Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
by grevel lindop
oxford, 464 pages, $34.95
harles Williams (1886–1945) was a cult figure in his lifetime, and he remains one. The word “cult” here describes someone who cannot easily be judged by conventional standards of literary taste. His seven novels, compulsive reading for their adepts, fail all the normal tests by which one would judge the merits of a work of fiction. They are ill-constructed, often carelessly written, and the characters are either so lightly drawn as to be indistinguishable from one another, or etched in crude caricature. Yet there is nothing else quite like them in English literature, and you can see why C. S. Lewis pressed them upon his friends, why J. R. R. Tolkien, no great reader of modern fiction, found them compelling, and why another fan, T. S. Eliot—like Williams, a London publisher with an adherence to the Catholic wing of the Church of England—borrowed from one of them, The Greater Trumps, a key image in The Four Quartets: “At the still point of the turning world.”
By a similar token, Williams’s poetry is avidly read by his admirers, and you can see why. If the early stuff—written under the dire influence of Alice Meynell, Francis Thompson, and other “nineties” Catholics—would make a normal reader cringe, and the later stuff—when he had discovered Eliot and modernism—is not technically good, it is nonetheless memorable. It has a certain “something” that no other twentieth-century poet quite has. In a recent autobiography, William Waldegrave, once one of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet ministers and now the provost of Eton College, expressed his regard for it: “I still think— ‘I saw a Druid light/Burn through the Druid Hill’ pretty good.”
And then there is the Christian apologetics. The Forgiveness of Sins—dedicated to the friends of his last years, that Oxford group of C. S. Lewis’s cronies known as the Inklings—is hastily written and seldom sticks to a point. He Came Down from Heaven suffers from some of the same faults. The Descent of the Dove, however, is without any parallel. Subtitled “A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” it is indeed short (my paperback copy is a mere 214 pages) and covers everything from the day of Pentecost to the twentieth century. You could compare it to Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, but it is much more peculiar, much more wide-ranging, and, to me at least, more memorable. It is a work of—this is the only word that fits—genius.
The same word, odd and sometimes inaccurate as it is, belongs to The Figure of Beatrice in Dante. Reading it, you can see why Williams was, as well as being a writer and a publisher, a teacher of great renown. In his London days, he was a spellbinding lecturer on visits to schools, and at evening classes. When the aerial bombardment of London moved Williams to Oxford, he gave lectures in the Divinity Schools. Several of my older friends heard them and all recollected the same sensations: at first amusement at Williams’s expense—his grotesque monkey-like face, his strong cockney vowels, his histrionic gestures—and then, after only a few moments, enchantment. No one had spoken in these terms before to this generation of students. Poetry, on this man’s lips, was a living fire. The stuff of English verse—Milton on chastity, Wordsworth on the sublime—was a burning reality for Williams.
It’s no surprise, then, that Williams was an electrifying personality who had a “cult” following in an almost literal sense. He began something called the Order of the Coinherence, whose members agreed to practice Williams’s idea of Substitution—taking on another person’s pain or trouble. (Perhaps the most famous example of this was C. S. Lewis “taking on” his wife’s pain when she was dying of cancer and developing crippling osteoporosis.) Though a married man and a devout Christian, Williams had a series of young women in his life with whom he played slightly off-color sadomasochistic games, and to whom he gave mystic nicknames culled from the Mabinogion, Arthurian legend, or the Bible. Even his long-suffering wife, Flo, had to be renamed Michal. They then unimaginatively called their only child Michael.
No wonder Williams has been the subject of a number of biographical studies. It was certainly time, however, for him to be reassessed by someone with the patience to gain access to all the archival material, to read what survives of his prodigious correspondence, and to reread the books with critical acumen and intelligence. Williams was fortunate that Grevel Lindop, a former professor of romantic literature at Manchester University in Britain, has stepped forward with a thorough, profound, and sympathetic study. This portrait conveys warts and all, but it is never cruel. Clearly, when a man can write, as Williams wrote to his muse Phyllis Jones, “I abandoned an instinct to masturbate last night so that I might offer the strength to you in God,” you are in strange territory. Yet Lindop is able to see more than the weirdness. He shows how “the charismatic lecturer who celebrated chastity bore the emotional scars of a painful fourteen-year love affair.” His Williams is “a worldly-wise publisher . . . more at home with a cigarette and a sandwich in a Ludgate Hill wine bar than with the pipe-smoke and claret of an Oxford common room.”
We know that we are in a safe pair of biographical hands when Lindop juxtaposes some of Williams’s excruciating early poetry with that of his Aunty Alice, who earned an honest shilling or two composing rhymes for Christmas cards. It is done without any malice, but makes the point for us that Williams came from a sad background, a family that found it hard to make ends meet and that was composed of clever people forced to earn money, often in quite humiliating ways.
