Saturday, October 19, 2019

Charles Williams, Descent into Hell; All Hallows' Eve


Opening Passage: From Descent into Hell:

"It undoubtedly needs", Peter Stanhope said, "a final pulling together, but there's hardly time for that before July,a nd if you're willing to take it as it is, why--" He made a gesture of presentation and dropped his eyes, thus missing the hasty reciprocal gesture of gratitude with which Mrs. Parry immediately replied on behalf of the dramatic culture of Battle Hill. Behind and beyond her the culture, some thirty faces, unessentially exhibited to each other by the May sunlight, settled to attention -- naturally, efficiently, critically, solemnly, reverently. The grounds of the Manor House expanded beyond them; the universal sky sustained the whole. Peter Stanhope began to read his play. (p. 753)

From All Hallows' Eve:

She was standing on Westminster Bridge. It was twilight, but the City was no longer dark. The street lamps along the Embankment were still dimmed, but in the buildings shutters and blinds and curtains had been removed or left undrawn, and the lights were coming out there like the first faint stars above. Those lights were the peace. It was true that formal peace was not yet in being; all that had happened was that fighting had ceased. The enemy, as enemy, no longer existed, and one more crisis of agony was done. Labour, intelligence, patience -- much need for these; and much certainty of boredom and suffering and misery, but no longer the sick vigils and daily despair. (p. 889)

Summary: Descent into Hell is exactly what it says on the tin. In Battle Hill, just outside London, the local dramatic society is staging a play by Peter Stanhope, but there is more to the hill, so intimately bound with both the living and the dead, than there seems. Laurence Wentworth, a local historian, is asked to consult. Wentworth has two obsessions: an ongoing dispute over the details of a battle with another scholar, and a beautiful young girl, Adela Hunt. The former could perhaps have saved him if it had been honest scholarly love of the subject that drove him, but it has already begun to be twisted a bit as he tries to force the evidence to fit his conclusions. The latter will be his damnation. Adela, who is not particularly deep and is somewhat self-centered, is in a relationship with a young man, and Wentworth has no chance at her, and knows it. So he just fantasizes, imagining what it would be like, and soon begins to prefer his imagination to the real thing, and then his imagination to everything.

There is a battle of sorts going on in Battle Hill, between the City of Zion and the City of Gomorrah. In Gomorrah love is twisted around on itself. Lily Sammile -- Lilith -- offers people the emptiness of fantasy, an emptiness that promises everything you would love and yet ends in nothing but love of oneself; the City of Gomorrah devours itself and dissolves by its nature. Wentworth and Adela both are in danger of becoming like the dead. On the other side is Peter Stanhope, the poet who merely accepts things as they are, and Pauline Anstruther, who must learn how to face her fears, which come from the fact that she sees her doppelganger. With Stanhope's help, she too must learn to face the truth.

All Hallows' Eve opens with Lester Furnival learning that she is dead in a mostly empty City. She meets up with Evelyn, a friend who has also died, and together they try to understand what is going on. In the meantime, the painter Jonathan Drayton, a friend of Richard Furnival, who had been Lester's husband, is painting a picture of an enigmatic figure in the hope of currying favor with Betty Wallingford's mother; he wants to marry Betty, but Lady Wallingford is a bit hard to persuade. The figure he is painting is Simon Leclerc, a cult figure who preaches love, peace, and joy, but is in fact a necromancer. Indeed, although it's never actually stated, it's clear from certain things said about him -- for instance, the fact that he is Jewish and contrasts the failure of that other Jew who had power over death, the son of the carpenter, with the victory and conquest that he intends to achieve, and the fact that he is on the verge of uniting the world, although the world does not yet know it -- that if he succeeds, he will be the Antichrist. Leclerc is using Betty to predict the future by forcing her spirit to walk in the empty City, which is itself timeless, and he will sacrifice her in order to gain his absolute victory over death. However, there are things afoot that even the cunning necromancer does not know or understand, and at the center of it all is Lester, an imperfect and somewhat impatient woman who nonetheless knows something -- a small thing, but something -- about love, about joy, about peace, the things themselves and not the manipulative words used by Simon the Clerk, and she will, unbeknownst to Simon, be the serious obstacle to his plans.

