Arthur Machen's birthplace at The Square, High Street, Caerleon
Machen was born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in Caerleon, Monmouthshire. The house of his birth, opposite the Olde Bull Inn in The Square at Caerleon, is adjacent to the Priory Hotel and is today marked with a commemorative blue plaque. The beautiful landscape of Monmouthshire (which he usually referred to by the name of the medieval Welsh kingdom, Gwent), with its associations of Celtic, Roman, and medieval history, made a powerful impression on him, and his love of it is at the heart of many of his works.
The Rectory, Llanddewi Fach—Machen's childhood home
Machen was descended from a long line of clergymen, the family having originated in Carmarthenshire. In 1864, when Machen was two, his father John Edward Jones, became vicar of the parish of
Llanddewi Fach with Llandegveth, about five miles north of Caerleon, and Machen was brought up at the rectory there. Jones had adopted his wife's maiden name, Machen, to inherit a legacy, legally becoming "Jones-Machen"; his son was baptised under that name and later used a shortened version of his full name, Arthur Machen, as a pen name.
Local historian and folklorist Fred Hando traces Machen's interest in the occult to a volume of Household Words in his father's rectory library, in which he read, at the age of eight, an entrancing article on alchemy. Hando recounts Machen's other early reading:
He bought De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater at Pontypool Road Railway Station, The Arabian Nights at Hereford Railway Station, and borrowed Don Quixote from Mrs. Gwyn, of Llanfrechfa Rectory. In his father's library he found also the Waverley Novels, a three-volume edition of the Glossary of Gothic Architecture, and an early volume of Tennyson.
At the age of eleven, Machen boarded at Hereford Cathedral School, where he received an excellent classical education. Family poverty ruled out attendance at university, and Machen was sent to London, where he sat exams to attend medical school but failed to get in. Machen, however, showed literary promise, publishing in 1881 a long poem "Eleusinia" on the subject of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Returning to London, he lived in relative poverty, attempting to work as a journalist, as a publisher's clerk, and as a children's tutor while writing in the evening and going on long rambling walks across London.
In 1884 he published his second work, the pastiche The Anatomy of Tobacco, and secured work with the publisher and bookseller
George Redway as a cataloguer and magazine editor. This led to further work as a translator from French, translating the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, Le Moyen de Parvenir (Fantastic Tales) of Béroalde de Verville, and the Memoirs of Casanova. Machen's translations in a spirited English style became standard ones for many years.
In 1887, the year his father died, Machen married Amelia (Amy) Hogg, an unconventional music teacher with a passion for the theatre, who had literary friends in London's bohemian circles. Hogg had introduced Machen to the writer and occultist A. E. Waite, who was to become one of Machen's closest friends. Machen also made the acquaintance of other literary figures, such as M. P. Shiel and Edgar Jepson. Soon after his marriage, Machen began to receive a series of legacies from Scottish relatives that allowed him to gradually devote more time to writing.
Literary decadence in the 1890s
Around 1890 Machen began to publish in literary magazines, writing stories influenced by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, some of which used gothic or fantastic themes. This led to his first major success, The Great God Pan. It was published in 1894 by John Lane in the noted Keynotes Series, which was part of the growing aesthetic movement of the time. Machen's story was widely denounced for its sexual and horrific content and consequently sold well, going into a second edition.
Machen next produced The Three Impostors, a novel composed of a number of interwoven tales, in 1895. The novel and the stories within it were eventually to be regarded as among Machen's best works. However, following the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde later that year, Machen's association with works of decadent horror made it difficult for him to find a publisher for new works. Thus, though he would write some of his greatest works over the next few years, some were published much later. These included The Hill of Dreams, Hieroglyphics, A Fragment of Life, the story "The White People", and the stories which make up Ornaments in Jade.
Tragedy and acting: 1899–1910
In 1899, Machen's wife Amy died of cancer after a long period of illness. This had a devastating effect on Machen. He only gradually recovered from his loss over the next year, partially through his close friendship with A. E. Waite. It was through Waite's influence that Machen joined at this time the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, though Machen's interest in the organization was not lasting or very deep.
The House of Souls
(London: Grant Richards, 1906), with cover designs by Sidney Sime
Machen's recovery was further helped by his sudden change of career, becoming an actor in 1901 and a member of Frank Benson's company of travelling players, a profession which took him round the country.
This led in 1903 to a second marriage, to Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, which brought Machen much happiness. Machen managed to find a publisher in 1902 for his earlier written work Hieroglyphics, an analysis of the nature of literature, which concluded that true literature must convey "ecstasy". In 1906 Machen's literary career began once more to flourish as the book The House of Souls collected his most notable works of the nineties and brought them to a new audience. He also published a satirical work, Dr Stiggins: His Views and Principles, generally considered one of his weakest works.
