Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin is one of the greatest of the Gothic novels of its time although it is largely forgotten today, so I was very surprised when I learned that someone had decided to use Maturin’s character to create a new Gothic novel.
I had never read anything by Sarah Perry before, although she has previously published two novels After Me Comes the Flood (2014) and The Essex Serpent (2017), the latter of which has received critical acclaim, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her new novel Melmoth (2018). I found it a mix of classic Gothic elements without being either a rehashing or sequel to Maturin’s novel. Rather, Perry largely makes Melmoth her own, primarily by making her female. Maturin’s Melmoth lived in the seventeenth century and has a prolonged life of about 170 years before meeting his end at the end of the novel. Perry’s Melmoth has lived since the time of Christ. While Maturin obviously drew on the Wandering Jew theme, he did not as explicitly use it as Perry. Perry never refers to the Wandering Jew, but that legend typically concerns a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to let Christ rest outside his shop on his way to Calvary. Christ then curses him to wander until the Second Coming. (There are numerous other versions of the story and other people, including Judas and Pontius Pilate, who are candidates for being the Wandering Jew, but Ahasuerus’s version is the best known.) Perry’s title character is one of the women who saw Christ rise from the dead at the tomb, but later she denied he had risen, a lie that has resulted in her being cursed to wander the earth.
Gothic wanderer figures like the Wandering Jew are often wracked with guilt over their sins and seeking to end their existence and free themselves from their curse. Because Perry’s Melmoth never really gets a voice and is usually off-stage, we do not know much about her existence over the centuries or whether she feels any guilt. All we know is that she is constantly lonely and therefore seeks to entice others to join her in her wandering, something she never succeeds at, although the novel is filled with documents from people who have seen her or whom she has tried to seduce. She watches those who are lonely or have committed crimes and therefore will be easy targets for her and she follows them, although she never succeeds in winning them over.
I have to admit I was disappointed in the overall story, although Maturin’s own storyline is not all that fabulous either. Like Maturin and other Gothic novelists, Perry uses the story-within-a-story technique, and she also uses various manuscripts and documents that the characters find to move the story along and shed light on Melmoth’s character and to serve as individual testimonials to her existence. Some of these documents and their stories are more effective than others, in my opinion, but they typically reveal truths about the people who saw Melmoth—people who committed crimes or transgressions for which they feel guilt.
One of the better stories is the document by Hoffman about his experiences during the Holocaust. Since the novel primarily takes place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the inclusion of the Holocaust is not surprising since Maturin used the Inquisition which was equally horrifying to its contemporaries.
The main character in the novel is Helen, an Englishwoman living in Prague and translating works into English. She befriends Thea and her husband. Before long, Thea is dying and Helen is there to help her after her husband abandons her, although it’s believed maybe Melmoth got him. Helen becomes paranoid about Melmoth after she learns more about her. Helen also has a guilty secret of her own that makes her susceptible to Melmoth’s seduction.
The book is divided into three parts, and I have to admit by the third part I kind of wondered if it was really going anywhere. The second part is the most entertaining, ending with an interesting scene where the main characters go to see the opera Rusulka, the story of a water sprite who asks a sea witch for help so she can become human and love a prince. In exchange, she gives up her voice. The storyline is very similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” although it uses slavic folklore as its origin. Thea comments in the novel that her husband always thought the opera’s main character a fool to give up immortality for love. After this scene is a rather drawn out and tedious new story to begin Part 3 before the novel gets wrapped up.
Despite the Rusulka comment that implies immortality is something to treasure, none of the characters embraces immortality in the end, so Melmoth is left to wander on, ultimately trying to seduce the reader to join her in the final pages.
Overall, Melmoth is an interesting take on its title character. I appreciated Perry’s tie-in to Wandering Jew figures, her mention of Maturin’s novel, which Helen remarks that no one reads, and also how she provides different spellings for Melmoth’s name, including Melmotte (likely a reference to Anthony Trollope’s character in The Way We Live Now (1875) who is believed to have been inspired by Maturin’s Melmoth). However, there are several sections that are just boring or documents that while referring to Melmoth do not really connect to the other parts of the novel or the characters. The story-within-a-story pattern is not as tightly woven as in Maturin’s novel. That said, Melmoth is only about a third as long as Melmoth the Wanderer, which itself is probably twice as long as it needs to be because of its overall wordiness and overly long paragraphs.
I also would have preferred a more guilt-ridden Melmoth. Instead, Perry’s character is less of a true Gothic wanderer character than a needy, codependent creature who is repulsive because of her neediness. There is nothing attractive about this Melmoth, who is unable to seduce anyone, unlike Maturin’s more glamorous Melmoth who seduces the beautiful Immalee.
That Maturin’s novel is still being read and appreciated despite its faults and that it has inspired Perry’s reimagining shows it still has the power to capture our imaginations. I don’t think Perry’s novel will ultimately be remembered, however, any more than is Balzac’s sequel Melmoth Reconciled (1835). Nevertheless, fans of the Gothic will enjoy some of its allusions and plays on the Gothic tradition.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.