The second post in my exploration of Charles Williams’ macabre masterpiece Descent into Hell

After many months of delving back into this peculiar masterpiece, I have returned with more thoughts, questions and dilemmas than I believed possible since my first post on Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell (which can be found here). Like most sequels, it arrives late, bloated and over budget. However, a second look at this unique novel revealed so much more than I had understood the first time round that I’ll need a third blog post to fully articulate how I feel about the text. I’ll be mainly focusing on a single character this time around – the loathsome Lawrence Wentworth.

A question was posed to me after my last blog post which I’ve spent the last few months thinking over: Can Lawrence Wentworth be redeemed? My immediate personal reaction was to damn him to forever climb down that rope he’s so obsessed with, but my years of law school have prompted me to (attempt to) be more balanced on the subject. This is a rather long think-piece on the damnation and redemption of a single fictional person, so get a cup of your beverage of choice, curl up with a blanket and we’ll climb this rope together. As always, I would love to her your thoughts in the comments, and I look forward to chatting with you soon!

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Who is Lawrence Wentworth?

Lawrence Wentworth is one of the most unsavoury characters I have encountered in a long time. His chapters of the book were always the most meandering, mean-spirited and mephitic – and bear in mind this story features, quite literally, an undead horde of zombies.

Wentworth is the next most prestigious Battle Hill inhabitant after Peter Stanhope (and, in his own field, after Aston Moffatt) – and I was reminded of the phrase ‘those that are last shall be first, and those that are first shall be last’ (Matthew 20:16). So naturally I connected this with the fatherly wisdom of Reese Bobby to his son Ricky: ‘if you ain’t first, you’re last (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, 2006). Wentworth is toxic masculinity incarnate – a completely self-absorbed man who obsessively hates and dehumanises anyone who dares to oppose him, whether they be professional rivals (Aston Moffatt) or romantic ones (Hugh Prescott). The former is introduced as the ‘most distinguished living authority on military history’, to which Wentworth is second best. The latter is courting Adela Hunt, a young woman a few decades Wentworth’s junior, and the object of his unrequited lust. Now that he is in his fifties, he is beginning to feel his age and fear his rapidly ‘shortening’ future. In our current political climate, Wentworth is not just a convincing fictional character – his egotistical actions and backwards ideals are reflected in many very real and very powerful people in our world today.

Side Note: That whole ‘neutrality’ thing’s going swimmingly so far…

His eponymous descent into hell is one almost entirely of his own making, which reminded me of a certain quote, the origin of which I can’t call to mind: ‘Earth is the only Hell a Christian will ever know and the only Heaven a non-believer will ever know’. Each character in the book has their own physical manifestation of hell – Pauline has her Doppelgänger, the dead man has his ladder, and Wentworth has the rope – perhaps the most haunting image of them all. Wentworth has been dreaming about climbing down an endless, shining rope into an abyss. He doesn’t fear it, as such – his mind, we are told, turns everything into geometric diagrams for him to process and analyse, and as a military historian and WWI survivor he’s probably seen more horrific things in his time – but personally, I hadn’t come across an image that was so monstrously minimalistic as that rope since Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ – which features Scarlett Johansson luring men into a sea of darkness.

Wentworth’s focus is completely on himself throughout the entirety of the novel, though filtered through his twin obsessions. Even his name is contradictory: his first name is rather saintly, deriving from the ancient Roman city of Laurentum, and originating with a martyred deacon who defined the true treasures of the church as the sick and the poor, as opposed to valuable riches. His surname however is indicative of his descent, meaning ‘winter’ and symbolising his cold heart. Most of the story however focuses less on his hatred for Aston Moffatt and more on his desire for Adela. He hates Hugh’s youth, opportunity and, of course, his relationship the woman Wentworth wants, though Wentworth sees it more in terms of a possession than a mutual connection. This isn’t to say Hugh and Adela are perfect: Hugh is dismissive of Wentworth, teases him about his age, and eventually abandons Adela in her time of need; whereas Adela manipulates everyone in her life – including Wentworth and Hugh – in order to achieve her ambitions. Even at this point in the story, Wentworth is angered by Adela’s ‘consent’ and ‘obedience’ to Hugh, the latter of which he has never experienced from a significant other yet wants from Adela, which seems – to use the elegant, technical terminology of literary criticism – a bit icky. His desires are entirely selfish and superficial – the real Adela gives these desires a face to focus them on, and her spectral double offers a way for him to act on those desires. He wants Adela to be submissive and obedient and completely head over heels for him – in short, everything the real Adela is not. Adela is not his true love – what he truly wants is a pretty face and a nubile body to own and control. This sickening side of Wentworth reminded me of prima nocta and the divine right of kings – Wentworth believes he should have the first pick of what he wants; and, worse, he believes he deserves this.

