Charles Williams

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In his fine collective biography of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, The Inklings (1979), Humphrey Carpenter states that by 1927, Williams, then forty and married for ten years, had fallen in love with Phyllis Jones, the librarian at Oxford University Press, and that unknown to their coworkers, she returned his love. A footnote on the page catches the eye: “Nor was it known to Alice Mary Hadfield, Williams’ friend and biographer, when she wrote An Introduction to Charles Williams (1959).”

Much new material has become available on Williams since Hadfield wrote in 1959, and this wealth of information fills the pages of Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. Hadfield notes in her preface that since her first work she has had access to two thousand letters by Williams, including several hundred to Phyllis Jones, and to much of his unpublished work. In addition—and perhaps most important—Hadfield is now twenty years further away from her subject, able to test her evaluation of the man through two decades of consideration.

Hadfield’s present work illustrates, among other things, the traps of writing biography, as one anecdote will show. One wonders how many university teachers have told their students that Williams wrote his novels to pay his son’s tuition. Alice Mary Hadfield was herself the source of the story, relaying it in good faith in her Introduction to Charles Williams; as she now notes, though, the story cannot be true, because his son was only three when Williams began writing, and both Williams and his wife were then employed. Their financial position was reasonably secure, as Mrs. Williams indignantly pointed out in a letter responding to Hadfield’s earlier work.

Here is the biographer’s dilemma: The best biography can offer only fragments of its subject’s personality, and a fragmentary picture may be worse than none at all. Williams is an especially dangerous subject when not presented completely, because some episodes from his life—taken out of context—paint a bizarre picture, one radically different from the testimony of those who knew the whole man. For example, as a young man Williams joined A. E. Waite’s Order of Golden Dawn (of which William Butler Yeats was also a member), an offspring of Rosicrucianism, whose members sought mystical—even magical—knowledge. Although Williams outgrew the order and its rituals, Hadfield admits that “there was something of the Manichaean in him, but to torment, not to rule him.”

The Manichaean surfaces, as Hadfield notes, in the question of Williams’ “capacity for cruelty.” Williams commanded a strong attraction for women and seemed to be constantly attended by disciples. One such was a young woman, a student in an evening lecture course he gave. Because she worked nearby the Press, he asked her to come to his office after work, and they would go to the lecture together. As Hadfield relates, Williams instructed the young woman to bend overand in silence he took [a ceremonial sword] and made smooth strokes with it over her buttocks. He did not hit, nor touch with his hand. She was fully clothed. All was in silence. Afterwards, she said she did not like it. He replied, “This is necessary for the poem,” and refused to allow the episode to be mentioned.

Such events lend themselves to facile and probably faulty psychoanalysis, but ultimately only Williams could have explained what these rituals meant to him, and perhaps not even he.

Williams did know that “our bodies go wrong; they torment us with diseases and irritate us with desires.” As a practicing Anglican, he believed that one was obliged to check unlawful desire, as by all accounts he did. Hadfield reports the testimony of Phyllis Jones that their love was not accompanied by sexual intimacies: For Williams, romantic love provided a way to spiritual development.

The record of his progress in that development will change the minds of those who are used to thinking of Williams as a shadowy figure on the fringe of the Lewis-Tolkien group. At the outbreak of World War II, Oxford University Press moved its editorial offices from London to Oxford. Williams, then fifty-three years old, had published six novels, seven biographies, seven verse plays, three works of literary criticism, two of theology, and seven books of poetry in...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)