CHARLES ROBERT MATURIN (1780 - 1824)
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy) Irish novelist and playwright.
Maturin is remembered primarily for his novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which is considered among the finest examples of Gothic fiction in the English language. By virtue of its complicated revenge plot, seemingly supernatural phenomena, and use of landscape to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense, Melmoth the Wanderer is strongly reminiscent of the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis. Critics distinguish it from the works of these earlier writers, however, by its attention to the psychology of despair and the torments of religious doubt. More popular in France than in England or Ireland, Melmoth the Wanderer exercised a great influence on nineteenth-century French writers. Maturin's most notable French admirer, Honoré de Balzac, was so impressed with the novel that he wrote a sequel to it entitled Melmoth reconcilié.
Maturin was born in Dublin, where he spent most of his life. He graduated from Trinity College in 1800 and in 1803 was ordained a minister of the Church of England. After a brief apprentice-ship as curate of the county parish of Loughrea, Galway, where he became familiar with the Irish peasantry that he later wrote about in such novels as The Wild Irish Boy (1808) and The Milesian Chief (1812), Maturin went to St. Peter's Church in Dublin, where he served as curate for the rest of his life. Although Maturin greatly preferred the fashionable St. Peter's to the rural parish in Loughrea, he found it impossible to support his wife and family on his meager salary. In order to supplement his income, he embarked on a literary career. Fearful of jeopardizing his chances for advancement within the Church, Maturin published his first three novels, Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio (1807), The Wild Irish Boy, and The Milesian Chief, under the pseudonym of Dennis Jasper Murphy.
While critics consider Lewis's influence evident in the abundance of horrible details in Fatal Revenge, they attribute the rational denouement of the story to Radcliffe's influence. Critics consistently complain that Maturin's attempt to "explain away" the miraculous events of the story results in a disproportion between cause and effect that gives the novel, in the words of the critic Niilo Idman (see Further Reading), an "air of charlatanism." Nevertheless, Fatal Revenge is considered superior to The Wild Irish Boy and The Milesian Chief, which are seldom included in critical discussions of Maturin's works. In 1814, Maturin sent Sir Walter Scott the manuscript of his first drama, Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816), a play that unites the Byronic hero and the Gothic villain in a single character. Scott was so impressed with the play that he referred Maturin to Lord Byron, who belonged to the committee that selected plays for production at London's Drury Lane Theater. Through Byron's influence, Drury Lane produced Bertram in 1816. Although the play's immediate success prompted Maturin to drop the pseudonym he had used for his first three novels and identify himself, his newfound literary recognition ultimately proved a disaster. Convinced that Bertram was the beginning of a brilliant dramatic career, he recklessly spent his profits and plunged deeply into debt. His subsequent plays, Manuel (1817) and Fredolfo (1819), were dismal failures, and to add to his difficulties, Bertram's irreverent sentiments were imputed by ecclesial officials to Maturin himself, and he lost any chance of being promoted within the Church.
Maturin resumed his career as a novelist with Women; or, Pour et contre (1818), for which he temporarily abandoned the Gothic idiom. A satire on the religious views of a narrow middle-class Calvinist sect, Women reflects Maturin's opposition to religious fanaticism and is today considered an insightful analysis of Evangelicalism. Maturin returned to the Gothic form in the novel that is viewed as his masterpiece, Melmoth the Wanderer. Based on the Wandering Jew and Faust legends, Melmoth the Wanderer tells the story of a seventeenth-century scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a prolonged life. The novel's structure is complex, consisting of five interlocking tales. In Maturin's novel The Albigenses (1824), an historical romance modeled on the works of Scott, he treats the theme of religious fanaticism.
With the exception of Bertram, none of Maturin's works was a critical or popular success during his lifetime. Nineteenth-century critics generally considered Maturin a talented but injudicious writer, whose novels and plays were marred by excesses of horror. Critical reaction to Melmoth the Wanderer in the nineteenth century was mixed: while some reviewers denounced Maturin's presentation of the diabolical Melmoth as impious, others praised the novel for its graphic descriptions of horror and suffering. Later nineteenth-century commentators frequently attributed Maturin's lack of critical acclaim to the diminishing popularity of Gothic fiction. Critics writing around the turn of the twentieth century applauded Melmoth's emotional intensity, and modern commentators support this opinion. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics have focused largely on Melmoth the Wanderer, and some critics have asserted that Maturin's reputation as a Gothic novelist has overshadowed his importance as a proponent of Irish regional literature. Some commentators argue that the impact of Melmoth the Wanderer derives primarily from Maturin's examination of human responses to terror and oppression. Douglas Grant (see Further Reading) terms Maturin a "brilliant psychologist of the perverse" whose interest in extreme emotional states anticipated the psychological novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka. In addition to its investigation of human psychology, Melmoth the Wanderer is also lauded for its analysis of the spiritual consequences of religious fanaticism. William F. Axton (see Further Reading), for example, distinguishes Melmoth the Wanderer from earlier Gothic novels because of its "compelling statement of the grand theme of perverted faith." Today Maturin is generally regarded as the unjustly forgotten author of one of the finest Gothic novels in English. Melmoth the Wanderer is said to have influenced the work of such diverse writers as Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Pushkin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. The breadth of the novel's appeal attests to its enduring interest.