And he’s not only risible in his personal affairs, but he is at best a self-entitled sore loser and at worst a pessimistic misanthrope to the point of wishing ill on his rivals. He hears that Aston Moffatt is receiving a knighthood for his work, an unusual honour for historians; instead of seeing the positives – if one historian is getting a knighthood, then surely he’s more likely than ever to receive one in the future, as he is the next best in his field? – he believes instead that his rival has ‘succeeded at his own expense’. In other words, Wentworth makes another man’s success a personal slight against him. He didn’t even know historian could be knighted, but now ‘the possibility had been created and withdrawn simultaneously leaving the present fact to kick him… He had determined then and forever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts’. His irrational reaction reminds me of a certain figure – or rather, figures – In politics right now, that irrational, reactional hatred of experts and facts and the utter refusal to believe or condone anything with which they don’t agree.

And yet for such an expert scholar of the past, we never see him engaging with his field, other than making historically-accurate military uniforms for Stanhope’s play. Perhaps this reflects how stalled he is in his work; how his expertise is being used for something at best tangential to his studies and at worst superficial – whether they are connected to a woman who doesn’t care about him or about the fictional world of the play instead of on real life. If anything, Wentworth seems to use his military history expertise not so much on his work but in his ‘wooing’ (such as it is) of Adela – he sees his pursuit of her as a conquest, not a coming together of equals. At no time does he appear to believe in gender equality, because in his perspective all women appear to be subservient (Adela/ her double), lesser (Pauline), or battle-axes (Catherine Parry). And yet, it is not so much that Wentworth is the conqueror but the conquered, as dark forces seem to be conspiring to allow Wentworth to unleash his true, sordid self…

 

Doubling Adela

It is incredible to read about the female characters in this book from the 1930s because they are far more nuanced, flawed and realistic than many in our current media landscape – over eighty years’ later (think Transformers, Twilight et al). I don’t think any of the women in Descent would seem dated or out of place in recent shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead etc. or any show worth its salt these days.

Adela Hunt, in particular, is one of the most fascinating characters in the book (and one of my favourites). On the surface, she seems almost stereotypical: beautiful, popular, confident, adored, in the bloom of youth. But though she harbours those qualities, possessing them doesn’t render her personality vapid or dull. On the contrary, Adela is one of the most incandescent, inventive, and intelligent characters I’ve read about in a while, and certainly in the story itself: deconstructing art and literature among poets and playwrights, and manipulating anyone she needs in order to achieve her aims in life, (see above). But she doesn’t just use people for her own personal fun (although that may well be a factor); she wants to have a good career, preferably in the arts. She appears to have an interest in following a similar path as Catherine Parry, the town’s resident theatre manager – her dream job isn’t housewife, but a role with authority and influence in a field she loves. And in no way does her dream factor in the stereotypical ideals of 2.4 children and a house with a picket fence. She does seem to have affection for her boyfriend Hugh, but marrying him seems to be at best an obligation of her time and at worst an afterthought; and if she did go through with it, she acknowledges she would have to maintain a pretence of subordination while holding the true power in the relationship. Even Adela’s name mirrors her character – Adela means ‘noble’ and was the name of both a 7th century saint and princess, and William the Conqueror’s daughter. (Note that Adela is playing the princess in Stanhope’s play). Her surname ‘Hunt’ is self-explanatory – she acts as both hunter and hunted during the novel.

