This page: about The Life of Arthur Machen


Childhood in Wales



Arthur Machen was born in Caerleon on Usk, in the county of Gwent, South Wales, in 1863, and baptised into the Anglican faith, as Arthur Llewellyn Jones. His father, John Edward Jones (Machen was his mother's maiden name), was an Anglican priest, vicar of the tiny church of Llandewi, near Caerleon, and the boy was raised at the rectory there. A solitary child, he learned first to love the gentle slopes of the nearby Soar Brook, then later the more awesome fastnesses of the Black Mountains which lay to the north, and to the east the ancient forest of Wentwood and the remoter Severn Valley. Though he returned only rarely to Gwent in later life, his work continually evoked its darker landscapes, often as a prelude to wonder or terror.

The child was awed, too, by the findings of local archaeologists, who in the 1870s were digging up strange pagan sculptures and inscribed stones dating from the Roman occupation of the region. Machen's grandfather had found Roman inscriptions and carvings in his own Caerleon churchyard, and the boy's imagination was captured early by the sense that the ground itself was haunted with a tangible and pagan strangeness - an intuition on which he drew for much of his best fiction writing. The Romano-British god Nodens, whose temple was excavated at nearby Lydney Park in his boyhood, turns up in some of his most memorable horror fiction.

At the age of eleven he was sent to Hereford Cathedral School, where he received the standard classical education for a middle class boy. He was an able pupil, but remained an aloof one, interested already in the strange and arcane byways of literature and history. He showed much scholarly ability, but his parents were not rich enough to send him to Oxford in his father's footsteps. After some false starts and after his (anonymous) first publication Eleusinia, a verse account of the Eleusinian mysteries, now very much a collector's item, his parents persuaded him towards a career in journalism. In pursuit of this he went to live in London.


Machen spent the early part of the 1880s living in self-imposed solitude in the vastness of what was in those days an imperial capital, and the largest city in the world. He lived in poverty, in remote suburbs. Rather than making a determined effort to conquer his 'chosen' profession of journalism, he read very widely and explored on foot the vast further reaches of the city. Its landscapes became as numinous for him as the Gwent of his boyhood had been before: he became a connoisseur of the older hamlet swallowed up by the advancing tide of late Victorian villas, of lost faubourgs and strange desuetudes. He kept aloof from the dinning enterprise of the city around him.

In 1884 he produced his first book, The Anatomy of Tobacco, and he found a publisher, the bookseller and entrepreneur George Redway of Covent Garden, who quickly took to Machen. Redway soon offered him employment, as a sub-editor of the magazine Walford's Antiquarian, a task for which Machen's already wide reading and antiquarian interests equipped him well. In the second half of the 1880s Machen began to emerge from his youthful isolation. He undertook three translations from old French, of the Heptamerone of Marguerite of Navarre, of Beroalde de Verville's Le Moyen de Parvenir, and of Casanova's Memoirs. He also worked on and found publication for his own book of Rabelaisian romance, The Chronicle of Clemendy, his first true work of fiction. By 1887 both his parents had died, and in the same year, aged 24, he married Amy Hogg, an independent woman, herself very much part of the London literary scene, whom he had met when he shared lodgings with her.


Finding Himself

By the late 1880s Machen had published both translations and original work, but all thus far had been written in a pastiche seventeenth century English which was comparable with the medieval archaism of, for example, William Morris, a style which had become a kind of trademark for him. Very suddenly, around 1890, his writing took a new turn: it became sharply contemporary in idiom and interest. A series of short pieces were published in 1890 and 1891 in a variety of contemporary newspapers and journals; many qualify as fantastic fiction, set in the world we recognise, yet moving into impossibilities beyond its boundaries; and many deal with gothic themes, not far from horror. Had he not taken this step, he would not be remembered today.