Williams’s father and mother were poor. During the early infancy of Williams and his sister, Edith, their father, a clerk with literary aspirations, went blind, and an uncle set them up in a small shop at St Albans, a cathedral town twenty miles north of London. (Williams’s own eyesight was appalling, and he suffered from some strange neurological condition that made him quiver and shake so badly that he could not shave himself and instead always had to visit a barber for this purpose.) The shop sold artists’ supplies, it being hoped that lady watercolorists, coming to paint the abbey and the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside, would keep them afloat. This was scarcely the case, and money was always tight. Charles was a clever child, and after local schooling, he and a friend were sent at the very early age of fifteen to University College London, in Gower Street. Williams studied literature under some legendarily distinguished scholars—W. P. Ker, of Epic and Romance fame, R. W. Chambers, and no less a figure than A. E. Housman for Latin, which might account for the fact that though Williams’s English is often wonky, his Latin, when he breaks into it, is rather good.
Money ran out, so Charles Williams was obliged to leave university without taking a degree and to take any paid work he could find. He started as a packer in the Methodist New Connection Book Room in London’s Holborn. By a lucky break, a friend who had met him at a debating club found him a post as a proofreader at the London branch of the Oxford University Press—in Amen Court, near St Paul’s Cathedral. He and the friend, Fred Page, read aloud to one another the complete works of Thackeray, whose proofs they were seeing through the press. Williams was to stay at OUP for the rest of his days. It is to Williams the publisher that we owe, among other things, many of the more famous anthologies, such as Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse, or the superb series of “World’s Classics” Tolstoy. It was Williams the publisher who met a young W. H. Auden, then an agnostic poet, to discuss his Oxford Book of Light Verse, for which he was paid £100 in 1938. Auden later recalled:
For the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity. I had met many good people before who made me ashamed of my own shortcomings—but in the presence of this man—we never discussed anything but literary business—I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.
That was all in the future. When he first joined OUP, Williams had continued to live with his mother in St Albans, to take the train into London each day, and on Sundays to worship at the abbey. It was there, helping with the tea for Sunday School, that he met Flo Conway, a young trainee schoolteacher, who was to have the great misfortune of becoming his wife. He bombarded her with bad poems on the themes that would run through all his life’s work. “All soft passion and all sweet content,” he told her, were manifestations of the Holy Ghost. “All lives of lovers are his song of love. . . . The silver and the golden stairs are his, The altar His, yea His the lupanar.” Lindup wonders whether Flo—soon to be Michal—was aware that the lupanar is a brothel.
One seldom reads the biography of a writer without feeling a certain sympathy for their life partner, and in the case of Michal Williams, one’s sympathy is especially acute. Yet one also feels in these pages the extreme pathos of Charles Williams’s life. It was a disastrous marriage, and while he was falling in love with a succession of muses, he, as well as his wife, must have been desperately unhappy. The relationship with their one child, Michael, is sympathetically conveyed in this book. Williams had no time for him until he was in his late teens, and then a sort of friendship developed between the two men, until Michael, who suffered from crippling depression, was disastrously enlisted to join the Royal Air Force towards the end of the war.
As well as books and religion, magic and arcane rituals were always a part of Williams’s strange imaginative life. At about the time that he was seeing The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse through the press, Williams was also entering the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, where an upstairs room had been booked as a makeshift “Temple” of the Order of the Rosy Cross. Here he would take from his attaché case the robes of a neophyte, stand in a darkened room, and chant that he had come “to the gate of the temple looking for the light within.” Williams, who would go on to write a book about witchcraft, always had a weakness for mumbo jumbo, and he appears to have belonged not only to this spurious Rosicrucian Order but also to the Order of the Golden Dawn. Several of the contributors to The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse—W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Machen, and others—also went in for it. Michal was probably right to say to an interviewer, “too much is made out of his connection with this very phony order, and I don’t think it influenced him in any way.” It might not have influenced him, but it situates him in a particular era in the history of silliness, with the 1890s still an incense-drowned memory, and such figures as Baron Corvo—whom Williams quotes with approval more than once in his writings—hovering on the borders of literary life.
Indeed, if you had to “place” Williams—put him alongside writers with whom he had something in common—it would be with the mystical autodidacts, the backstreet Rosicrucians more than with the pipe-smoking, tweedy Inklings. To that extent, the only unsatisfactory thing about Grevel Lindop’s book is its title. True, Williams went to Oxford when war broke out and became friends with the famous circle around C. S. Lewis. But he was not an Inkling in spirit. He was not at home in Oxford, and his arrival, far from consolidating the Inklings, actually broke them up by bewitching Lewis, and making Lewis neglect the central friendship of his life, that with Tolkien. Another scholar of Old English literature, C. L. Wrenn, said that meeting Williams made you realize why inquisitors thought they had the right to burn people. Tolkien agreed: “Williams is eminently combustible.”