It is this vibrant, multi-faceted, fierce character of Adela which renders her doubling even more striking and disturbing. Her double appears to Wentworth after an encounter with the real Adela and her boyfriend, possibly conjured by Wentworth subconsciously, possibly summoned by Lily Sammile/ Lilith in her quest to entrap the souls of the town (especially as the double’s entrance is preceded by Lily’s characteristic scurrying footsteps), or perhaps a combination of the two. Her double is Adela’s likeness in every physical way, but has no will or personality of her own; she is little more than a vessel which contains, manifests and indulges Wentworth’s desires in every way (not wholly unlike Jekyll and Hyde). She is ‘a faithful copy of his half-realized wishes’. Adela is active in every way in which her double is passive. Wentworth is completely aware of the falseness of Adela’s double, confessing that ‘he knew it could not be Adela, for even Adela had never been so like Adela… He was outraging his intelligence with this invited deceit, and he did not wish to know it’. (None so blind as those who will not see).  The real Adela isn’t good enough for him anymore: ‘if she were to be satisfactory to him, [she’d have to be] something closer to his own mind and farther from hers’. Wentworth doesn’t want Adela, not really – he wants some soulless thing to project himself onto. This is confirmed by the omniscient narrator that Charles Williams uses throughout the book:

‘The shape of Wentworth’s desire had emerged from the power of his body. [He] assented to the company of the shape which could not be except by his will and was imperceptibly to possess his will. Image without incarnation’, he could ‘exercise all arts on it but one’ – ‘freedom of love. A man cannot love himself’ he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize – without purpose’.

Adela’s double is described as a ‘creature of illusion’ and ‘the feminine offspring of his masculinity’ who clings to him. I don’t know the gender politics of Charles Williams personally, but as he has created such nuanced female characters in this book (arguably the strongest characters in the story), I can’t imagine he wouldn’t see the masculine as strong and the feminine as week. Rather, it is Wentworth who possess these unhealthy gender binaries – he cannot accept women as being equal to men, and so his ideal partner is a subservient shell of a human being to whom he has constant and unhindered access with no resistance or disagreement, and who does all the work in the relationship while he gets all the perks. To emphasise this, Adela’s double is always referred to in the text as ‘it’, ‘the creature’, ‘the succubus’ or (disturbingly and incestuously) his ‘child’ – terms which invoke feelings of the impersonal, animalistic, subservient, dehumanising, sexless – but is never given a name, quite purposefully, by Wentworth. In this way, she’s not unlike Frankenstein’s monster – on whom pronouns and slurs are forced, but who is never given the ‘gift’ of a name, and is defined only in conjunction with someone else (Frankenstein’s Monster, Adela’s double) or by physical attributes (monstrous/ beautiful).

Wentworth is described as the ‘cannibal of his heart’, foreshadowing the self-destructiveness that will be his undoing. He feels ‘now possessed by his consciousness of [Adela’s double] and demanding her presence and consent as [his] only fulfilment’. This itself demonstrates the rotten core of Wentworth – it is impossible to demand someone’s consent; the very definition of consent is that it is something which must be given, one has to choose to give consent, and therefore force negates it. At best, this is an extreme version of the antiquated notion of women being little more than a man’s property and a dreadfully unhealthy power imbalance; at worse, it demonstrates a possible intention to commit, or a potential inclination towards, sexual assault. He knows the real Adela would never submit to him, so ‘for a little [while] he tried to find pleasure in considering how in effect he possessed her without her knowledge or will, but the effort was too much for his already enfeebled mind’ and instead wishes her dead so as not to render her double seem like a false copy. But Wentworth is so passive in his ‘incoherent passion’ (in a Hamlet-esque sort of way) that he can’t carry out the act.

The most he can muster is to carry her double over the threshold, bridal style, in a twisted reflection of Stanhope carrying Pauline’s fears. The visitations of Adela’s double seem positively vampiric – she appears only during the night and is gone during the day. (See also: Cupid and Psyche, but twisted). He doesn’t care when she’s gone because ‘whenever he needed her, it would return’ and be ‘disposed to his wish’. Her double is Wentworth’s personal sex slave, his own desire tangibly manifested – programmed only to ‘gratify the awful ambiguity of his desire’ but having no purpose of her own; everything he wants her to be and nothing of herself: ‘It was what he had vehemently and in secret desired – to have his own way under the pretext of giving her hers’. But though he thinks himself the master, he is the slave – not only to his own desires, and to his dying brain cells, but to Lily Sammile/ Lilith who wanted to entrap his soul and all others on Battle Hill and beyond. For example, while he sleeps the youthful double transforms, Lilith-like, into a haggard old woman of ‘inhuman countenance’ (which, on reading, caused memories of the bath scene in The Shining, to resurface). God forbid that he would ever sleep with someone his own age! [On a bit of a tangent, it was refreshing to see a role reversal/ gender swap of the horror trope where the character who is doomed to die for having sex is, in this book, male, which is certainly not the norm in horror fiction – although whether this counts as horror fiction is a question for another day].

