Maturin, Charles Robert (1780–1824), Church of Ireland clergyman and novelist, was born 25 September 1780 in Dublin, sixth and youngest child of William Maturin, post office official and clerk of the roads for Munster, and his wife, Fidelia (née Watson). The Maturins were of Huguenot descent, with a Church of Ireland clerical tradition stretching back to the Williamite period; Maturin was acutely conscious of his Huguenot heritage (which underlay his obsession with religiously motivated torture). Some of his later eccentricities were attributed to an indulgent upbringing as youngest and favourite child in a well-to-do family.
Maturin was educated privately and at TCD (entering 1795 and taking his BA in 1800), and was active in the College Historical Society at this time of high political tension. Although conservative in his political views, he favoured catholic emancipation, arguing that reason would prove more effective than coercion in undermining catholicism. His novel The wild Irish boy (1808) denounces the union, while his ambivalent feelings towards the United Irishmen are reflected in The Milesian chief (1812). He seriously considered becoming an actor before entering the Church of Ireland ministry. This possible alternative career was not altogether incongruous, given the element of self-conscious drama in contemporary pulpit delivery, but, as the Church of Ireland contained many evangelicals who objected to the theatre per se, it foreshadowed later difficulties.
Maturin was ordained in 1803 and appointed curate of Loughrea. It is unclear how much time he spent in this area of east Galway, but it gave him an awareness of the depth of Irish rural poverty and provided the setting for The Milesian chief. Maturin's responsibilities were increased by his marriage, on 7 October 1803, to Henrietta Kingsbury. He was intensely proud of his wife's beauty and musical abilities, and their relationship was devoted, despite subsequent financial difficulties and his habit of publicly rebuking her if she wore ‘insufficient’ make-up at parties. Maturin's novels contain several commendations of early marriage as conducive to health and virtue, and strongly denounce clerical celibacy and monasticism as unnatural and unendurable states of death-in-life. Maturin and his wife had four surviving children (at least one other died in infancy).
In 1804 Maturin returned to Dublin as one of three curates of St Peter's church, a conspicuous but poorly paid position. He is generally remembered as a hard-working and dutiful clergyman (though Dale Kramer shows that parish records suggest occasional periods of negligence connected with personal difficulties and his literary career). His parish visits made him acquainted with urban poverty and gave him an uneasy awareness that most plebeian Irish protestants had little sense of why they were protestant rather than catholic.
Maturin's literary career was at least partly inspired by financial considerations, though his first two novels were published at his own expense. The family of Montorio, or, The fatal revenge (1807), a Gothic novel set in Italy, skilfully imitates the English novelist Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823). The wild Irish boy (1808), whose principal ‘Milesian’ character bears the incongruously Norman name De Lacy, awkwardly combines the antiquarianism and social satire of Lady Morgan (qv), while containing moralistic denunciations of several writers whom Maturin nevertheless regularly quoted or imitated (such as Thomas Moore (qv) and Morgan herself) – an early sign of the tension between his professed moralism and his interest in deviant mindsets. Maturin's early works were published under the pen name ‘Denis Jasper Murphy’; he assumed – correctly – that a novel-writing clergyman would face accusations of heterodoxy prejudicial to his professional advancement.
At this time Maturin and his family lived with his father to ease their financial difficulties, but in 1809 William Maturin, whose official income had been in decline, was accused of embezzling official funds and dismissed from his position. Although the elder Maturin was later proven innocent, he was neither re-employed nor compensated and spent the rest of his life as a dependent of his son. Soon afterwards Maturin guaranteed a loan taken out by a relative (probably a brother), who promptly defaulted, leaving him with a massive liability. Maturin tried to provide for his family by opening a school which tutored students for entrance to TCD; though occasionally lucrative, this enterprise involved considerable strain and large-scale fluctuations in income.
The Milesian chief (published in 1812) is another novel in the style of Morgan but shows more assurance than the earlier works. In the same year Maturin entered into a lifelong correspondence with Sir Walter Scott, who had written a favourable review of Montorio and became his principal literary (and sometimes financial) patron. Scott helped to arrange the London production in 1816 of Maturin's first play, ‘Bertram’, which enjoyed a considerable success, with Edmund Kean in the role of the anti-hero. The play brought Maturin £1,000, leading him to disclose his identity and visit London; for a brief period he was regarded as one of Dublin's literary lions, dressed fashionably, and engaged in various extravagances. Unfortunately, his profits from the play were swallowed up by accumulated debts, and the work was denounced for its semi-sympathetic portrayal of the anti-hero and his (offstage) adulterous relationship with the heroine; Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a scathing review, which was later incorporated in his work of literary theory, Biographia literaria.