By 1891 Machen had shown he could write racy contemporary fiction in the manner of succesful contemporaries such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; now he cast around for a bigger achievement. Having received some small legacies he was comfortably off for a while, and retreated with Amy to a cottage in the Chilterns, where he expanded one of his earlier short pieces into "The Great God Pan", his first major tale of pagan sexuality and horror. This was accepted by the publisher John Lane and published as one in his epoch-making "Keynotes" series, of novels, which seized new freedoms of expression and outraged the prurient reader. Through the daring excesses of his work, Machen thus became part of the 'naughty nineties': he dined with Wilde and his texts were illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. On the back of the scandalous success of "The Great God Pan", Machen published the even faster-moving, but less intense fiction The Three Impostors, in 1895. Through these two works Machen achieved wide public recognition as an avatar of the new 'decadent' kind of aestheticism whose impulse had come originally from France.

A Colder Climate

The trials and disgrace of Oscar Wilde, in 1895, were emblematic of a wider turning against the 1890s aesthetes and the culture they proclaimed. The year also saw the publication in Britain of Max Nordau's influential Degeneration, a book of hysterical accusations against the evil influence of decadent and degenerate artists. The year was a turning-point for Machen and many other young artists and writers: as a result of the shift in climate, Machen would publish nothing for almost a decade, even though most of his finest work was written between 1895 and 1900. Luckily, Machen had earnings and legacies enough to continue writing through the late 1890s and so continued writing: the novel The Hill of Dreams, the prosepoem pieces which were eventually collected as Ornaments in Jade, the novellas "The White People" and "A Fragment of Life", were all written at this time.

In 1898 he returned to journalism as a sub-editor on Literature, the antecedent of today's Times Literary Supplement. His work led him to examine his own working creed as author and reader, and when he parted company with the journal he began work on Hieroglyphics, his exploration of literary theory. Machen had two good reasons for working very hard in the second half of the decade: one was that the legacies which had left him comfortably off at the beginning of the decade were diminishing: the other was that his wife, Amy, was slowly dying of cancer.

Crisis and Recovery

Amy died of cancer in 1899, and her devastated husband was plunged into breakdown, wandering the London streets like a character from his own fiction, more than half in touch with other worlds portending wonder and terror. He recovered steadily, through the good offices of his friends, foremost among whom was A.E.Waite, who invited him to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the fashionable ritual magic group which also counted Yeats and Aleister Crowley among its members. Though Machen was, like Yeats, a dedicated fighter against the evils of materialism and a passionate believer in mystical and spiritual values, and though he and Waite were very loyal friends to one another, Machen never became very closely involved in the activities of the group: instead, he had begun already, even before his crisis years, to develop his own brand of mystical Celtic Christianity.

In 1901 he took a step which may seem unlikely for an established writer: he joined a touring repertory theatre company, as a new boy. Frederick Benson's company offered companionship and hope to the bereaved and blasted man, and he joined in with enthusiasm. It was around about this time, as he recovered from his great loss, that Machen began to emerge as a new personality. The young man of the 1880s had been aloof, to the point of introversion. Marriage and the brief touch of success had softened this, but it was only after 1900 that Machen began, slowly, to emerge as bon-vivant and raconteur, extrovert and man thoroughly at ease with the world.

In 1903 he married again. His second wife, Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, was like his first, a middle class girl of artistic and bohemian leanings. She had come to London to study singing, and had become involved with the Bensonian actors whose home haunt was the Cafe de l'Europe. The couple lived together in happy-go-lucky bohemian style, touring the repertory theatres of Britain both together and apart. In the early years of this second marriage, Machen turned away from literature for a while, but not in the end for very long. By 1902 the text of Hieroglyphics had been accepted for publication, and Machen was gradually but inexorably drawn back towards the world of books.

Around 1899 he had already begun to move away from the exciting but morally ambiguous pagan themes which had characterized his work of the earlier 1890s: instead, he began to cast himself in a more wholesome role, as champion of mysticism and spirituality, and dedicated opponent of the prevailing climate of economic and scientific materialism. In fact he had held such beliefs and sympathies since the very beginning of his career, but his pagan tales of the 1890s had emphasized damnation and degeneration: it was only after 1900 that he began to think clearly about the implications of his work and the effect it might have on its readers. Thus, after 1900 his work acquired a political, propagandist dimension which had been absent before, and this is one reason why his later work only seldom rivals the power of what he had written before 1900. But Machen's shift away from pagan themes towards a more wholesome mysticism was part of a larger movement in the arts: the demise of the 'naughty nineties' ethos meant that many artists previously of aesthete sympathies were forced to reinvent themselves as Machen did.

