In ‘On the Circuit’, a poem about the circle of purgatory reserved for touring poet-lecturers, W.H. Auden mentioned the moments of unanticipated connection:
Or blessed encounter, full of joy
Unscheduled on the Giesen Plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There, a Charles Williams fan.
If Auden were on the circuit now, he’d still find plenty of Tolkien addicts, but he’d go a long way before stumbling on a Charles Williams fan.
Charles Williams influenced a swathe of mid-20th-century British writers, but that influence lay not so much in his writings, as in his presence and his person. During his decades at Oxford University Press and later as an English lecturer at the university itself, Williams made his mark through those he published, those he encouraged and, above all, those he impressed. He struck people as amazing. His energy was famous, his conversation a flood. At OUP, he would march into the office, bound up the stairs and immediately write down the thoughts and lines he had come up with on the way to work. After two meetings with Williams to discuss the Oxford Book of Light Verse, Auden wrote: ‘for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.’ Many friends and colleagues seem to have treated him as a guru, compelled by his ‘holiness’. Yet Lyndall Gordon suggests that later in life, visited by moods in which evil seemed everywhere, T.S. Eliot sometimes suspected the man he too had once thought holy was in fact diabolic. Reading Williams, you can sometimes see what Eliot meant. Williams seems to believe in the magic he so frequently describes; you suspect that he may even have performed some of the spells. In his sequence of ‘spiritual thrillers’, written mostly in the 1930s, he seems sinisterly close to his sinister villains; one of his early poems is an ironic hymn to Satan. Evil fascinated him a little more than it should.
Williams’s writings were all wedded to the central idea that the spiritual world permeates the physical one. In his thrillers, the borderline between the streets of London and the afterlife breaks down: the dead haunt Holborn; in curtained rooms, occult rites conjure up demonic forces. He tilts the ordinary world to an odd angle: a magus stalks Bloomsbury; a celestial vision appears in a North London drawing room; people travel through time; they consort with the embodied presences of Plato’s Ideas. The best of his poetry (the part of his work he was proudest of and believed to be the most original) presents the Arthurian myth of the Holy Grail refracted through a series of dense lyric pieces, as in:
This is the way of the world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
A series of poetic dramas – about the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, about Satan’s attempt to father a child, about the personification of Chelmsford – offer opaque allegories of experience, in a form closer to morality play than provincial rep.
In book after book, he celebrated a mystical vision of the world that could see eternity in a grain of sand. For him, as for Blake, everything that lived was holy. He argued that romantic love, the force of Eros, was consecrated, and that in the lover’s heightened sense of the beloved resides the divine. For writers eager to reconcile their Christian beliefs with an art committed to human relationships and the things of the world, Williams expressed a creed that justified their position. He prided himself on being the only person who could claim the friendship of those arch-enemies C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Lewis and Williams both aimed at the disruption of the realist novel though the use of erudite fantasy, drawing on Dante and Plato and Milton; they wanted to make contemporary England strange. Eliot, perhaps, was just happy to find another Christian writer, a Modernist poet even, in the commercial publishing world. To all those he influenced, Williams stood as a symbol of undaunted integrity. What Grevel Lindop’s excellent new biography exposes, with all too disturbing force, is just how compromised he was.
He came from a very ordinary lower-middle-class family. He was born in 1886 near the Holloway Road, not far from where the Pooters famously resided. For part of his childhood the family lived in St Albans but Williams was always a great Londoner, a man as entranced by the city streets as Dickens or Charles Lamb; in his last novel, All Hallows’ Eve (1945), even the rubbish floating on the Thames attracts a visionary gleam: ‘A sodden mass of cardboard and paper drifted by, but the soddenness was itself a joy, for this was what happened, and all that happened, in this great material world, was a joy.’ He had a strong London accent, much remarked on by his upper-middle-class friends. His father, Walter, was a shopkeeper selling artists’ materials and a would-be writer. Like the Brontës with Gondal and Angria, or C.S. Lewis with Boxen, Williams invented an imaginary country; his was called Silvania. As a young man he was bookish and churchy, cursed by an aptitude for writing average verse. Lack of cash led to his leaving University College London, but he soon found a berth in the OUP offices at Amen Corner near St Paul’s. He worked there for the rest of his life, happy to dwell in a realm poised between scholarship and enterprise, although OUP before the war didn’t bear much resemblance to modern corporate publishing: it was a hierarchical organisation where lesser staff were forbidden the use of the carpeted main staircase; Williams’s boss, Humphrey Milford, had a butler who served drinks on a silver salver.
