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The return of a gothic masterpiece

Francisco Goya's Monk Talking to an Old Woman, 1824. - Credit: Archant

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the story behind a gothic classic, and its latest incarnation.

The harbour at Dieppe, nudging into the quietly bustling centre of a town that was traditionally a draw for writers and artists from both sides of the Channel, is now a marina where the tinkle of halyards against yacht masts betrays no hint that this was once a noisy hub where steam trains would meet the steam packets from Newhaven at the quayside.

The harbour certainly looked a little different at 4.30 in the morning on May 20, 1897, when La Tamise arrived and two men, the Canadian art critic Robert Ross and the English author Reggie Turner, waited outside the customs shed for a familiar figure to emerge. They’d already spotted him descending the gangplank, taller than the other travellers, thinner than they remembered, head down to remain unobserved, and before long he emerged onto the cobbles greeting them in the lamplight with a reticent smile of relief at the sight of friendly faces.

Oscar Wilde had been released from Reading Gaol two days earlier after completing his two-year sentence for gross indecency and had come to Dieppe to wait out the inevitable brouhaha. Eschewing the more popular hotels at the quayside Wilde, having handed a bulky envelope containing the manuscript of De Profundis to Ross, checked in to a small pension tucked away in the shadow of the castle at the western end of town under the alias he’d chosen for the duration of his stay – Sebastian Melmoth.

The Christian name was that of his favourite saint; the surname had a more layered origin: it was taken from the title of a gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, written by Wilde’s great-uncle the Irish clergyman Charles Robert Maturin.

A descendent of Huguenot refugees who loved a good party, Maturin was frustrated by the clerical life. The £80 annual stipend he received as vicar of St Peter’s in Dublin was not nearly enough to fund the lifestyle to which he aspired which is why he took up the pen and wrote three novels in the gothic style, all of which rather sank without trace. One eventually reached the desk of Sir Walter Scott who, spotting something in Maturin’s writing that had eluded just about everyone else, forwarded the book to Lord Byron who was equally enamoured, endeavouring to have Maturin’s play Bertram staged at Drury Lane in London in 1816 where it was a roaring success.

Maturin had until then been writing under a pseudonym but in order to collect the financial rewards accruing from his theatrical success – a shade over £1,000, more than 10 years of clerical salary – he had to break cover, landing himself in hot water with the Church of Ireland. Not only that, nearly all of this windfall vanished almost instantly, Maturin having stood bond for his bankrupt brother.

Such ill-luck was a common feature of Maturin’s life and even his death, the result of a mix-up by a pharmacist. According to one obituary he died ‘having taken a lotion containing a large quantity of laudanum in mistake for medicine intended for the stomach’. The poet James Clarence Mangan, who grew up next door to Maturin, wrote that ‘he was killed off by mistake and buried in a hurry’, a suitably gothic end for a gothic novelist.

While most of his novels are all but forgotten Melmoth the Wanderer, written in 1820 four years before his death at 42, survives not only with reputation intact but is regarded by many critics as the last great work of the gothic heyday. Baudelaire loved it, Pushkin mentioned it in Eugene Onegin, William Godwin read it and announced that Maturin was the only writer to whose grave he would make a pilgrimage, while Balzac was enough of a fan to attempt writing a sequel.

‘Melmoth the Wanderer affords the mind the full supper of horrors,’ wrote the Sunday Times of a book that tells the story of John Melmoth, a student at Trinity College, Dublin, who enters into a supernatural pact giving him an extra 150 years of life. Realising that such longevity isn’t necessarily a good thing, Melmoth spends his long years wandering the world approaching people at their darkest moments, offering to ease their suffering if only they take his place as he had taken the place of the burden’s previous bearer.

H.P. Lovecraft detected in the book, ‘a kinship to the essential truth of human nature, an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear, and a white heat of sympathetic passion on the writer’s part which makes the book a true document of aesthetic self-expression rather than a mere clever compound of artifice’.

Mangan, however, was not quite as impressed, finding the book ‘hackneyed and monstrous’ and its eponymous protagonist ‘a bore of the first magnitude who is always talking grandiloquent fustian and wrapping his cloak around him’. Mangan’s opinion was possibly coloured by having known Maturin personally. He would see him pacing the streets deep in thought wearing one brown boot and one black shoe and described how the author would signal his desire not to be disturbed while writing by pasting a wafer to his forehead. Equating this local crackpot with a man suddenly lionised by the literary establishment must have been a challenge for Mangan.

For all his great-uncle’s quirks, when Wilde arrived in Dieppe under cover of darkness it’s little wonder he chose the name of his most enduring creation. Wilde was a fallen man himself, exiled from all he knew and with a future wholly uncertain, carrying the burden and trauma of his prison sentence, condemned to wander for the remainder of his life – all three short years of it.