Certainly, Williams’s books had an influence on the Inklings. Lindop is right to say that the central plotline of Many Dimensions suggests the story of The Lord of the Rings. In the Williams novel, it is a stone of great power, rather than a ring, but it has the same effect on those who bear it: They become its possession, not its possessor.
illiams the novelist is probably the Williams who is best remembered today. He was an avid reader of contemporary crime fiction, and for much of his life would regularly review batches of conventional “mysteries” for the British newspapers. The “mystery thriller” is the basic template for his own fiction, but in his stories, the word “mystery” takes on its arcane, almost its pre-Christian connotations of ritual and spiritual power. One of the most remarkable of Williams’s novels is War in Heaven, in which the Holy Grail, spelt inevitably Graal, is found in the sacristy cupboard of an English country church. The archdeacon who is the incumbent of this church is, it turns out, a true Grail-Guardian. Throughout the book, he seems a somewhat ineffectual person, murmuring “For his mercy endureth forever” from time to time while being circled by the villains and thieves who wish to get their hands on the sacred vessel. The final scene, however, takes us completely by surprise. The archdeacon is so close to God that he is gathered up into a self-annihilating vision of the Eucharist that—for all the strangeness of its writing and the absurdity of the plot—bears some kind of comparison with the closing cantos of the Paradiso:
For now the unknown sounds were pealing steadily on; all separate beings, save where the hands of the lovers lingered in a final clasp, were concentrated on that high motionless figure—motionless, for in Him, all motions awaited His movement to be loosed and still He did not move. All sound ceased; all things entered into an intense suspension of being; nothing was anywhere at all but He.
We are very close to the moment when St. Bernard leads Dante to the point of heaven where he can gaze on the ineffable: “O luce eterna che sola in te sidi, / sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta / e intendente te ami e arridi!”—“Eternal light you dwell in yourself alone, alone you know yourself, you, knowing, love and smile on your own being!”
This is what makes Williams such a tough nut to crack for a critic. Anyone could go through War in Heaven and point out why it is technically a “bad” book, but it is powerful in a way many “good” books are not. The same could be said for all the novels, uneven as they are. Who can forget the opening chapter of All Hallows’ Eve, and one’s awestruck recognition that the heroine, walking through the streets of London after an air raid, is in fact one of the souls of the faithful departed?
There is a similar scene when a suicide, a desperate working man, walks away from St Albans in Descent into Hell. This is never going to be a book that students of literature esteem as highly as others published in the same year, such as Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland or Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But it has taught one reader, at least, more than many sermons about the potential of intercession, about the possible workings of redemption beyond the grave, and about the ways of salvation and damnation. He shows you the way the world would look if we saw that Christianity were really true. Most Christians say they believe in the power of prayer, say they believe in life after death, say they believe in the means of grace and the hope of glory. Williams is brave enough to try to put these things into words, stories, real-life situations. His novels are what he would call in a different context an affirmation of images.
That is why in the end, it is as a theologian—inadequate as this term must be in so strange a case—that one esteems Williams.
To read The Descent of the Dove is to experience something of what it must have been like to hear Williams declaiming to London evening classes, or to the Divinity School of wartime Oxford. There is the shocking and deliberate oddity. Jesus Christ is referred to as Messias, and the pronoun that describes Messias in the first few pages of the book is not “He” but “it.” Only when Messias has “vanished in his flesh” does he gain a sex. The reader who had hoped to have a gentle ride in the train finds herself in the helter-skelter at a fairground. She is going to be swooped down, lifted up, turned upside down, and spun in the air before landing.
Almost as soon as he has begun his story, Williams alludes to St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, censuring the custom of early Christian tantric sex (or whatever it was), the custom of men and women sleeping together without full union. It was a custom eventually outlawed by the Synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicea (325). Williams quotes Tolstoy’s appallingly cynical The Kreutzer Sonata—“but then, excuse me, why do they go to bed together?” adding, so characteristically, “even Cyprian and Tolstoy did not understand all the methods of the Blessed Spirit in Christendom.”
Presumably, here we find a clue to what Williams got up to, or tried to get up to, with the succession of women with whom he had passionate office romances, or intense schoolgirl “crushes.” There was a little mild sadism—spanking with a ruler, writing poetry on their hands with a pencil—there was kissing, and holding and squeezing, but nothing further. (Phyllis, the equivalent in his life of Dante’s Beatrice, was dubbed by a furious Michal Williams “the virgin tart.”) It is typical if, in so behaving, Williams believed himself to be guided by a custom outlawed by the Church in the early fourth century.
