Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Centenary - 'The Secret Glory' by Arthur Machen

This year marks the centenary of the first book publication of The Secret Glory, Arthur Machen’s romance about a youthful bohemian who encounters the Holy Grail.

We don’t know the exact day of publication, but the Gawsworth biography of Machen tells us that on 18 January, writing to his friend Harry Spurr, Machen said: ‘The Secret Glory will be published by Secker in a few days’. The Goldstone & Sweetser bibliography of Machen says it was first published in February, and on 20 February, Gawsworth reports, the book ‘appeared to be doing well’. There was a reprint in March. This at least suggests that the Machen ‘boom’ started by his American admirers (and later carried on by Gawsworth’s own efforts) had stimulated sales.

The main theme had interested Machen for some time. Machen told his friend the musician Paul England, in 1906: ‘I have been amusing myself lately by going to the B.M. [British Museum] where I make researches into the origins of the Holy Grail Legend to gratify a curiosity excited by Waite’s ingenious but (I think) mistaken theory on the subject. He is inclined to believe the Legend the cryptic manifesto of the ‘Interior Church’: he would love to connect it with Cabalism, the Templars, the Albigenses . . .’

Machen’s great friend A E Waite, scholar of the esoteric, was to present his theory in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909). Machen’s own idea, however, was that the Grail represented a tradition of a lost ritual in the independent Celtic church, suppressed but still remembered when the Roman church became dominant. He was influenced in this by the traditions of healing cups (and other relics) associated with Celtic saints in Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria (the latter was originally the Welsh-speaking Old North).

I describe this interest in my essay ‘Holy Treasures – Three Arthur Machen Mysteries’ (A Country Still All Mystery, 2017), with particular reference to the genuine tradition of the St Teilo relics, kept under the care of two families for over 500 years. The Nant Eos Cup, which is now on loan to the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, may well have been another inspiration.

The Secret Glory was mostly written in 1907. Passages either directly from the novel, or similarly inspired by his Grail researches, were published in The Academy in 1907-8; and the opening was later published in two issues of his fellow New Bohemian Henry Savage’s short-lived journal The Gypsy in 1915 and 1916: this comprises pages 1-22 of the book.

The book had another inspiration, as well as the Grail legends. Machen had been irritated by a foolish, fawning tribute to a former Public School head master that he had chanced to read: and he also harboured the bitter memory of how Harrow public schoolboys insulted and indeed assaulted the actors of the Benson Company when they came to perform Greek tragedies there. The Secret Glory therefore also includes biting satire on the Public School ‘ethos’.

However, even in its first book publication the novel was not complete. The first edition was published without two further chapters. These were first issued in a pendant volume by Tartarus Press in an edition of 250 in 1991, and Tartarus have since issued the full novel, with the restored chapters.

Even so, in its original incomplete version the book had a strong influence on its readers. John Betjeman describes, in his verse autobiography Summoned By Bells (1974), how a copy was given to him by a Cornish priest and had a profound effect. Years later, in sending a cheque to the Machen appeal fund, he wrote: “I really owe Arthur Machen more than money can show”, for, he said, the book had made him a High Church Anglican when he had been a Public School Evangelical, aged 15.

That High Churchery was so much of a part of Betjeman’s persona, and his writing, that the book must indeed have been a talisman for him. Colin Summerford, the young man Betjeman was writing to, who had organised the appeal fund, also came to Machen through reading the book, when he was a public schoolboy at Winchester. Under Machen’s guidance he also undertook research into the Grail legends.  

A letter from Machen to Summerford of 12 February 1924 hints at the significance of the ‘Secret’ aspect in his book. He refers to ‘one of the distinctions between the Roman and the Celtic churches: the Romans exhibit their relics as much as possible to excite the devotion of the faithful: the Celts kept their relics in secrecy; it was dangerous for the unqualified to look on them. You see how this bears on the Grail legend; how it is one of the many small points which tend to establish the general conclusion: the Legend of the Grail is, in one of its aspects, the Legend of the Celtic Church’.

As with many of his books, The Secret Glory catches fire when Machen is writing about two of his greatest inspirations: London bohemianism, and the lore and landscape of Wales. He had long given up hope of writing the Great Romance he had ever imagined, but the book is a further fervent and lyrical approach to this impossible ideal.

(Mark Valentine)

1 comment:

  1. My favorite of Machen's non-horror works, not least for its blistering critiques of modern education. I'm intrigued, too, by the brief consideration of whether Jewish students ought to be admitted to the school and to what purpose.
    Magical book. Happy centenary!