And here’s a segment I like to call Hypocrisy Corner: Wentworth is so obsessed with Adela’s double that the real one now seems to him ‘an enemy and a threat’ – like Jose Saramago’s Enemy, where the real becomes other. Wentworth grows to hate the real Adela and thinks he has ‘overrated her. She was nothing like what he had, and now he had met her he had hardly recognised her… This one [i.e. the real Adela] was remote and a little hostile; it was not, for this one was nothing like as delightful, as warm, as close-bewildering’. Her voice was ‘not his voice, the voice of his mistress’ and it distresses him for being ‘loud, harsh, uncouth. It was like the rest of the tiresome world in which he had been compelled to enter – violent, smashing, bewildering by its harsh clamour, and far from the soft sweetness of his unheard melody’.

The world that had been his throughout his life is not his own anymore – now Wentworth belongs to the other side of Battle Hill’s metaphysical landscape, represented in his mind as an Eden-esque dream (or nightmare) in which he sees himself as Adam, and where he becomes one with the landscape: ‘Could he be a wood, and yet walk in it?’ (and confirming that Wentworth’s hell truly lies within himself). The language here is disturbing and paradoxical, playing around with the homonyms ‘eaves’ and ‘Eves’ to describe the numerous Adela’s with which he’s obsessed, and he finally admits to himself that ‘he refused to want anything but what he wanted’. His metaphysical wanderings mirror the path of the dead man, who, like Wentworth, believes the world mistreated him. But Wentworth, unlike his undead foil, had wealth, opportunity, and ability, and though he is the second best historian, the second most (in)famous Battle Hill resident, and has the second biggest house in town, he sees only that he is not number one and squanders his privilege of being in the upper echelons of wealth, power, resources, renown and security that millions will never have the chance of seeing in their lives.

Another tangent – on re-reading the book, I wonder why Wentworth never harboured any resentment for Stanhope? He hates Aston Moffatt, he grows to hate Adela, he either dislikes, resents or looks down on every other Battle Hill inhabitant so why doesn’t Stanhope, as his more famous peer, receive a significant slice of Wentworth’s disdain?

 

The Final Descent

At the same time that Pauline goes on her spiritual journey of discovery, Wentworth grows more obsessed with the fake Adela and less concerned with the real world. He even expresses a desire for Pauline at one point, inconstant and fickle as he is to his fake Adela. He realises his guard uniforms are historically inaccurate but doesn’t even care about his professional integrity anymore – and he doesn’t attend the performance as he just wants to be ‘alone with his fantasies’. And at the end of the book, when Pauline and Stanhope call out to him on the train platform, he doesn’t recognise his own name – it’s just two strange syllables he doesn’t understand. He only remembers who he is again because of his hatred for Aston Moffatt:

‘He became almost his own man again… Hate still lived in him a little, and hate might almost have saved him, though nothing else could, had he hated with a scholar’s hate. He did not; his hate and his grudge were personal.’

Wentworth has two more chances like this one to choose redemption, just as Pauline had many chances to choose damnation and didn’t. Our omniscient narrator phrases it in just the same way every time – it ‘might almost have saved him’, but he fights against being saved. Lilith, though defeated in epic and empathetic glory by Pauline on Battle Hill, still follows Wentworth around London. There’s a fantastically macabre moment, practically a throwaway scene, where Wentworth hallucinates about Madame Tussaud’s after Lilith whispers about it in his ear: ‘He once thought of taking Adela to Madame Tussaud’s but it was just wax images: exquisitely done, motionless, speechless, thoughtless’ – just like Adela’s double. Wentworth has a vision of himself picking up the wax figures to put on the correct diagram, but once he gets there it’s the wrong diagram and he has to move the figures again. This is a premonition of his potential punishment, like the Daughters of Danaus in Greek Myth, he is suffering the futility of a task without meaning that can never be completed.

