Charles Williams (1886-1945) wore a host of hats - poet, novelist, theologian, dramatist, lecturer, occultist, editor, critic, friend, colleague, confidante and spiritual director. He was a husband and father too - primal, archetypal roles which, for large swathes of his life, he failed to prioritise. Herein, I feel, lies his chief - but not his only - moral failing. But could he still be considered a saint? That is the question echoing in my mind after reading Grevel Lindop's biography. In 427 pages Lindop paints a compelling portrait of a flawed, intense individual, full of blind spots, contradictions and odd compulsions, who nonetheless radiated goodness and kindness and brought hope and a touch of holiness to those he encountered.
How did he do this? Charles Williams, The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press, 2015) does not ultimately answer this question, but that is no fault of the biographer. It is a testament rather to Williams's depth and complexity. It is a biography which asks more questions than it answers, and that is as it should be given the strangeness of its subject and his many-sided, multi-layered personality.
Lindop's original title for the book was Charles Williams, The Last Magician. One can never be sure, but it is probably safe to assume that the change to The Third Inkling was instigated by the publisher (also Williams's former employers) who may have been looking to capitalise on his friendship with the better known C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The front cover suggests as much. Even so, Lindop does a fine job of establishing Williams as an artist and thinker in his own right, not just a 'third Inkling' hanging onto the coat-tails of Tolkien and Lewis. It builds on the impressive work conducted this decade by the U.S academic Sorina Higgins, particularly her blog The Oddest Inkling and the book of essays she edited in 2018 The Inklings and King Arthur (Apocryphile Press), which features Williams prominently.
One thing that book and Lindop's biography do very well is put Williams's occult involvement in perspective. His career as a practitioner of magic has unsettled many Christians over the years, who would otherwise have likely become some of his keenest admirers. As Lindop shows, Williams was a very keen magician throughout the 1920s. He was friends with the esotericist A.E Waite and a member of his Christ-orientated occult group The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. The surviving documentation is uncertain, but he may also have joined the Fellowship's famous, less Christian parent order, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
To my mind there is nothing extraordinary or alarming about Williams having such an active interest in this field. In any case he appears to have outgrown the magical worldview in his later years, though it continued to inform his poetry and fiction and also, more problematically, his relationships with the younger women in his life. It seems understandable that a questing, spiritually hungry character like Williams should have felt undernourished to a degree by the rites and teaching of the Church of England. It is natural, perhaps, that he looked elsewhere to supplement what he received from the official Church. He had a deeply ritualistic, symbolic turn of mind, and anything that enhanced those elements was grist to his creative and imaginative mill.
What is harder to accept is the way he carried this over into his personal life and the lives of his female admirers, of whom he had many due to his charisma as a lecturer and the deep attention and respect he paid to those who turned to him with private concerns. His long and turbulent liaison with his Oxford University Press colleague Phyllis Jones is well documented here. But there were others too. Joan Wallis, for instance. According to Lindop:
Joan would visit him in his office; and sometimes, after their discussion, he would ask her to go to the cupboard. There would be an umbrella or a stick - or a sword. She would bring it, and he would make her bend over and would gently spank her with it. There would be no explanation. (p.334)
In his discussion of the letters between Williams and another devotee, Lois Lang Sims, Lindop sums up the situation succinctly. His summary can be applied to all the women Williams played petty sado-masochistic games with and deserves to be quoted in full:
The correspondence shows how deeply erotic fantasy and spiritual direction were blended in Williams's mind. Much of the advice he gave was good and even traditional, and certainly well-intentioned. Yet it was framed within a fantasy of sexually charged control, and by asking Lois to reply in ritualized form Williams was ensuring that she felt psychologically committed to the relationship as he defined it. Moreover, there can be little doubt that he expected her to use the relationship as a source of energy for his creative work. From any point if view this was wrong. Yet Williams was far from being a cynical man. The fact that he could not clearly see the damage he was likely to cause indicates the depth of confusion which he had reached. (p.384)
This raises deeper questions. Why did Williams engage in such activity? What was missing in his life? Why could he only find inspiration this way? Lindop refers to how fundamentally unhappy Williams often was, but again we are left wondering why. His childhood, like that of many, was marked by poverty, but there was no great emotional or familial distress to scar him. He started attending church at the age of three and enjoyed it all his life, which leads us to ask why his faith in Christ seemingly brought him so little joy or fulfilment? It is all connected, one feels, with his workaholism, which took him away from his son Michael in his formative years when the boy needed him most. Towards the end of his life Williams made a conscious effort to reconnect with Michael and assist him in every way he could - emotionally, practically and spiritually. He also grew closer to his wife and who knows what the future might have brought had he lived, but it all feels a bit 'too little too late', especially given Michael's subsequent mental health issues and his lifelong difficulties in forming relationships.
