Drafts of “Descent into Hell”: Guest Post by Sarah Thomson

indexThis 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.

DSCN0826Sarah 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?

Marion Wade Center frontThe 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


Ben Wishaw as Ariel

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.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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10 Responses to Drafts of “Descent into Hell”: Guest Post by Sarah Thomson

  1. peterstanhope says:

    Sarah, is it possible to see or purchase a copy of your annotated text of Descent into Hell?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      With Descent into Hell coming out of copyright in the UK and most of the world in nine days, it would be possible to publish the text together with the annotations, there! (I’m not sure what the US copyright situation is – it first appeared there only in 1949, if I’m not mistaken, and that might have some bearing: Georgia Glover of David Higham Associates would be the first person to ask!) Of course, whatever was different in the incomplete autograph MS. and complete typescript would still be under copyright protection, and permission would be required to publish or exactly quote it. But I suppose the sort of excellent detailed summary given in this post would be a way of making differences clear without an edition or extended quotations.


    • Sarah Thomson says:

      I can send you my annotations if you tell me how to contact you. My email address is allset22@verizon.net


    • Sarah Thomson says:

      Sorry, I got my reply in the wrong place–it was meant to be under your comment not David Dodds.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is a wonderful post! It is fascinating to learn about these earlier intentions which continued from autograph MS. into full typescript, yet were all authoritatively rewritten thereafter, with happier results! (An encouragement to those of us who do not rank rewriting among their favorite activities!)

    Grevel Lindop’s biography (listed by Amazon as available in the US in six days) has a wealth of new information about the composition history of the novel which sounds like it complements the work glimpsed here. He quotes an undated letter which he thinks is probably from “late summer 1932” in which Williams reports meditating on various works including “on the novel on death” (note 645: p. 207). He thinks this may be “the first stirring of the idea […] which would eventually become the 1944 novel All Hallows’ Eve.” I’m not sure in how complicated a sense he means this, since the other major known instance of Williams’s rewriting a novel for which the evidence is clearly available is All Hallow’s Eve (and what a process that was: also documented by him in new detail!). I can imagine both these last completed novels grew from the same root or seed.

    He soon quotes what he thinks probably the first surviving specific reference “to what became Descent into Hell”, from a letter to Anne Bradby of 13 July 1933 (note 649: p. 209). Not only does it link “the doctrine of substituted love” and “the next novel”, but includes the remark, “There are, I said once, only drugs & God. I’m inclined to alter that now & say: Everything is both drugs & God; and man’s choice is whether he will know whatever is before him as drugs or as God.” This attention to drugs sounds a lot like the call quoted above from the Mr. Samiel stage of the novel. He quotes more details from a letter to her of 17 August, including a reference to “the chapter of the novel in which Shakespeare (so to speak) explains the idea” of “substituted love” (note 651), neatly underlining the ‘Shakespeare’-‘Stanhope’ connection detailed above. The first glimpse we readers had of this early stage of the novel was a passage from it quoted in an August 1933 letter which Anne Bradby Ridler included in The Image of the City (1958), which corresponds to chapter six of the published version.

    Grevel next quotes a 9 January 1934 letter to her about Gollancz having refused the novel (note 692: p. 218), and reports a further rejection in July by Arthur Barker (who had just successfully published his Bacon biography and commissioned the Rochester one). He quotes a 13 August letter to her about the reaction to it of a trusted reader to whom he lent it (note 697) and reports that he “tinkered with Descent into Hell throughout 1934” (p. 219).

    In my Dictionary of Literary Biography article, I quote from a letter of 29 September 1936 to Richard Ellis Roberts about his “struggling to reorganize a novel at the moment which is called Descent into Hell”. Grevel quotes it at greater length (note 855) and reports he was still wrestling with it in late November, quoting a letter of 27 November to Anne Bradby (note 863: p. 271) – and one to Raymond Hunt on Christmas Eve, saying, in summing up the year’s work, “I have […] rewritten Descent into Hell” (note 867: p. 272). He next reports Eliot’s acceptance of the novel for Faber, quoting a 3 March 1937 letter to Hunt written between accepting their terms and lunching with Eliot and another director, “to hear what they would like done on it, I hope nothing much” (note 874: p. 273). Williams writes Anne Bradby on 16 May about awaiting proofs (note 877: p. 274). It appeared in September.