The coda of Wentworth’s story is written in dreamlike – or nightmarish – prose which becomes an abstract, nonsensical, stream of consciousness where his metaphysical descent occurs parallel to his physical attendance at Aston Moffatt’s dinner party (or ‘last supper’ as it is referred to in the text). He has so many opportunities to turn back, only he didn’t, which called to mind the message of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ incredible play ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ (which I will have to discuss at some point on this blog), which theorises that the only person responsible for continuing Judas’ imprisonment is himself, and that he could be saved by Jesus at any point but his guilt won’t allow him to let that happen.

The imagery in this final chapter is so gorgeously described that it feels almost like retrospective plagiarism of so many incredible pieces of art (just as elements of 2012’s John Carter felt plagiaristic because its source material was the inspiration for so many films that came before its own translation to screen): there are elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Under the Skin, Scrooge (1970), Wings of Desire, and Angel Heart with the elevator going down to hell. And still, Wentworth is simultaneously surrounded by Aston’s partygoers and yet entirely alone, suggesting that hell is the utter isolation of the self, which can still be true in a room full of people. It’s the stark opposite of the ‘allegory of the spoons’ vision of heaven. In fact, as the end approaches, Wentworth’s major concern is the lack of meaning in this hellish landscape – he doesn’t care about the absence of love, individuality, emotions, nuance, choice – he just wants meaning, even though the object of his desire was a vessel of meaninglessness. Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘Other People’ is a good companion piece for this book, mainly down to this part about the most painful torture in hell:

‘Everything he had ever done that had been better left undone. Every lie had told – told to himself, or told to others. Every little hurt, and all the great hurts. Each one was pulled out of him, detail by detail, inch by inch. The demon stripped away the cover of forgetfulness, stripped everything down to truth, and it hurt more than anything. The demon took apart his life, moment by moment, instant to awful instant. It lasted a hundred years, perhaps, or a thousand – they had all the time there ever was, in that grey room – and toward the end he realised that the demon had been right. The physical torture had been kinder.’

Wentworth’s actions lead him into soul-deep internal deterioration – when we leave him, he doesn’t see shapes or colours anymore, just monochrome blurs of black and white, and had ‘no consciousness of himself as such’ anymore. He does see something bobbing about at the end of a road, but nothing happens, and I’ve wondered since what/ who this blob was – was it hell closing up over him? Was it Aston? Lilith? Pauline? We can never know for sure. The last sentence is the bleakest of all: ‘Presently then the shape went out and he was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void.’ As far as we know, he’s still physically present at Aston’s dinner party, but we don’t know what comes next. Would people assume he was suffering from a sort of locked-in syndrome? Would he be cared for? Or would he be treated as a social pariah? Charles Williams certainly delivers on his eponymous promise – we see in real time (or the closest to it) the literal, metaphysical and mental descent into hell that Wentworth sends himself on. But that all there is for him, or is there a way back up?

 

SO, AFTER ALL THAT, CAN HE BE REDEEMED?

Pauline and Wentworth have both been possessed by a Doppelgänger that consumed them, but for very different reasons.  Wentworth conjures a spectral Adela to lust over, just as Pauline conjures a Doppelgänger to fear – both doubles represent their originators’ strongest hidden parts of themselves. Wentworth is all want, Pauline is all guilt: she first saw her ‘twin’ when she stole money from her mother’s purse when she was a little girl; he first sees the spectral Adela after wishing the real Adela was obedient only to him. Wentworth’s selfishness is his undoing, Pauline’s journey to selflessness is how she regains her true self.

He even likens himself to Adam to assuage himself of guilt and transfer it to his Eve – Adela’s double, at times the real Adela, and at others Lily Sammile. Lily is the temptress, aka Lilith, the original ‘crazy ex-wife’ to Adam who is subsequently demonised by scripture both literally and figuratively. Adam is painted as victim where his wives are portrayed as either evil or stupid/ naïve. But Lilith does have a foil in Pauline – a truly wonderful, complex and nuanced character that goes on one of the most fulfilling and triumphant journeys I have ever seen in film and fiction alike. Unlike contemporary Eowyn, Pauline does not dream of fulfilment of battlefield glory. She just wants to stop seeing her double, and, in doing so, quell her fear. Eowyn’s wishes are more chivalric in nature, a reflection of the noble heraldic tradition underlying the medieval fantasy setting of Rohan in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Pauline too is a product of her time – in fragile post-war England she is a (seemingly) fragile person battling herself.