Lindop suggests that Williams's addiction to work was driven by the need to provide for his family. Williams corroborated this in many of his letters, yet no matter how many hours he put in at the Press or how much lecturing or writing he did he was perennially short of money. Williams enjoyed his work at the OUP, but it would be interesting to know if he ever considered a different, perhaps more financially rewarding line of work - teaching, for example? It is also intriguing as to whether at any point he comtemplated becoming a priest or monk? Might a conventional religious vocation have suited his temperament better than the whirligig of family life, office work and evening lecturing?
The biggest question of all, however, is where did the spiritual light which shone around him come from? How, with all his faults and oddities, did he manage to radiate such hints of holiness? How was he able to have such a transformative effect on his students, colleagues and friends?
His magical training undoubtedly played a part. But the impact he had on those around him went much deeper than mere charisma or enchantment. It was a matter of a fundamental goodness allied to an ability to transcend the narrow metaphysical assumptions of mid-twentieth century England. Joan Wallis, not in the least put off by Wiliams's proclivities, put it like this:
He remains the most remarkable and good man I've ever met. I've never met anyone who honoured goodness more than Charles. He prepared me for recognising strains of goodness in people, and the strains in Charles were pure gold. (p.337)
''To listen to him,' wrote one of his most devoted disciples, Anne Renwick, 'was like finding oneself in a place where everything was a different colour and shape and size, lit by a different light. I came away from the talk quite clear that the only thing I wanted to do was listen to him again.' (p.338)
Charles Williams, The Third Inkling is peppered with such remarks and they are worth the price of the book alone. Because the world needs its Charles Williams's. Especially today. He brought depth, height, and wide, spiritually-charged horizons to those he met, and it is the absence of these dimensions which lies, I feel, at the root of the difficulties assailing the West today - alienation, confusion, loneliness, addiction, despair, and the polarised, antagonistic politics they engender.
Williams's insights into the interconnected nature of the world are exactly what we currently need as they expose the excessive individualism of social and economic liberals and also those 'One World' cheerleaders, who see humanity as an amorphous, homogenous mass and show no appreciation of cultural differences and the importance of locality and homeland.
In Williams's work, we are all dependent on each other, but this dependency is active, not passive. In his world everything we do, say and think has an impact on the web of creation and we can change our own or another person's life with just a single thought or a moment of focused attention. Human beings are actors and participants in life's great drama, not pawns or blank slates to be scrawled upon by the powers that be.
There is something intensely liberating at the heart of Williams's message and it extends beyond the restricted parameters of the here and now, embracing the living, those yet to be born, and those gone before us. We see this in his poem Taliessin on the Death of Virgil, where the lovers of Virgil's poetry, in the twenty centuries since his death, reach out through their prayers to the pre-Christian poet and lift him from his precipitous post-mortem fall:
... In that hour they came; more and faster they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his calling ...
Would it be heretical then to pray in a similar manner for Charles Williams? To ask that the God he served in his own idiosyncratic way may dwell less on his peccadillos and more on his thirst for the Divine and his kind and generous heart? My sense is no. Williams died in 1945, yet to him past, present and future were an instantaneous and co-inherent reality. One prayer from us, therefore, could make all the difference to him in Eternity. It is a momentous conception and a mighty responsibility and we should be grateful to Williams for reminding us of the immense spiritual dignity as sons and daughters of God which we possess. It is the kind of thing the saints remind us of. As Myers suggests:
When we speak of sanctity ... we are not talking about 'wholeness' but almost its opposite. George Herbert compared the preacher to a panel of stained glass in an English chapel; by itself the glass is dim and fragmented, but by daylight it is resplendent. In the same way, saints may be damaged and unmended, but through the 'brittle crazy glass' of their lives, the whole Church is startlingly transfigured, washed in the light and colour of the bright shining world of God. (p.78)