Slowly, the moral climate which had shifted so disastrously away from Machen's earlier kind of writing began to soften, and in 1906 many of his best earlier tales, and some new ones, were published in The House of Souls. Then, in 1907, his novel The Hill of Dreams, which he already recognized as his best work, found a publisher. By 1907 Machen was once more seriously interested in writing, but at this point was much more interested in quasi-religious polemic than in fiction. Dr Stiggins, His Principles, of 1906, is a satire on evangelical protestantism, not today one of Machen's most appealing works, but one which shows him clearly committed to a particular version of the Christian faith. Around this time he joined the staff of The Academy, a literary journal of High Anglican sympathies, owned and edited by Lord Alfred Douglas, and in his articles he began to pronounce on matters such as the provenance of the Holy Grail legends, and the importance of ritual in worship.

He had long espoused the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church, though it never quite contained him. His fascination was with the imaginative power of religion, rather than its morality, and he emerges as a lover of both ritual and mysticism: these were the powers which, he believed, could save the world from the damnation inflicted by the materialist values of scientists and businessmen. His one work of fiction written at this time (though not published until 1922) shows the same involvement with this cause: in The Secret Glory a schoolboy who hates the materialist ethos of his school, finds salvation and martyrdom through Celtic Christianity and the pursuit of the Holy Grail.

A Public Figure

Towards the end of the Edwardian decade, well into his forties, Machen began to seek a form of existence more stable than repertory theatre, opportunist publishing and semi-freelance journalism could offer. In 1908 and 1909 he worked on a trial basis for Lord Northcliffe's tabloid Daily Mail, and in 1910 he became a staff-member of its sister journal, The Evening News. Rather than being a hard news reporter, Machen was essentially a correspondent for arts and religion, but he was also recognized as a master-writer, and his powers were called out upon great occasions such as, for example, the funeral service in 1913 for Captain Scott, who had died after reaching the South Pole. From the newspaper's point of view Machen was usefully and chattily able to explore a range of topics, but here as elsewhere he could touch the sublime when required.

The paper treated him well, but he regarded his employment with it as hellish, hating his time being at the disposal of others, and hating the vulgarity and triviality of what was already shaping itself into the kind of tabloid newspaper we know today. This was not merely a question of snobbery: The Evening News's window on the world was bound to be anathema to one who saw the only hope for civilization as the abandonment of materialist greed and a turning towards mysticism. Yet he worked hard for his employer, and in 1914, when war broke out in Europe, the paper gave him an unexpected notoriety.

The first major engagement between the British and German armies was at Mons, in August 1914, an action which did not turn out well for the British. A month after the battle Machen wrote a piece which was published in The Evening News, describing celestial archers from the days of Agincourt appearing in the sky, firing their arrows upon the Germans and averting defeat. Machen's story, "The Bowmen", was in essence a piece of patriotic wish-fulfilment; however, only a few weeks after publication he began to receive requests "from parish magazines" for details of his source for the story. He asserted that his only source was his own imagination; yet he found that there was already a significant number of people who believed that hix story was based on fact - that "Angels" had indeed appeared and fought for the British at Mons.

Machen continued to assert that imagination was his only source, but others insisted that, even if he had not recognized it as such, he had been vouchsafed a true vision. Fierce wartime censorship made it difficult to determine with any objectivity what had and hadn't happened at Mons, and Machen's opponents found, and published, evidence, based on hearsay, to prove that Angels really had appeared. None of the evidence for "Angels", or Bowmen, was very convincing, but the spiritual aspiration which underpinned these phenomena chimed with the hysterical national climate of 1914: eventually three books and many articles were written on the controversial subject of "The Angels of Mons".

