The Weekly Machen

Though Arthur Machen is not usually considered a crime writer in the traditional sense, there some notable examples. As a journalist, he sometimes covered crime stories, and in these instances, he displayed that interest so common to the human race for morbid tales of murder and intrigue. Augustine Birrell, writer and government official, is the same figure mentioned by Machen in last week’s installment. Surprisingly, the reader will find some interesting comments made by Machen regarding both the light and the dark which offer some insight into his approach to fiction writing.

The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweester.


Mr. Birrell’s Book:
Fascination of Crime and Criminals
by
Arthur Machen
November 7, 1911

200px-Augustine_Birrell
Augustine Birrell

I am now reading a book which I have wanted to read for 30 years. The book is called “A History of Crime in England,” and I can hardly lay it down. It is a book for the politician, the religious man, the man who is interested in social science, and the progress of the human race, because it touches our history at almost every point.—Mr. Birrell at the Caxton Hall last night.

Mr. Birrell, it is probable, gave his audience a decided shock. He was addressing the National Home Reading Union on the choice of books, his president was the Bishop of Hereford, and the Bishop was supported by the dean of St. Paul’s and other dignified persons.

One does not know exactly what advice the Home Readers expected to receive; in all probability they looked forward to a highly respectable list of highly respectable books; standard works, they no doubt thought, would be recommended, the regions of human knowledge would be charted, and the leading authorities on the leading subjects from botany to banking would be commended in grave set terms.

Instead of which,” I am delighted to see that Mr. Birrell told his hearers that the best reading was the reading they liked best. This has always been my opinion; I have never held that—hard facts and practical information apart—the only books which are of the slightest value to the individual are the books which interest him and chain his attention. I am glad to find that I am supported by such an eminent authority.

And then Mr. Birrell went on to give the Reading Union a specimen of his own taste in literature. He said that he was reading ‘A History of Crime in England,’ and he could hardly lay it down. And the Secretary of State for Ireland dilated on the enchantments contained in this tale of naughtiness, and showed how it touched our history at every point, and had something of importance in it for all sorts and conditions of men.

Here again the judicious will be in the most thorough agreement with the speaker.

Surpassing the Old Bailey Calendar

If you would appreciate the light, you must have some notion of dark, if you would make a child realise what is implied by the term a “straight line” draw one—with a crooked line beside it. “Morbid interest” is a term often in the mouths of very “nice” people, who, if they had the courage of their convictions, would certainly never allow the tragedy of “Hamlet” to be played in public. Those who would know to what heights men may rise must know also to what depths they are capable of descending. The saint is to be deduced from a careful observation of the sinner.

I have just been glancing through the book which has captured Mr. Birrell’s attention, and which, for all we know, may serve as the foundation of a new series of “Obiter Dicta.” It is an exhaustive history of crime in Britain from the time of the Roman conquest to our own days. It is full of strange chapters, and many of us may be astonished to hear that for the crime of “petty treason”—a woman was sentenced to be burned alive so late as 1784. The sentence stands against wicked but hapless Mary Bayley:—“Burned with fire. To be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution on Monday, the eighth of March, and burned with fire until she be dead.” It was not until 1790 —only 121 years ago—that the punishment for petty treason was changed from burning to hanging.

There is one point of encouragement recorded in this fascinating record: though our population has increased so enormously, there are no more judges going on circuit now than there were in the reign of Edward III.

Witchcraft, I see, ceased to be an indictable offense in 1736, and after that date he who pretended to the wizard’s magic art was liable to be punished not for sorcery, but for cheating. But as late as 1751 one Osborne and his wife Ruth, living at Tring, in Hertfordshire, were lynched by a mob which, statute or no statute, was sure that the couple were witch and wizard.

The Fascination of Crime

One of the most enchanting branches of the great study of wickedness is to be found in the criminal trials. I have often wondered why our feuilletonists and dealers in sensation have not tried to get into their imagined stories something of the breathless interest that has made some famous cases such absorbing reading.

Mr. Masefield, whose instinct for what is vital in life is always sure and trustworthy, has, I believe, dramatised one of the great criminal trials under the title of “The Campden Wonder.” Here is a case which was a profound mystery to its age, the late seventeenth century, which, it seems, will remain a mystery for ever. Very briefly, the story is as follows: A staid, middle-aged steward down in Gloucestershire went for a stroll in the lanes one afternoon. He did not come home to supper; and on search being made, his wig and cane (I think) were found by the roadside. There was suspicion of foul play; and then there came forward a country-fellow in the parish who accused himself, his mother, and his brother of having murdered the steward. No body was found—I forget the tale the country-fellow told to account for the lack of a corpus—and the three were hanged. And two years later the steward returns, with a story of his having been set upon in the lane, bound hand and foot, carted across England, and shipped from Dover to Asiatic Turkey, where he had been held as a slave and subjected to malignant treatment.

Think of the nest of puzzles in this story. The countryman may have been seized from the mania of self-accusation? Possibly; but people suffering from this odd malady rarely implicate others, and usually contrive to eat their words before it is too late. And the Campden witness remained stout to the last, and procured the death of his own mother and brother, in addition to lying himself to the gallows.

And then, this sign of the case apart, what are we to make of the steward’s story? So far as I remember, he did not profess to know the men who seized him, he made no attempt to suggest a motive for his abduction. Was the steward’s tale a true one? I can scarcely think so; but I do not begin to suggest a solution for this extraordinary puzzle.


The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Fascination of Crime and Criminals

  1. Thanks for this! Delightful (and encouraging) to think Birrell chose a book he had “wanted to read for 30 years” – and finally got round to – and that Machen (by contrast) turned at once to “glancing through the book” and to providing striking examples of what he encountered (and that you have linked it)! Delightful to follow the link to an article about Masefield from a month later! (Ah, the Masefield I have not yet read! But I see that “The Campden Wonder” and its sequel, ” Mrs. Harrison”, as included in The Tragedy of Nan, and Other Plays (1909) are available in scans of the first edition and various reprints in the Internet Archive for me to catch up… sometime?)

    And interesting to think of Birrell’s “president” being “the Bishop of Hereford,” John Percival, “and the Bishop” being “supported by the dean of St. Paul’s” fairly newly appointed, William Inge (Dean Robert Gregory having died on 2 August). I wonder if ‘we’ know much about Machen’s relations with, or thoughts about, Inge and his works? (I do not, in any case – but Charles Williams has some interesting quotations from Inge’s 1899 Bampton Lectures, Christian Mysticism in his Arthurian Commonplace Book, entitled ‘The Holy Grail’ on its spine, started around the time of this article…)

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    1. As always, thanks for your encouraging remarks. In my fuzzy memory, I seem to recall reading Machen making a comment on Inge in an article or essay, but the details I cannot remember. If I stubble upon it, I will try to post it here.

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