How, then, could Wentworth be redeemed? It is even possible? He has a surprising number of options available to him. Could Pauline, Stanhope, or even the dead man redeem Wentworth through the doctrine of substituted love? The last we see of him is going to London on the same train as Pauline, and attending a dinner party at Aston Moffatt’s. Pauline, now a practitioner of the doctrine, showed concern for Wentworth before he boarded the train. As they’re going to the same (physical, as opposed to metaphysical) destination, there’s a chance that Pauline may seek him out and try to take on his fears and/or teach him the doctrine herself. Stanhope, staying behind in Battle Hill to stave off apocalypse on earth (yes, really), might be available as a mentor should Wentworth return home. Maybe the dead man, who was on his way to London himself, may encounter Wentworth in the spiritual realm and bond with him over their experiences and start a joint healing process. And perhaps Wentworth’s least likely saviour, his old rival Aston Moffatt, who we are told has a ‘holy and beautiful soul’, may nurse him back to health or provide for his wellbeing in some way. Though this last option has the potential to either endear Aston to Wentworth, or to cause Wentworth to resent and hate his rival even more for witnessing his vulnerability. And it might be inferred from Charles Williams’ Christian beliefs that God would forgive everyone – even Wentworth, although it’s possible that Williams himself believes Wentworth is beyond redemption, or he leaves it to the reader to answer that question of redemption themselves.

Despite all this, ultimately the only one who can truly save Wentworth is himself. Stanhope confirms as much on the train platform in the last chapter. Wentworth’s emotional deterioration plays out in highly metaphorical terms, and occurs parallel to his attending Aston Moffatt’s party in the real world. So he’s still physically present in the real world, even if his mind is ‘in hell’, as confirmed by the end of the book. Although the concept of hell seems as literal as you can get in this book, it can be read that the hell is truly going on solely in Wentworth’s head, and the hell itself is a metaphor for Wentworth imprisoning himself in his obsession. If there’s a way down, there’s a way back up – as the unnamed dead man shows us, but, much like the dwarves in ‘The Last Battle’ it’s up to Wentworth to choose (even though he would have denied choice to another).

If Wentworth has a chance at redemption, could the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Last Battle’? I’d never been brave enough to read the final Narnia book until prompted by a wonderful comment on my last post. So, after twenty-odd years, I gave it a go. And loved it! It’s a bit of a problematic fave, and a bittersweet one, but an interesting companion piece to Descent. The dwarves in TLB are on that same metaphorical rope as Wentworth, because they simple refuse to communicate with anyone else. They are quite literally in heaven, but they perceive it as a stable (which reminds me of that famous Biblical stable and of Lilith’s cemetery lean-to shed in Descent). The finest food they perceive as hay and fine wine as dirty water. They didn’t start off too bad – after all the confusion in Narnia, it’s no wonder they’d renege on both sides and proclaim ‘the dwarfs are for the dwarfs’. (Frankly, they lost me the minute they started killing the horses). But the final straw is their inability to see heaven when it’s right in front of them. Aslan explains thusly:

‘They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out’.

This is Wentworth in a nutshell. Perhaps he could be redeemed, but it’s not for me to say. The only one who can redeem him now is Wentworth himself. Salvation lies in his hands. Only by selfless actions can he be redeemed, and he has a long way to go. Until he decides otherwise, he will remain in his self-made hell.

 

A few final quotes to leave you with:

‘True redemption is when guilt… leads to good’ ~ The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini.

‘A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward’ ~ A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin.

‘Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other’ ~ Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration.

 

WHAT ABOUT ADELA?

Adela seems to me like she’d feel at home on Game of Thrones, and I loved her character. Yes, she was manipulative, but in a Margaery Tyrell or Daisy Buchanan kind of way rather than a full Cersei Lannister. I also think she has one of the most unpleasant experiences in the whole story – alright, so most of the characters have to grapple with self-doubt and scariness, but Adela is living in her own little bubble of 1930s pre-marital bliss and career ambition – and then, on a walk with her beau, she sees Lilith twisting her head round Exorcist-style and summoning the dead to rise from their graves in front of her eyes. Adela’s story is left on an insidious, uncertain note, but if there’s even a smidgen of hope for Wentworth, then there’s certainly hope enough to spare for Adela.

