New Welsh Review
The Secret Glory
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Arthur Machen’s The Secret Glory is a dark Gothic fantasy that has everything from breaking school rules to searching for the Holy Grail. Originally written between 1907 and 1908, itwas not published until 1922, fifteen years after its conception. The story follows young Ambrose Meyrick, a pupil at a Christian school who is made to feel ostracised for his seemingly unusual beliefs. Ambrose dreams of adventure and questing, and spends his days amongst nature and ancient ruins. After the death of his father, who warns him to keep his beliefs and desires about nature and spirituality to himself, Ambrose becomes increasingly preoccupied with his search for the Holy Grail. He ends up learning a lesson along the way to keep his true desires to himself, as the rest of the world isn’t so keen to accept it. The novel is ultimately a story of nonconformity, opening up to different points of view, and contains Machen’s signature supernatural and Arthurian touch.
The Secret Glory is an unorthodox, spiritual coming-of-age story which contains elements of Machen’s own upbringing, making it a semi-autobiographical narrative which displays an outsider’s perspective on a conformist society. At his school, Ambrose is subject to sadistic treatment from his teachers and peers who deem him ‘lazy’ and ‘too imaginative’. In an early chapter, Ambrose is whipped by his schoolmaster for spending time looking at Norman architecture:
Mr Horbury went to the bookshelf and drew out the object. He stood at a little distance behind Meyrick and opened proceedings with a savage cut at his right arm, well above the elbow. Then it was the turn of the left arm, and the master felt the cane bite so pleasantly into the flesh that he distributed some dozen cuts between the two arms. Then he turned his attention to the lad’s thighs and finished up in the orthodox manner, Meyrick bending over a chair.
Machen’s novel gives an unpleasant insight into the reality of Christian public schools in the early twentieth century, and presents a disillusionment with uniformed religion. He presents his reader with the question of whether those who express different religious views really are fundamentally wrong, ‘Suppose that the people that they speak of now as “superstitious” and “half-savages” should turn out to be in the right, and very wise, while we are all wrong and great fools.’
Ambrose ultimately decides to create a pretence of conformity, transforming into a model pupil, following a traditional route advocated by the education system. However, he still dreams of the quest for the Holy Grail and so the transformation is not entirely successful. Ambrose still harbours a deep appreciation and sadness over a lost Celtic land, and he ultimately devotes himself to a silent rebellion against the contemporary society of the novel. This is shown by Machen through the elaborate pages of prose dedicated to the natural world that contain jabs at traditional Christianity, ‘…never did the Bishop of Rome listen to so sweet a singing in his church as was heard in this wood.’ The natural world takes centre stage, a theme which is present in many of Machen’s other novels, and highlights the author’s dedication to seeking art and beauty in what surrounds us. Ambrose ultimately succumbs to his true desires, and follows a life on the stage, dedicating himself to the principles of creativity.
Ultimately, The Secret Glory proves itself to be a tricky piece of writing, with constant references to Celtic mythology, ancient language and symbols, and it requires a trained mind to pick up all of Machen’s references. These veiled conveyances mean the novel befits its title, as the reader is left to guess what ‘the secret glory’ really is. Nevertheless, it is still an entertaining read, and provides us with thought provoking questions over whether there really is only one route to spiritualism, whether the education system stifles creativity and so on. For me, this novel is a satire of conformity and a message on the divergence of purpose.
Issy Rixon reviews for New Welsh Review as part of a partnership with Aberystwyth University.