Friday, 21 September 2012

Charles Williams

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Charles Williams in 1886. Although his name is not well-known, he is an important figure in mid 20th Century Christian Literature.

A drinking and reading friend of Lewis and Tolkien - one of the group who jokingly called themselves The Inklings, which was never a formal society or club - he was also a very prolific writer, and editor at the OUP.

He famously became friends with Lewis when each had written the other a congratulatory letter, and the letters crossed in the post. Williams liked Lewis’ The Allegory of Love; while Lewis had enjoyed Williams’ The Place of the Lion.

Both enjoyed the improbability of the crossed letters - a device neither would have dared use in fiction - so they met and became firm friends.

Williams’ novels are good but strange: much acclaimed by serious writers at the time, but never widely known. His poetry I find almost completely impenetrable.  The few other works of his I’ve read, history and criticism, have been of a uniformly high standard.

It has been pointed out that Lewis’ That Hideous Strength was certainly written ‘under the influence’ of Williams.  The Arthurian theme, totally absent from the preceding books in the trilogy, clearly reflects Williams’ fascination with Arthur, as reflected in his (impenetrable) poetry.

I have reason to believe that Williams was also the model for Lewis’ characterisation of Ransome in That Hideous Strength. There is a passage in which Ransome is described as being someone with whom women fall in love, but in a way which makes them more, not less, devoted to their own man.

My mother got to know Williams at Oxford, and I think he had precisely that effect on her. She was, by her own admission, completely intoxicated by him, leaving a lecture he had given (which she’d attended because Lewis had recommended it) thinking the only thing that mattered was hearing him speak again.

She had been surprised at the start of the lecture by two things. One was that she recognised Williams as the man who always sat in the same place in Lewis’ lectures, and laughed at all the jokes.  The second was his cockney accent - very different from the usual Oxford lecturer. (In fact, most unusually for a lecturer at Oxford in those days, and probably still, Williams had no degree).

However, within a minute of his lecture starting, she forgot the accent and was enchanted: to such an extent that, quite out of character, the next time Lewis was due to lecture, she got to Magdalen Hall early, and sat herself in the seat next to Williams’ habitual one. She had no further plan, no opening gambit; she was, she claimed, the greenest of green undergraduates.

However, Williams arrived a bit early, sat down beside her, and started to talk to her as though they were old friends resuming a conversation.

They became good friends, and Williams would read and comment on her English essays.  These comments ranged from: ‘Oh, no. You should write out 50 times “sacred bard, forgive me!”’ to ‘You write like an angel and think like a saint.

Williams, like Lewis, lived and died an Anglican. My mother converted to Catholicism in order to marry my father (who had just converted himself, but that’s another story for another day). They are all now dead, so please say a prayer for all four of them.

Requiescant in pace.

1 comment:

Sørina Higgins said...

This is amazing! Thank you, thank you for sharing this story. I am delighted beyond words to read it. I would love to know your mother's name -- if you would like to share that with me, you can contact me at iambic [dot] admonit [at] gmail [dot] com. (I'm the author of The Oddest Inkling, as I'm sure you know. But I love this undergraduate story. Have you been in touch with Grevel Lindop? He would love to include this story in his official biography of CW, if he hasn't already. I can connect you if necessary.

Anyway, your post is very important. Perhaps I could reblog it on The Oddest Inkling sometime?

And, if I may, just a few teeny tiny corrections. CW's and CSL's letters did not actually cross in the mail; CW hadn't even written his yet, but was planning to. You can read all three letters here and here Notice that CW starts "If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed."

Ransom (in the Trilogy) has no "e." But I agree that Ransom was based on CW, and also on Tolkien, Barfield, and Lewis himself as a kind of composite portrait. Diana Glyer is good on this point.

Anyway, I hope that this mutual discovery of one another's blogs leads to more excellent exchanges. Blessings.