Melmoth the Wanderer: Inspiration for Sarah Perry's Melmoth: Background information when reading Melmoth

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by Sarah Perry

Melmoth by Sarah Perry X
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2018, 288 pages
    Oct 2019, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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About this Book

Melmoth the Wanderer: Inspiration for Sarah Perry's Melmoth

This article relates to Melmoth

Print Review

Cover of the Penguin Classics edition of <i>Melmoth the Wanderer</i> by Charles Robert Maturin Though the story encapsulated in Sarah Perry's Melmoth is entirely her own, it derives its name and legend from Irish playwright, Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer. Published in 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer follows John Melmoth, a young student in Dublin, as he visits his dying uncle. Upon his arrival, he discovers an old portrait of a mysterious relative simply labeled, "Melmoth." At his uncle's funeral, John inquires about this photo and is given a manuscript transcribed by an old family acquaintance named Stanton, who has collected several dark legends regarding the being he refers to as "Melmoth the Traveler."

Clear parallels can be drawn between Sarah Perry's Melmoth and Charles Maturin's novel, not least of which is the title they share. Perry utilizes Maturin's framing device of one character learning about the legend through a collection of stories to great effect. Maturin uses John Melmoth as a kind of "audience character" through which the reader can learn about the Melmoth myth, and Perry does likewise with the character of Helen.

However, Melmoth the Wanderer is much more focused on its titular character's interaction with the world than Perry's novel is. Melmoth the Wanderer sees Melmoth engaging with the other characters on a much more personal level, even going so far as to marry and have a child with one of them. Similarly, his origin is clearly stated for the audience; this Melmoth (a male, in Maturin's novel) was a scholar who sold his soul to the devil for more years of life and must wander the earth trying to find someone to take his place in the exchange so that he might be freed. The Melmoth in Perry's novel is far more oblique; she rarely interacts with the human characters directly and is constantly veiled in shadows and secrecy. Her past is never explained, and the audience never learns precisely why she has been cursed to eternal torment; the mystique Perry creates around her leaves the reader dying for more. Despite their differences, both novels utilize the character of Melmoth to great effect; I highly recommend picking up both of these fantastic reads, perhaps even reading them back-to-back to compare for yourself!

Cover of Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth the Wanderer courtesy of Penguin Random House

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Article by Meara Conner

This "beyond the book article" relates to Melmoth. It originally ran in October 2018 and has been updated for the October 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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