The Making of a Mystic

The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill. Ed. Carol Poston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. xxii + 362 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03483-1. $75.00.

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.1/2 (#115/116) (2011): 163–68.]

Evelyn Underhill wrote three fantasy novels—The Grey World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and The Column of Dust (1909)—and three books of poems—The Bar-Lamb’s Ballad Book (light verse, 1902), Immanence (1916), and Theophanies (1916). She also wrote about twenty books of non-fiction. She knew Charles Williams and exchanged a few letters with C.S. Lewis.

The first novel was about reincarnation; the second and third dealt with dual worlds—with the invisible world being what is usually called spiritual—and the third novel added the Grail legend to its mix. All of this makes Underhill sound like a proto-Inkling of sorts. Of course, that she stopped writing novels and, after a decade, stopped writing poetry limits the parallels.

The collection of letters under review unfortunately adds little information about her novels and her poems (except that she depreciates her ability as a poet [189]) or about her writing processes and techniques generally.

What then is of interest in the collection? Underhill is best known for two books: Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1936). The first has a Neo-Platonic bent, with an emphasis on Plotinus—although many Christian mystics are discussed; the second was written after Underhill had become a believing and practicing Anglican. (The 1930 revision of Mysticism gives it more of a Christian bent.)

Thus, one might come to her letters wanting to know about her own mystical experiences. She describes two “visions” in letters here. First, a vision of “exalted & indescribable beauty”:

I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road & observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy & astonishment. Even the movement of the traffic had something universal & sublime in it. Of course that doesn’t last: but the after-flavour of it does, & now & then one catches it again. (29 July 1908, to Marjorie Robinson, 128)

And, second, a vision of an evil world providing “a piece of the evidence of the existence of the devil”:

I saw it once for 24 hours […] & it was awfully like that [in a story by May Sinclair], allowing for difference of landscape. You reminded me of it again with horrid vividness!!! (30 May 1911, to May Sinclair, 192)

But these passages are isolated; Underhill does not often reveal her mystical side to correspondents. And she makes a distinction between the mystical experiences and the mystical way of life, in a letter to a Quaker, discussing an essay he had sent:

I agree with you as to the sharp distinction between mystical experience (i.e. the transitory & intense consciousness of union) & mysticism […]. [The latter] seems to me […] a whole system of life, a description, as true as we know how to make it, of the soul’s growth toward God […]. (29 May 1915, to Dr. Rufus Jones, 214)

The latter topic is one of the major concerns of these letters—but not at the first of the volume.

The reader of her letters will begin with her notes from school to her mother, her letters from Europe to her fiancé (“my darling boy”) and later to her husband (the same man, who had become a lawyer—a barrister, in their terms). Business letters appear after she becomes a successful writer. Those readers who enjoy C.S. Lewis giving religious advice to his correspondents will find two extended series of letters from Underhill as spiritual director: early, those to Marjorie Robinson; later, those (in some of the letters) to Darcie Otter. Occasional interesting names of correspondents show up—a letter to G.K. Chesterton (29 November 1932, 265), thanking him for an essay on St. Thomas Aquinas, written for The Spectator during the fairly short period she was its religion editor.  Several letters go to T.S. Eliot (258-59, 260 [two], 343-44, on 25 June, 7 October, and 28 October 1931, and 3 April 1941)—the first three about her writing an essay for The Criterion, which he edited (and which essay she wrote), and about his writing an essay for The Spectator (which he never got done); the fourth letter, a praise for the first publication of part of The Four Quartets.

Carol Poston, the editor, provides a biographical introduction and briefer introductions to the five sections of her book:

The Early Years: 1888-1905
Toward Mysticism: 1906-10
A Dark Time: 1911-23
The Retreat Years: 1924-34
Worship unto Death: 1935-41

The “Dark Time” is that of World War I. “The Retreat Years” are those in which Underhill was leading many spiritual retreats, usually with one theme per year, with a book worked out of the year’s theme afterwards. Still, most readers may well feel that most of the letters are very external. This book should be supplemented with Underhill’s letters to her first and most important spiritual director, Baron Friedrich Von Hügel, a Roman Catholic theologian—three of these letters appear as appendices to Dana Greene’s Fragments from an Inner Life (1993). (Not letters, but two notebooks make up the basic part of Greene’s book; these also show Underhill’s internal side.) There, in Greene’s book, is found the Underhill who struggles with her faith.