The roller coaster swoops the reader from the conversion of Muhammad to monotheism to the coronation of Charlemagne in three pages. (“Where the King of the Franks had come in, the Emperor departed.”) Because he saw the Holy Spirit at work throughout history, Williams wrote only positively of the figures who crossed his pages. It was his contention that Our Lord the Spirit never allowed the men and women who formed the institutional Church to lose the central thing: their belief that “My Eros is Crucified” and that “Another is in Me.” The medieval papacy’s violent persecution of heresy is almost the only human behavior in the whole book to be censured. And here Williams chooses to criticize not in his own words but in Lord Acton’s: “It cannot be held that in Rome sixteen centuries after Christ men did not know murder was wrong.”
Proportionately, however, the high Middle Ages in the West receive the most space in his journey—with great emphasis being placed upon the rediscovery of the Neoplatonists. Abelard, “like Origen, like Montaigne, is one of those figures about whom Christendom has never felt quite certain, and yet from whom Christendom has derived much energy.” The same could be written of Williams himself. He gives due weight to the literature of the Middle Ages—above all to the popularity of the Grail legends (spelt Graal, naturally), to the dream literature, to the mystics, and to Dante. “Dante had written for all the world, and all the world has neglected seriously to study him.”
One of his novels, Descent into Hell, describes the strange after-effect, as it were, of two martyrdoms in a town that is obviously St Albans, at the time of the Reformation. In one of these, a Protestant goes joyfully to the flames during the reign of Queen Mary, and in another, a Jesuit priest is taken to London to be tortured and killed. Both, we are given to understand, are possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the chapter of The Descent of the Dove that deals with the Reformation is especially strong in its passionate sympathy both for Calvin and for St. Ignatius Loyola.
In the chapter on the eighteenth century, we read of Voltaire’s Écrasez L’Infâme, “Christendom will be unwise if ever she forgets that cry, for she will have lost touch with contrition once more.” Similarly, Williams hears the roaring wind of the Spirit in the writings of Kierkegaard:
He has turned Catholics into agnostics for they have not been able to bear that synthesis of reconciliation which cannot be defined except in his own books. He has turned agnostics into Catholics, for they have felt in him an answer of the same kind as the question, an answer as great as the question. Most Christian answers to agnosticism seem not to begin to understand the agnosticism; they seem to invoke the compassion of God. In Kierkegaard one feels that God does not understand that kind of compassion.
As this quotation shows, Williams’s exposition of the faith is a good deal more troubled and more troubling than that of his bluff friend C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He ends the book with the persecution of the Church in revolutionary Russia. One longs for him to dictate another chapter, perhaps through some mumbo jumbo on a Ouija board during a séance of one of his spookier cults, describing the strange condition of Christendom in our own day when, in Western Europe, its reversal looks perilously like terminal decline, and in the Middle Eastern lands which gave it birth, its persecution threatens to end in total extinction.
One of Williams’s flaws, to which he candidly admitted, was physical cowardice. The bombing of London reduced him to gibbering terror, and when he returned from Oxford to visit Michal, he was awestruck by her calm as the bombs rained down on Belsize Park. This is one of the images that will stay with me from this very remarkable biography. Williams, whose marriage was in a very poor state by this point, was deeply moved to hear that, when she was alone in the little apartment, and the bombs were falling, Michal would sit reading his poems. He had not realized that any of his writing meant much to her, and she was never slow to point out the defects of the work of his that she deemed to be a failure. “Phosphorescent gleams the point of the penis / rudiments or relics, disappearing, appearing, / live in the forlorn focus of the intellect, / eyes and ears, the turmoil of the mind of sensation” is one of the stranger quatrains, describing the emperor of Byzantium, stripped of his cope. The Arthurian poems of Williams, like The Descent of the Dove, see everything as a whole: the union of Satan and a nymph producing Merlin; the inadequate group of men pursuing the perfection of the Grail; Christendom, from Byzantium to Glastonbury, a mystic web in which fallen heroes try to grasp the uncontrollable mystery on Bethlehem’s floor.
Thinking of Michal Williams, sitting alone in the apartment, and reading these poems, I suddenly thought of another twentieth-century disaster-marriage, that of the great painter Stanley Spencer, whose visions of Christianity led him to paint the general resurrection in the small-town churchyard of Cookham, and whose Christ was a working-class Englishman of 1930s vintage. Perhaps Charles Williams is the Stanley Spencer of prose and verse. However you classify him, we shall never look on his like again.
A. N. Wilson’s newest novel, Resolution, will be published in autumn 2016 by Atlantic Books.