These are very different stories, but they have an immense amount in common thematically. They are both focused on the image of the City, even more than previous works by Williams. The fundamental moral issue in both is participating in the City. This is made most clear in the meeting of the selfish Evelyn with the monstrously proud Simon:

The exchange of smiles -- if that which had no thought of fair courtesy could be called exchange; at least some imitation of smiles -- passed between them. Separately, each of them declined the nature of the City; which nevertheless held them. Each desired to breach the City; and either breach opened -- directly and only -- upon the other. Love to love, death, to death, breach to breach; that was the ordering of the City, and its nature. It throve between Lester and Betty, between Richard and Jonathan, between Simon and Evelyn; that was its choice. how it throve was theirs.... (pp. 964-965)

We see something similar in Wentworth's rejection of the City in Descent into Hell.

Contrasted with this rejection of the City is the doctrine of substituted love, whereby people bear the burdens of others, as Stanhope will bear Pauline's fears and Lester will bear Betty's suffering. That is true exchange, and the exchange is a power that the self-centered cannot understand because it is a reflection of the City itself, which binds each to each.

Despite the similarity of themes, I think it's fair to say that All Hallows' Eve is far and away the superior work in technical terms. The story of Descent into Hell gives a very chilling depiction of corruption, but it is describing directly something that evades direct description, or at least direct description in these terms. All Hallows' Eve, on the other hand, handles these matters in a subtler way. The latter is also, I think, better organized as a story, and the characterization is stronger. Thus Descent into Hell mostly excels in the episodes -- it reminds me of The Greater Trumps, in that some particular scenes are brilliantly done but the story is something of a chaos at times -- while All Hallows' Eve unites striking episodes with a powerful story.

Favorite Passage: From Descent into Hell:

The Adam slept; the mist rose from the ground. The son of Adam waited. he felt, coming over that vast form, that Hill of the dead and of the living, but to him only the mass of matter from which his perfect satisfaction was to approach, a road, a road up which a shape, no longer vast, was now coming; a shape he distrusted before he discerned it. It was coming slowly, over the mass of the Adam, a man, a poor ragged sick man. The dead man, walking in his own quiet world, knew nothing of the eyes to which his death-day walk was shown, nor of the anger with which he was seen. Wentworth saw him, and grew demented; was he to miss and be mocked again? what shape was this, and there? He sprang forward and up, to drive it away, to curse it lest it interpolated its horrid need between himself and his perfection. He would not have it: no canvassers, no hawkers, no tramps. He shouted angrily, making gestures; it offended him; it belonged to the City, and he would not have a City -- no City, no circulars, no beggars. No; no; no. No people but his, no loves but his. (p. 802)

From All Hallows' Eve:

Lester saw him. She felt, as he came, all her old self lifting in her; bodiless, she seemed to recall her body in the joy they exchanged. He saw her smile, and in the smile heaven was frank and she was shy. She said -- and he only heard, and he rather knew than heard, but some sound of speech rang in the room, and the Clerk, now on his feet, looked round and up, wildly, as if to catch sight of the sound; she said: "I'll wait for you a milion years."She felt a stir within her, as if life quickened; and she remembered with new joy that the deathly tide had never reached, even in appearance, to the physical house of life. If richard or she went now, it would not much matter; their fulfilment was irrevocably promised them, in what manner so-ever they knew or were to know it. (p. 980)

Recommendation: Descent into Hell is Recommended, and All Hallows' Eve is Highly Recommended.


Charles Williams, Charles Williams Omnibus, Oxford City Press (Oxford: 2012).

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