Saturday, 2 June 2012

Charles Williams was NOT "self-educated"


The idea that Charles Williams was 'self-educated' (or uneducated) seems to be one that has penetrated the criticism of the man at the highest levels - yet it is just plain wrong!

Here is an example of the red herring, from one of Charles Williams foremost critics:

The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him. Williams was self-educated.

His mind had never had that experience of sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.

In the light of this, Williams’s sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was self- educated.


I think I understand how this error was made by US scholars, but it is a falsehood!

English upper middle class (professional) people sometimes used 'self-educated' as a euphemism for those with a lower middle class background.

This boundary within the middle class was important because it was the division between the lowest rank of 'gentlemen' and the highest rank of the artisan class. (C.W. had begun life as the son of a lower middle class tradesman - a clockmaker ^).

So by suggesting that Williams (or anyone else) was 'self-educated', the English meant that he was 'not a gentleman' and the most obvious evidence for this was his 'Cockney' accent - but the phrase has next-to nothing to do with Williams scholarly attainment.


American critics, presumably, take self-educated at face value - misled by their misunderstanding of the English educational system.

At any rate Charles Williams was very highly educated - by the standards of his place and time (and indeed by almost any standards).


As son of a skilled craftsman, Charles Williams began life at the top of the lower middle class; but since he was privately educated at the school now called St Alban's Grammar School, he became a member of the upper middle class - albeit at the very bottom.

The fact that C.W. went through St Alban's school is also evidence that he could not remotely be described as un-educated.

Americans often do not realize the selectivity and advanced education which went on at schools like St Albans - the leaver reached an academic level pretty much equivalent to that of a college graduate in the USA.


Take a look at the alumni of St Albans:

There are only few schools (some, but not many) who could boast such a roster of famous ex-pupils: including the most famous living scientist: Stephen Hawking.

To have completed one's education at a major English grammar school like St Alban's was to be among the intellectual elite.


From St Alban's, C.W. went to University College, London - which has always been highly ranked among English universities - in the rank below Oxford and Cambridge.

Williams left UCL after two years (due to financial problems) without taking a degree - but to complete two-thirds of a degree at an English university in the early twentieth century was, again, to reach a very advanced level of education - just a few percent of the population would ever get that far.

And the level would be considerably beyond that of a US college graduate - perhaps about equivalent to a US Masters degree of that era?


It is also worth noting that the English did not have PhDs until 1917, and they did not become normal until several decades later - especially in the Arts and especially at Oxford.

At Oxford, the elite would have a brilliant first class MA and nothing more - further degrees were evidence of a second-rate mind.

(I am old enough to have talked with many people from Oxford who used 'Doctor' as an insult - for example in referring to the literary critic FR Leavis as Doctor Leavis.)


So it is nonsense to imply that Charles Williams had an inadequate or deficient education.

Of course Williams was at a lower level than CS Lewis (Oxford triple first class degree in Classics - both parts - and English) or Tolkien (first class degree in English, one of the youngest Oxford Professors of recent times).

But the main difference was in Williams's class origin - Tolkien's father was a bank manager and Lewis's was a solicitor - both upper (not lower) middle class, although at a lowish level within that class.

As lasting evidence of this origin on the 'wrong' side of the great class divide, Williams retained a South East English regional accent throughout his life (which some people refer to as 'cockney').


So Williams was someone who was highly-educated, but of a lower class origin - although having been to a great grammar school and studied at university, before becoming a clerk then editor in the immensely respectable firm of the Oxford University Press.

By middle age, Williams was very firmly a member of the upper middle class; and part of the same social circle as the other Inklings.

Nonetheless, it was his relatively lowly class origins (and not his level of education) that account for the unmistakable tone of condescension observable when Lewis and others talked or wrote about Williams.

