Descent into Hell Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the suburb of Battle Hill, Peter Stanhope is involved in the production of his verse drama. He is an eminent poet and inhabitant of the Manor House, which belonged to his family before the housing estate was built. Under the leadership of the capable Mrs. Parry, a group of his neighbors has the privilege of performing his new play in his garden, but only one of them, Pauline Anstruther, even remotely grasps the spiritual significance of his pastoral fantasy. Pauline’s sensibility is so quickened by the nuances of his verse that she confides to him the terror that haunted her for years: the recurrent appearance of her doppelgänger.

Stanhope explains to her the principle of substitution: One person, through love, can assume the burden of another so that the sufferer is relieved. When Pauline becomes willing to accept his offer to bear her burden, she discovers that she is no longer tortured by her own problem. Instead, she is given the opportunity to bear someone else’s burden of fear. Her growth in grace influences everything around her.

As the rehearsals for the play proceed, Pauline’s role as leader of the chorus is paralleled by her role in the supernatural drama that is taking place concurrently in Battle Hill. The spiritual energy released through the play sets in motion a series of events that transcends ordinary time, affecting a number of other inhabitants of the suburb. The housing estate, built in the 1920’s, took its name from the hill, which was a site for battles from the time of the ancient Britons to the period of the Tudors. While the estate was being built, the timeless “magnetism of death,” still powerful on the Hill (as the suburb was usually called), touched a despairing unskilled laborer, who hanged himself on the scaffolding of an unfinished house. His restless spirit still inhabits the area, unrecognized by the occupant of the finished house, Lawrence Wentworth, a noted military historian and adviser to the producer of the play. A middle-aged bachelor, Wentworth develops a secret passion for pretty, conceited Adela Hunt, who is the heroine in the play and the girlfriend of the leading man, Hugh Prescott. Wentworth’s jealousy is so consuming that he is destroying himself as surely as the suicide did. Pauline’s grandmother, Mrs. Anstruther, is dying, but her death is the natural fulfillment of a well-spent life. Shortly before she dies, she is visited by an unpleasantly ingratiating and vaguely sinister neighbor, Mrs. Lily Sammile, who appears unexpectedly at several crises in the novel.

Pauline’s love for her grandmother is dutiful but detached during the years since her parents’ death. She lives in Mrs. Anstruther’s house as a dependent and companion. It is not until Stanhope relieves her of her fear that Pauline can talk to her grandmother about it and appreciate the depth of the old woman’s love. Mrs. Anstruther initiates Pauline further into the doctrine of substituted love by explaining that she can be called upon to bear the pain of their ancestor, John Struther, whose martyrdom by fire is well-known family history.

As Mrs. Anstruther approaches the limits of mortality, she can see the face of the suicide as he looks into her window during his ceaseless wandering. Soon she tells Pauline that Pauline has to go out in the middle of the night because someone needs her near Wentworth’s. Pauline thinks that Mrs. Anstruther’s mind is wandering, but somehow Pauline also knows that she has to go. She...

(The entire section is 1431 words.)