A mild glow of sexual love seems to me evident even from the start in “A Fragment of Life” (so I differ a bit when Reiter says “Despite their relative youth and recent marriage, the Darnells hardly seem in love with one another,” p. 127). The sense I think I get is, first, that they are indeed in love, and are faithful to one another and to the meaning of sex as Machen’s preface describes it. His words could be applied to the Darnells: “these two have partaken together of the great mystery, of the great sacrament of nature, of the source of all that is magical in the wide world.” But, second, the contemporary way of life, with its banality, materialism, prudery, cheapening of sex, etc. provides no help for (again from the preface) “discern[ing] the mystery.”
So consider the bathos in the following sequence. The Darnells have been talking about whether they can afford to buy some furniture. Early in the story, evening comes, and Edward “slipped off his clothes and slid gently into bed, putting out the candle on the table. …it was a June night, and beyond the walls, beyond that desolate world and wilderness of Shepherd’s Bush [in London], a great golden moon has floated up through magic films of cloud, above the hill, and the wearth was filled with a wonderful light … Darnell seemed to see some reflection of that wizard brightness in the room; the pale walls and the white bed and his wife’s face lying amidst brown hair upon the pillow…. There was nothing that he could say, but he slowly stole his arm under his wife’s neck, and played with the ringlets of brown hair. She never moved, she lay there gently breathing, looking up at the blank ceiling of the room with her beautiful eyes, thinking also, no doubt, thoughts that she could not utter, kissing her husband obediently when he asked her to do so, and he stammered and hesitated as he spoke. [paragraph break] They were nearly asleep, indeed Darnell was on the very eve of dreaming, when she said very softly – ‘I am afraid, darling, that we could never afford it,’” etc.
The implication seems clear to me: the Darnells are in love; they experience the holiness of sexual intimacy, but their thoughts are apt to be banal because that’s how people live. However, led by the husband, they will extricate themselves from this dullness by continuing and deepening their love, by Edward’s receptiveness to impressions, his dreams, his recovery of some important memories that he shares with Mary, and by his reading of some old family manuscripts. This movement towards beauty and wholeness has been prepared for even before their marriage. We learn, for example, that when he was a boy, Edward had a fantasy of meeting a lovely girl who would come out of the woods to him, and later that bachelor Edward took a fancy to a carved tobacco-pipe whose bowl was in the form of the head and bare bust of a woman and that his digs were decorated with photographs of pretty actresses. When Mary came into his life he discarded these things. When the real thing – real love of a real woman – comes, such childish things are to be done away with (compare the famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, especially verse 11). I don’t think it’s too much to perceive here a hint of the two sides of the mystical way. There is the via negativa, in which the false, inadequate images or counterfeits of the great wonder need to be set aside, and the via positiva, in which invisible and unimaginable beauty, truth, and goodness are manifested to the mind and to the senses by earthly things, even quite “ordinary” ones. Mary loves her husband, she is prudent rather than having bought into competitiveness as regards acquiring the trappings of respectability and success, and she is faithful to the light she has.
(Incidentally, a discussion evening for Mythopoeic Society-type folks could be devoted to Machen’s story of the Darnells, to the marriage of Mark and Jane Studdock in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, to the lovers in Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, etc. Edward loves to hear Mary’s voice as they sit in the twilight. I was reminded of the husband in Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve who used to telephone his wife from his office so that he could hear her voice. Earlier writers of value on romantic love of this type include Dante and Coventry Patmore.)
The wholesome eroticism of this married couple seems to promote their readiness for further phases of a discovery, or recovery, of a wider, deeper, richer life. Mary is deeply responsive when Edward tries to tell her his memories of his boyhood in Wales (“’Oh, my dear, why have you waited so long to tell me these wonderful things?’” The answer seems to be that he himself needed time, living with her in a trusting, loving intimacy permeated by the unearned grace of her femininity, to become more attuned to things of value, so that they could come up into consciousness). At the time Machen leaves his story – it doesn’t attempt a great moment or wrapping-up – Mary continues to attend what I take to be the Anglican parish church, but Edward has stopped lounging around at home on Sunday morning and participates in what I surmise is meant to be a small Anglo-Catholic church that keeps alive ancient British Christian traditions. There’s just a hint of the Holy Grail (“Graal” in the spelling Machen uses). Darnell’s growing spiritual maturity is also indicated by his recognition that becoming more attuned to spiritual reality is not without perils, since there is a wickedness outside the familiar forms of wrongdoing. He now remembers as a boy being taken by his uncle to a remote country house where, it seems, there is a woman upstairs who had become involved in a witch-cult. My impression is that the boy’s uncle had come to exorcise her.
It is this 1899-1904 story that supplied Dr. Reiter’s title. Machen wrote, “man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions, for the realization in his consciousness of ineffable bliss, for a great joy that transmutes the whole world, for a joy that surpasses all joys and overcomes all sorrows.” Reiter says, “from A Fragment of Life on, the target of Machen’s attacks is not the evil of supernaturally heightened wickedness but the evil of average middle-class existence. It was one of the most marked distinctions of Machen’s Christian phase, and among the reasons his twentieth-century work is so often ignored by weird scholarship – gone are the shocking horrors of ‘transcendent evil,’ replaced by horrors that Machen seems to portray as equally heinous, the horrors of the ordinary” way of life blind to, even hostile towards the idea of, spiritual truth and life.
I recommend Reiter’s discussion of this story, agreeing with him that it shows careful artistry (p. 135).