Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Maturin, Charles Robert

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MATURIN, CHARLES ROBERT (1782–1824), novelist and dramatist, was born in Dublin in 1782. His family, of French extraction, had settled in Ireland on the revocation of the edict of Nantes; his great-grandfather, Peter, was dean of Killala from 1724 to 1741. His grandfather, Gabriel James Maturin, who became archdeacon of Tuam in 1733, succeeded Swift in the deanery of St. Patrick's in 1745, and dying 9 Nov. 1746 was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral (Cotton, Fasti Eccl. Hib. ii. 105). His father held an important post under government. From a child Maturin was remarkable for a taste for theatricals and a general love of dress and display. He distinguished himself at Trinity College, where he obtained a scholarship in 1798, and graduated B.A. in 1800, but discontinued his university career on marrying, at the age of twenty, Henrietta, daughter of Thomas Kingsbury, afterwards archdeacon of Killala. Entering the church, he became curate, first of Loughrea, and afterwards of St. Peter's, Dublin. His stipend was slender, and he was partly supported by his father until the latter's sudden dismissal from office on a charge of malversation. His innocence was eventually established, and he obtained another appointment, but in the meanwhile the family were reduced to great embarrassment. Maturin set up a school in addition to his curacy, and also betook himself to literature, successively producing three romances: ‘The Fatal Revenge, or the Family of Montorio,’ 1807; ‘The Wild Irish Boy,’ 1808; and ‘The Milesian Chief,’ 1812. These works, which appeared under the pseudonym of Dennis Jasper Murphy, attracted considerable attention, though none reached a second edition at the time, and Maturin was unable to dispose of the copyright of any of them except ‘The Milesian Chief,’ which Colburn bought for 80l. Scott, however, reviewed ‘Montorio’ with appreciation, and paid ‘The Milesian Chief’ the higher compliment of imitating it in ‘The Bride of Lammermoor.’ About 1813 Maturin's imprudence in becoming security for an unfaithful friend compelled him to give up his house, and consequently his school. In these desperate circumstances he had recourse to Scott, sending him the manuscript of ‘Bertram,’ a tragedy which he had already offered unsuccessfully to a Dublin theatre. Scott, some time in 1814, recommended the play to Kemble as ‘one which will either succeed greatly or be damned gloriously.’ Kemble having declined it, Scott next submitted it to Byron, who first imitated Scott's example in sending the author 50l. from his own purse, and then introduced the play to Kean. Kean, after some hesitation, accepted it, and it was produced at Drury Lane on 9 May 1816, and ran for twenty-two nights, bringing Maturin 1,000l., while the printed play sold at the then exorbitant charge of 4s. 6d. a copy, and ran through seven editions within the year (Genest, History of the English Stage, viii. 532–3). The only dissonant note was the hostile criticism of Coleridge, who was mortified that his own play had not been preferred for representation.

Maturin came to London, and was duly lionised, but he wanted conduct and knowledge of the world; ‘deluged’ Murray with manuscripts for the ‘Quarterly,’ of which only a review of Sheil's ‘Apostate’—said to have given Gifford unspeakable trouble to rewrite—could be accepted, and was only prevented by the earnest remonstrances of Scott from retorting upon Coleridge. His next tragedy, ‘Manuel,’ was produced at Drury Lane on 8 March 1817, with Kean again in the title-rôle, and was acted five times; ‘Fredolfo,’ another tragedy, followed at Covent Garden on 12 May 1817, with Macready as Wadenberg. Both these pieces, though inferior, should hardly have been utter failures with the audiences that had applauded ‘Bertram,’ but they were unlucky. The first entirely depended upon Kean, whose dissatisfaction with his part paralysed his powers. Maturin received nothing from the performance of either, and though Murray allowed him the entire profit of the printed edition, the publisher protested against Byron's proposal to divide the proceeds of his ‘Siege of Corinth’ and ‘Parisina’ between Maturin and Coleridge with such energy, that the idea had to be given up. Another tragedy, ‘Osmyn,’ entrusted to Kean for his opinion, was lost or destroyed while in the actor's possession.

