Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop
Reviewed by Nicholas Colloff
Grevel Lindop’s new and excellent biography opens with Charles Williams, who, by poverty, was forced to abandon his formal education at seventeen, lecturing to spellbound, ever increasing, audiences at Oxford University in 1940. He was allowed to lecture only because it was wartime when the normal rules and expectations did not apply or could be judiciously bent.
Would Williams’ reputation have been more ascendant and sustained if a university had been his sustenance and support, as it was for his friends C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien? Probably not for Williams, with the exception of ‘The Inklings’, found Oxford somewhat ‘sterile’, preferring the imaginative bustle of his native London but being more popular, and better remunerated would have!
For Williams’ work had to be produced alongside a full time job at the urbane but ferociously busy London branch of the Oxford University Press supplemented by part-time lecturing, hack work and jobbing journalism. It often, even at its best, carried the air of being somewhat unfinished, a brilliance of ideas and insight, let down by their never quite becoming fully incarnated in the best forms of expression (or of argument). There was never time for the final reflective polishing.
But what brilliance despite polish? A poet, a novelist and a critic of the first rank, waiting to be rediscovered; and, a theologian and occultist too! A man who asked you not merely to learn about poetry or enjoy a novel but to learn from them, to be changed by them. Poetry, he once said, should live in the blood and the bones. Its’ rhythm yours.
What do we learn if we do?
First, as his friend, T.S. Eliot, noted, that the world is strange. What we take for ‘ordinary’ reality carries within and beyond it both the uncanny and the wonderful, if we attend aright. Sometimes it can be unnerving: “A room, a street, a field becomes unsure. The edge of possibility of utter alienation intrudes…”. Sometimes it can be revelatory, “A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything, a foot stepping from a train is the rock of all existence”. There is another world yet it is enfolded, enfolds this one – a sacred world whose lineaments are best explored through a consciousness attuned to the imaginal (and the magical). An exploration that will delight in paradox for the ultimate nature of things always eludes full expression.
Second, this strangeness carries within it possibilities of both good and evil and these are objective properties of the world not social constructs. These possibilities are best displayed in his remarkable fiction that carries the surface nature of occult thrillers deepened out into profound meditations on metaphysics, most especially on the choices we face in pursuing or surrendering power. My own favourite is ‘The Greater Trumps’ which in the portrayal of one of its character’s, Aunt Sybil, is, I think, one of the most remarkable achievements in literature of seeking to depict the saintly (a challenge to many, greater artists, one thinks immediately of Dostoyevsky’s repeated failures). Williams too matches any writer in his depiction of evil not least because he is honest enough to note all the attractions it had for himself.
Third, was his notion of substitution, one that he practised and encouraged others to practice. This recognised that a person might be carrying a burden too great for them – psychological or physical – such as an anxiety over a forthcoming event. The person would offer to ‘take it from them’, imaginatively suffer it, and because more detached from it, contain it better. The sufferer would be relieved. Whether from suggestion or actuality, many who tried this path reported that it helped, and made of it a life long practice (however strange others might think this to be in a secularised age).
And, finally, substitution was believed to work because we are all one of another, ‘co-inherent’ was the word Williams used. We are all created in the likeness of God, individual and particular, but each as thread woven on a common shared weft, each contributing their specificity to wider whole, for good or ill, and yet to final glory, it is hoped.
This patterning of thoughts is embedded and illuminated in Lindop’s comprehensive, compassionate and honest telling of Williams’ life.
A life not untroubled – a complex marriage of mismatched but necessary halves, a failure to be a consistent or caring father, the constant searching after money; and, most challengingly, his tendency, becoming necessity, of falling in love with young women and entering a rich troubling fantasy life with them. Rich because most of the woman themselves emerged, though not unscathed, with a long lasting gratitude for what they had received in understanding and life. Troubling because, though apparently unconsummated, they were deeply coloured by sadomasochistic fantasy that sometimes resulted in the infliction of punishment and pain. These though, with caveats, consensual, were undoubtedly manipulative and, for Williams, increasingly addictive. These fantasies Williams came to believe were necessary for his art but like many believed necessities we will never know.
These shadows sit alongside a compelling portrait of a man who was fundamentally given to generosity and care; and was consistently inspirational. As W. H. Auden wrote, “for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity… in the presence of this man…I did not feel ashamed (as on meeting other good men). I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many people)”.
This wonderful biography can serve to remind us that there is no glib equation of ‘holiness’ with ‘wholeness’ and that the saint lives with both their brokenness and their woundings too. It also reminds what gifted and neglected author Williams is; and, hopefully, will help mend that and bring him into better regard.
Nicholas Colloff studied theology and philosophy at London and Oxford. He is the director of the Argidius Foundation in Switzerland.