His lyrics found an enthusiastic supporter in Alice Meynell, the Catholic versifier, critic and protector of poets – she and her husband, Wilfred Meynell, also nurtured the talent of the wayward Francis Thompson. Meynell found the meanings ‘crowded’ in Williams’s early poems; it’s a relief she was spared the later ones. With his taste for ritual and belonging, it’s something of a surprise that Williams didn’t join Meynell in the Catholic Church. Perhaps it was too public a club. In 1917 he married Florence Conway, a schoolteacher; their only child, Michael, was born in 1922. Williams turned out to be a fugitive husband and absentee father. As a refuge from the pram in the hall, he became involved with A.E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and would often don his secret robes to pass through some initiation or other. His wife was left out of these occult rites, as she was later left out of his literary lectures. There’s perhaps something intrinsically absurd in those occult shenanigans, not least in the incongruity between the solemnity of ritual and the life of a young working father. It was out of this discrepancy that Williams would construct the world of his novels.
For all the mists of the Celtic Twilight, magic tempted him because it required precision. An invocation requires these words in this order, married with the right gestures. There was as much of the chemistry experiment as the ceremony about his approach to his rites and hexes. Magic also seemed to unveil a truth about the world, exposing the sacred significance in a movement, a step, a ritualised utterance. To Williams, people seemed liable at any moment truly to become the thing they seem a metaphor of. His works can often be reduced to allegory, as in his weakest novel, Shadows of Ecstasy (1933), where characters personify ‘irony’, ‘religion’, ‘poetry’, ‘love’ or ‘kingship’; in The Greater Trumps, one of his better novels, individuals mirror the identities on Tarot cards. Similarly, words are truly themselves: one of the repeated tricks in his repertoire is to reveal that we always unthinkingly mean precisely what we say. It’s a foolhardy character who’ll say offhand in one of his books ‘Last night we had a hell of a good time’ or ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll do that.’ From Dionysius the Areopagite, he took a dual understanding of God as both transcendent (definable only by what he is not) and immanent (all things are an imperfect image of him). He declared that this meant there were two paths to God: the ascetic and ‘negative’ Way of Rejection, and the Way of Affirmation, in which all things in the world can be perceived as images of God. ‘This also is Thou; neither is this Thou,’ as he often put it.
All his life Williams celebrated the Way of Affirmation, both in art and in romantic love. Yet despite his intellectual commitment to incarnation, he was liable also to question material reality. John Heath-Stubbs quotes him as saying that ‘the most difficult thing in the world … is to realise that other people exist.’ He was capable of writing both an ode in praise of shitting and a poem in which such everyday acts as washing oneself become infused with a dark disgust. A powerful darkness moved in him, a Manichean horror about being incarnated at all. One way this manifested itself was in his complex sexuality: he worshipped women, and sought to degrade and abase them. Throughout his life, he would teeter on the border between chastity and sexual desire. Lewis was impressed by Williams’s wartime lecture to Oxford undergraduates on Milton’s Comus and chastity, amazed that this monkey-faced man had raised a group of young men and women to a state of wonder concerning the ineffable virtue of virginity. Knowing, as we do and as Lewis did not, that he was at the time busy enthusiastically beating the bottoms of younger colleagues, students and fans somewhat dampens the wonder. But Williams isn’t the first person to praise a virtue he didn’t practise; indeed it can be argued that its absence in his own life made it particularly precious to him.
