Not exactly a household word, this title, but the woman’s name has a long and fraught history. Mostly forgotten, her obscurity may end. In literary history, she joins the Wandering Jew archetype and also sets off Faustian ripples.
Charles Maturin, an 18th-century Irish clergyman, chose a gothic mode for his male outcast in “Melmoth the Wanderer.” Stemming from St. Paul, if I recall, she served as a hovering authority in children’s past cautionary tales. She had first been cited among the women who came upon the Savior’s empty tomb and later saw Him, thus testifying to His divinity. But Melmoth recanted and was condemned to wander the earth until the second coming. For her failure to see, she is consigned to endless watching: bearing witness, in Sarah Perry’s version, to the earth’s most distressing and wicked scenes.
Perry upgrades her Melmoth to a sort of solitary moral witness of human blindness and cruelty. She is still unredeemed, but the emphasis is secular. The flawed figures she encounters become candidates for curing her loneliness, but on the condition they join her and own their sinful complicity in the infliction of suffering. Here I should pause and acknowledge my own complicity in rendering the text’s givens more accessible than they tend to be in the reading. Like Melmoth, I may end up watching the various storylines that invite my sympathy by endorsing her perspectives and thereby lessening her loneliness.
So while I’ve been dwelling on implied premises, Perry has animated her plot with engaging characters. Principal among them is Helen Franklin: single, independent, English, eking out a living by translating product manuals in Prague. Passing a fellow researcher in the library, she is drawn into his fascination with the haunting presence of Melmoth.
Leant his unfolding account, Helen is soon absorbed in the life of Melmoth, who, it transpires, has transferred her relentless gaze to our heroine and her buried secrets.