Descent into Hell concerns five central characters and a village production of a play by Peter Stanhope. During the weeks of rehearsal, Stanhope demonstrates to Pauline Anstruther the “doctrine of substituted love” (a central idea held by the novel’s author, Charles Williams) and helps her overcome the terror she has felt at meeting her double. At the same time, her grandmother, Margaret Anstruther, whom she has been serving as companion, is able in her final hours to aid in the spiritual crisis of an unnamed workman who had committed suicide decades earlier. Another member of the community, military historian Lawrence Wentworth, chooses his own damnation by rejecting truth in favor of illusion and self-indulgence.
Production begins of the play, which is a verse drama. The local organizers rejoice at producing the work of such a noted poet as Stanhope, but his unwillingness to give them much guidance in the speaking of his poetry confuses them. Williams implies satirically that few of these amateurs understand the play and that even fewer truly like poetry. Stanhope sees one exception—the young woman who leads the chorus, Pauline Anstruther. Stanhope’s sympathy leads Pauline to confess to him her terror of meeting her “double” in the street, an experience she has undergone several times, each time with greater fright. To her surprise, Stanhope offers to carry her fear for her as if it were a package. This is the real meaning, he...
(The entire section is 514 words.)