Review of Descent into Hell (1937) by Charles Williams

Review by Mary G

Thecla W pointed me to the comment on the dust jacket as she lent me her copy of Descent into Hell: ‘These novels have been constantly asked for by a small but enthusiastic public’. I have only met three members of this small but enthusiastic public but all value him very highly indeed. One of Reading Sheffield’s interviews, Madeleine D, spent ten minutes of an hour long interview trying to define the kind of books they are and why they appealed to her. Her struggle reveals how they elude generic classifications and how mesmeric their effect on the reader can be; she was, in her words, ‘hooked’.

Though I often found this book difficult to follow it did have a very compelling quality. It is partly because so many of the characters seems to be in the grip of some kind of obsession: the famous historian whose narcissism eventually causes him to create a succubus who is a projection of his sexual desires and his desire for unqualified adulation; the attractive modern girl who so craves admiration and to be the centre of attention that she goes mad; and the central figure of the book, a young and lonely woman haunted by her doppelganger. The fears of these characters are very invasive though I find it difficult to say how this is achieved.

It is partly because the setting for the novel is so ordinary: Battlle Hill, a small suburban town thirty miles from London, surrounded by new estates. Like the best ‘unheimlich’ scenarios the sense of a home, or ordinariness, is infused with the extraordinary and demonic. I like the way Williams completely bypasses the clichés about suburban blight which pervade many novels of the 30s. He doesn’t equate the suburban with the death of civilisation as we know it (a trope shared by writers as diverse as Deeping and Forster). Because of his cosmic time frame the materiality of the new and the old are as one; there is no sentimentality about the traditional. The vanity of the ageing military historian scholar and the modern young woman tip them into a spiritual abyss which  yawns beneath the Church Hall in which the community is putting on a verse play written by a illustrious poet from a family which has lived on this hill for centuries.

The verse play itself is fascinating feature of interwar British culture. It managed to cross all sorts of cultural divides. The poet, Stanhope, obviously evokes TS Eliot, the most illustrious exponent of this form. However, there were, contemporary with Eliot, various middlebrow verse dramatists, Christopher Fry being the most prolific. TS Eliot once visited the boarding school attended by Rumer Godden because her English teacher wrote verse plays. These were rather anaemic celebrations of the natural cycle and there are members of the amateur theatrical company in this book who put pressure on Stanhope to prettify the Chorus by giving its individual members the name of difference tree species. However, he gently resists this move as he does the pressure from the bright young things who, hailing him as a modernist, urge him to make the play more avant-garde than it is. So, the fictional poetic dramatist Stanhope, is represented as being neither middle or highbrow but as sui generis, much as the Reading Sheffield interviewee perceived Williams to be.

Stanhope’s ‘gospel’ (and the word is appropriate here) is embodied in this dramatic pastoral which is compared to the The Tempest. Like The Tempest it seems to have a redemptive intent and, like The Tempest, it acknowledges the power of Nature itself which one member of the company tries to sanitise and sentimentalise. So Nature is not set against redemption as Bacchanalian, destructive or connected with damnation; I am uncertain exactly how it is viewed or integrated into the fundamentally Christian drama about the destructive power of self-love.

This book reminds me of Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927), another thoroughly odd book about goodness. TF Powys’s book sets a cosmic drama of redemption amongst ordinary people but it does not have the long passages of exposition and rumination which make these Descents into Hell slow rather than precipitous. Powys’ book and the saintly purveyor of Good Wine have a radiant and sharp surreal quality which  the Magus like poet and the heroine haunted by her doppelganger rather lack. However, the image at the heart of William’s novel, the silver cord that is sometimes suspended above and sometimes plunging downwards, is deftly used and quietly vertiginous. This book made me want to know more about the art and literature of the period that deals with non-materialist ways of exploring the human condition. Because of the dominance of the notion that 1930s is the leftist decade, this kind of art has been neglected in critical histories.

2 thoughts on “Review of Descent into Hell (1937) by Charles Williams

  1. Great review, Mary, and I totally agree with William’s link to Mr Weston’s Good Wine. I haven’t read this particular Williams, but I’ve got four of his other novels: you can add me to the small and enthusiastic public.

  2. Thanks for highlighting Charles Williams. I’ve since read Descent into Hell (Roy Glashan’s Library via Gutenberg Australia), thoroughly enjoyed it and plan to read the rest.

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