This episode finally doomed Maturin's hopes of promotion within the church. Clerical authorities seriously considered dismissing him from his curacy, and it took the personal intervention of Chief Secretary Robert Peel (qv) (at the behest of Lord Palmerston) to prevent this. Maturin added to the controversy by satirising evangelicals in his novel Women, or, Pour et contre (1818). His publication in 1819 of a moderately successful collection of sermons can be seen as an attempt to reassert his clerical status, and in the preface to Melmoth the wanderer (1820) he acknowledges the perceived incongruity between his profession and literature, while claiming that he was driven to write by sheer necessity. Two subsequent dramas, ‘Manuel’ (1817) and ‘Fredolfo’ (1819), which in its depiction of conflict between Swiss patriots and an Austrian governor has been seen as a covert reference to Ireland, failed to make an impact. Maturin's last play, ‘Osmyn’, was never published; the script was retained for some years by Kean and it was not seen until 1830, when it was produced in Dublin.
Melmoth the wanderer (1820) is the novel on which Maturin's reputation chiefly rests; it was inspired by one of his own sermons in which he asked whether anyone, whatever their present sufferings, would choose prosperity in this life in return for certain damnation in the next. The novel consists of a series of interlinked tales whose common feature is the presence of John Melmoth, a member of an Irish landed family that goes back to the Cromwellian period. Melmoth sells himself to the devil in return for 150 years of life and vigour, and can only be redeemed if he succeeds in persuading someone else to take up the bargain in his place. Spanish bigotry and the inquisition play a major role in this reinvention of the myths of Faust and the Wandering Jew (though individual priests in the stories are sympathetic characters); oddly, Maturin was surprised that Dublin catholics took offence at this. One episode, ‘The tale of Guzman's family’, draws on Maturin's own experiences of poverty and his guilt at the sufferings of his wife and family. There are also numerous references to the complacent philistinism of the wealthy merchant classes. Indeed, when an author whose researches into the activities of Melmoth have been refused publication by the ecclesiastical authorities is found dead under mysterious circumstances, nobody bothers to investigate since he was only a writer.
Despite its fame (it was swiftly translated into the major continental languages, and writers who reworked it or acknowledged its influence include Baudelaire and Balzac) the novel did little to relieve Maturin's poverty; moreover, despite his protestations in the introduction that ‘the worst sentiments of my worst characters’ were not a reflection of his own views, his critics found the wanderer's mockery of social and religious hypocrisy more convincing than the author's pieties. In the Quarterly Review John Wilson Croker (qv) protested that the novel's hero was ‘the Devil himself’, and implied that Maturin's failure to gain ecclesiastical promotion was thoroughly well-deserved.
Maturin's last novel The Albigenses (1824), a 1,400-page epic in four volumes in the style of Scott, was announced as the first of a trilogy that would depict European society in the medieval, early modern, and modern periods; but it had no sequel. His final work was Five sermons on the errors of the Roman Catholic church (1824), which contained sermons he had preached at St Peter's. After a long illness, Maturin died 30 October 1824 at his home, 37 York Street, Dublin. His death has been attributed to a self-administered overdose of laudanum, probably but not certainly accidental.
Maturin's central concern as a novelist was the religious impulse and the exploration of extreme states of mind, with particular reference to evil and horror. The recurrence in his work of the disturbing attraction of one man to another who turns out to be a disguised woman has been seen by some critics as evidence of suppressed homosexuality. His preoccupations have led to his being regarded – by subsequent admirers as well as contemporary enemies – as a Faustian figure who secretly, or even unconsciously, denied the creeds he professed to uphold. This interpretation tends to neglect the extent to which the exploration and dissection of irrational religious enthusiasm was a standard feature of ‘common-sense’ anglican apologetics in the period, as Maturin's own sermons on catholicism show. (Melmoth attacks nonconformist protestant antinomian hysteria as well as catholic institutionalism.) Such apologists were aware that these principles could be extended to attack the whole Christian revelation, and responded by arguing that rationalists who questioned ‘common-sense’ perceptions of divine understanding would inevitably undermine their own standards of rationality and morality. The amoral rationalist atheist is a recurring feature in Maturin's work. In a passage in The Albigenses Maturin argues that religious sceptics and hypocrites are more effective as intellectual religious apologists than sincere believers, who are rendered inarticulate by habitual reverence and piety (a view that would have delighted his son's protégé, the catholic modernist George Tyrrell (qv)). Maturin's best work is driven by an awareness of pervasive night fears, but also by his endeavours to resist them.
Maturin's son William (qv) continued the family's clerical traditions and his father's reputation as a maverick, though from a slightly different theological perspective; several of his children, in turn, entered religion, the best known being Basil William Maturin (qv), a celebrated preacher and eventual convert to catholicism. Another of Charles Maturin's sons, Edward (1812–81), emigrated to the USA and became a writer and classical scholar. Maturin's wife, Henrietta, was the maternal aunt of Jane Francesca Wilde (qv), who contributed biographical information to an 1892 edition of Melmoth; her son Oscar Wilde (qv) adopted the pseudonym ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ after his release from prison. Maturin's influence also affected James Clarence Mangan (qv), who admired him and drew on his writings and personal eccentricities in forming his own persona as poète maudit.