, having never met his daughter. At an inn he is told a story about the Walberg family. A German protestant family cheated and plundered by the Catholic church, who at the cusp of dying from starvation is tempted by Melmoth. He then meets a stranger who tells him a story about the English Mortimer family who fell into ruin through inheritance schemes. On the brink of their ruin, they are also tempted by Melmoth.
At some point you would think that all these stories within stories will have to come together in some conclusion, but that is hardly the case. While we do learn the fate of Immalee/Isidora, we never learn how Moncada got out of Spain and ended on a ship. We do get a final rendezvous with Melmoth, but how or why the story ends for him here is entirely unclear.
The impression I am left with, reading this book, is that Maturin himself did not really know what was the idea with Melmoth the Wanderer. Not the character, nor the book. Maturin seems to have started in one place and then just wrote to see where it took him. He may also have had a number of separate stories that he somehow wanted to string together and badly needed some skeleton to carry it. Melmoth as a character is oddly diffuse. What I seem to understand is that he was a researcher of the occult who tried an experiment that would leave him physically dead, but give him 150 years as a ghost. This seems to have come with the price tag that he would be an agent of the devil to offer people in need a resolution at an unspeakable price, presumably at the expense of their soul. Still, the details are very unclear and although he is the recurring character, he seems strangely undeveloped. Except for the story of Immalee, he also only shows up at the end of the various stories.
To my mind Melmoth is actually a minor element to this book, a necessity for tying it together. Maturin seems to have been a lot more interested in going after the Catholic church. In his stories, there is no end to the greed and viciousness of the Catholic church, and they come about as the very antithesis of what Christianity is supposed to stand for. Compared to their crimes, Melmoth looks like an amateur and by setting them up against each other just emphasized the depth to which the Catholic church will go.
This position of Maturin may be explained by him being a Protestant clergyman in an otherwise predominantly Catholic Ireland. Even today there is a festering divide there and two hundred years ago, this would have been even worse. This is very much a part in a religious feud.
Isolated, the stories work surprisingly well. Moncada’s plight in the monastery draws heavily on Lewis’ “The Monk” and Diderot’s “The Nun”, but takes the gothic elements to the next level. I would love to learn what further happened to Moncada, but Maturin ran out of steam on that story and left a lot of threads in the air. Until that point though, this is a really good story.
“Melmoth the Wanderer” leaves a mixed impression of moments of excellence, of a sharp wit, but also of a haphazard construction with little point except to shock and poke at the Catholics. It is spooky, but not so much because of the ghost, but from what people will do out of greed and in the name of their church.