Melmoth by Sarah Perry took me by surprise. I didn’t like Perry’s previous book, The Essex Serpent, nearly as much as I expected to, and I had no intention to read this until I saw Rohan’s review, which makes it sound like exactly my kind of book (and it helps that Rohan was also unenthusiastic about The Essex Serpent). What I did not expect was to find this book to be such perfect Lenten reading, nor did I anticipate that it would be so thematically linked with Kristin Lavransdattar, which I just finished reading.
Perry draws on the 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (which I haven’t read) to create a legend involving a woman who, having witnessed the Resurrection of Christ, denies what she has seen and is then condemned to wander the earth forever, observing people’s greatest acts of evil, always alone. She’s an image in the corner of the eye of a troubled soul, a haunting at our darkest moments.
Helen Franklin, who lives an ascetic life in modern-day Prague, comes across the story of Melmoth through her fried Karel. Karel has a set of manuscripts by and about people who are haunted by Melmoth, given to him by a friend who died suddenly and somewhat mysteriously. The manuscripts tell stories of people committing various wrongs, usually involving complicity in some greater wrong. And then, having done wrong, they are haunted. As is Helen herself.
Kristin Lavransdatter is deeply concerned with the long-term effects of sin and guilt on the individual, and I think Melmoth is as well. Kristin, for her whole life, cannot get past her worst moment. She doesn’t accept and internalize the absolution offered to her, which, in her Catholic worldview, should have put her on a right moral footing once again. Her personal Melmoth is always there, reminding her of the events that led to her marriage. The characters in Melmoth, likewise, are defined by their worst moments. Helen lives in what looks like a constant penitential state (although she herself would not use those terms). We know little about the other characters, aside from what they did wrong.
All of these stories raise the question of how to deal with our own wrong-doing — in Christian terms, with our own sin. Melmoth offers no excuses for its characters’ moral crimes. They may be young enough or ignorant enough not to understand the full extent of their wrong and one in particular may not be doing something so terrible by our contemporary standards, but they all do recognize, in the moment, that they’re doing something they shouldn’t. These are not victimless crimes either. People suffer and die at the characters’ hands. Yet they go on living. And Melmoth is there, trying to coax them into wandering with her.
And that’s where the book starts to feel like a Lenten reading to me. In Lent, Christians contemplate our sin and need for grace, and, when Easter comes, we celebrate the Resurrection and the grace Christ offers, a grace that allows us to get past our sins. Melmoth is unable to contemplate anything but sin, and she tempts others to do the same. The only way forward is to recognize the wrong, seek forgiveness if possible, and move on. Perry manages to make moral wrong serious while also showing that it is possible, even essential, to get past it. I found the book oddly beautiful, despite how disturbing the stories sometimes are. Perry is going for some big ideas, presented in an ambitious way, and I think she pulls it off. This story will haunt me in the best possible way.