Aged nearly forty, Williams fell for Phyllis Jones, the 25-year-old blonde librarian at Amen House. This was the first of a series of affairs in which he would opt for a blessed state of sexual frustration. The relationship was that of lover and mistress, but also master and pupil. Jones fantasised that their perfect day would start with the buying of a cane in the Harrods toy department and end with Williams making good use of it. One of his letters to her declares: ‘I love you, baby! I love you, defiant witch!’ He turned those in his life into sacred presences or willing victims. Before long he developed the habit of reinventing people by giving them new names, metamorphosing Humphrey Milford into Caesar, and his own wife, the prosaically named Flo, into the far more resonant Michal. Phyllis Jones became Celia.
In one of the masques he wrote for his colleagues at CUP, Jones was bound hand and foot on stage, a dangerously public display of his private obsessions. He was sexually fascinated by the buttocks, but also by the hands, which were beaten or struck as often as the behind. (He once planned to write on the word ‘hand’ as a key word in English verse; it is certainly a key word in his own work, where it functions as a symbol of the incarnated person.) In his scheme for his late Arthurian poems, following occult accounts of the human frame, Williams superimposed a woman’s body over the map of Europe. The face was Britain, the hands were Italy, the vagina was Jerusalem and the buttocks were Caucasia. ‘Every woman, in order to be a goddess, must be treated like a schoolgirl,’ he once wrote to a young female acolyte, ‘but no one ought to treat her like a schoolgirl who does not admire in her a divinity; neither alone is sufficient, so the gaiety of your chastising is the gate of your glory.’ In spiritual terms, Williams stood for obedience, especially when he was the person to whom obedience was due. It’s hard to see whom he himself ever obeyed.
Members of Rosicrucian groups, including Williams, seem to have believed in sublimation, the transmutation of sexual energies into creative work. Williams may well have believed he never committed adultery. (When his wife heard of the affair, she described Phyllis as ‘the virgin tart’.) There would be other such relationships: an altogether more chaste version of domination with Anne Bradby (later the poet Anne Ridler); more erotic relationships with Olive Speake, and Thelma Shuttleworth, and Anne Renwick, and Joan Wallis (whom he beat in his office with an umbrella and, extraordinarily enough, a sword); and an unpleasantly brutal one with a young woman called Lois Lang-Sims, soon remade as ‘Lalage’. Several of these women seem to have enjoyed the rituals of punishment as much as he did, while Shuttleworth dismissed it all as ‘an uproarious joke’. Others demurred, or went along with things, only afterwards expressing anger. Lang-Sims became ill and depressed, causing Williams to speculate on his own ‘humanness’.
Williams’s life is an object lesson in the dangers to the self and others of charisma. Gifted with the power to impress and manipulate people, he was often unable to resist using it. So many accounts of him begin with the perception that he was an unattractive and rather simian character, and end with the certainty that he was mesmerising and powerful. He had worked his magic. He was perpetually seeking out disciples. His way of being reminds me of Charles Manson’s bewildered boast: ‘I had no idea just how weak you people are!’ Given all this, it may be appropriate that Williams’s place in literary history should largely be as an influence on other writers. Reading Lindop’s biography, I was surprised to see just how many of his ideas were familiar, though I had received them second-hand: versions of his theology of romantic love or his celebration of the Way of Affirmation proliferate in Eliot, Lewis, Auden and Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation of and notes on Dante. He also had an influence on Sidney Keyes, Vernon Watkins, Anne Ridler and Norman Nicholson, and on the undergraduate Philip Larkin, who admired his lecturer’s novels. Victor Gollancz and L.H. Myers, both given to occult speculations, were fans of the thrillers; Dylan Thomas attended his lectures.
