This is the seventh (and really the last!) post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out the others here. There are a lot of interesting perspectives by various readers here, both scholars and fans. Let me know if you want to write a guest post on a CW-related topic in future.
Today’s post is by Sarah E. Thomson. It is a thoughtful examination of earlier drafts of Descent into Hell CW wrote before finishing the one that was published.
Sarah E. Thomson has been reading and studying Charles Williams since the mid-1960’s when she, like so many others, learned about him via C.S. Lewis. She earned an M.A. from Goddard College in 1991; her master’s project was an annotated edition of Descent into Hell.
Charles Williams’s Drafts of Descent into Hell
“Drugs, drugs, drugs, three a penny, drugs.” As she lies awake late at night, Margaret Anstruther hears the voice of Mr. Samiel making his rounds of Battle Hill. Although the poet Peter Stanhope was the Hill’s first resident, Mr. Samiel, a folklore expert and dealer in dreams and illusion, arrived soon after. He lives near the top of the Hill in a large mansion with a spacious garden; and, as his friend Lawrence Wentworth told Pauline Anstruther one evening, he is a spiritual doctor to the whole Hill or so Wentworth had heard. Wentworth, a military historian and author of The Helmet as Protection and Proclamation, finds Adela Hunt more desirable than Pauline, but it was Pauline who had shown up that evening though Adela and Hugh Prescott had also been expected.
This isn’t the Descent into Hell we know, but the characters—with the exception of Mr. Samiel—are familiar; and even Mr. Samiel is not entirely a stranger. Clearly this wealthy gentleman was transformed into the homeless old woman, Lily Sammile. So where did he and his drugs come from?
The two draft manuscripts of Descent into Hell at the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. One is handwritten and incomplete (CW / MS-35); the other, a complete typescript (CW / MS-54). Mr. Samiel appears in both.
Reading these drafts is fascinating. The basic story is the same: Pauline Anstruther fears meeting her double and Peter Stanhope offers to bear her burden; Margaret Anstruther dies; Lawrence Wentworth and Adela Hunt find their ways to hell; and the workman makes his way there and back again. Much of the text is the same, but changes Williams made in language and plot were significant (and symbolical) as the following examples show.
Originally Pauline’s name as the leader of the Chorus was not Periel but Laziel. Periel is a much richer name than Laziel. Laziel might evoke lazy—as perhaps Pauline’s uncle thought she was since she had not bettered herself by learning German and Spanish while living with her grandmother—but Periel carries within itself peril, Pauline’s habitual state of being. Periel also alliterates with Pauline, creating a stronger connection between the two names and a sense of doubling (appropriate to the character who has a double). Judith Kollman (“The Periels of Pauline: Double States of Being in Descent into Hell” a paper presented at the 2nd International
Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 1987) suggests that Periel is a combination of Ariel from The Tempest and ‘per’ meaning ‘through’, ‘throughout’, ‘thoroughly’, or perhaps ‘beyond’. She points out the parallels between Pauline and Ariel—both constantly perform errands for others, both are liberated spirits seeking greater liberation—and notes that Williams makes the identification explicit when Pauline quotes Ariel’s lines to Peter, “Merrily, merrily, shall I live now/Under the blossom that hangs on the bough (p.178). Periel’s correspondence with Ariel resonates with the correspondences between Stanhope and Shakespeare, and the pastoral play and the Tempest which are found throughout the novel.
Adela’s line in the play, “I am only the perception in a flash of love” is, in the manuscript, the insignificant and flatter “Farewell, and mark the moonlight where it goes”; this was changed in the typescript to “Farewell, for mark the moonlight where it goes”. Changing ‘and’ to ‘for’ does not make much difference; neither line could haunt Adela in her feverish nightmare in which she was running and repeating lines from her part:“What you want is perception in a flash of love; what you love is a flash in want of perception; what you flash is the want in a love of perception; what you want is what you want …” (p. 202)
Pauline meets her double in Chapter Ten of the typescript, “The Meeting of Worlds.” The suicide has decided to go to Margaret Anstruther; he sees her lying in bed talking to Pauline about exchange. Pauline is asking how one can offer joy to someone in great pain and must she always be willing to offer it. Her grandmother notices the dead man and begins talking to him. He wants to be with her; she says that is not possible; they are going different ways. He still has unfinished business with the world; it owes him something which he must get. He asks where he should go. They both look at Pauline, and as she begins to answer, she sees herself—not coming from a distance—but right beside her with the other’s face turned toward Margaret so all she can see is her profile. She closes her eyes and opens them again and the other is still there. When Margaret says, “Pauline,” it is the other who answers and asks if Margaret wants her. The other is brilliant, a shining figure, speaking with a voice worthy of reading Stanhope’s poetry. Pauline desperately wants to escape, but she cannot because her grandmother’s hand is on top of hers. The other Pauline offers to help the dead man. Margaret asks her to give him her joy and she agrees. The dead man asks what he should do and the other tells him to take the joy that is offered to him. Margaret asks Pauline to show him. The other Pauline turns toward Pauline. Pauline feels the other Pauline’s hand in hers. It has happened; the meeting has come. She closes her eyes and opens them and looks at the flaming splendor of her double. Her hand is burning and the heat spreads to her whole body. She sees her grandmother, the suicide, and her double, but somewhere under those there were others and she feels a voice shouting within her. At the dress rehearsal that afternoon, she had offered her joy to her ancestor and now he is returning his own energy to her. His will met hers and at the moment of his death, he sees her eternity. She looks into her own eyes, and holds her own hand and hears Margaret ask again if she would show the dead man whatever she could. As she says yes, there is a movement—her twin envelops her and then is gone. Pauline finds herself looking at a reflection of herself in the mirror on her grandmother’s dressing-table on the other side of the room. Her grandmother is asleep and the nurse comes and asks her if she wants to go to bed.
What a contrast to that powerful scene in Descent into Hell that begins with the line: “Behind her, her own voice said: ‘Give it to me, John Struther’” (p. 170).
Until I saw the manuscripts at the Wade Center, I thought that Charles Williams made only minor revisions to his novels. I had read Edmund Fuller: “Williams wrote the novels, as he did so much of his work, at high speed, in neat, tiny script on assorted papers and notebooks. Each unit was so carefully worked out in his mind before pen touched paper, that revision, even in the intricate plots and complex meanings of the novels, seldom amounted to more than interlinear alterations of words or phrases.” (Books with Men Behind Them, 1962, p.198-199). Clearly this is not true of Descent into Hell. I am grateful for Williams’ revisions; they give us a subtler and more allusive text that rewards many re-readings.