Monday, 16 December 2013

Light on a very strange personality: Review of Charles Williams' letters to his wife 1939-45

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To Michal from Serge: Letters from Charles Williams to his wife Florence 1939-1945

Edited by Roma A King. Kent State University Press: Ohio, USA. 2002. pp 315

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I have spent a leisurely couple of weeks reading these letters - selected from almost-daily missives over nearly six years - having at last found a not-wildly-overpriced secondhand copy after a few years of waiting.

These letters are very well worth reading for the scholar of Charles Williams life and works - somebody such as myself; but would be almost totally without interest for anybody else.

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(Note: Michal and Serge were pet names: Michal for Florence and Serge for Charles.)

The reason for their limited appeal is that there is very little in these pages of letters except:

1. Microscopic discussions of money - down to the level of shillings earned and spent.

2. Repeated and prolonged (and un-convincing) praise of Michal by Serge.

3.  Complaints of misery, discomfort, loneliness etc.

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There is almost nothing about The Inklings, or even CS Lewis - who Williams was in real life often meeting (with Tolkien, Warnie, Havard and others) for a few hours on Monday mornings (in various places, to read and be read to by Lewis and Tolkien) rooms, Tuesday lunchtimes (at the Bird and Baby pub) and Thursday evenings (for Inklings meetings in Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College).

There is almost nothing about Williams' incessant socialising and conversing with his wide circles of 'disciples', admirers, acolytes - such as his future biographer Alice Mary Hadfield; and almost nothing of his actual work at his employers: the Oxford University Press.

If indeed he was doing any significant work at the OUP. CW did so much of his own book and essay writing (for money), reviewing other people's books (for money), tutorial work and lecturing in Oxford (for money) and around the country (usually free) - not to mention the socialising - it seems that the OUP position by this time was simply a sinecure!

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So what about the focus on money? This goes way beyond anything reasonable or sensible - indeed, it is an act of self-justification. Williams is telling his wife, over and over again, that he is working to get her money - which he sends in dribs and drabs enclosed with most of the letters - ten shilling notes (that is half a pound), mostly pounds, the occasional two pounds... meticulously documented in terms of their provenance.

My interpretation is partly that these were a bribe for the continued affection and attention of Michal, and partly a displacement activity - by writing about money all the time and everyday, CW was able NOT to write about a lot of other things.

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What about the over-the-top praise of Michal?

One might initially suppose that for a husband to write wild overpraise of his wife day after day for six years - he would have to mean what he said... but on reflection I think almost the opposite was the case.

What kind of wife demands to be called a genius, compared with a goddess, credited with superhuman powers of goodness, intuition, inspiration and so on; day after day, year after year?... what reasonable wife could endure it?

My firm conclusion (consistent with other sources of information I have found in memoirs) is that Charles Williams wife was a Psycho Hose Beast^, a High Maintenance Woman, an hysteric, an extremely unstable neurotic.

Therefore Michal apparently demanded incessant, ludicrous over-praise, and was so jealous that Williams could not write positively about anybody - not even his best men friends such as CS Lewis and TS Eliot - without immediately denying his affection for them, denigrating them, stating that he would always rather be with his wife instead.

Indeed, I infer that CW was completely sincere in his wish to live with Michal (if in almost nothing else); he stated, and I believe, that it was the only way he could find rest in this life; lacking which his life was always a matter of being 'on show', and with a mask in place, and unsettled, and not-at-home.

Williams really, really wanted to live with Michal - as husband and wife (and also, he very powerfully missed the physical side of marriage - especially sleeping next to each other and entwined, as well as sex).

Yet Michal would not be with him. What kind of wife lives apart from her husband for six years - living here and there, in London and out of it, sometimes with people she loathes - because she doesn't like Oxford? Answer: the kind of woman who does not want to live with her husband, and who will seize upon any excuse NOT to live with her husband.

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Why this terribly sad situation?

Obviously there were faults on both sides, and especially Charles' previous infatuation with the secretary Phyllis Jones, which he never completely broke free from; plus presumably his weirdly ritualistic 'use' of young women as a source of energy to sublimate into his writing...

I infer that Michal was already, by nature, extremely unstable and neurotic; and the Phyllis Jones business unleashed this with extraordinary and permanent force - one observer said that it made the main topic of her conversation for many years after Charles died.

So there was probably a considerable element of Michal punishing Charles, and punishing him day after day for year after year; but also this behaviour probably came naturally to her as a mixture of her dependence on him with her anger and revulsion at his betrayal.

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The modern reaction to CW's situation - is why did he put up with it? Why did he not just 'dump' Michal? Perhaps to take-up with one/ several/ many of his young female admirers - who would have been only too willing to oblige.

There are many reasons (including morality) but at root Williams did not want to - he wanted Michal back, and that was the only thing he wanted because it was an absolute necessity to his psychological survival.

Thus the tedious harping on the money he brings in and sends to her, the wild overpraise, the pandering to her jealousy by including many spiteful (and dishonest) remarks about the people he lives among; and the massive act of self-censorship going on in these letters - which represent a real but tiny minority chunk of CW's Oxford life, such that the reality of 90 percent of his waking life as seen by everybody around him including those very close to him; is utterly excluded from these letters.

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Another factor is CW's son Michael (note the 'e' in the name). It is one of the most disappointing aspects of this not-very-well-edited volume that there is almost no information about Michael Williams (1922-2000) who is a major focus of CWs concern, indeed his desperate worry over the whole period of these letters - but especially the early years.

In fact, CW's evident and active concern for his son is one of his most likeable and 'human' qualities; any father can empathize with this, and it is greatly to CW's credit.

It is clear that Michael had some undefined psychological problems, and also that he had suffered some kind of illness in his teens which threatened his eyesight - and perhaps caused or threatened some kind of permanent problem either of mental handicap or psychotic or neurological type.