Maturin returned to novel-writing, and ‘Women, or Pour et Contre,’ appeared in 1818, and in 1820 his masterpiece, ‘Melmoth the Wanderer.’ ‘The Albigenses’ was published in 1824, the year of his death. In the same year he had printed ‘Six Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church,’ and in 1821 he had allowed his name to be prefixed to ‘The Universe,’ a long poem in blank verse, really written, as would appear, by the Rev. James Wills [q. v.] His last years were a struggle with ill-health, as well as embarrassment. He died at Dublin on 30 Oct. 1824, his death, it is alleged, being hastened by taking a wrong medicine. His literary remains and correspondence are said—though the statement appears hardly credible—to have been destroyed by one of his sons, the Rev. William Maturin [q. v.], who was offended at his father's connection with the theatre. The loss was no doubt considerable, though it is impossible that Maturin should have corresponded with Balzac as represented, and very improbable that he corresponded with Goethe. Another son, Edward (1812–1881), emigrated to the United States, became professor of Greek in the college of South Carolina, subsequently lived in New York, published several romances and poems, and revised the translation of St. Mark's Gospel for the American Bible Union.

Maturin himself condemned all his early writings as deficient in reality. ‘The characters, situations, and language are drawn merely from imagination; my limited acquaintance with life denied me any other resource.’ This objection, however, does not lie against the most celebrated among them, for ‘Montorio’ belongs to a species of novel where everything that is not plagiarism must be invention, and where the accurate portrayal of life is absolutely excluded. The merits of the school of Mrs. Radcliffe may be variously estimated, but its productions must be judged by their own laws, and every condition of these is fulfilled by ‘Montorio.’ ‘The Wild Irish Boy,’ on the other hand, is in the main an extravagant caricature of modern life; and ‘The Milesian Chief’ is an unsuccessful mixture of both styles. ‘Women,’ in some measure a religious novel, is also remarkable as the only one of the author's novels which affords any insight into the Irish society of his time, or from which much can be learned respecting his own opinions. In ‘Melmoth’ the author returns to the manner of ‘Montorio’ with matured powers, and the advantage of an impressive conception. Melmoth himself is hardly a creation, he is rather a compound of ‘Faust’ and ‘The Wandering Jew;’ yet the sentiment of supernatural awe is successfully evoked, and would be still more potent but for the extreme confusion and involution of the narrative. ‘Melmoth’ had great influence on 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 Mr. Stevenson. ‘The Albigenses,’ Maturin's last novel, is in some respect his best. It is full of eloquent passages, and though defective as a picture of actual life and manners, is not wanting in poetical truth. The three tragedies, especially ‘Bertram,’ exhibit real poetical feeling, and by the aid of spirited declamation and theatrical illusion might conceivably succeed for a time on the stage; but they will not bear serious criticism. The controversial discourses are rather platform addresses than sermons, but sufficiently effective to justify Maturin's contemporary reputation as a popular preacher. Of the nature of his literary talent he says himself: ‘If I possess any talent, it is that of darkening the gloomy, and of deepening the sad; of painting life in extremes, and representing those struggles of passion when the soul trembles on the verge of the unlawful and the unhallowed.' He might in addition have credited himself with eloquence and reproached himself with a lack of artistic instinct and constructive skill. Miss Jewsbury also truly observes that his horrors are too purely physical. As a man he fully developed the propensity to extremes which he attributes to himself as a writer; he appears to have had no idea of measure or conduct in life; every trait recorded of him, from his extravagant expenditure to his amazing portrait and the rouge he forced upon his unwilling wife, witnesses to a morbid passion for display; but this was a genuine manifestation of character, not affectation but eccentricity.

[The principal authority for Maturin's life and writings is the anonymous memoir, with bibliography, prefixed to the most recent edition of Melmoth (1892). See also Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; Read's Irish Cabinet; Mr. Saintsbury's critique in Tales of Mystery; Irish Quarterly Rev. March 1852; Planché's Portraits Littéraires; Smiles's Memoir of John Murray; Watts's Life of Alaric A. Watts; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography.]

R. G.