This is not to say that this book itself does not have interesting moments. When Underhill writes Sir James Frazer—of The Golden Bough fame—with praise for his Folklore of the Old Testament (12 December 1918, 215-16), one is reminded that, although Underhill was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England, her home upraising was basically secular and that she was not bothered by views which no doubt upset the very conservative and the literalistic.

Of even more interest to members of the Mythopoeic Society are her letters to C.S. Lewis and her knowledge of Charles Williams. To begin with her letters to Lewis: the first two are about Out of the Silent Planet and the third, The Problem of Pain. The first (26 October 1938, 323-24) is an appreciation of Lewis giving “a new slant on reality”—with “beauty, humour & deep seriousness”: “I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian Mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask.” It is typical of Underhill to call them “Mysteries.” Lewis’s reply of 29 October is found in Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 234-35. He politely says that it is good of her as an authority on the Christian mystics to write to him, regretting the loss of the earlier, positive meaning of condescension, and explains his worry about some of his “scientific” details. Underhill’s reply (3 November 1938, 324) refuses his refurbishing of condescension. “It sounds as though you suspected me of being a terrestrial Sorn, instead of just an elderly mouse.” She offers a religious reading of the Cosmic Rays in Out of the Silent Planet and brings in a two-sentence discussion of Purgatory. She ends with an invitation for him to see her in London (which he must not have taken up, from the third letter; indeed, he does not seem to have answered this second letter).

The third letter is the longest (13 January 1941, 340-42). She begins by reminding him that they have corresponded before. She praises Lewis’s treatment of suffering due to a cosmic fall, of Original Sin and the Fall (especially as it was tied to “our total experience of life”), of the Paradisal Man, and of Heaven and Hell. But she disagrees with Lewis’s treatment of the tame animal as “the only natural animal”—she instances the cow as “a milk machine” and the hen as “an egg machine” and “the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the jungle & deep sea.” “[…] I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.”  Lewis’s reply is in the same volume of Collected Letters, 459-460. He begins with the statement, “Your kind letter about the Silent Planet has not been forgotten and is not likely to be. It was one of the high lights of my literary life.” If one takes this not as politeness, but as a factual statement, it explains why he kept her letters, unlike his usual practice of destroying correspondence. He goes on to discuss the question of animals, saying that their essential “wildness wd. not be lost by the kind of dominion Adam had,” with some examples of what he meant in The Problem of Pain. One wonders if this discussion did not influence the reiteration of Aslan not being a tame animal in the Narnia series.

The relationship with Williams is more complicated. Early on, Underhill was a member of (as Carol Poston says) “the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, a Christian Rosicrucian Society” (2), where she was friends with Arthur Machen. Underhill dedicated her third novel to Machen and his wife. At this point, more information is necessary. Christopher Armstrong’s Evelyn Underhill (1975) explains that she probably joined in 1903, and she was therefore a member after the split in the Golden Dawn: she was a member of the branch led by Arthur Edward Waite (34-38). Armstrong does not use the title, but this was The Independent and Rectified Rite, established by Waite in 1903 (Ashenden 238 n24). Gavin Ashenden says that Underhill joined the group in 1905 (242 n29). Waite dissolved this group in 1914, when it became embroiled in internal dissensions (Ashenden 31). The next year Waite started the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Rosy Cross (Ashenden 32).  The Independent and Rectified Rite seems to have been using the Golden Dawn rituals, but with mystical, not magical, applications; the Order of the Rosy Cross had the same levels, but used strictly Rosicrucian-cum-Christian terminology (the Golden Dawn used Rosicrucian imagery only in some of the advanced levels). If Poston is right that Underhill belonged to “a Christian Rosicrucian Society,” Underhill must have stayed a member into 1916, at least. But certain knowledge about secret organizations is difficult to come by. Armstrong describes two 1905 letters from Underhill to Waite, but they seem not to have been available to Poston, for they are not in her collection of Underhill’s letters. (Underhill has many citations of writings by Waite in Mysticism, and seems to have been greatly influenced by him at the time.)

Williams joined the Salvator Mundi Temple in 1917. Were he and Underhill members at the same time? The odds seem against it, but until a precise date for Underhill leaving Waite’s order(s) is established, it cannot be completely ruled out. Armstrong says it is unlikely (37), but he writes from an ignorance of when Williams joined: presumably if he had known the date, he would have been more certain of its unlikeliness. The usual assumption seems to be that she was a member only for a short time—but the same thing was said about Williams until his membership dates were found. Armstrong admits one’s decision about her length of membership depends in part on how one interprets her “A Defence of Magic” (The Fortnightly Review, November 1907), which can be interpreted as a farewell to occult groups generally or as a denial of the validity only of those that practice (or attempt to practice) magic (38).