But although this is my own area of medical expertise, there just isn't enough information provided here to give more than the vaguest idea about what the problem was. Charles and Michal obviously knew what the problem was, so it never gets spelled-out in correspondence - but the editor should have found-out and told us!

The fact that in the last couple of years of this book, Michael was reviewing books for the prestigious (and paying) magazine Time and Tide, shows that he must have been intelligent and had considerable ability as a writer - yet he is always talked-of as being unstable, irritable, prone to outbursts of bad manners, lacking in application, prone to unreasonably strong dislikes (of Oxford, for example), and so on.

The editor needed to tell us about this - but he didn't; and I can't discover anything anywhere else. Yet Michael seems like he was probably some kind of missing 'key' to Charles Williams personality and behaviour.

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So these letters provide vital information for the Charles Williams scholar - albeit mostly indirectly and by omission.

For me, the letters demonstrate that Charles Williams is not to be trusted in his evaluations of his life, since his behaviour is not consistent with his statements.

Indeed, there is very little in these letters which can be trusted because the content has been so selected, slanted and distorted for the consumption of Michal/ Florence: they are fundamentally evasive, and they 'ring false' at many or most points throughout.

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Also these letters are of near-zero literary value; and this is related to their falseness, and their extreme degree of self-censorship.

They reveal a fundamental problem with Charles Williams as a person, which spills over into Williams as a writer; which is that Williams' personality was compartmentalised, un-integrated.

So that while Lewis and Tolkien are the same person in their fiction, non-fiction and letters - and both were among the greatest of letter writers, from a literary perspective - Williams was by contrast a collection of hermetically-sealed masks (!), and his work is therefore extremely uneven in quality - according to which mask he is wearing; often lacks depth (because of the partiality of perspective); and almost-never attains the heights of either Lewis or Tolkien.

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Yet it is hard to blame Williams for this; indeed after reading these letters I do not really blame him. He had great gifts - as were apparent to men of genius such as Eliot, Auden, Lewis and others; and he helped many people greatly; but he found life terribly difficult; almost a minute-by-minute struggle to find the energy and motivation to keep going.

I don't know whether many people would have done much better than CW did, given his inner trials.

All in all, I feel very sorry for Charles Williams. 

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But Williams' fundamental flaw (for which I do blame him) was dishonesty - not by making up lies, but in the more insidious form of incomplete and misleading factuality.

At some point (and perhaps under intense and sustained pressure from Michal?) he took a step into a life of deception, and compartmentalisation; and this infected his work, and severely-limited his achievement so that Charles Williams will never be popular, nor indeed readable outside of a small 'cult'.

To Michal from Serge documents the end stage of this process - but although it was the end, with Charles dying suddenly, during a 'routine' abdominal operation to treat 'adhesions' from a previous operation, I did not detect any sense that his life's work was complete, or that he was 'ready to die'.

Quite the opposite - Williams' life was opening-out, with a delayed flowering and general success - many opportunities ranging from a Readership or Tutorship at Oxford, or a Professorship at Birmingham University (offered him, but turned-down)...

Had he lived, who knows what he might have gone-on to do?

But in the event, he didn't; and we must make what we can, of what we have: which is a lot.

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^Note: the term 'psycho hose beast' comes from the brilliant 1992 movie Wayne's World, and is self-defining in that context.

6 comments:

Samson J. said...

Here in Canadia the government is taking steps to reduce the size of the postal department, owing to the decrease in letter-writing. Alas, future generations will not know the joy of reading the "Collected Letters" of anyone living nowadays.

Also only tangentially related, I actually watched some of Wayne's World recently. It's amazing how parts of it would not be permitted today. You don't have to go back to the 1950s to find a world that was different.

Arakawa said...

'Alas, future generations will not know the joy of reading the "Collected Letters" of anyone living nowadays.'

If you ask Google nicely, they might cough up Famous Personality's collected blog comments... though on a more serious note I have to say the Internet medium is going to raise potentially intractable problems for future biographers.

Electronic data is terribly perishable in practice, very easy to fragment across dozens of different hard disks and online accounts, destroy irreversibly as part of routine 'cleaning', and so forth. It takes an active and obsessive habit for someone to maintain a comprehensive personal archive of their online activity in one place; the kind of habit only an obsessive-compulsive or truly vain person would develop. (this probably excludes the majority of people whose blog comments will actually be worth sifting through....)

Not to mention that the ability for designated heirs to access the information in an online service has not been provided for, at all, or at best as an after-the-fact bolt-on....

Whereas, with letters, all Famous Writer had to do was just stuff them in a drawer somewhere for the heirs to dig up....

Karl said...

Before the heirs of X could publish the Collected Letters of X, they always had to get the cooperation of all the various recipients. Given the will to collect some writer's blog comments, the practical difficulty seems smaller than it was with personal correspondence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - Maybe, so long as you were quick about it.

Whether they would be *worth* publishing is another matter!

Leo said...

Bruce,

Thank you for this post which I recently discovered. As you know, I am an admirer of CW. His situation, if it is as your describe it, must have been very painful. How much great art has come from pain?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - Thanks, On re-reading this I think it was one of the best (or at least most useful) book reviews I have ever done!

I don't think this separation from (and unrelenting passive-agressive hostility from) Michal was helpful to Charles Williams achievement - indeed, I think it set a limit on what he could do. It lashed him into extraordinary productivity (as a kind of displacement activity), but prevented him writing in a straightforward, sincere and open fashion.

We may never know about this, but it is possible that CW's greatest achievement was to be 'sublimated' into the greatest work of Lewis and Tolkien which they produced after six years of frequent, close and intense contact with Williams.