Report from the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar on the theme of ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’.

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The North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar takes place at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met). This year it has hosted a special seminar on the theme of ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’ as part of a series of online events to celebrate the bicentenary of C. R. Maturin’s novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), supported by generous funding from the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Byron Society of America’s ‘Romantic Bicentennials’ initiative. The seminar involved contributions from postgraduates, early career researchers and established academics, and was organised by Sonja Lawrenson, Matt Foley and Emma Liggins.

Report by Rebecca Alaise, PhD candidate at Manchester Met’s Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. 

The ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’ series seeks to explore the lasting influence that Melmoth has had on the Gothic mode and the ways in which the novel’s titular figure, and the Wandering Jew figure in general, have been re-animated by a variety of writers from the nineteenth century until today. The potency of Melmoth is evidenced in homages such as Honoré de Balzac’s Melmoth Reconciled (1835), Oscar Wilde’s moniker ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ and Sarah Perry’s 2018 novel, Melmoth, to name but a few.

The UK’s second coronavirus lockdown made an online presentation of this year’s seminar a necessityWhile attendees may have been secure in their own domestic spaces rather than in the cells, subterranean vaults and isolated islands of Maturin’s gothic imagination, this online presentation offered an ideal atmosphere to consider a novel that revels in themes of detachment and isolation. For this research seminar an international trio of leading and early career scholars presented papers that evaluated afterlives of Melmoth from the nineteenth century onwards. Dr James Kelly (University of Exeter) opened with a paper titled ‘’The love of fame, the hope of profit, the vacuity of idlesness’: Maturin, Melmoth and Romantic authorship.’ Princeton’s Colin N. Azariah-Kribbs discussed the concept of curiosity as compulsion in the paper ‘Curiosity, Suffering, and Narrative in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer’. The seminar concluded with Professor Lisa-Lampert Weissig’s presentation of the paper ‘Melmoth and the Wandering Jew Tradition’.

Opening the seminar, Dr James Kelly discussed the moral and financial connotations of Maturin’s gothic output. Establishing the importance of Ireland as the country in which Maturin’s novel was forged, this social and historical background was valuable when assessing the critical responses to Melmoth the Wanderer following its publication. Kelly’s paper examined the bifurcated nature of Maturin as an Irish Protestant clergyman, on the one hand, and writer of gothic literature that was perceived as blasphemous and nihilistic, on the other. By describing how Maturin had to disavow the shocking content of Melmoth’s fictional oratory, Kelly reminded us of how Oscar Wilde was similarly forced to defend certain passages in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) during his trial for gross indecency in 1895. Questioning if Maturin’s emphasis on theatre is linked to his Irishness, Kelly went on to outline the importance of oratory when assessing the power of Melmoth’s entreaties within Melmoth the Wanderer. It was noted here that Maturin’s novel undercut certain Romantic idealisations of the author figure, questioning the nature of gothic authorship as one in which writers may be more detached from the moral implications of their narratives. Kelly discussed how Maturin seemed proud to class himself as a playwright, a notion evidenced by the fact he referred to himself as the creator of the play Bertram; or the castle of St. Aldobrand (1816) in many of his prefaces. Such avowals point to a desire to distance himself somewhat from this authorship of Melmoth the Wanderer. By scrutinising the multi-faceted nature of Maturin’s authorship Kelly’s paper demonstrated the ways in which writers like Maturin were often torn between commercial and moral motives when producing tales of gothic dread. Describing how Maturin himself was often conflated with his most famous character, Kelly’s paper allowed for an interesting discussion upon authorship and Melmoth’s lasting influence on European Romanticism, as attendees pondered whether a text like Melmoth the Wanderer can ever be independent of its author.

Colin N. Azariah-Kribbs’ paper ‘Curiosity, Suffering, and Narrative in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer’ was able to pinpoint myriad important instances of curiosity within the narrative, illustrating how the motivation of curiosity is a fundamental aspect of the novel. The paper presented the character John Melmoth in an interesting new light, defining him as not just the titular Melmoth’s great nephew but an ‘avid consumer of narrative’ and the driving force behind the piecing together of all of the novel’s disparate tales. From here Azariah-Kribbs was able to discuss certain tendencies towards narrative consumption and a striving towards greater knowledge, allowing them to chart the ways in which certain characters are drawn into cycles of suffering. Interestingly, the paper defined Melmoth himself as a figure lacking the passion of curiosity and Azariah-Kribbs followed this assessment by suggested that while Maturin uses curiosity as a perilous and destructive force a lack of it can come with its own perils. The paper’s argument upheld that suffering brought about by curiosity cannot be fully comprehended in the novel where a sense of amorality seems to pervade all. While Azariah-Kribbs’ presentation upheld Melmoth the Wanderer as a culmination of observing curiosity in the gothic it also shrewdly emphasised the inherent amorality of Maturin’s brand of curiosity.

The final paper ‘Melmoth and the Wandering Jew Tradition’ saw Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Professor of English and Comparative Medieval Studies (University of California, San Diego) present a detailed historical contextualisation of the Wandering Jew Legend. Enhanced by a slideshow containing various historical illustrations, Lampert-Weissig began by outlining how the legend was borne. As a supposed witness to the crucifixion of Christ the Wandering Jew has been interpreted as a cursed (and sacrificial) figure by a variety of writers. This paper sought to expose the complex strands that have been woven into the Wandering Jew tradition over the centuries as writers and artists have re-imagined notions of eternal life. By discussing the differences in Jewish and Christian readings of this figure the paper offered valuable insight into how certain gothic writers may have been influenced by earlier incarnations of the Wandering Jew, a figure that can be read here as a proto-Melmoth, addled by negative medieval representations of the Jew and once synonymous with apocalyptic prophecy and threat. Lampert-Weissig’s chronological approach to representing the multi-cultural iterations of the legend meant that the audience had a clear idea of this symbolic figure’s roots and evolution. The paper explored the ‘development’ of the Wandering Jew legend during the long nineteenth century when its popularity rivalled that of the Faust Legend. Wandering Jew characters of this era were used to represent more generalised human suffering. Composers, artists and writers purloined it resulting in a popularity that often led to the Jewish elements of the wanderer’s identity fading. While presenting a series of nineteenth century artworks depicting the Wandering Jew, including etchings by French artist Paul Gustave Doré and Polish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, Lamper-Weissig discussed conflicting uses of the legend. With the horrors of the Second World War in mind, the audience saw each slide speak to the mounting sense of danger and fear that became enmeshed with representations of the Wandering Jew. Offering a powerful and historically intriguing background to Maturin’s Melmoth character, Lamper-Weissig’s discussions encouraged a fascinating post-paper debate. Many of the themes discussed in the Q&As were pertinent to the following week’s seminar with Sarah Perry whose 2018 novel re-imagines Melmoth as a female wanderer and witness, proving once more that it is the fate of Melmoth to live on.

As we said goodbye, shut down our computers and looked forward to the next seminar, I was reminded of how Melmoth’s gothic presence was so portable, shifting between countries as he sought his victims. This sense of gothic globe-trotting extended to the research seminar itself with contributors and attendees from all over the world. That the online nature of the event allowed better access to a host of global perspectives reminds us that even in uncertain times we can benefit from new ways of expanding our knowledge of the Gothic.

Rebecca Alaise