Those of you who read my post on the Greek god Pan will remember that I mentioned the influence of Greek mythology upon writers in England towards the end of the nineteenth century, and in particular, the fascination exerted upon them by the disquieting figure of the goat-footed god, Pan. You may also remember that I cited Arthur Machen’s novella, The Great God Pan, as a perfect illustration of this fascination.
The Great God Pan is most often categorized as a horror story, a terminology that would have been guaranteed to make me avoid it, had I not been expressly urged to read it by my research supervisor. Let the timorous be reassured, however: what horror there is always happens off-stage, and is reported in roundabout ways, mentioned in whispers or in covert allusions, which, while rendering the horror all the more subtle, also makes it perfectly bearable for craven souls like me who shrink and shriek at the merest hint of horrible apparitions or mangled bodies.
The story opens with an experiment conducted by a certain Dr Raymond, a specialist in what he calls “transcendental medicine”. He firmly believes that there are ways to bridge the gap between the world of man and the world of the ancient gods, and after years of research, he has reached the conclusion that a simple operation upon a particular group of nerve cells in the brain will enable the patient to come into direct contact with the god Pan. Determined to put his theory into practice, Dr Raymond summons to his residence in Wales an acquaintance of his called Clarke, to act as witness of the experiment. The doctor’s human guinea-pig is a seventeen-year-old girl called Mary, an orphan he rescued from the gutter when she was a child and whose manner towards him suggests that she is not only his protégée, but his mistress. When the more scrupulous Clarke expresses concern as to the consequences should the experiment go wrong, Raymond callously answers: “I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.” Like Dr Faustus and Dr Frankenstein before him, Dr Raymond tampers with forces that are beyond his control, and the experiment conducted in his laboratory has unforeseen results. Inevitably, the trusting and affectionate Mary, whose white dress indicates her status as sacrificial lamb, is an immediate casualty: she does indeed see the god Pan, but the encounter leaves her a complete idiot, and nine months later, she dies after giving birth to the monstrous offspring of her union with the god.
Twenty years later, a chance encounter with a former college friend prompts a fashionable London gentleman called Villiers to investigate the history of the mysterious woman his friend Herbert married and whom he accuses of having “corrupted him body and soul”. With the help of his friend Austin and the reluctant Clarke, and with as sole clues a pencil portrait and the name Helen Vaughan, Villiers sets out to solve the mystery of Helen’s true identity. Despite numerous disappearing acts and many changes in her name, Villiers is eventually able to trace Helen from Wales to Italy, to London, to Buenos Aires, and back to London, where she reappears as a charming and apparently irreproachable society hostess. Each of her appearances is connected with tragedy: in the remote village in Wales where she spent her adolescence, she is held responsible for driving a child to madness and her close friend Rachel to her death. In London, a gentleman is found dead, apparently frightened to death, on the area steps of the house she and her husband Charles Herbert occupy in Tottenham Court Road, and their marriage leads Herbert himself to ruin, despair, and ultimately death. In Buenos Aires, where she reappears next, her connection with Austin’s friend, the painter Charles Meyrick, ends with the latter’s death from a total nervous collapse. Finally, back in London under the name Mrs Beaumont, she drives five well-born gentlemen to suicide in the space of three weeks.
As soon as Villiers has irrefutable proof both of Helen’s identity and of her culpability, he and Clarke pay her a visit, during which they give her a choice between hanging herself or giving herself over to the police. She chooses death, and it is in death that the horror of her true nature is revealed. The doctor who is called in to ascertain her death describes what he sees in the following words:
“I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve. […] Here too was all the work by which man had been made repeated before my eyes. I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed. […] I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substance as jelly. […] for one instance I saw a Form, shaped in dimness before me, which I will not farther describe. But the symbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spoken of…as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death.”
