Sunday, 19 January 2014

MATURIN'S "MELMOTH THE WANDERER"

 " Melmoth the Wanderer," by Robert Charles Maturin, which has been republished by Bentley after a long period of almost total oblivion, is a romance which enjoyed considerable celebrity in its days. It belongs to that wildly imaginative and fantastic school of fiction of which—among later writers in the English language—Edgar Allan Poe and Maturin's fellow-countryman,  Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, were such distinguished representatives. To readers of "Stage Gossip," however, the most interesting fact in connection with the name of Maturin is that it was that of the  dramatic " comet of a season." Maturin's tragedy of "Bertram" was, on the special recommendation of Lord Byron, accepted by the committee of Drury Lane Theatre, of which the great poet was one, and produced in 1816. It was received with great applause, and had what in those days was a splendid run. An all-important point in its favor was that the hero was played by Edmund Kean, then in the prime of his power. Kean found some fine opportunities in the part for those extraordinary displays of passionate emotion in which, according to the most trustworthy accounts, he had no rival in his time, and in which he probably never had a superior either before or since. Maturin's piece was, indeed, rather a melodrama than a tragedy. As far as its claims in the latter direction were concerned, it was pronounced, even by the actor who made so remarkable a hit in it, to be mere sound and fury.
About the time that " Bertram " was accepted at Drury Lane, Coleridge's tragedy of "Remorse" was rejected at the same theatre. Coleridge was not unnaturally provoked into publishing a scathing article on the play which had been preferred to his own. In regard of its merits as a contribution to literature, " Bertram " was glaringly open to adverse criticism. Of course, when contemplated in that light, it was not to be thought of for a moment as having any such claims as those of which Coleridge's tragedy could boast. Yet, on the other hand, it is very doubtful indeed whether, when merely considered as an acting play, it was not by any means as serviceable as " Bertram," or whether even Kean's acting could have averted its speedy damnation if it had been placed on the stage. At any rate Maturin wrote a furious rejoinder to the strictures of Coleridge; but, on the prudent advice of Sir Walter Scott, he refrained from putting it in print.

Australian Town and Country Journal 18 June 1892



SAVED FROM THE BURNING.

TWO OLD PLAYS.

(By J.L.F.)
. . . . .But Mr. Smythe's fishing up Souvestre's book in Legrand's old shop has reminded me of the romance of book-buying in that dingy, mysterious-looking store in Collins-street, which always seemed to be out of place in a comparatively new city. It looted like an accessible Hades, where the spirits of authors, long dead and gone congregated and talked about men and things, and received congenial visitors. On one occasion, a couple of years ago, I descended in search of a divine who had been also a dramatist. Many would, no doubt, have directed me to search the Inferno for his spirit. I had, indeed, fossicked for him among Cole's collection, but without finding him. He was known on this earth as Charles Robert Maturin, and wrote the romance, "Melmoth the Wanderer," and the tragedy, "Bertram," upon which his fame chiefly rests. But his works are now rare, and as I had some special interest in Maturin and his eldest son. I was anxious to come across some of the first, or early, editions of his works. It was not their age alone that lent those books their value : they were literally brands snatched, or rather that had escaped, from the burning. You see how the idea of the Inferno clings around poor Maturin and his plays !

Maturin was born in 1782, and died in 1824, During his comparatively short life, he had a voluminous correspondence with the literary men and great actors of his day—for instance Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Honore Balzac, Edmund Kean, Goethe, Macready, Kemble. Now, I happened to be born nearly opposite a certain All Saints' Parsonage where the Rev. William Maturin, eldest son of the divine and tragedy-writer, was rector, or, to speak more accurately, Perpetual Curate, and when I was old enough to take any interest at all in books and authors, I was told that our neighbour opposite had distinguished himself by committing to the flames all his distinguished father's literary remains and correspondence. At least, that was the suspicion. The mass of precious papers was missing, and the Rev. Mr William Maturin was suspected of having destroyed it. He was offended at his father's connection with the theatre. Dr. Richard Garnett says that the statement that William Maturin destroyed his father's papers appears hardly credible." But, certain it is, that somebody made away with them, and general suspicion appears to have rested with some confidence on his eldest son. The son is thus described by his bosom friend. Professor Mahaffy, the celebrated Greek scholar :— "He was a grim Dantesque sort of man, with deep affection for his family and friends hidden under a severe exterior. He was perfectly certain and clear in his views — a quality rare in modern preachers, and fatal to modern preaching; his simple and burning words reflected the zeal of his spirit . . . I saw him crush by his fiery words a mob of young men who came to disturb his service on Protestant principles and drive them, cowed and slinking, from his church. They had victoriously broken up a service in another church the previous Sunday."

This was the man with whose face and form I was daily familiar for years—the resident of that gloomy, square-built, two-storey house, within a large garden, unclosed by a high wall. The parsonage bore a strong resemblance to that rectory in Yorkshire where the sisters Bronte, isolated from the world, conceived and wrote those wonderful novels with which the names of the "Bells" are associated.

One word more about the alleged burning of Charles Maturin's papers. Dr. Garnett says that it is impossible or improbable that Maturin should have correspondence with Balzac or Goethe. But why ? Maturin died in 1824 and in that year Balzac was 25 years of age and Goethe was 75. And Balzac was writing ten years before (in his thirtieth year) he made his first success, "Les Derniers Chouans."  We are told that “Melmoth" influenced the rising romantic school of France, and was half-imitated half parodied, in a sequel by Balzac, whose combination of it with the popular German story of the "Bottle Imp" has given hints to Stevenson.

Well, I dropped in one day at Legrand's in search of some of Maturin's plays. The old gentleman asked me to call in next day, and said he would make a search in the meantime. When I next called, he placed before me a copy of "Fredolfo" a tragedy in five acts published at London in 1819. A day later, he fished up for me “Manuel," another five-act tragedy, undated but which bore some evidence of its being about the same age as "Fredolfo." It is certain that “Fredolfo," at all events, was printed in the author's life-time — five years before his death and, by-the-bye, 1819 is just the year in which Balzac's story "Old Father Gorio," opens "Manuel" was first produced at Drury-lane Theatre in 1817, when Kean appeared in the name-part "Fredolfo" was staged at Covent Garden in the same year, when Macready appeared as Wadenberg. The plays were now coverless though they had once been bound, but they were in excellent preservation, and “ The Mercury" book binder made one handsome volume of the two. 

Now, how did those two old plays find their way to the Antipodes, and to Legrand's store? Goodness knows I myself first read "The Pickwick Papers" off the coast of Brazil. This is certain however that the tragedies escaped the tragedy of the flames! William Maturin did not die till 1887, and we may be sure that the man who felt impelled to destroy his father's literary remains in manuscript would cordially like to recall everything of his father's (except his sermons), which had got into print and was in circulation in the world. Perhaps it was eccentricity, and inherited. Charles Maturin, though a clergyman, and a popular preacher, compelled his wife to use rouge!

The Mercury 29 July 1902

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