In fact, the conditions of the first printing of Machen's story go some way to explain what had happened. Under wartime reporting restrictions, The Evening News had taken to using focused accounts of battle from individual soldiers, which readers were expected to understand as true. Machen's story can be read as such an account. Moreover, though Machen had been a reporter for the paper for some time, he had never previously published fiction in its pages, and his piece wasn't labelled as fiction - in fact, very misleadingly, another item clearly headed "Our Short Story" was printed on another page of the same issue. All of these factors no doubt helped to suggest that what Machen had written was not fiction.

It was ironic that Machen, who was by then a doughty champion of the mystical and spiritual view of human life, was forced out of honesty to take the materialist position, denying the reality of an occurrence whose truth he must have longed for. But his story, quickly reprinted in book form with some other fiction-pieces dealing with the war, sold very well and brought him greater recognition than anything since The Great God Pan had done. The best effect of the controversy was that he returned to writing fiction. The other stories he wrote in wartime did not achieve the notoriety of "The Bowmen", but some are far better examples of his art. It was in this second decade of the century that Machen embraced respectability and a solid, bourgeois position. He and his wife Purefoy had their two children, Hilary and Janet, during this decade, and he was able to give his family all the benefits of a secure home. However, in 1919 he lost his position with The Evening News, when he published on his own initiative an obituary of his former editor, Lord Alfred Douglas, who had not in fact died, and took exception to some of what Machen had written about him.


Despite his loss of regular employment, Machen continued to make a living as a journalist after 1919. Then, suddenly, he discovered he was a star. His 1890s stories had been discovered by a generation of young Americans who, after the end of the war, had embraced many of the aims and interests of British 1890s aestheticism. Vincent Starrett, James Branch Cabell and Carl Van Vechten were three of the most influential Americans to proselytize for Machen's fiction, and to suggest that he had not been honoured in his native country as he should have been. The American fever for Machen's work quickly recrossed the Atlantic, and the first half of the 1920s saw the publication on a large scale, in Britain and in the United States, both of Machen's new, autobiographical work and of his earlier stories. For a brief time, everything Machen could write was greedily snapped up.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Machen became something of a household name. However, he did not command the same affection from the same kind of public in Britain and America. In the United States he was admired by academics, and seen even in middle age as something of an avant-garde phenomenon: in Britain, on the other hand, both academics and avant-garde were by now embracing a literary modernism whose agendas left no place for Machen's kind of fantasy work, which was often condemned as mere genre-writing. Machen's followers in Britain were often dedicated anti-materialists, and his work was admired as much for the causes he championed as for the sheer quality of his writing.

Last Years

By 1925 the Machen boom was over. Sadly, the author himself had not profited enough from it to be able to spend his declining years in comfort. The huge 1920s reissues of his earlier work had not profited him much, as he had sold the rights long before. He had therefore to continue working as essayist and journalist, and as fiction-writer. Though some of what he wrote between 1925 and 1936 is repetitious of his earlier work, and plainly written under financial constraint, there are also several stories which surpass anything he had done since the 1890s.

Through most of the the 1920s Machen and his wife lived in fashionable St John's Wood. They were renowned for their parties, where the day's 'celebs' would rub shoulders with the notorious as well as literary and spiritual seekers after truth. When he had money, Machen spent it, and it was probably lucky for him that he had collected a coterie of younger men around him who were prepared to wheel and deal for him in order to keep him in some kind of comfort in his old age. He did not write much after the mid-nineteen-thirties, but retired with his wife to a pleasant existence in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. He died in 1947, shortly after his wife. Since his death his reputation has maintained itself well: there is currently more interest in his work than in that of many of his most illustrious contemporaries.


Further Reading: Biographies of Machen

Reynolds, Aidan and William Charlton, Arthur Machen, London: John Baker, 1963. Paperback reprint, Oxford: Caermaen Books, 1988.

Sweetser, Wesley, D., Arthur Machen, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1964.

Valentine, Mark, Arthur Machen, Bridgend: Seren Books, 1995.

Gawsworth, John, ed Roger Dobson, The Life of Arthur Machen, FoAM/ Reino de Redonda/ Tartarus Press, 2005.