Melmoth the Wanderer was first published in 1820 by the Reverend Charles Maturin (1780–1824), a writer and Irish Protestant clergyman. In the Preface to Melmoth, Maturin claims to have written the tale to illustrate a passage of one of his sermons. His chequered literary career included successes such as the play Bertram (1816), and disastrous flops such as Manuel (1817) and Fredolfo (1819); he seems to have died leaving his family unprovided for.
What happens in the novel?
In 1816, John Melmoth discovers the story of an ancestor – the Melmoth of the title – who, having sold his soul to the devil for a 150-year extension of his life, went into a wandering exile, trying, and failing, to find someone wretched enough to change places with him. At one point the younger Melmoth destroys his ancestor’s portrait, only to hear the voice of the doomed soul ringing in his ears.
What is its literary context?
In his Preface, Maturin quotes a friend complaining that the novel contained too much of ‘the revivification of the horrors of Radcliffe–Romance’. Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) was one of the most famous writers of the literary tradition of the Gothic, in which horrifying tales of the supernatural explore the darker reaches of human character.
How does this relate to Oscar Wilde’s work?
In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Oscar Wilde plays with these Gothic conventions, and there are interesting similarities of plot. Dorian is granted an effective extension of his youth as the portrait locked in his attic takes all his signs of aging; he uses this advantage to pursue a secret life of crime and cruelty, and the book closes with the destruction of man and portrait together.
Maturin was Wilde’s mother’s uncle; she and Wilde helped prepare the biographical material for this edition of the novel. When Wilde went into a kind of exile in Europe after his release from prison in 1897, Wilde went by a pseudonym to avoid negative attention where possible. ‘Sebastian’ was chosen as the Christian name, likely after the martyred saint, a particular artistic icon for homosexual intellectuals of the period. ‘Melmoth’ was chosen as the surname. Perhaps the dire financial straits he was in made it seem especially appropriate; in a letter of 1900, Wilde explained to a confused friend that the name came from
a curious novel by my grand-uncle, Maturin: a novel that was part of the romantic revival of the early century, and though imperfect, a pioneer: it is still read in France and Germany: Bentley republished it some years ago. I laugh at it, but it thrilled Europe, and is played as a play in modern Spain.
The book’s survival in Europe was partly down to the influence of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), a French author whom Wilde greatly admired, and read in his last years.