Essay: “A Fragment of Life”, Arthur Machen, 1904.
This is a wonderful story with many elements.
It’s a slice of middle-class life circa 1904, a superb example of Machen’s theme of finding the numinous, mysterious, and wonderful in everyday life (here, as usual, in the streets of London); an attack on the commercial and scientific materialism of his day as well as apocalyptic Protestantism; and a sort of a bridge with his earlier “The White People” and his later The Secret Glory. It is a dark comedy, domestic drama, and a religious quest.
Machen wrote this short novel between 1899 to 1904. It was originally serialized in four installments, but Machen was dissatisfied with the final installment and rewrote it when the story was republished in House of Souls.
The style of the story is closer to the Machen style of The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations and the early sections of The Hill of Dreams than the later sections of that novel. We follow our hero as the mundane mask of the world is removed and the mystery and glory behind it revealed.
Edward Darnell is our hero and has a fairly good job in business. He’s been married to Mary for about a year. The novel starts out with him getting the idea of spending ten pounds on refurbishing a spare room in their house. The money is from a 100-pound gift from Mary’s Aunt Nixon. (The couple put the other 90 pounds in savings.) Mary vetoes the idea since it would cost more than 10 pounds. The idea of buying a new stove is floated too.
Edward thinks back on the extravagance of his single days – tobacco and good cigars, going to the theatre, yearly holidays, and pictures of attractive actresses (which he burned upon marrying) — and wishes he had been more frugal.
Edward’s friend Wilson, who knows where to get the cheapest price on everything, is meant to be mocked because he is so concerned with trifles.
Edward even considers renting a spare room out, but Mary scotches that idea too. Mary is rather unimaginative, but she’s practical and pretty, and Edward loves her though there is an undercurrent of him wanting more sex from her.
There is also some drama with the Darnells’ servant girl and her problems with a potential mother-in-law.
However, things begin to change when, one night, Edward tells Mary for the first time of the wonderful time when he first came to London and walked its streets and the wonderful and magical things he saw but cannot adequately describe. Edward begins to regain that feeling and transmits it to Mary. It’s a typical Machen theme of everyday commercial life being a form of living death and a call to see the mystery and wonder of life.
There is also a subplot with the aunt finding out — initially after thinking (in a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson way reminiscent of Machen’s The Three Impostors) her husband is involved with anarchists – her husband has been having an affair. John Howard, in his “The Impossible History: Machen’s ‘A Fragment of Life’”, points out something I missed. The aunt, who has become a devout follower of an apocalyptic minister (Machen recreates some of his pamphlets), ends up being committed by her husband to an insane asylum. (Howard’s essay can be found in The Secret Ceremonies.)
The story ends with, on holiday, Edward starting to get out some memorabilia from his family and learn Latin and discovering his family’s connection to the Holy Grail thus anticipating Machen’s next novel, The Secret Glory.
There is a thematic connection to “The White People” also when Edward remembers seeing a woman in a dream who is described like the white woman in that story, and there still seems to be a witch cult of some sort in Wales.
The story ends with a wonderful paragraph from Edward’s journal:
So I awoke from a dream of a London suburb, of daily labour, of weary, useless little things; and as my eyes were opened I saw I was in an ancient wood, where a clear well rose into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat. And a form came towards me from the hidden places of the wood, and my love and I were united by the well.
Howard has some further observations. He sees the story of the Darnells’ servant and her romantic troubles as highlighting the capricious nature of human relationships and how some people live to spoil others’ happiness. The nature of the Nixons’ marriage changes at the same time as the Darnells’. Howard notes that, at this point in the story, Machen shifts viewpoint to third person omniscient which is necessary because the external elements of the Darnells’ lives have changed little, but their interior life has.
The story was composed of fragments, and its somewhat obscure ending suggests the opening of another story. But Howard argues, and I agree, it works.