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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 19. Charles Robert Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer

The kind itself, as has been said, flourished like a weed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and the first two or three of the nineteenth—in fact, examples of it, such as Leitch Ritchie’s Schinderhannes, were written in the forties, and it may be said to have left strong traces on the early, if not, also, on the later, work of Bulwer. But, in and of itself, it never produced another writer of importance, with one exception. That exception, however, Charles Robert Maturin, for the sake of at least one thing that he did, and perhaps, of a certain quality or power diffused through his other work, deserves to rank far above Lewis, and not a little above Mrs. Radcliffe. In technical originality, indeed, he must give way, certainly to her, and, in a fashion, also, to Lewis; while he probably owes something to Beckford, to whose master-scene, at the close of Vathek, even his best things are very inferior. He borrowed his “shudder” from the two former; but he made it much more real and much less commonplace. Probably because he was in orders, he produced his first books under the pseudonym “Murphy,” and the title of the first, The Fatal Vengeance or The Family of Montorio (1807), may be said to be rather engaging in the frankness with which it proclaims its extraction and its character. In his next two, however (and the fact is important in connection with Maria Edgeworth’s work), he came nearer home, and wrote The Wild Irish Boy (1808) and The Milesian Chief (1811). Then, he diverged to tragedy and produced the rather well-known play Bertram, which was introduced (1816) to Drury lane by Scott and Byron, was very successful and was criticised with more justice than generosity by Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. Women followed, in 1818; and then, in 1820, he produced his masterpiece Melmoth the Wanderer.

Nothing is easier than to “cut up” Melmoth; it has been done quite recently, since the publication of a modern edition, with the same “facetious and rejoicing ignorance” which Lockhart pilloried long ago, as exhibited towards Maturin’s own jealous critic Coleridge. A worse constructed book hardly exists: for it is a perfect tangle of stories within stories. It has pathos, which, not unfrequently, descends to the sensiblerie of the imitators of Rousseau; and terror, which not unfrequently grovels to the melodrama caricature of Lewis himself generally, and his imitators almost always. But its central theme—the old bargain with Satan, refreshed and individualised by the notion of that bargain being transferable—is more than promising, and there are numerous passages, both in the terrible and in the pathetic varieties, which entirely escape just sarcasm. Above all, there is an idiosyncrasy about the book which has attracted good wits both at home and abroad—Balzac is one famous instance and Dante Rossetti another—and which it is rather difficult to understand how any good wit, if possessed of the power of critical winnowing, can miss. Melmoth himself, with his famous “piercing eyes,” touches the right nerve not seldom, if he misses it sometimes; and the Indian-Spanish girl Isidora or Immalee is equally successful in her different way. Maturin followed Bertram with two failures in play form, and Melmoth with a doubtfully successful novel The Albigenses, in 1824, the year of his death. But he stands or falls by The Wanderer, with the piercing eyes, and those who can comprehend the literature of power will say that, with whatever slips and staggering, he stands.