‘“Are we free, then?”
“Hush, – one of us is free.”’ (219)
Monçada’s narrative, in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), has taken us through one of those subterranean passages characteristic of Gothic novels. The young Spaniard has come to consciousness after escaping from the convent in which he had been immured by his family, his parents being in the grip of the Catholic ideology abhorred by Calvinist Maturin: they believe that their son’s self-abnegation can atone for their sins.
At the moment of his awakening, his first question is answered with the equivocation attributed to Catholic clerics by the traditional Protestant perspective. The speaker is, however, no cleric, but the parricide hired by Monçada’s brother to rescue him from the monks. Nevertheless, the victim will discover that he has been imprisoned once more, and this time by a more formidable régime: that of the Inquisition.
The novel’s scenes are so unrestrainedly furnished with the familiar paraphernalia of the Gothic genre, that it would be reasonable to question whether there is anything peculiarly Irish about Melmoth the Wanderer. Certainly, the eponymous villain is identified as a native of Ireland, and the novel begins and ends there, but that would weigh lightly in the scale against the preponderantly Spanish characters and settings, and the mysterious Indian isle of the Immalee sub-narrative.
But the energies of the novel are confused to a degree only readily explicable by the predicament of its author as a minister of the Church of Ireland and a husband and father on the verge of penury. As a Protestant churchman in Ireland, Maturin’s public position is that his is the religion of rationalism and tolerance, but the anti-Catholic bigotry of his narratives gives the lie to the notion of Enlightenment superiority, and there are many passages reminiscent of the rantings of seventeenth-century pamphleteers. In Radcliffe and Lewis, monks are subtle and wicked, but in Maturin their obsession with devilish control can only be accounted for by the fears of a writer who considers his caste threatened by the rumblings of an Irish Catholic majority disappointed by Union and hungering for emancipation.
Maturin’s poverty is another source of peculiar emotional energy in his novel. His Catholic clerics are always motivated by a desire to secure the Church’s material interests. Perhaps the most striking example is in the ‘Guzman family’ sub-narrative, where the Church schemes to cheat a virtuous Protestant family of its rightful inheritance. In his Preface, the author defends himself against those who found fault with his work as ‘a writer of romances’, bleating, ‘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?’. (6) Thus, he locks himself in an attitude of at once despising and being motivated by a material impulse.
This paradox is nowhere better represented in the novel than by Aliaga’s choice. As the father of Immalee-Isidora, he has been warned by Melmoth of the immediate danger in which her soul stands. He knows that he must not delay in returning home, but ‘there is no breaking through the inveterate habitudes of a thorough-paced mercantile mind’, he attends to his business affairs and his daughter is abandoned to her fate (505). The word ‘mercantile’ crops up again and again, denoting a vice. And yet, the ‘mercantile spirit’ was, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, considered an attribute of British Protestants. It was a manifestation of freedom and independence, and differentiated them from the supine, go-nowhere Catholic Irish.
With regard to belonging, then, Maturin is almost as conflicted as his creature, Melmoth, whose Faustian mission is hobbled by his intermittent reluctance to entrap Immalee-Isidora. Maturin was writing at a time when his class described themselves, and were described by the English, as Irish, though not ‘wild Irish’ or the ‘Irishry’. Much has been written of the ambiguous position of these people: a group apart, whether in Ireland or England. Much also has been said of Melmoth as an ‘absentee villain’, a creature inspired not only by Marlowe’s tormented anti-hero, but also by the Irish absentee landlord, lambasted in literature like Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812) and representations such as Robert Seymour’s Irish Affairs – The Absentee (1830). Indeed, the British press regarded absentees as ‘one heinous class of criminals’ who ‘fly over Europe to avoid the sight’ of their neglected land and hungry tenantry. Even setting aside likenesses between Melmoth and this despised class of landowners, it takes little imagination to see how well the Gothic idea of the ‘undead’ encapsulates the predicament of Maturin and his peers in the Church of Ireland. Living in – relative – comfort on the tithes of the poorest people in Europe, eating at the expense of those who worshipped by different rites and went hungry to support their own priests, these ministers passed their outcast but powerful status from generation to generation.
This interdependent yet faithless relationship is unconsciously encapsulated in those of Monçada with his parents, the Director, the Superior, the Jew, and most dramatically, the parricide who escorts him from the clutches of the Superior into those of the Inquisitor. The parricide tells him: ‘We must pass life in each watching every breath the other draws, every glance the other gives […]. We may hate each other, torment each other […] but separate we must never’ (187). It could be the manifesto of the Ascendancy and the motto of the Union.
Robert Seymour. ‘Irish Affairs – The Absentee’. The Looking Glass. 1830. Lithograph on paper. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O80609/irish-affairs-the-absentee-print-seymour-robert/>. 6 Jan. 2016.
‘London’. Evening Mail [London].15 Mar. 1830: 4. Print.
Maturin, Charles. Melmoth the Wanderer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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