‘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?’
Charles Robert Maturin wasn’t. The lines above come from the end of his ‘Preface’ to Melmoth the Wanderer, dated ’31st August 1820′. Four years later he was dead aged 42, ending a life of almost undeviating poverty.
Maturin was born as a descendant of Huguenot migrants. His family had a tradition of relatively high positions within the Church of Ireland. His grandfather Gabriel Jacques Maturin replaced Johnathan Swift as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and his great-grandfather was Dean of Killala in Mayo. With this fortunate heritage the young Charles must have presumed on settling into a comfortably paid career within the Church, however he would be denied promotion from anything beyond the meagrely paid role of curate in St. Peter’s Church on Aungier’s Street. He would later attribute this to his ‘high Calvinism’ (although he was scarcely a Calvinist in name and certainly not in nature). His bitterness about this predicament finds resonance in the above quote from Melmoth‘s ‘Preface’.
It was around the time of his appointment as a curate that he committed himself to forging a career as a writer, composing the Gothic tale Fatal Revenge pseudonymously and publishing it at his own expense in 1807, to almost no notice. That year the writer Lady Morgan published The Wild Irish Girl. This book encountered controversy but also success, satisfying as well as whetting further the burgeoning interest in Ireland arising from the modish Celtic Romanticism: many Irish and Scottish found it profitable to publish nationally-flavoured Odes and Melodies and the like, most prominent among them being the poet Thomas Moore, second in the bestsellers lists (had there been any at the time) only to Byron. Maturin thought he might capitalise on this and the following year released a novel arguably very influenced by the The Wild Irish Girl, titled The Wild Irish Boy. Whereas Lady Morgan’s work established a reputation for herself as an esteemed novelist, the scant attention which came round Maturin’s way was only the anti-Irish obloquy of conservative critics.
It would be his third novel, The Milesian Chief (a second go at the Celtic kitsch market), which would finally earn him remuneration, and by the time of his third novel this would become a crucial requirement. His father worked in a post office, but in 1808 he was wrongly accused of corruption in office and lost his position. Consequently, the onus was upon Maturin fils to support the family with his writing. He turned to the little-paid work of tutoring school students to prepare them for Trinity College. His financial situation descended to a catastrophic level in 1813 when he stood bond for his bankrupt brother, condemning himself to poverty.
The most evidently lucrative literary medium in Georgian times was the theatre, so Maturin set about writing a stage play by the name of Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand. This play garnered him £1,000, a quite considerable amount (his salary as a curate was £80 per annum) but also considerably siphoned by the bonds he stood for. He had others to thank for this windfall. He had sent a draft of the play to Walter Scott (whom he befriended after learning of his favourable review of The Milesian Chief) who advised him on doing away with the character of the Black Knight, an agent of inexplicable evil tempting the hero to murder and the theatregoer to scoff, or so feared Scott. The draft was later sent on to George Lamb and Lord Byron at Drury Lane, and they reiterated the need to expunge the poor Knight. Maturin must have known that if anyone knew what it required to pen a profitable piece of literature it was Byron. He duly obliged, allowing Lamb to make the necessary excisions to the text, but complained afterwards to Scott that ‘they have un-Maturined it completely’. They were right, as unfiltered Maturin was, as we say about certain Hollywood actors nowadays, ‘box-office poison’. The play was arranged by Scott to be printed the following year with certain scenes restored – Coleridge (deep into his reactionary years) excoriated it in a review. There followed further forays into theatre, seeing not a fraction of the success Bertram gave him.
Maturin was obliged to reveal himself as the author of the play in order to collect royalties. This didn’t quite suit him, since the Church certainly didn’t approve of a composer of Gothic romances being among their clergy. By now he may have lost all hope of progressing from the position of curate. If we look back again at Melmoth’s ‘Preface’ we see evidenced Maturin’s all too painful awareness of the gross impropriety in unveiling himself as the author of horrific fictions.
Maturin’s extravagances are well-documented, and most likely did little to alleviate his financial troubles. James Clarence Mangan opens his short biographical piece on Maturin with the words addressed to the writer by a friend of Mangan’s: ‘Maturin, Maturin, what an odd hat you’re in!’ He was always in a noticeable hat. He was a dandy who, as dandies are so compelled, only appeared in public ornately garbed. (However, contemporaneous writer William Carleton recalls in a memoir paying an unanticipated visit to his house and finding him in little more than rags, illustrating perhaps his private pauperism). On top of sartorial needs was his habit of arranging lavish parties, as well as his appetite for wine. Such a tireless joy taken in life couldn’t have come cheaply. Neither did these notorious excesses recommend him for promotion in the Church.
Maturin finally set to work on what would be his magnum opus, Melmoth the Wonderer. Melmoth would be the apotheosis of what was quintessentially Maturin: wild horror, a concentrated prose and the representation of evil as an absurd, inexplicable phenomenon. The novel tells the story of a Trinity College student discovering a portrait of a strange ancestor of his, and soon learns the tales, set centuries apart, of this ancestor wandering the earth to seek someone who will take on from him the damning Satanic pact he has made. Unlike most Gothic fiction, the novel in its structure is profoundly innovative, and its language often reaches a high poetic and philosophical tenor. Naturally, it required a tremendous effort on Maturin’s part to complete, and his publishing house lost patience with his perpetual delays, constant requests for advances and the ever-growing scale of the work (his plan to write eight volumes was instantly rejected), threatening to cancel the project and ask for their advances back. The novel was eventually published in 1820 netting him £500 – half of what he earned from Bertram but still not an inconsiderable sum – however much of this would again be devoted to paying off his and his brother’s debts. The novel went into a second edition – the only work of his to be reprinted in his lifetime – but was thereafter forgotten in Britain and Ireland. Bertram was the subject of enduring success in France in the last years of his life, but he seemed to be unaware of this; in any case there was no international system of royalties to benefit him. He would die impoverished four years later.
He did enjoy a not insubstantial afterlife through his writing, which still enjoyed success in France after his death. Even Melmoth – last seen falling down a Wicklow cliff-face into hell – was generously afforded a little extra time on earth by Honaré de Balzac in his rather ill-advised Melmoth Reconcilié, imagining a desperate banker taking upon himself Melmoth’s satanic pact in return for financial relief. As his creator did, others would resort to Melmoth in a state of monetary desperation. Charles Baudelaire, another writer tormented in perpetuum by financial exigencies, resorted to Melmoth for money, suggesting to a publisher without much success that the novel merited a new translation. At the end of the century his grandnephew by marriage, Oscar Wilde, would die in penury after having taken for his psuedonym Melmoth’s cursed name.