I developed a theory that become a head-canon for me on this second read-through of Descent – that Adela Hunt would become Stanhope’s new tutee in the doctrine of substituted love. As mentioned above, Stanhope has decided to remain in Battle Hill to the end of his days so as to fight the undead forces taking over the world (this is treated as kind of a coda/ subplot – but that seems like a pretty epic and difficult thing to do, so I wonder how it would have happened in a potential sequel). Adela is also, presumably, still in Battle Hill – but her current state is unknown, because it was implied that she had, to use Star Wars parlance, ‘gone to the dark side’. Her last appearance in the book linked her heavily with Gomorrah and she hadn’t yet recovered from her experiences. Pauline could also communicate with Adela from London, because we have seen her capacity to successfully transcend space/ time/ corporeality. Adela is still rather young (impliedly around Pauline’s age, which would put them both in their early twenties), and I find it hard to believe that she could be a total goner at such a young age – I’m not saying that young people aren’t capable of bad things, but if there was time for her to become damned, then surely there’s time enough to redeem herself.

 

A NOTE OF CONTENTION: On my re-read, I encountered a passage from Stanhope in Chapter 9 where he was talking about Gomorrah and sexual orientation. On the first read through, I thought it was progressive, speaking of a sanctuary for people of different sexualities so unlike our own segregated and discriminatory earth (which seemed especially progressive at the time of writing in the 1930s). But on a re-read it seemed to be more damning and disturbing, linking Gomorrah with same-sex couples – and if this is the case, I will have to seriously rethink the high esteem in which I hold this book. I would be grateful if anyone has any insight on clarifying this, here’s a link: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/descent-into-hell/chapter9.html (right at the bottom of the webpage).

 

Thank you so much for all your support and insight, and I look forward to further discussions with you in the comments! I’ve also been thinking of designing a new cover for the book, I would love to hear your design ideas as well. Stay tuned for Part 3 which will focus on Lily Sammile & Doubles.

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5 thoughts on “Darkness Visible: Descent into Hell, Revisited

  1. My desultory wanderings online have led me at last, thus belatedly, back – to discover this rewarding post: for which, many thanks! A lot more to think about – and get me wishing to reread and compare various other Williams works, especially: which can also be a minefield of spoilers… which I’ll try to negotiate unspoilingly. (The result may be a largely opaque encouragement to reading more works by Williams for anyone who hasn’t happened to read those particular works, yet!) One non-Williams thought is, to compare and contrast Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” – Wentworth with Aylmer. Another is how, ‘Could he be a wood, and yet walk in it?’, seems to interact with the beginning of Dante’s Inferno – which I don’t recall noticing ever before (or remember if Sarah Thomson pointed it out). Dante, in effect, is the dark wood he finds himself walking in – and the hell through which he finds himself descending to the deepest depth – but unlike Wentworth, with a willingness to change, perhaps like the Gaiman character (unfamiliar to me) about which you quote, but with a willingness to submit to such and the possibility of it being like Eustace’s experience in The Voyage of the Dawn-treader. Come to think further, the Gaiman passage also reminds me of experiences of two of the principle characters in Williams’s The Place of the Lion, Anthony and Damaris. Your appreciative description of the real Adela had already made me think how interesting it would be to compare her in detail with Damaris – though it is also interesting to compare and contrast Damaris and Wentworth as real but ‘self-endangering’ scholars.

    You’ve got me trying to think farther about the Wentworth-Adam imagery: the contrast of the false Adela as issuing from Wentworth with the true-Adela-like Eve in chapter 2 of Genesis: intimately related and thoroughly distinct and real in her own right, in contrast with the illusory parody. And, how this ties in with Williams’s Arthur-Adam imagery in his poetry, with the Wentworth-false-Adela relationship being like the incestuous Arthur-Morgause relationship, but much more so. (It also makes me want to reread and compare what is said about the inhabitants of the moon in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.)

    Your pondering Wentworth also got me comparing and contrasting him with the perspective of Dmitri Lavradopoulos (spelled by memory!) in War in Heaven on the one hand, and , on the other, that of one of the woman characters at the end of All Hallows’ Eve (seen ‘from the outside’ in contrast to the depiction of Wentworth’s experience).