Gothic literature always seems to enjoy a resurgence in troubled times, hence it should be no real surprise to learn that Melmoth is back. Maturin’s original novel has just been republished in the light of a reworking of the tale by the English writer Sarah Perry.

Perry, who writes an introduction to the new edition of Melmoth the Wanderer, first came across Maturin’s masterpiece while working on her PhD. ‘It is the most horrific book I have ever read,’ she said recently. ‘It’s so horrific that there are parts where I actually put my hand over the page because I couldn’t bear to look.’

Perry’s wildly successful 2016 novel The Essex Serpent dipped a toe into the gothic but in Melmoth, her highly inventive homage to Maturin’s original, she embraces the gothic full-on, inserting the story into the modern world and making it her own in wonderfully rich prose that underpins a vivid sense of character and location. It’s also a rattling good story.

Perry’s Melmoth is a woman, one of the group of women at Christ’s tomb at the time of his resurrection. Melmoth later denied witnessing this apparent miracle, an act that condemned her for eternity to walk the earth observing people at their most shameful moments, bearing witness, materialising in her billowing black clothes with her black hair wild and waving, eyes steely blue as she invites those whose guilt she stalks to accompany her on the lonely global odyssey that makes her bare feet bleed constantly.

Melmoth accompanied me through the streets of Oscar Wilde’s Dieppe. I holed up at first in the Café des Tribunaux, the Art Deco establishment in the old part of town that has been the beating heart of Dieppe since the 18th century. Wilde knew it well, it was one of his favourite haunts, and the café’s opulent galleried interior remains much as it was in Wilde’s day with its enormous central chandelier and lamps borne by statues of women in classical Greek dress.

It was there that I first delved into the world of Helen Franklin, Perry’s protagonist, a Prague-based translator eking out an existence entirely devoid of pleasure, sleeping on a mattress in a sparse room rented from a disagreeable elderly Czech woman who taunts her with treats she knows Helen will never accept. Helen takes ownership of a collection of ancient texts sewn into a leather folder after the disappearance of an academic friend who had inherited the folder from an elderly man found dead at his desk in the Czech National Library.

The texts detail the stories of those who have encountered Melmoth, people who have done unspeakable things and carried the burden for the rest of their lives. The elderly man was one of them: as a boy in Prague he had betrayed a Jewish family that had been kind to him and were murdered in a concentration camp. There’s the account of a Turkish man who as a civil servant cheerfully facilitated the genocide of the Armenians in the early 20th century. We read these stories with Helen, bearing witness with her, suspecting all the while that her puritanical abstinence from a normal life is somehow connected to the eternal wanderer at the heart of the tale.

Dieppe always had a large English population and it wasn’t long before ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ was recognised for who he really was. His early days there were relatively carefree (he was even persuaded to visit a brothel by the English writer Ernest Dowson, comparing the experience to ‘chewing mutton’ before asking Dowson to ‘tell it in England, where it will entirely restore my reputation’) but as word of his identity spread Wilde found himself, like the character whose name he took, becoming ostracised.

Dieppe worthies would cut him dead in the street, café owners fearing the effect on their businesses suddenly found all their tables reserved when Wilde appeared: at one establishment, possibly even the Tribunaux itself, when Wilde arrived as a member of a party of four he was told that alas there were only three seats available.

I left the Tribunaux and wandered down the cobbled Grand Rue to the Café Suisse on the corner looking out across the harbour where ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ had disembarked and where he would sit at a table beneath its arcade observing one of the town’s busiest spots.

The Suisse today is far from the opulent Belle Époque establishment it used to be, a modern revamp removing any hint of its previous character, so I walked down to the vast sweep of Dieppe’s shingle beach, sat on the stones, put my chin in my hand and immersed myself again in Perry’s eerie matryoshka doll of a book in which tales unfold from tales and stories of guilt and their supernatural witness strip layers from the legend until we’re left with the shocking truth about Helen herself.

When I finish Melmoth the tide has gone out and twilight is descending. In the milky light the exposed sand is as silvery as the sea while dark clouds mass ominously on the horizon. I crunch across the shingle towards the harbour jetty imagining Wilde doing the same, looking out across the sea towards the invisible coast beyond, lonely, rejected, betrayed, belonging nowhere.

It grows darker as I walk along the harbour arm past the men fishing and towards the lighthouse at the end. Perry’s extraordinary novel still fills my head and when I reach the end of the jetty I am alone. It’s almost dark when the stormy clouds straight ahead are lit suddenly from within by two flashes of lightning. In the brief bursts of brilliant light I detect a movement to my left, a black shape with wild, dark hair that emerges from behind the lighthouse with laboured, raspy breathing. Thunder rumbles, my stomach lurches – and then the woman jogs past me, the tinny leakage from her earphones fading into the crashing boom of the waves.

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, is published by Serpent’s Tail, price £16.99; Melmoth The Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin, with an introduction by Sarah Perry, is also published by Serpent’s Tail, price £8.99

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