In many ways, for those who dislike the apologetics of C. S. Lewis and/or the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams (1886-1945) is the most approachable of the Inklings. He was more connected to the ideas and people of the present moment than were Lewis, who never read newspapers and called himself an Old Western man, a dinosaur; and Tolkien, who hardly ever read anything written after medieval times.
But Charles Williams also knew and admired Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, and T. S. Eliot. Eliot and Auden each wrote a foreword for one of his books, and Thomas, who attended some of Williams's famous lectures, was overheard saying to him, "Why, you come into the room and talk about Keats and Blake as if they were alive." Philip Larkin, by contrast, was not as impressed. He admired Williams's literary criticism "a good deal" but didn't "give a fart for his poetry" and thought Williams, when lecturing, became "crazy as a coot."
Larkin may have been onto something. This new biography, the most in depth thus far, shows Williams had a foot in two worlds in all aspects of his life. Grevel Lindop, poet, former professor of Romantic and Early Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester, and author of The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (1981), has been able to use papers, documents, and letters heretofore unavailable. He reveals Williams as constantly and deeply divided between faith and doubt, Christianity and the occult, fidelity to his wife and, at the least, emotional adultery, and his own web of personal mythmaking and reality. Lindop believes that Williams, in his Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), was "a great poet" but adds that his "work ranges from the great to the embarrassingly bad; his personal conduct from the generous and heroic to the selfish and manipulative."
Williams was born in the Holloway area of London into a family that "lived at the lowest edge of shabby-genteel respectability." But he did very well in school and was able to get a scholarship to University College, London; family poverty soon forced him back to the family business, however. Eventually, through a friend, he got a job reading proofs at the London branch of the Oxford University Press, where he would work the rest of his life. He married his youthful sweetheart and they had one son.
When World War II came round—Williams did not fight in the Great War, as Lewis and Tolkien had, because of poor eyesight—the OUP offices were moved to Oxford. There, Williams joined the Inklings—Lewis admired Williams's novel The Place of the Lion (1931) and Williams worked on Lewis's first book of literary criticism—and drew rapt crowds to his lectures.
Just as the war was ending, in May 1945, Williams began to suffer intestinal pain: He had a rare condition called intussusception from adhesions caused by abdominal tuberculosis picked up from unpasteurized milk. After an operation, he collapsed and died the next day. Many at Oxford were devastated, and yet, because of his faith and charisma, strangely exhilarated—as if they knew he was still with them.
Though considered homely, even ugly—C. S. Lewis used the word "monkey" in describing his facial features—women adored Williams. He was prone to falling in love with young coworkers or women who came to him asking for advice. He would give them "assignments," but when they didn't complete them, he would "punish" them: He liked to hit their hands, sometimes buttocks, with a ruler; once he pinched a woman on the arm, leaving a bruise. He was a devoted orthodox Christian who liked to tread as close to heresy as he could manage—which, Lewis once wrote, is probably why, during an Inklings meeting, the Anglo-Saxon scholar C. L. Wrenn "expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people."
Lindop shows us the whole man, leaving out neither the sordidness nor the sanctity. In this, the author is a little like Williams himself, of whom W. H. Auden wrote, "Never was there an historian more courteous to all alike. . . . Williams never fails to be just to both sides." Lindop, too, is courteous to all concerned, and just to both sides of Charles Williams's life.
Frank Freeman is a writer in Maine.