"Servility and Comamnd": Authorship in 'Melmoth the Wanderer.'

Article excerpt

I cannot again appear before the public in so unseemly a character as that of a writer of romances, without regretting the necessity that compels me to it. 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?

Thus ends the preface to Melmoth the Wanderer, the novel Charles Maturin produced in 1820 to generate income. From the novel's beginning Maturin makes his financial motives clear: he writes because he lacks a "means of subsistence," and he implies that if his first profession (the clergy) provided sufficient remuneration, he would not write romance at all. Apparently Maturin resents having to write for money. He emphasizes his economic powerlessness, suggesting that he has no choice but to compromise his clerical reputation by taking up a pen.

Maturin was not always as unwilling to write as these prefatory remarks suggest; on the contrary, he eagerly undertook literary work early in life, and enjoyed the minor successes he achieved writing for the stage. But by the time he wrote Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin had a taste of failure. He knew that audiences were often difficult to please, and that readers and critics did not always take kindly to clergymen who wrote fiction. Disenchanted with romance-writing but needing the money popular fiction could generate, Maturin in Melmoth's preface implies that he writes under duress, a suggestion that sheds light on some of the novel's many eccentricities.

Critics of the work often discuss its unsettling effect: David Morse, for example, comments on the novel's truncated ending, likening the novel to "a spinning globe suddenly arrested by the malignant author" (85). If the author seems set upon frustrating readers, as Morse implies, he also devotes considerable energy, both in the preface and in portraits of storytellers embedded in the tale, to delineating the reasons for his apparent "malignance." Characters such as Biddy Brannigan and the unnamed narrator of the Walberg story share the fate upon which Maturin reflects in the preface: they risk social respectability in order to put bread on the table. As we shall see, Biddy Brannigan and the Walberg narrator simultaneously perform for and resist their audience, conscious of their economic dependence upon the audience and determined to exert power (if only through narrative) over those who, once the story is concluded, scorn the hired storyteller. This simultaneous need to perform and urge to resist also underlies Maturin's preface and shapes the subsequent narrative. Maturin's "malignance" may thus be attributed to his ambivalence about authorship, ambivalence born of his desire for both money and social respectability, and of his knowledge that audiences of his day were not likely to bestow both upon clergymen who wrote Gothic romance.

As Melmoth's preface suggests, Maturin's attitude towards authorship was integrally tied to his economic need. Few of Maturin's letters survive,(1) but those that do (chiefly from the collections of Maturin's correspondents) indicate that he often complained about his financial state. On June 22, 1816, he wrote John Murray, "I am in a horrid dejection; every shilling that I draw from England goes to pay the debts of [a] scoundrel to whom I don't owe a farthing, and from whom I shall never receive one" (Scholten 27). Biographer Dale Kramer notes that Maturin's letters to the publisher Constable were on the whole "self-pitying, pleading, embarrassingly servile and desperate." Kramer concludes, "Indeed, there is scarcely a letter by Maturin that does not contain a lament about his lot" (12). Even to his most famous correspondent, Sir Walter Scott, Maturin complained about his financial state, writing "that he would do literally anything not demeaning to a gentleman in order to support his family" (Kramer 13). Apparently Scott responded to the desperate tone of Maturin's letter by sending him the "timely succor" (as Maturin termed it) of [pounds]50 (Scholten 30). …