Machen Rarities Rescued from Oblivion
A Review by
Dale Nelson

M&M FrontDarkly Bright Press just issued Mist and Mystery, a new book of century-old pieces taken from nearly 20 years of T. P.’s Weekly. Most of the items have never been reprinted.

Machen fans will already know “Out of the Earth,” one of his narratives about the malign Little People, but editor Christopher Tompkins reprints here it in its original form, with numbered section divisions and some word differences. There’s also an original illustration. It is more horrible when you look at it closely; at first you just get an impression of some scruffy-looking kids.

65-earth2

Machen himself mined his journalism for several books, such as Dog and Duck and Notes and Queries. Still, Mist and Mystery deserves the attention of Machen admirers. It proved to be more interesting than I had expected. For one thing, it gives clues to Machen’s reading.

It’s many years ago since I had a library copy of Machen’s Selected Letters in hand, and my memory is that that book was disappointing. I would have liked more about Machen’s reading. Happy day – there’s plenty of that here in Mist and Mystery. It’s pleasing to read Machen’s praise for Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (“one of the most delightful and wonderful of books…most enchanting”). He urges readers to get the book in the Chatto and Windus illustrated edition. Machen praises Blackwood’s “story of the men on the island amongst the whispering mysterious voices of the willow [bushes],” which he would place “in the very first rank of tales of terror.” Who, who has read “The Willows,” would disagree? It’s good to know also that Machen regarded The Turn of the Screw as “one of the very best horror stories ever written.” Henry James was alive when that was written.

Mist and Mystery bears witness to the way Dickens’s novels came so readily to Machen’s mind that he mentions them again and again – and he could trust that his readers knew the significance of an allusion to Gradgrind, for example. Here also is reprinted “Poe the Enchanter: A Study in Aesthetics,” in which Machen praises a study by Arthur Ransome (author of Swallows and Amazons, etc.). Machen particularly likes this sentence of Ransome’s on Poe: “My admiration was always for something round the corner or over the hill.”

Machen often sounds like Chesterton. For example “… though … I do not say that the quality of exciting violent disagreement is the one quality of good criticism, I do say that without this quality no really fine criticism can exist. The critic, if he be more than an entertaining chatterer, goes down to first principles, and first principles, on which so many of us differ, are the only principles which really are worth debate” (p. 72). Just this week I’ve been reading Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World and saw GKC making a similar comment – that too much political discussion does not get down to fundamental matters. Here as elsewhere Machen may also recall Coleridge.

Moreover, Machen draws our attention to forgotten books that might be worth looking for. He liked Dr. Laurie Magnus’s English Literature in the Nineteenth Century: “This is a book which students of modern literature should buy and keep on their shelves. …poetry, as Mr. Magnus shows, is a kind of magic, a species of incantation…” How intriguing, to see Machen refer to – what are these? – The Silence of Dean Maitland and Michael and His Lost Angel as “favourites of mine” that he mentions in the same sentence with The Scarlet Letter. (Everyone has at least heard of The Scarlet Letter, but I wonder how many high school students or undergraduates who first encounter it in school would have been more eager to read if they were Machen fans and knew that AM had called it “certainly one of the finest romances the world has produced.”) But who any more has heard of Coventry Patmore – and, if they have heard of him, have heard of him as being the author of “wonderful essays” as well as being the author of The Angel in the House, a long poem about courtship and married love the mere thought of which must offend the typical college-educated reader today? Yet the poem might be helpful to readers of Machen’s “A Fragment of Life” – as well as being worth reading in its own right after all.

md31300122339He reviews a couple of novels that deal with “occult” subjects. Of R. H. Benson’s “curious and fascinating” The Necromancers, he says “most decidedly a book to be read.” As it happens, I have read it, and was impressed. However, though Evelyn Underhill’s The Column of Dust was (as an editorial footnote remarks) dedicated to Machen and his wife, Machen is fairly critical of it – he admires Underhill’s ambition but doesn’t regard the novel as a success. “I must say, in conclusion, that one of the most beautiful things in the book is the wonderful and convincing episode of the Holy Vessel of the Graal” –  that I’d like to look into.

If you’re a Machen fan, you must have known that he loved Dickens’s novels, and you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn, from Mist and Mystery, that Machen regarded Emily Brontē’s Wuthering Heights as “one of the most notable books in all literature.” But many Machen readers will not have read, perhaps will not have heard of, Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Here, Machen says he’s just been reading it “for the twentieth time, I suppose.” I’m happy to say that it is indeed an outstanding book, possibly the finest English biography of the 19th century – though I can’t match the number of Machen’s readings of it.

Several articles express Machen’s opposition to spiritualism, Mme Blavatsky, etc. He alludes to Robert Browning’s satire about the medium Mr. Sludge. The Elizabethan occultist Dr. John Dee is liable to be mentioned by modern horror writers intending to impart an antiquarian flavor to their stories. This book contains an interesting piece about Dee and “the arch-impostor Kelley” (p. 87), who, Machen believes, duped Dee.