    Grevel also reports Williams writing a play early in 1941, variously entitled “Frontiers of Hell, How the Devil, The Lady and the Witch, and The Devil and the Lady” which used ideas which Williams had begun to entertain for his seventh novel (pp. 348-49, 376). Here, I wonder how much the Mr. Samiel version of Descent into Hell (and not least Mr. Samiel himself) contributed to both the earlier, and in many ways very different later, versions of that seventh novel and that play, and Mr. Samiel to the black magician, Smetham, and to Simon Leclerc.

    The attention in Descent into Hell to The Tempest and to Ariel in particular noted above, also make me wonder if there is any interplay between the rewriting of Shadows of Ecstasy (submitted on 28 July 1932 to Gollancz), which is full of (if I may so put it) rich and strange Ariel references and quotations, and the beginnings of Descent into Hell. What survives anywhere of details of that Shadows of Ecstasy revision process is a mystery that vexes and tantalizes me. (It would be great to hear from anyone for whom it is no mystery, thanks to something they’ve seen in the Wade, or the Williams Society Archives, or those of Gollancz!)


  3. Tony Fuller says:

    It is indeed a splendid post, as are also the outstandingly informative responses by David Llewellyn Dodds. May I add a small speculative point on the name “Periel”. Charles Williams may have been acquainted with the fact that “Periel” is one of the many names for the most important Archangel Metatron, as noted in 3 Enoch, 43 and elsewhere. Perhaps a more improbable link – but not completely impossible – is that the word appears in a line from a ritual very familiar to his friend the Rev. A.H. Lee; “He comes from Periel”. It is not clear whether the term used here denotes a place or a being, but it is uttered in the context of “decrease of darkness and increase of light.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Another thought about “Drugs, drugs, drugs, three a penny, drugs.” Mr. Samiel, in his capacity of folklore expert, sounds as if he may be presenting himself as an herbalist, a purveyer of healthy, natural remedies and supplements. According to their website, “The Herb Society was founded in 1927 by Hilda Leyel, who founded the Culpeper shops at the same time. The Society was at that stage called The Society of Herbalists, and Mrs Leyel used the consulting rooms of the Society above the Culpeper shops to treat her patients. The patients would then have their medication made up in the shop downstairs.” So, Mr. Samiel might have been fairly topical when the novel was being written in its earlier version(s). (Interestingly, ‘sammile’ appears as an herb name in Elizabeth Goudge’s delightful herbalist historical novel, The White Witch (1958), in the “Author’s Note” of which she acknowledges a debt to The Greater Trumps.)

    Any such benign herbalism would allow Mr. Samiel to mask a trade in ‘drugs’ in darker senses, material and spiritual. It may also be no coincidence that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (another Tempest reference!) with its extrapolated drug-drenched future appeared early in 1932, while Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, with its elaborate drug smugglers’ and dealers’ organization appeared in February 1933. The revised International Opium Convention had gone into effect in September 1928. And the press attention to the possible part of addiction in the Victor Licata mass-murder case in October 1933 was presumably international, as well as American. The ‘drugs’ theme to which Williams gives successive original developments in writing and rewriting Descent into Hell seems variously of topical interest throughout the period of its composition.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Grevel Lindop introduces us to personal dimensions in this context, too: Williams’s friendship with Mary Butts, sadly addicted, which began about the time of the Gollancz rejection and ended with her death just after the Faber acceptance, and his help with heroin as painkiller at the deathbed of Eugene Mason in August 1935 (pp. 250, 266-70).


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just made the acquaintance of Agatha Christie’s short story, “The Hound of Death”, by way of a BBC radio dramatization. Following up at Wikipedia, I find the story itself includes two characters named Anstruther: a brother and sister. Spoiler alert, as to the summary, but it seems a very ‘Charles Williams-y’ story of (shall we say) ‘occult’ powers (!).

    The Wikipedia article is about the book, The Hound of Death and Other Stories, “first published in the United Kingdom in October 1933” and notes “The book was not available to buy in the shops but only through coupons collected from The Passing Show, a weekly magazine published by Odhams. The coupons appeared in issues 81 to 83, published from 7 to 21 October 1933, as part of a promotional relaunch of the magazine,” though eventually “An edition for sale in the shops appeared in February, 1936, published by the Collins Crime Club.” It further notes “The first UK magazine publication of all the stories has not been fully documented” – and this one is not among the seven which have been documented (with dates between June 1924 and March 1927).

    Both book forms fall within the period of Williams’s working on the novel; I don’t know if ‘we’ know how early John was named Struther and Margaret and Pauline, Anstruther.

    Wild idea: the story might have appeared in a magazine and been read by C.W. before he started his first novel!

    (Christie goes on to include a Mrs. Anstruth in Murder is Easy (1939).)


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