    Your noting “He does see something bobbing about at the end of a road, but nothing happens” gets me wanting to reread this carefully, in the context of your pondering who could (try to) help save Wentworth: how, for example, does it compare with Pauline and the suicide encountering each other, or Pauline and John Struther – and her Doppelgänger? And this has further got me wondering about the comparison with ‘Taliessin’s Song of the Death of Virgil’ and the poem about Milton in its background (published for the first time in my edition of the Arthurian poetry). What might genuine admirers of and people indebted to what’s good in Wentworth’s scholarship, have to do with saving him?

    Your discussion of Stanhope in this context makes me want to compare Pope Deodatus in ‘Divites Dimisit’ and its expanded revision, ‘The Prayer of the Pope’, in Williams’s late Arthurian poetry cycle. It also makes me think of comparing and contrasting what is said of what Sarah can and cannot do and what only Christ can do, in Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

    (Very interesting tangent about Wentworth and Stanhope, too!)

    Lewis’s dwarves can still talk and in some sense interact, but what indeed is – or might be – Wentworth’s state seen from outside, at the end of the book?

    Your talking about the vampiric aspect of the false Adela reminded me of something in George MacDonald’s Lilith – and the possibility of Wentworth’s redemption, and questions about Lily/Lilith in the novel make me want to compare those two books in detail.

    As to the Note of Contention, I think Williams is contrasting his apparently original development of Gomorrah as a distinct ‘city’/spiritual condition, with any love, however flawed, of a real person, when he writes, “Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches”. Wentworth might have wrestled with his feelings for the real Adela and been on something like this level, rather than descending to the ‘Gomorrah’ of “only idoliz[ing] it [= himself], and over the idol delightfully tyranniz[ing] – without purpose”.

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  2. A couple additional thoughts – for one, without having reread it yet, it occurs to me that it would be worth comparing what Williams writes about Paolo and Francesca in The Figure of Beatrice and what Peter Stanhope says about Sodom (in contrast with Gomorrah).

    For another, Williams uses the imagety of the asymptote in his late Arthurian poetry (and maybe elsewhere) – which seems a very good figure for us as in the image of God properly drawing ever nearer to God, without confusion – what in orthodox Greek theology is discussed in terms of Theosis and in Latin as Divinization. But it occurs to me that Wentworth as presented at the end of the novel might be compared to a sort of reverse asymptote or opposite of an asymptote – drawing ever further from not only the good of intellect but the good of being: yet, in his not ceasing to exist, is that not at least possibly wonderfully asyptotically reversible? (“Thou knowest, Lord.”)

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    1. Wow! Thank you, David, for your generous insight – as always! It’s always a joy and a delight to see your comments, especially with your fantastic suggestions for further exploration/ research – and I’m certainly looking forward to making my way through that fascinating list. Many thanks again, and I have plans for a third entry in this blossoming trilogy of posts on Descent into Hell – there’s just so much to talk about!

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  3. Marvelous!

    To me, Wentworth’s descent is a strikingly prescient dissection of the evils of pornography. Williams opposes the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as love of others vs love of self: it is Wentworth’s deliberate withdrawal into himself that consigns him to the dominion of Gomorrah. Williams seems to think that Sodom is less damning, as he points to the potential for Wentworth’s being saved up til the very end by his hatred for Aston Moffat– if only he had not hated Moffat selfishly. The difference is that even that hatred would have been directed outward, like Pauline’s love at least in direction; but as it is, Wentworth can only rouse himself to hate an affront to his own self-regard.

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  4. Having enjoyed The Magician’s Nephew again (in the form of Kenneth Branagh’s thoroughly delightful unabridged audiobook version), I was struck by how Uncle Andrew was like a less radical variant of the Dwarves in The Last Battle, managing somehow to shut out aspects of experienced reality pretty thoroughly, yet without the kind of extrapolated comprehensive misinterpretation of the Dwarves, much less the disintegration of Wentworth. Apparently, The Last Battle was finished before The Magician’s Nephew, though published later, so, conceivably, Lewis turned from the Dwarves to exploring a less extreme, more hopeful variant of such experience and response. (It occurs to me as I write, that it would be interesting to compare Orual in Till We Have Faces (1956) as perhaps a much fuller an subtler ‘variant study’. It also occurs to me, thinking of the period in which The Magician’s Nephew is set and the ‘vampiric’ discussion, that it would be interesting to try to compare and contrast the original Stoker Dracula, as very much ‘operative’ on some pronounced ‘level of intellect’, yet also frozen into a terrible existence of unchanging rejection of progress in and toward goodness and the Good.)

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