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Charles Williams, the genius who perfected Oxford World's Classics

Blog | By AN Wilson | Jun 30, 2020

I’ve been reading some of the Oxford World’s Classics paperbacks, and wondering whatever happened to OUP. Dud, boring introductions, inadequate notes, and shoddy book-production seem to be the norm. The experience makes me yearn for the pocket-sized blue volumes, often printed on India paper, which were one of the glories of OUP in happier days. The man largely responsible for the punctilious editing, and the sound choice of editors and introducers, was Charles Williams.

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a cult figure, and remains so. The word “cult” here is used to signify a figure who can not easily be judged by conventional standards. 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 very 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 T.S.Eliot – like Williams a London publisher with an adherence to the high party of the Church of England – believed himself to have 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. 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 memorable. It has a certain “something” which no other twentieth century poet quite has. In his autobiography, the current Provost of Eton College – William Waldegrave – expressed his regard for it.

And then there is the Christian apologetics. The Forgiveness of Sins– dedicated to the friends of his last years, that Oxford groups 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, (“A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church”) is indeed short – my paperback copy is a mere 214 pages and covers everything from the Day of Pentecost to the twentieth century. It is without any parallel. 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 which fits – genius. The same word, I should submit, odd, and sometimes inaccurate as it is, belongs to The Figure of Beatrice in Dante. Reading this, 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 – and the Oxford University Press who employed him – to Oxford – he gave lecturers 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.

No surprise, then, that Williams was an electrifying personality who had a “cult” following in an almost literal sense. Though a married man and a devout Christian, he had a series of young women in his life with whom he played slightly off-colour masochistic 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.

So, where does one “place” Williams? How much of his prolific output has survived the test of time? What was the exact truth behind all the stories of his “disciplining” his handmaidens and groupies? In his personal life was he a flawed saint, or simply a creep? 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 make access to all the archival material, to read what survives of his prodigious correspondence and to re-read the books with critical acumen and with intelligence.

Williams was fortunate that Grevel Lindop , a former Professor of Romantic Literature at Manchester University in Britain, stepped forward with a thorough, profound and sympathetic study. This is a portrait which portrays warts and all, but it is never cruel. One seldom reads the biography of a writer without feeling a certain sympathy for their life-partner, and for Michal Williams, our sympathy is going to be stronger than for most. Yet one also feels in these pages, the extreme pathos of Charles Williams’s life. For those Christians who continue to look to Williams as a Master, this book will be a tragi-comic reminder that grace is purveyed to us in frail earthen vessels.[2 Cor. 4:7]. To those who prefer to view him in a more secular light, they will surely find in Williams a ripe example of that contrast, delineated so well by T.S.Eliot, between the “man who suffers” and “the mind which creates”.

Williams’s father and mother were poor. During the early infancy of Williams and his sister Edith, the father, a clerk with literary aspirations, went blind, and an uncle set them up in a small shop at St Alban’s, a cathedral town twenty miles north of London. They sold artist’s supplies, it being hoped that lady water-colourists, 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 15, 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 Latin classes were taken by no less a figure than A.E.Housman, 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 proof-reader at the London branch of the Oxford University Press – in Amen Court, near St Paul’s Cathedral. The friend, Fred Page, and he, 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.

He continued to live at home in St Alban’s and 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, which pursue the themes which 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 lupunar”. Lindup wonders whether Flo – soon to be Michal – was aware that the lupunar is a brothel . Thinking of this later in Lindup’s narrative, I wondered whether brothels played a part in the story . Lindup makes no such speculation, but he never explains why Michal and Charles Williams, who lived modestly in a small flat all their married lives with only one child, and who had (apparently) no extravagances were – even when Williams had become a highly-esteemed editor at OUP – everlastingly on the breadline. Clearly Williams was spending his money on something other than his home. Perhaps Williams was simply too generous in charitable giving : that is more than possible. But one does wonder about the lupunar – an extraordinary image to use of God.

As well as books and religion, magic and arcane rituals were always a part of Williams’s strange imaginative life.

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 which describes Messias in the first few pages of the book is not “He” but “it”. Only when Messias has “vanished in his flesh; our Lord the Spirit expressed himself towards the flesh and spirit of the Disciples. The Church, itself one of the Secrets, began to be”. The reader who had hoped to have a gentle ride in the train finds herself in one of 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.

A recent re-reading of the extraordinary book made me see that it is a poet’s book. Of St Paul, Williams wrote, "to call him a poet would be perhaps improper (besides ignoring the minor but important fact that he wrote in prose). But he used words as poets do; he regenerated them. And by St Paul’s regeneration of words he gave theology first to the Christian Church”.

It will be no surprise to readers of Williams’s biography, that almost as soon as he has begun his story, he alludes to St Cyrpian, 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 Nicaea (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”. Phyllis, the equivalent in his life of Dante’s Beatrice, was dubbed by a furious Michal Williams, “the virgin tart”. 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. It is typical if, in so behaving, Williams believed himself to be guided by a custom outlawed by the Church of the Mediterranean in the early fourth century. Equally typical, incidentally, is the haste with which he wrote, and failed to revise, his paragraphs about the Council of Nicaea : in one paragraph, we read, “at Nicaea more than three hundred bishops met”. In the next, we meet “the adorned figure of the Emperor, throned among the thirty score of prelates”. True, six hundred is “more than three hundred”, but clearly he intended by thirty score to mean three hundred.

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 institutional church to lose the central Thing – their belief that “My Eros is Crucified” and the Belief that “Another is in Me”.

The Roller Coaster swoops the reader from the conversion of Mohammed to Monotheism, to the coronation of Charlemagne in three pages. (“Where the King of the Franks had come in, the Emperor departed”). The medieval Papacy, in its violent persecution of heresy, is almost the only human behaviour in the whole book to be censured. And here he chooses to do so 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 neo-Platonists . Abelard “like Origen, like Montaigne, is one of those figures whom Christendom has never felt quite certain, and yet from whom Christendom has derived much energy”. The same could be written of Williams himself.

Due weight is given 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 describes the strange after-effect, as it were, of two martyrdoms in a town which 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 which deals with the reformation are especially strong in their passionate sympathy both for Calvin and for St Ignatius Loyola.

In the chapter on the eighteenth century, we read of Voltaire’s Ecrasez L’Infame – “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 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 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 on a Ouija board during a séance of one of his spookier admirers, describing the strange condition of Christendom in our own day where, in Western Europe, its reversal looks perilously like terminal decline, and where, in the Middle Eastern lands which gave it birth, its persecution threatens to end in total extinction.