How to Enjoy Life” – early in one’s career of reading Machen one wouldn’t expect the author of “The Great God Pan,” “The White People,” “The Inmost Light,” “The Novel of the Black Seal,” “The Novel of the White Powder,” etc. to write a piece with that title – nor, perhaps, would one expect that, if somehow Machen did write it, it would have a theme of being content to be ignored, keeping focused on what matters. Machen’s essay is vulnerable to the criticism that he could be saying merely, “Do as you please and dismiss what anybody else thinks, embrace a life of settled selfishness” – but I don’t actually think that’s quite what he is saying. Incidentally here again Machen thinks of Dickens. Dickens for Machen is a touchstone of enjoyment and sanity.

It’s good to see, in the final piece here, that Machen grouped Sir Walter Scott with Dickens as “supremely great masters.” I don’t know if Scott is read any more. If he is not, that might be due in part to the incomprehension that, if I remember rightly, was shown by editors of a well-known college anthology of British literature, which, to represent Scott, included… the first chapter of one of his novels. Now the thing about Scott is that (from what I have experienced) it is safe as a rule of thumb to skip his introductory material and first chapters and to begin reading at Chapter 2. If you’ve never read Scott, take up Old Mortality or The Heart of Midlothian or The Bride of Lammermoor, I’d say; though Machen praised Ivanhoe in Hieroglyphics. In Far-Off Things, Machen’s first book of autobiography, he mentions a Scott set in the family parlor and reading through them all (again, as I remember without checking). Scott is more important for Machen than a lot of admirers of Machen’s horror stories realize.

Mist and Mystery includes a story, not previously read by me, “Many-Tower’d Camelot.” It seems rushed as the story is coming to a conclusion. It depicts Guinevere as a sorceress who, getting power over Lancelot by satanic magic, makes him her lover against his will, and they conduct their affair hidden under cover of magic. Lancelot sees the Grail, but this experience makes him feel pain. When she undertook black magic, Guinevere had been assisted by a mysterious “lad.” He eventually tells King Arthur what is going on. The king shows mercy, however, at last, and the queen ends her life as a nun (as will be familiar from standard accounts) and Lancelot as a bishop. It seems to me that Machen hadn’t quite worked out his themes, etc. Did he intend to set up a contrast between the theory of love that Lancelot talked about when he innocently accompanied Guinevere before her marriage, and the oppressive compulsion wreaked by black magic?

Mist and Mystery contains also some misprints, perhaps due to transcription from defective digital sources. Nicholson Barker wrote about the occasional loss of legibility – sometimes with horrendous consequences – of microfilms and digitization, in his fascinating and dismaying 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. But while libraries have thrown away their shelves of bound magazines, as I saw at my own university around ten years ago, thank goodness we at least have sources such as microfilms or their digitized versions rather than an utter loss of old files. Mist and Mystery shows that there’s some very good reading still to be brought forth from them.


Machen Rarities Rescued from Oblivion: copyright 2022 by Dale Nelson

5 thoughts on “Machen Rarities Rescued from Oblivion

  1. A fine presentation of varied attractions – wow! Even the sketch of “Many-Tower’d Camelot” leaves me wanting to reread parts of T.H. White as well as Tolkien’s ‘Fall of Arthur’ in pursuit of comparing and contrasting treatments of sorceresses and of Guinevere there and here.

    Like

    1. I did get hold of The Silence of Dean Maitland. Here are some remarks about it.

      The principal theme is twofold, that the loss of sexual innocence may capture other people as well as the sinning couple in dreadful consequences, but God may work good through those consequences. Gray does not condone the transgression of Cyril Maitland and Alma Lee. She shows how they lie to cover it up out of fear of social consequences, which results in Cyril’s best friend being convicted of killing Alma’s vengeful father. (In fact, Cyril defended himself from Lee’s murderous attack and committed manslaughter. In the darkness, Lee thought he was attacking Henry Everard, Cyril’s friend, who had no wrongful connection with Alma. It will be seen that a prominent motif in the novel is the consequences of reliance on circumstantial evidence in the prosecution of fallible human justice.)

      Henry is sentenced to hard labor. On one occasion he escapes and is a fugitive for three weeks but is recaptured and imprisoned in Dartmoor, where his health is ruined. Cyril’s twin sister, Lilian, had pledged her undying love to him and waits till he is free 18 years later. Henry doesn’t tell Lilian when he figures out that Cyril had to have been Alma’s seducer, father of her bastard, and responsible for Lee’s death, desiring to protect her, her father, etc.

      Gray writes well of Henry’s sufferings and also of Cyril’s, his fear of detection, and of how his guilt gives him, as a successful clergyman, an ability to reach secret sinners. Here and elsewhere one will be reminded of Hawthorne, an author esteemed by Machen, e.g. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” There was one passage in particular about Alma (Part One, Chap. 17) that almost too obtrusively suggested Hester in The Scarlet Letter, which Machen mentioned at the same time he mentioned Gray’s novel.

