The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Charles Williams’ last novel brings together many of the themes of his other five novels. Lester Furnival, who has been married for six months, and her school friend Evelyn Mercer are killed by a plane that crashes near Westminster Bridge. Only gradually does Lester realize that she is dead. As she crosses a strangely quiet but still familiar London, Lester speaks to her living husband, Richard. With Evelyn, she sets out to accomplish something in her “new life” to make up for her incomplete earlier life.

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Jonathan Drayton, a painter friend of Richard Furnival, is in love with Betty Wallingford. To impress Betty’s mother, he paints a portrait of Simon Leclerc. Lady Wallingford sees in the picture “a ranked mass of beetles” around the face of an imbecile. Offended, she insists that Betty break off her engagement to Jon-athan. Jonathan also has painted a remarkable picture of the city of London as a city of light. The painting impresses Richard, who asks how Jonathan came to create it. Jonathan explains that Sir Joshua Reynolds, a famous English painter of the late eighteenth century, once alluded to common observation and a plain understanding as the source of all art. Jonathan is later visited by Simon, who approves of his portrait but dislikes the painting of the illuminated city. He attempts to flatter Jonathan, calling him a genius and insisting that great art is apostolic. A practical artist, Jonathan throughout the novel insists on observation and understanding rather than apostolic excess.

Betty turns out to be the daughter of Lady Wallingford and Simon. She is being used by Simon to enter the world of spirits and bring back information about the future. On one such mission, she meets her former schoolmates Lester and Evelyn, who follow her home. Unknown to Simon, Lester enters the house and intercedes when Simon attempts to sacrifice his daughter. Later, Evelyn, whose motives are petty and malignant, is called up by Simon at his Holburn meeting place.

After his attempt to sacrifice Betty fails, Simon, in an attempt to control Lester, creates a humanoid figure from his spittle and dust. Both Evelyn and Lester enter into it. Using this figure, Lester places a telephone call to Richard to alert him about what has happened.

Simon is destroyed by his own creations in a final confrontation. Lady Wallingford tries to save Betty at the last moment and survives, to be taken care of by her transformed daughter, who even cures the attendants of Simon. Evelyn consigns herself to the region of the damned. Because of her self-sacrifice and Betty’s forgiveness, Lester moves through Purgatory toward final blessing.

Places Discussed

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*Westminster Bridge

*Westminster Bridge. Bridge over the River Thames near London’s Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament, where the novel opens with Lester Furnival standing by the bridge and coming to the realization that she is dead. She also realizes that she, along with her friend Evelyn Mercer, was killed on this spot by a warplane dropping out of the sky. From there she and Evelyn begin to wander around London.

*London

*London. From the moment when Lester finds herself alone on Westminster Bridge to the climax of her disappearance from Simon’s house, there is always a strong sense of London as the background to the action. At first, Lester can see only the city, but as her spirit develops, she hears all the familiar noises of people and traffic, feels the pavement under her feet, and smells the river and the October rain. The literalness of London sights, sounds, and locations is not merely a device to root the supernatural story in the natural world. For Charles Williams, London is an image of the City of God, the Holy City, the community of the saints.

When the city is first mentioned, the term indicates the ancient borough of London, site of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as distinguished from Holborn, where Simon’s headquarters are. Through Lester’s developing spiritual perception, however, the spiritual reality of the eternal city is revealed. Its identity is hinted to mortal eyes on the fateful afternoon when Lady Wallingford and Betty call to look at Jonathan’s portrait of Simon. Lady Wallingford is equally antagonized by another painting that Jonathan and Richard consider the best that Jonathan has done, a painting of a part of London after a raid, a scene of desolation bathed in living light.

Three domiciles in London are key: the top-floor apartment of artist Jonathan Drayton, near St. Paul’s Cathedral; the house of the magician, Simon the Clerk, in Holborn; and the house of Lady Wallingford, Simon’s mistress and acolyte, in Highgate. The characters, including the newly dead spirits of Lester and Evelyn, move among these places. Williams builds a sense of reality by mentioning locations in the exact but familiar way of a longtime resident; characters describe Simon’s residence as between Holborn and Red Lion Square, and behind Holborn, close to Great James Street. Williams also mentions streets that characters traverse to get from one place to another, again giving a sense of textured reality: Blackfriars, Victoria Street, Millbank, Euston Road.

However, the city that Lester wanders is really the eternal city; she sees it as London because that is where she was when she was killed, and that is what she expects. The sky goes through quick cycles of night and day, but no sun appears and the moon gives no light. Lester’s City is also silent and devoid of people, until she finds Evelyn. Moreover, at times her perception of London is broken by, or fades into, other times and places. She thinks of an incident from her past, concerning a date with a man and the taxi-ride home, and she sees a taxi race past her. Later Lester thinks of her school days with Evelyn and Betty, and she finds herself actually in the schoolyard. One scene hints that the City is open to all times and places, including prehistory, depending on the person involved and how he or she encounters it.

When Lester and Evelyn visit real places in London, they can be seen by people living in those places now, as Lester is seen by her husband Richard near Westminster Bridge, and Evelyn is seen and called by Simon outside his house in Holborn. Betty is magically sent into the future by a week, reading the newspapers at King’s Cross Station to report back.

*Underground

*Underground. Also known as the “Tube,” London’s great subway system also exists both materially and spiritually. After Lester and Evelyn are placed in a magically constructed body, they borrow money to use a pay phone at the Charing Cross Underground station. Within this city, however, the Tube is a kind of Hell—the lair of newly dead spirits who will not accept death and redemption, and so fail to go into true eternity.

*England

*England. No physical action is set outside London, but readers learn that Lady Wallingford owns property up north in Yorkshire. Flashbacks show that when Betty and her mother go there, Betty is treated as a servant; Betty remembers with dread the train porter calling off stations closer and closer to York. Betty’s father, Sir Bartholomew, owns property in Hampshire. The distance between York and Hampshire may be symbolic of the lack of communication—or much of anything in common—between husband and wife.

Lester briefly recalls a honeymoon with Richard in the Berkshire Woods, and later, when Simon leads Richard and others into a magical trance, Richard imagines he is once more surrounded by those woods. Again, magic or any supernatural experience overcomes boundaries of time and space, and a character’s mind calls forth the setting.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 178

Anderson, Angelee Sailer. “The Nature of the City: Visions of the Kingdom and Its Saints in Charles Williams’ All Hallows’ Eve.” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and the Genres of Myth and Fantasy Studies 57, no. 3 (Spring, 1989): 16-21. This quarterly periodical regularly contains articles on Williams’ work. Two other periodicals that offer information on Williams’ work are Inklings and Seven.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction to All Hallows’ Eve, by Charles Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981. Eliot was an important literary friend of Williams.

Howard, Thomas. The Novels of Charles Williams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Discusses Christian doctrines of forgiveness and judgment as portrayed in the novel.

Sibley, Agnes. Charles Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In addition to a summary and insightful commentary on All Hallows’ Eve, Sibley’s work contains a useful bibliography.

Williams, Charles. The Image of the City and Other Essays. Edited by Anne Ridler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Williams expounds his theories himself; in addition, the critical introduction contains a brilliant analysis of Williams’ major themes.

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Critical Essays