There was a harried quality about his later years. Between 1936 and his death in the last days of the Second World War, as well as numerous essays, speeches and articles, he published four hack biographies, nine verse plays, four works of theology, a critical book on Dante, two books of Arthurian poems, and two of his best thrillers, Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve, as well as editing the letters of the Anglo-Catholic mystic Evelyn Underhill. He also churned out reviews, addressed church societies and girls’ schools, and sat on panels. All too readily, he succumbed to the temptation of giving ‘talks’. He worried about his standing in the literary world and longed for fame. But he was a coterie writer, making masques and pageants while Eliot and Christopher Fry ventured into the West End and even onto Broadway. His status as cult author befits a man so fond of secret societies and clubs. His poems require exegesis and notes; esoteric thought suffuses the work. His own literary criticism seems to hold that even some canonical writers were only to be comprehended by the initiated: there was a secret Wordsworth, a secret Milton, understood by himself but unperceived by most readers. He would have liked the early church, when Christians were members of a covert sect.
For Williams, poetry, like magic, manifested the potency of words. In The English Poetic Mind – a critical book which its TLS reviewer found mystifyingly earnest but which Geoffrey Hill greatly admired – he insisted that certain verses, including some of Milton’s, were utterances of immeasurable power. Others saw something of this in Williams’s own work. Though it lost the battle of posterity and lacks the brilliant choruses of Eliot’s play, Auden for one argued that Williams’s verse drama Cranmer was a more potent and inventive work than Murder in the Cathedral, lifted as it was by the presence of a sinister and ambiguous Mephistophelean figure directing and commenting on the action. Among his other plays, Seed of Adam and perhaps one or two others remain of interest, though it’s hard to imagine their revival. They belong to a world that has departed, along with boy scout jamborees and village pageants of the sort put on by Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts.
Williams’s novels, however, still seem to me to be impressive works after their own fashion. He was a skilled maker of supernatural thrillers, which combine a penchant for Sax Rohmer with the Gospel of St John, mingling (as Lewis put it) the probable and the marvellous. Like Graham Greene, he worked best when he was putting his spiritual concerns into the form of popular fiction. Human beings are glimpsed in the light of an eternity that is not so much their background as their proper place. The novels rely on stock figures – the villainous magus, the mysterious good man, the supportive and sanctified young woman, the smart young chap – yet they are as much philosophical thrillers as ‘supernatural’ ones. The last of these books, All Hallows’ Eve, like The Girls of Slender Means and The End of the Affair, is a great novel of wartime London, and is saturated like them with the belief that the city is the site of holiness and evil. It also takes its place beside a number of works from the same years, Cocteau’s Orphée and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death among them, that speculate about what it might be like to be dead.
Despite all this, there is something subtly wrong with the novels. The reader feels suspicious of the sway they exert; like Victor Gollancz, I’ve found myself compelled to read some of them right through in one sitting. That suggests their power, but it’s one that, once the book was finished, I found myself resenting. It’s as though the novels possess some faint trace of that spell Williams could work in life. The desire to damn some of his characters, and to let us know they’re damned (equally present in work of the period by Greene and Lewis) is also unappealing. Williams once described Jesus Christ as the great ‘Ambiguity’ – an image of the human godhead suitable for the Empson generation. Something of the ambiguity Williams was given to is evident in his novels, sometimes to their detriment and sometimes productively. In Shadows of Ecstasy, it’s hard to tell whether the dictator figure is the Antichrist or the Second Coming. The story operates in a far greyer moral and spiritual zone than C.S. Lewis could ever have created. Unlike Lewis too (at least, until his late masterpiece of mourning, A Grief Observed), Williams could find a central place for doubt; supported by the weight of his scepticism, Montaigne is one of the heroes of his history of the church.
Williams is a messy, troubling figure; in any account of British literary life in the 1930s and 1940s, he will be a marginal yet somehow pervasive presence. After reading this biography, I should have found Auden’s line about his ‘personal sanctity’ ridiculous, and yet nonetheless all the mess and meanness somehow coalesces into something oddly extraordinary.