      One way in which Cyril justifies his years of keeping silent about what really happened, with the consequences to his best friend, is that he doesn’t want to bring shame upon the Church of England, in which, as the story nears its end, he is about to be appointed a bishop. This reminded me of the horrible pattern of secrecy and conniving in Roman Catholic circles related to the sexual abuse of boys, especially, in recent decades.

      From a Lutheran Law and Gospel viewpoint, the theology of the story was not robustly Christian, in that there’s no sense in it of the glorious exchange whereby Christ takes upon Himself to “be sin for us, who knew no sin,” so that we might be righteous before the Father, giving sinners a basis for hope based on sheer grace. However, Gray’s focus is on the social and psychological consequences of sin and most of the time the lack of a Gospel theme is thus not critical. As a writer of the Law she is effective. I was struck by the thought that it would be almost impossible for this novel, which might otherwise be attractive for a British TV miniseries, to be handled faithfully today. If it were to be adapted, I imagine the affair between Cyril and Alma would be emphasized with scenes of their carnal activity, and the suggestion that Society is hypocritical about sex, especially women’s sexuality, etc., etc. Gray does, certainly, recognize social hypocrisy, but her novel avoids a strong satirical flavor. It is clear, by the way, that, after Cyril’s death, his legitimate children will be protected always from the knowledge of the younger Ben Lee as being their father’s bastard son. Ben receives a legacy of 500 pounds, but readers are assured that he has given up his aspiration to become a gentleman, which he had voiced in a tense meeting with Cyril in which the latter’s dishonesty and ability to keep up a social mask were demonstrated.

      Delineation of social classes is prominent in the novel. Cyril’s father is a prosperous and respected clergyman while Alma’s father is from the laboring class, etc. The settings are well described. Gray conveys scenes of nature, of the streets and buildings of an old English town, etc. pretty well.

      While I read The Silence of Dean Maitland I asked myself if the novel deserved to be regarded as a “neglected classic.” Perhaps it just misses deserving that label. The final 75 pages or so were reasonably good without reaching the height they ideally would have attained. Cyril confesses his sin from the pulpit before a packed audience that has come to hear a celebrity preacher “perform.” His address to them lacks Gospel but rather is a clearing of his conscience, in some degree at least. before man and a moral exhortation against doing as he has done – though he does note Henry’s forgiveness of himself. He expects to go to jail but dies of an ailment he has suffered for some time. Presumably Cyril would feel unfit to address them about the Gospel because he has been such a sinner, but then the value of the Gospel message depends upon the Word of God rather than the worthiness of the preacher – about which there seems to be some confusion here. Of course a clergyman is to be above reproach, but the truth and the power of the Gospel do not depend upon his personal virtue.

      I liked this novel, which I don’t remember certainly to have heard of before seeing Machen’s mention, although I might have read John Sutherland’s rather dismissive summary of it in the Longman/Stanford guide to the Victorian novel. I like Machen the more for speaking well of it, particularly since, as I recall from reading The Secret Glory many years ago, he there seemed rather inclined to condone his hero’s fling with a parlourmaid, as if there’s a different moral code for artistic types such as himself. I would not have expected Machen to have a high regard for this novel and am glad he did. It also shows one that, while he explains what he believes is a necessary condition for truly fine literature to exist, in Hieroglyphics, he could appreciate a novel such as this that deals with social and moral themes without, I would say, that prized mystical or high-romantic quality.

      The Silence of Dean Maitland is worth reading.

      Like

      1. Thanks for this detailed and interesting introduction to an unfamiliar work by an unfamiliar (and prolific) author – whose 176 birth-anniversary falls/fell (depending on your time zone) on 11 December, I see from her Wikipedia article. It has a footnote (without link to the 1894 source) suggesting “The release saw a deal of speculation about the authorship, including theories that it has been written by a well-known ecclesiastic or the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury.” In 1886 when the novel appeared, that Archbishop would have been Edward White Benson, and his daughter the 20/21-year-old Margaret, younger sister of A.C. and older sister of E.F. and R.H. (author of The Necromancers)! Clicking the author link at the linked scan of the novel (for which, thanks!), I see among the other scans of her works is a copy of Lays of the Dragon Slayer (1894) – with a Preface saying they were written some 15 years earlier (including a playful Hawthorne reference (p. [2]) and a notable disclaimer as to her sources and works of which she was ignorant when writing them (p. [5]: q.v.!). Is this something any young Inklings were likely to have encountered?

        Like

  2. Checking to see if there might be audiobooks of any of her works – without success – I encountered the hymn “Father, let me dedicate” which is included in the 1918 Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-book and the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal (among many others) – by Lawrence Tuttiett: family of the novelist?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s