If you can get past the somewhat macabre title, you’ll find an uncommonly beautiful story about the power of fear, forgiveness and free will from the mind of Tolkien/ Lewis’s fellow (yet lesser-known) Inkling, Charles Williams. Confession time: I’d never heard of this author until recently, and I only discovered his work through searching ‘Doppelgänger books’ on Google for my PhD.
But Descent into Hell is so much more than this.
The story centres on the staging of a play by famous dramatist Peter Stanhope at his home town of Battle Hill, just outside of London (though the place itself exists in a mystical, quasi-timeless state of existence). There’s much excitement at the prospect of a local boy turned celebrity returning home, and everyone gets involved in the theatrics of it all. We follow four main characters: Stanhope, Pauline (a woman who is haunted by her Doppelgänger), Wentworth (a lecherous local historian), and an unnamed dead man, as they navigate the symbolic – and, at times, literal – rope that leads down to hell.
Descent is a strange, magnificent book that transcends its literary limits and forges a psychologically profound and deeply emotional story the likes of which I had never encountered before. It’s not an easy read, but it is a unique experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. I love it so much that I have even started on the film adaptation in my head (starring Eva Green as Pauline, Timothy Dalton as Stanhope, and Tom Wilkinson as Wentworth, directed by Jane Campion/ Jonathan Glazer). But for now, let’s have a look at some of the book’s pervading themes, including faith, identity and choice which are masterfully framed by the motif trio of doubles, darkness and – naturally – descent…
[Here be spoilers…]
Although Descent’s Catholic influences are central to its narrative purpose, its theme of taking on the burdens of others is not restricted to a particular belief system but universal to the human experience.
However, Williams’ own religious beliefs loom large throughout; not only does the title invoke the Christian concept of ‘hell’, Williams utilises a great deal of religious imagery, notably the repeated scene of an endless rope leading down into a bottomless pit, and the various characters ‘descending’ into the eponymous unearthly underworld. Religious terminology appears throughout, with extensive references to the sound of trumpet blasts (evoking Judgment Day), diverging paths (literal and metaphorical), darkness, rope, and silver; all in addition to the increasing moral bankruptcy of Battle Hill, areas of which have descended into a kind of modern Gomorrah.
Stanhope’s Christian name ‘Peter’ evokes one of Jesus Christ’s leading apostles, and to whom Jesus said ‘upon this rock I will build my church’ (John 1:41-42). Stanhope’s glorious return to his home town works as an allegory for two Biblical stories: as a reworking of the prodigal son, and also as a second coming, with the Christ-like Stanhope who is seen by his people as a divine being. Furthermore, Stanhope does not bask in his own fame or glory, but instead sets about trying to do good deeds for nothing in return; a crusade-like task that he must fulfil for his faith, but for no reward. We never get to hear how Stanhope learned this doctrine; we can only imagine that he was, at one time, in Pauline’s place. Stanhope takes on the fears of the long-suffering Pauline through a process of mental/ emotional ‘transference’. This is what Williams calls the ‘doctrine of substituted love’, a concept which echoes the ‘Great Commandant’ to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Love is explored in many senses – familial love (Pauline and her grandmother Margaret), young love (Adela and her boyfriend Hugh), platonic love (Stanhope and Pauline), lust (Wentworth and Adela), love for one’s faith (Stanhope, Margaret) and the journey towards self-love/ self-acceptance (Pauline).
Stanhope, out of the four main characters, is the only one who starts the story with a strong sense of his own identity. Pauline’s struggle to accept and understand her true nature is manifested in the form of her Doppelgänger, a figure whose frightening presence has turned her into a relative shut-in. Wentworth, a man of good standing, wants to complete his picture of a perfect life by having the pretty but shallow Adela on his arm. The dead man’s identity remains unknown – he isn’t even given a name, but it is through him that we first encounter the image of the endless silver rope that leads down to hell. He begins the story by descending the rope, but when he comes into contact with the mortal world at Battle Hill (particularly Pauline and her family), he regains a sense of identity in death that he never had whilst alive, not to mention a second chance.
Our two earthbound sufferers, meanwhile, must learn the art of self-care/ acceptance – Pauline, with Stanhope’s mentoring, must reconcile her conflicting natures (for it is the part of her that she does not understand and fears that manifests as her Doppelgänger), whereas Wentworth conjures a spectral Adela to gratify his baser needs. It is only through learning the art of selflessness that Pauline regains her true self, whilst Wentworth’s selfish desire for Adela gradually chips away at him until he loses every facet of his identity – the descent becomes everything.
Pauline and Wentworth, foils and parallel protagonists, both come to a crossroads during the book where they have to make an important choice. Pauline has to decide whether to abide by Stanhope’s doctrine of substituted love, and Wentworth had to decide whether or not to continue his pursuit of Adela. (Although, ultimately, their actions will decide who will ascend into a higher plane of existence, and who go in the opposite direction).
Neither of these decisions come easily to our duo – each stands at a spiritual precipice facing potential futures whilst stagnating in their repetitive presents. Pauline and Wentworth embark on parallel narrative journeys, which I have split into three categories: Stagnation, Intervention, Embarkation (or in simpler terms: the Now, the Then, and the After).
- Stagnation/ the Now: Both Pauline and Wentworth are very much rooted in the (selfish) now: Pauline suffers from the ungodly sight of her own reflection, consumed by nothing else but her own appearance reflected back to her. Wentworth wants nothing else but to possess local beauty Adela. Both are occupied almost exclusively with, and primarily defined by, these respective obsessions.
- Intervention/ the Then: Pauline and Wentworth’s repetitive cycles of fixation are broken by an intervening third party – Pauline by Stanhope, and Wentworth by Adela’s new beau Hugh. Pauline is mentored by the selfless generosity of Stanhope, who both relieves her of her pain and tutors her in a new way of accepting herself and carrying the burdens of others. Wentworth, on the other hand, has no such guide, other than his own (broken) moral compass; in a dream, he wanders through a dark, twisted Eden-esque landscape where he meets a facsimile of Adela who, instead of refusing his advances, allows him to indulge in his deepest and most unrealised desires.
- Embarkation/ the After: Pauline and Wentworth have to choose what to do with their newfound knowledge. Wentworth stamps out all nuance and humanity and denies choice to his ghostly lover – she bends to his every whim and has no personality of her own with which to challenge him. He becomes so infatuated with her phantom twin that he can’t even bring himself to help the real Adela when she is in great distress: it becomes clear that the only person Wentworth wants to help is himself. Pauline, however, makes her own decisions at every turn; although she is hesitant to relinquish her newly fear-free life, she does eventually decide to put Stanhope’s teachings into action, breaking the bounds of time and space to carry the fear of her rebellious ancestor so that he may walk to the gallows free of sorrow.
By the end of the book, Pauline has reconciled the two sides of her nature and – in rather epic fashion – destroyed Gomorrah on earth, becoming her best and truest self and using that experience to enhance her life, career, and the lives of others. But Wentworth, isolated and alone, mistakes the real Adela as fake, casts the facsimile out and begins his descent not only into hell but into total mental, physical and emotional deterioration.
I haven’t been quite this affected and enraptured by a book since Angsty Teenage Me picked up Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. I think it is partly because we all know someone who is climbing down that never-ending rope, and we’ve all been on it ourselves at one point in our lives, when it seems like there’s no escape from the darkness. But remember, if there’s a way down, there’s always a way back up…