‘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, Melmoth, was 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.