Williams will be cited below about only meeting Underhill a few times—but he would have been silent about meetings in a secret society. So that does not prove anything either way.

Underhill’s first reference to Williams in these letters comes in a note to Darcie Otter on 3 November 1937, about one of Williams’s plays:

[I] mean if possible to go to “Seed of Adam” on the 27th with Lucy [Menzies]. I long to see it! & think even for reading tho’ queer it’s very fine. But I’m not surprised it makes the country clergy a bit worried. They will have to stretch their minds quite a lot to receive Charles Williams’s ideas, & of course he does nothing towards letting the poor things down easily. (315)

(By the way, this reference to Williams does not appear in the index to Poston’s book.) Whether Underhill got to see the play is not known.

The other reference to Williams appears in two later letters to Darcie Otter: in the first she calls Williams’s The Descent of the Dove “exciting” and offers to send Otter a copy—intended for her for Christmas—early (24 November 1939, 332); in the second letter, of 23 December 1939 (closer to Christmas), she writes: “I’m glad you like the look of the Charles Williams—it is ‘your sort of book’ I’m sure. I revelled in it myself though I can imagine many wondering what he means by coinherence! He is not always clear though always suggestive” (332). Perhaps the comment about the meaning of coinherence was meant as a stimulant to Otter to pay close attention.

If this were all of the significance of Williams, the passages would be interesting but minor. But Williams was the editor of the first collection of Underhill’s letters: The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (1943). Several things can be said about it. For example, that it prints all three of the letters to Lewis but not the two that mention Williams. A matter of propriety on the part of the editor, probably. Second, that he writes in his introduction of “one of the few occasions” he met Underhill, saying that she corrected a passage he had written in a novel about one person bearing another person’s spiritual burdens—corrected him on the basis of an offer by St. Catherine to bear another’s sins (21). Third, that Williams’s edition is not entirely replaced by Poston’s new collection. Specifically, because Williams cut the introductory and concluding phrases (and sometimes more), Poston does not reprint any of the letters he includes unless she can reprint the whole letter. (A number that he printed are now lost.) Once Williams has a brief passage that is not in Underhill’s manuscript; Poston includes it in brackets (128). It certainly sounds like legitimate Underhill material. Once Poston includes (in her very useful endnotes to each letter) a “see Williams” citation (166).

Poston quotes from Williams’s letters to his wife, which suggest that Williams did the editorial job of Underhill’s letters simply for the money (xvi). But his long biographical introduction to his edition (7-41) suggests he was not turning out a quickie job. Williams’s discussion of Underhill’s conflict between her early desire to become a Roman Catholic and her upset over the encyclical of Pius X against modernism says that the conflict created for her “an Impossibility—something that could not be, and yet was” (15). This is the same type of language that he used when he, as a married man, fell in love with Phyllis Jones. The point is that Williams is writing as involved in his material. Quite possibly he had to write to his wife about finances to reassure her about his taking on a new job, but it was not (for him) the full truth.

Poston says that she hopes to post Underhill’s complete correspondence—these letters, Williams’s edited letters, and others—in electronic files at King’s College London and Virginia Theological Seminary (xvii). Brief checking does not reveal the files available yet (although King’s College London has a large Underhill collection).

Despite not being the complete correspondence, Poston’s The Making of a Mystic is a good book.  It has Underhill’s correspondence with Rabindranath Tagore, for example, that is not hinted at in Williams’s book. Its letters are nicely annotated—besides the end notes, the source is given in small print, in brackets, beneath each letter. The book is important in the history of the Church of England. Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury, said Underhill was vital in keeping that church alive between the world wars—with her leading of retreats as well as her books. Poston’s collection is also important in its contribution to the understanding of mysticism and of religious counseling and directing. (The final section of Williams’s collection, “To a Friend, 1923-41,” is more emphatic in this aspect, but Poston has letters in a context, with the people identified, not some disguised by initials only as in Williams.) Perhaps one does not think of mystics in a modern period, but Underhill not only was a mystic but a correspondent with other mystics—and, like some of the medieval mystics, she was very effective in this world—not in the founding of monasteries and nunneries but with her retreats, her books, and, yes, her letters.

Works Cited

The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill. Ed. Carol Poston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. xxii + 362 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03483-1. $75.00.

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