The elect and the damned

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I wonder, when God permitted us to fall, if He knew we’d fall so far.’

When I was studying early modern history in my first term at university in 2005, one of my lecturers had the job of conveying the significance of the range of Protestant beliefs held in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a group of undergraduates, most of whom had probably never been to church. How do you get across how deeply the fate of one’s immortal soul mattered, and how seriously these kind of stakes would have been taken? He decided to thunder from the pulpit. Starting a lecture on Calvinism, he would announce to us: “Some of you are SAVED… and SOME are DAMNED… and NOBODY knows which”. We were mesmerised.

Sarah Perry’s third novel, Melmothwas written while Perry was in almost constant pain from a combination of chronic conditions, but the seeds of it also seem to have been laid during her religious upbringing as a Strict Baptist. In contrast to General Baptists, Strict Baptists hold Calvinist beliefs: in short, as my lecturer explained, the conviction that salvation is restricted to God’s chosen elect, associated with predestination, the belief that this elect were always known to God, and so nothing we do in our earthly lives can influence our final fate. I can’t stop thinking of Melmoth as a kind of Calvinist ghost story, with its eponymous figure, the black-robed woman called Melmoth the Wanderer, turning up at moments in human lives when individuals have to choose to embrace great evil, or turn away from it, even if they are – given their fallen natures – unable to actually do good. In this, it poses a very early modern question: how far do we have free will to reject sin?

Although I now work on much more contemporary history, my fascination with early modern religious belief has never left me, and so it’s not surprising that I devoured this novel. Perry centres her story around a present-day protagonist, Helen Franklin, living a deliberately circumscribed existence in Prague (the accounts of how Helen shuns joy and bodily pleasure echo the behaviour of some strict early modern non-conformists). When Helen’s friend passes her a bundle of documents describing meetings with Melmoth, she is drawn ever further into the vortex of the legend. From a sixteenth-century woman awaiting martyrdom under Mary Tudor, to a German boy who deliberately turns in a Jewish family to the Nazis, to two Turkish brothers who take a bureaucratic but essential role in the persecution of the Armenians, the stories relate both people’s awakening to the fact that they are utterly corrupted and lost, but also moments when they were able to act against what seems to be their fallen natures. Melmoth plays a suitably evangelical role by offering each a choice: will they go with her, or stay away? However, even accepting this temptation does not seem to lead to straightforward results.

While Melmoth has received much critical acclaim, some reviewers, such as Alexandra Harris in the Guardian, have found the ‘spooky entertainment’ of the novel’s Gothic trappings pulls against the atrocities it describes. Susan Hill makes a similar point in the Spectator:

the entertainment of the ghost and semi-horror Gothic novel is stiffened by and set against some genuinely frightening stories of evil deeds… This… sits uneasily against the spookiness and the rustle of old-fashioned garments.

I think these readings of the novel somewhat miss the point. While Perry plays with Gothic tropes – deliberately challenging the ingrained misogyny and racism of the genre that is paraded by writers such as Bram Stoker and, in modern Gothic, H.P. Lovecraft – the roots of Melmoth are not in the Gothic but in a set of religious beliefs that are much older and, for me, much more resonant. To suggest that Melmoth’s challenge sits frivolously alongside the vignettes of the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, the story of a woman permanently disabled after her boyfriend threw acid in her face, and the spectacle of a gay asylum seeker being deported back home to face abuse, is to miss the stakes of early modern religious commitment. Suffering and pain are bad enough on Earth, but what could be worse than to suffer eternally in Hell? It’s something that Perry, given her upbringing, obviously understands instinctively and it’s something that I worry might be a little lost on some of her audience. Nevertheless, for me, Melmoth was an incredible and unlikely success, conveying that, although we may have abandoned the belief systems that originally motivated these questions about what makes us ‘sinful’ or ‘righteous’, if atonement is possible or if all we can do is admit our guilt, the questions themselves remain unanswered.

14 thoughts on “The elect and the damned

  1. I don’t think I would have been as interested in this book or review if you hadn’t included the opening anecdote about your college days! Oftentimes, when I’m commenting on someone else’s blog, I will weave in a story from my own experiences to make a connection, and this seems to go over well. Those personal touches in book reviews are important, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree. I find personal writing very difficult (even at the very non-revealing level of this post) but I love these kind of touches in others’ reviews, so I’m trying to add more of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hah – cracking pedagogy from your old professor. I agree, on a thematic level Melmoth actually worked very well for me; Perry’s one of the few writers currently working (in English at least) who seems to take the idea of sin at all seriously. The writing was a little swoony for my liking, but I can’t fault it on other grounds.

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  8. Great review! I do agree with you that Perry wanted to emphasise the importance of salvation – the fear of damnation and the place of one’s soul, etc., but, then – so that her book does not have this “uneasiness” between atrocities and “cheap” thrills associated with ghostly spookiness, I think she should have reduced the emphasis on these ghostly physical encounters. However, we read nothing but about them from the very beginning and Perry emphasises the materialisation of this Melmoth. She probably should have spent more time on symbolic meanings of Melmoth. Perry’s “religious” vision for the book was not clear at the start of the book or from the book synopsis and that is what caused the confusion. In fact, the book is marketed as the one that provides “Gothic shocks” (and then it ties the Holocaust with the “feelings” of a “sin” of one woman, really? – it inadvertently sends a strange message). Melmoth may be connected with the coming of Christ, but Perry also emphasises the ridiculous nature of this fantastical spectre as most characters talk about it. With Melmoth we are picking up one book, but still reading another.

    I don’t know, perhaps it is this belief that in order to sell a book you first have to introduce it as this spooky gothic story set in some exotic location, and only then you can talk what you really want to talk about in that book – such as about sin and witnessing atrocities and choice and free will.

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    • I think this all makes sense. I totally agree that this novel was oddly marketed and I don’t think it should have been sold as a gothic ghost story. I also agree that the book perhaps doesn’t do all the work it needs to do to establish the Calvinist religious framework around sin that won’t be familiar to the majority of its readers. It was hard for me to see this because I was steeped in early modern religious history at university, and probably even harder for Perry given her upbringing. Very interesting discussion, thanks!

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