Review: “The White People”, Arthur Machen, 1904.
Written in 1899, this story is regarded as one of Machen’s best. After Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, it was H. P. Lovecraft’s favorite weird story. He liked it for its indefinite and dreamy plot, qualities it certainly has in its section titled “The Green Book”.
In 1899, Machen was a man in “dreadful misery and desolation and dereliction of the soul”. His first wife had died that year from breast cancer. They had been married 11 years. Then one morning, while walking with his friend, Machen was transformed. He realized the “great sorrows of life” were passing trifles.
A new productive period started that included the writing of this story.
The Green Book is the journal of a dead girl, written when she was at least thirteen or fourteen, maybe older. It talks of how she talked to white people she saw when she was in the crib.
No one else seems to see them indicating that, perhaps, she has some genetic affinity for witchcraft. Her nurse introduces her to the ways of witchcraft after the girl sees a beautiful white woman in the forest one day.
The nurse is always saying that nobody knows this stuff anymore except her great-grandmother
The journal is full of not only things like curses, poltergeist-like powers, and clay effigies, but the girl’s seeming trips to another, magical dimension via a tunnel in the wood, and living beings taking the form of rocks. There seem to be naiades too.
There is some hint (and this section of the story wanders back and forth in time in recounting things) that she poisons herself. How is not clear. Was it the water that tasted like wine in that mysterious realm?
There are also a lot of nested fairy tales told by the nurse (literal fairy tales, probably) that illustrate the power of the white people and their witchcraft. There is some indication that the girl has damned herself by entering some pit in a cave which the nurse warned her about.
I am not that much of a fan of the story. Part of that is a matter of taste. I’m usually not enamored of dreamy stories with indefinite plots, and I tend not to like young protagonists in stories.
But I think the story has an aesthetic problem in what goes on before all this, a philosophical discussion that could have been done away with, but Machen wants to explicitly use the main story to illustrate a point.
The story opens with Ambrose, something of an eccentric scholar, and his thesis that true evil is even rarer, especially in this materialistic age, than true good. The saint is not as rare as the true sinner.
A true sinner is not just one who commits social ills like murder and theft (and these people should be dealt with, Ambrose says). The true sinner is a rare pursuer of dark ecstasies. Thus, the book fits in with Machen’s theory of the ecstatic being necessary for fine literature.
The saint tries to capture the condition of man before the Fall. The true sinner wants to recreate the Fall again.
To prove his pint, Ambrose gets out The Green Book which has come in his possession.
The trouble I have with this is twofold.
First, I don’t think this prologue is necessary to the story though it certainly imbues it with philosophical ramifications.
The second problem is that I don’t think Machen quite sells Ambrose’s thesis on the nature of true evil and how the girl represents it in the story. The girl is, indeed, some lonely seeker of secrets. She does seek lore from the nurse. She may unconsciously seek the Fall. She certainly is ecstatic at times. But we hear of nothing that would be a “social ill” committed by her. Machen wants us to believe both saint and devil can pursue their ends unconsciously, be born to it, so to speak. Why pin such philosophic weight on her actions when they may be an unconscious or even agenetic predisposition to evil as represented by witchcraft.
In “Beyond the Veil of Reality: Mysticism in Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’”, Emily Foster looks at the issue. (The essay can be found in The Secret Ceremonies.) True evil is a “passion of the lonely soul” says Machen in the story. Like the true saint, the true sinner is not fooled by the world around us. For Machen, humanity’s true instinct was, in Foster’s words, a “mystic union with God”.
But pursuing enlightenment can be dangerous.
When the girl goes to a cavern, the “voorish dome in Deep Dendo”, is she practicing her own free will in going there or has she been destined to do it?
Foster says Machen may have been influenced by Max Nordau’s 1892 book Degeneration (Entartung was the original German title.) For Nordau, mysticism was a characteristic of degeneration, a weak mind making “false judgements respecting the objective universe”. In this interpretation, the girl’s mysticism stems from a weak mind. In this interpretation, little of what the girl wrote in the journal is objectively and indisputably real. However, Foster acknowledges that, given Machen’s hostility to scientific materialism, it’s doubtful he would have accepted Nordau’s ideas.
Foster also points out an interesting contrast to how Machen uses his beloved Welsh landscape in the story. While it was a land of reverie for him as a boy, a paradise, it assumes a sinister nature in this story.