Descent into Hell

by Charles Williams

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Charles Williams’s novel is concerned with the production of a play by a local theatrical group. Peter Stanhope, the play’s author, is the descendant of a wealthy family that formerly dominated the area, called Battle Hill, but in recent years the property they controlled had shrunk and a housing estate was built on the grounds. Retaining older ideas about elite status, he sees the neighbors’ participation in his play as a privilege he bestows on them. This spiritually oriented, pastoral verse drama has a chorus, of which a young woman named Pauline Anstruther becomes the leader.

Pauline, who is especially enthusiastic about the play, shares with Stanhope her recurrent fear of having a doppelgänger. Not merely taking her at her word, Stanhope offers to become a substitute, assuming her burden. Once she accepts, she begins to feel more at ease.

The Battle Hill neighborhood, with a history traceable back to Tudor times, also plays a prominent role in the novel. The presence of ghost of a workman who died by suicide foreshadows a contemporary case of self-destruction by a local historian, Lawrence Wentworth. As a middle-aged man consumed with unrequited love for a younger woman, Wentworth spirals out of control. Adela, the play’s star, already has a boyfriend, Hugh, the male lead; the selfish girl is clearly unworthy of Wentworth. Yet as his mental crisis deepens, it also affects her, and she begins to have visions as well.

Further complications involve Pauline’s grandmother, of whom she is the sole caregiver. The elderly woman is quite ill, and Pauline is finally able to assume the burden of her pain once Stanhope takes on her burden. However, the ominous behavior of a neighbor, Mrs. Sammile, further darkens the atmosphere. After the grandmother dies, her burial causes the characters to visit the cemetery, where some of them have visions of the graves flying open.

Upon meeting Mrs. Sammile, who is hiding in a shed, Adela pleads with Pauline to save her. It turns out that Mrs. Sammile was not a real person, but Lilith, a symbolic representation of false love. Once Pauline recognizes this falsity, she paves the way for Adela’s return to sanity and secures her own release from Battle Hill. Finally, both she and Wentworth travel to London, where she will begin an independent existence but he seems doomed to failure.

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