Machen also was at this time investigating Celtic Christianity, the Holy Grail and King Arthur. Publishing his views in Lord Alfred Douglas's The Academy, for which he wrote regularly, Machen concluded that the legends of the Grail actually were based on dim recollections of the rites of the Celtic Church. These ideas also featured strongly in the novel The Secret Glory which he wrote at this time, marking the first use in fiction of the idea of the Grail's surviving into modern times in some form, an idea much utilised ever since, as by Charles Williams (War in Heaven), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). In 1907, The Hill of Dreams, generally considered Machen's masterpiece, was finally published, though it was not recognized much at the time.
The next few years saw Machen continue with acting in various companies and with journalistic work, but he was finding it increasingly hard to earn a living and his legacies were long exhausted. Machen was also attending literary gatherings such as the New Bohemians and the Square Club.
Journalism and the Great War: 1910–1921
Finally Machen accepted a full-time journalist's job at Alfred Harmsworth's Evening News in 1910. In February 1912 his son Hilary was born, followed by a daughter Janet in 1917. The coming of war in 1914 saw Machen return to public prominence for the first time in twenty years due to the publication of "The Bowmen" and the subsequent publicity surrounding the "Angels of Mons" episode. He published a series of stories capitalizing on this success, most of which were morale-boosting propaganda, but the most notable, "The Great Return" (1915) and the novella The Terror (1917), were more accomplished. He also published a series of autobiographical articles during the war, later reprinted in book form as Far Off Things. During the war years Machen also met and championed the work of a fellow Welshman, Caradoc Evans.
In general, though, Machen thoroughly disliked work at the newspaper, and it was only the need to earn money for his family which kept him at it. The money came in useful, allowing him to move in 1919 to a bigger house with a garden, in St John's Wood, which became a noted location for literary gatherings attended by friends such as the painter Augustus John, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, and Jerome K. Jerome. Machen's dismissal from the Evening News in 1921 came as a relief in one sense, though it caused financial problems. Machen, however, was recognized as a great Fleet Street character by his contemporaries, and he remained in demand as an essay writer for much of the twenties.
The Machen boom of the 1920s
Cover of the U.S. edition of The Secret Glory
(New York: Knopf, 1922), one of the series of Machen's works published by Alfred A. Knopf
in the 1920s
The year 1922 saw a revival in Machen's literary fortunes. The Secret Glory, considered by some to be Machen's final masterpiece, was finally published, as was his autobiography Far Off Things, and new editions of Machen's Casanova, The House of Souls and The Hill of Dreams all came out. Machen's works had now found a new audience and publishers in America, and a series of requests for republications of books started to come in. Vincent Starrett, James Branch Cabell, and Carl Van Vechten were American Machen devotees who helped in this process.
Another sign of his rising fortunes was the publication in 1923 of a collected edition of his works (the "Caerleon Edition") and a bibliography. That year also saw the publication of a recently completed second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far—the third and final volume, The London Adventure, being published in 1924. Machen's earlier works suddenly started becoming much-sought-after collectors' items at this time, a position they have held ever since. In 1924 he issued a collection of bad reviews of his own work, with very little commentary, under the title Precious Balms. In this period of prosperity Machen's home saw many visitors and social gatherings, and Machen made new friends, such as Oliver Stonor.
Final years: 1926–1947
By 1926 the boom in republication was mostly over, and Machen's income dropped. He continued republishing earlier works in collected editions, as well as writing essays and articles for various magazines and newspapers and contributing forewords and introductions to both his own works and those of other writers—such as the Monmouthshire historian Fred Hando's The Pleasant Land of Gwent (1944)—but produced little new fiction. In 1927, he became a manuscript reader for the publisher Ernest Benn, which brought in a much-needed regular income until 1933.
In 1929, Machen and his family moved away from London to Amersham in Buckinghamshire, but they still faced financial hardship. He received some recognition for his literary work when he received a Civil List pension of ₤100 per annum in 1932, but the loss of work from Benn's a year later made things difficult once more. A few more collections of Machen's shorter works were published in the thirties, partially as a result of the championing of Machen by John Gawsworth, who also began work on a biography of Machen that was only published in 2005 thanks to the Friends of Arthur Machen.
Machen's financial difficulties were only finally ended by the literary appeal launched in 1943 for his eightieth birthday. The initial names on the appeal show the general recognition of Machen's stature as a distinguished man of letters, as they included Max Beerbohm, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, and John Masefield. The success of the appeal allowed Machen to live the last few years of his life, until 1947, in relative comfort.