The Secret Glory

The Machen series continues with a book I unexpectedly liked perhaps because, in our tumultuous times, I found it comforting though I am in no way a mystic or religious. One can definitely sympathize with its protagonist’s indifference to the world.

It also, I suspect, served as a partial model for Mark Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger.

Review: The Secret Glory, Arthur Machen, 1922, 1998.

Partially written during his years of grief following the death of his first wife and before he remarried, Machen finally finished this novel in 1907. Parts were serialized, but the novel didn’t see publication until 1922 and even then its last two chapters were excised, summed up by, as editor S. T. Joshi notes, a not very good epilogue by Machen. The full novel, which I read, was finally published in 1998.

In a preface, Machen lays out what this novel is, a combination of two things: a satire on English public schools and the Holy Grail.

Machen was not impressed by the fatuous accounts of English headmasters, particularly their enthusiasm for sport over academics. Football, he thought, was not a preparation for life. However, in an essay “About My Books (reprinted in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said he found parodying these kinds of memoirs useless: “These Eton masters on their late Head read like an extravagant parody of my parodies.”

As to the Holy Grail, that was a subject that fascinated Machen. He wrote several essays on the Holy Grail with his friend, occultist A. E. Waite. They were collected in The Secret of the Sangraal and Other Writings.

This book is also, incidentally, considered the first work of literature to bring the Holy Grail into a contemporary setting.

While some claim this book is overly long and dull, it’s only 222 pages at full length, and I did not find it boring. 

Our hero is Ambrose Meyrick, sent off to Lupton. In Machen’s view, British public schools served as factories to produce a predictable type of men to fill in slots in the Empire’s administration. There is a very funny scene where we learn that the sorts of men Lupton produces are those who will not retract their opinions and judgements no matter what facts they are confronted with.

Ambrose comes to hate the school but conforms to it marvelously, even in sports, after a thrashing by his uncle, a schoolmaster there. Part of the novel follows the uncle’s career disappointments.

It’s all a mere act of conforming, though. When Ambrose leaves, he sends a very vitriolic, Rabelaisian satire to the school rather than go to university. Like the protagonist in Machen’s earlier “A Fragment of Life”, Ambrose gradually recaptures a sense of his past and comes to realize he is called to be the hereditary guardian of the Grail in the remnants of the Celtic Church.

The novel’s interlude in London where Ambrose shacks up – and, no doubt, has sex with – a maid from Lupton is portrayed innocently. Ambrose comes to realize he has sinned and stops, but he regards it as an innocent fall into sin on his part and the maid’s. This rather fits in with the idea of what constitutes a great sinner in Machen’s earlier “The White People”. 

Even the restored version of the novel seems rushed in its ending and surprising, but logical, given Ambrose’s character. 

I would say, stylistically, this book is halfway, in terms of clarity and style, between the wandering, dense prose of Machen’s The Hill of Dreams and the more sociable, dialogue-driven “A Fragment of Life”. 

Ambrose, like Lucian in The Hill of Dreams, is a rather isolated character, but he still has those around him who know the existence of the Grail, another, smaller world he enters after leaving Lupton. 

There are several points of interest.

Ambrose propagates the axiom that “poetry is the only possible way of saying anything that is worth saying at all”. In later years, after being mocked for metrifying biology, he says his greater point was that symbolism is inadequate and that all attempts at explaining truth beyond the basics suffer from a “defect of speech”. Thus, Machen gets to say that mystical, poetic language explains important truths even while it isn’t clear. 

In Chapter 2, Ambrose begins to think about when his dead father took him to an isolated spot in the country and murmured a Welsh poem full of symbolic language. Thus, the narrative style occasionally shifts back and forth in time like The Hill of Dreams

Machen experiments a bit with style in having Ambrose’s life presented through some of his writings, an almost saintly autobiography, and also through writing years later by one of his classmates. 

We hear of Ambrose’s collection “Concerning Gaiety”, Defence of Taverns (Machen frequently railed, in essays, against teetotalers and prohibitionists and that shows up in Dr. Stiggins), and his Twelve Books which cover his Visit to Wern in Wales where the Gail is. But no records exist of this “great Prose Romance”, so he may not have actually written them down. 

Ambrose achieves Red Martyrdom at the hands of Kurds at the end of the book which gets rather digressive even before the last chapter since Machen is not only satirizing English public schools and dealing with the Grail legend but also working in ideas about aesthetics, the suitability of the English language for expression, and the relationship between democracy and literature.

As to how seriously Machen took his speculations on the Holy Grail, his preface offers no opinion on its reality. Both this novel and “A Fragment of Life” use the idea of a Celtic Church surviving into contemporary times.

All in all, I found this one an entertaining mixture of mysticism and parody.

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