No wonder that Charles Herbert, discovering on his wedding night that his wife was half man, half woman, half human, half beast, should have received a shock! No wonder that all her subsequent lovers should have recoiled in horror and disbelief, and then sought release in death from the shame of having yielded to her embraces! Beneath Helen’s corsets and Victorian petticoats lurks a monster that makes her the female equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (R. L. Stevenson’s novella was published in 1886, just two years before the main events of The Great God Pan are supposed to have taken place). The five Mayfair and Piccadilly suicides are compared to the Whitechapel murders that occurred between 1888 and 1891: thus Helen also becomes the West side equivalent of Jack the Ripper. It is left to the reader to guess whether or not Villiers survived the shock of witnessing Helen’s horrible death – but the doctor who reported it died from an apoplectic seizure just three years later.
But Helen’s hold over her victims goes deeper than the mere horror inspired by her hybrid body. Something about her draws them to her and holds them in thrall, even when reason, honour, and every fine sentiment have revolted against her. Charles Herbert tells Villiers that within a year of his marriage he was a ruined man, but that still represents 365 days spent in Helen’s company – a long time to spend sharing a roof and a bed with a wife he abhors. Why did he not abandon her then and there upon discovering the truth? Instead of which, it is she who abandons him, as soon as he has run out of money. Part of her attraction is her great beauty: Herbert describes her as a girl of “the most wondrous and most strange beauty” – a beauty she inherited from her mortal mother. Through her name, she also brings to mind another great and fatal beauty of the ancient world: Helen of Troy – “the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless tow’rs of Ilium”. Helen of Troy, too, was born of the union between a mortal woman and a god, in the shape of an animal: her mother was Leda, and her father, disguised as a swan, was Zeus himself. The beauty of both Helens – and, of course, it must also be inferred, their great sexual magnetism – leads to madness, destruction, and death.
Added to the beauty of Helen Vaughan’s face is the beauty of her voice. Before Herbert even saw Helen, he says he “heard a voice which seemed to thrill to [his] heart”. Like the sirens who drove fishermen mad with their songs and lured them to their deaths, Helen seduces Herbert with her singing. And the night of their wedding, he says he sat listening to her talk (an odd occupation for a bridegroom!): “I listened to her as she spoke in her beautiful voice, spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in the blackest night, though I stood in the midst of a wilderness.” The reader never finds out what it is Helen told him that night, just as it is never revealed what horrors the painter Charles Meyrick’s sketch book contains, or what iniquities Helen committed in the dingy room she rented in Soho. It is left to the imagination of the reader to supply the answers. Thus, Helen’s power lies in the contrast between her beautiful voice and the awful content of her words, and in the fact that she alone dares to speak of the unspeakable – a dangerous weapon indeed in a society crippled by Victorian morality and the long list of things it does not “do” to speak of in decent company.
Above all, Pan’s daughter is a living symbol for the pagan Hellenic world. The powerful fascination exerted by Helen over both men and women (let it not be forgotten that Rachel is the very first to succumb to Helen’s charms), together with the revulsion experienced simultaneously by her victims, reveals a great deal about the ambivalent nature of the late nineteenth century’s attitude towards Ancient Greece. In the very midst of the industrialized, materialistic, rational world of late-Victorian society, marked by scientific progress, the advent of electricity, and the Great Exhibition, there coexists a latent yearning for spirituality, a secret interest in the occult – witness Dr Raymond’s research and Clarke’s extensive work on his “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil”. The narrator says of Clarke that “in his sober moments he thought of the unusual and the eccentric with undisguised aversion, and yet, deep in his heart, there was a wide-eyed inquisitiveness with respect to all the more recondite and esoteric elements in the nature of men. […] he still pined for the unseen.” This yearning is seen as vaguely guilty, and is therefore kept secret – Clarke enjoys posing as a staid, practical businessman. But despite his efforts, his thoughts always “stray” towards the desk that contains his Memoirs – the verb is used repeatedly and with conscious intent: Clarke strays mentally, in the same way that Helen’s lovers stray morally, and that she herself strays through the Welsh woods and along the Roman road to join her mythological companions. In the end, materialism and rationality triumph over paganism, but the woods remain, as does the ancient and dangerous power that resides within them.
© Florence Berlioz 2011