However, Thomas Howard is quite wrong to suggest that self-education is the 'mystery ingredient' that explains the peculiarities and difficulties of Charles Williams writings. +


^ I think I may be wrong here when I say that CW's father was a clockmaker - from the later Hadfiled biography it seems he may have been a junior clerk, which would place CW at the very bottom of the upper class, rather than the top of the working class.
+I will need to write in more detail on this - but I think the basic reason for C.Ws obscurity is that his experience of life was so strange that he could not be any clearer than he was. I used to believe he was being wilfully obscure and pretentious, now I do not think so. The pressure and intensity of Williams mind was such that - for all its weird and disconnected qualities - the prose represents a major toning-down and radical simplification of what was going-on in his head. He simply could not make himself any more comprehensible than he is - which is 'not very'. In a culture where Christian public discourse was at a higher level, Williams would not have had this problem - in such an environment he would surely have been a Saint: and like all Saints unique, not like anyone else.



Wurmbrand said...

Surely a great deal of the knowledge that Williams exhibited, however, was attained on his own -- I refer to his preoccupation with occultism especially. He not only thought about occult ideas, but, I suspect, thought in an occultic manner. He seems to have done a great deal of his thinking by himself. I do see him as an autodidact to a considerable degree, and I suspect (again) that this accounts for much of the difficulty of his style: it is simply too close to the monologue that ran in his mind; he wasn't used to talking about his interests, at length, with people from whom he might have learned to express his ideas more clearly. Williams exhibits exceptional insight alongside unreality. See again the account of his behavior in the Lang-Sims affair, and (as I understand -- haven't read them) his letters to his wife. I don't see him as a saint. He reminds me of Origen, one of those figures with a lot to offer the Church who must be read with discernment and discrimination. I don't pray to the saints, but even if I did, I see CW as someone to pray for, not to!

Wurmbrand said...

Perhaps a great deal of the problem with Williams is that he thought of himself as a poet (Isn't that what's on his tombstone along with Under the Mercy?) -- that fact permitting or justifying ways of writing and behaving not given to ordinary folk?

There is a problem with CW's poetry, too. It seems to me that almost everyone who has written favorably about it was a friend of CW's or an Inklings fan. The poetry doesn't seem to have made its way in the world very far. That may well be the fault of the world! But CW's poetry has been before the reading world for many decades now and yet it remains basically restricted to the world CW scholars and fans.

If it isn't very good, then perhaps here too we have something of that unreality in CW that I have mentioned, since he did think of himself as a real poet.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I agree that, in the sense you imply of thinking alone, Williams was probably an autodidact, but that is not what is meant when people say that Williams was 'self-educated' (look again at the quote from Thos Howard).

Also he taught many evening classes from his late twenties, and some of the people who attended these were highly intelligent - such as his biographers Alice Mary Hadfield. and Anne Ridler.

"I don't see him as a saint." Neither do I - but in an environment such as Byzantium or Holy Russia he might well have been.

And although his ethical behaviour was certainly flawed, in a way I don't think of as characteristic of Saints; the testimony of people like Lewis, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayer (the premier Christian writers of their era) suggests that he was a man of sanctity in the deepest sense of living in frequent - albeit not constant - communion with God.

I suspect that that is what makes a Saint - albeit a minor Saint - much more than strict adherence to ethical rules.

Lewis was dishonest as shown in Planet Narnia by Michael Ward - he lied about his relationship to Mrs Moore even very late in her life, and even to the future Saint Giovanni Calabria.

Whether people make it as Saints depends on the environment as well as their own efforts - some eras much more conducive than others, our era much less conducive than almost any other of which I know.

The likes of Lewis and Williams seem far beyond anyone alive now, and perhaps as advanced as any within living memory?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - re: your second comment. I suppose everything hinges upon whether CW *repented* his bad behaviour, his conceit about 'being a poet' etc. I assume he did, and this accounted for the tortured side of his character.

His poetry seems without value to me, but I would say the same about (for example) Auden - so what do I know? I prefer Eliot's verse about cats to The Wasteland!

Wurmbrand said...

I read through the two Taliessin volumes when I was about twenty, but I had almost no acquaintance with poetry then and read the poems largely to try to grapple with the man's ideas. Following along in Lewis's commentary enabled that.

I believe T. S. Eliot also appreciated some, at least, of Williams's poetry. A third poet who did was John Heath-Stubbs, who says a little about Williams in his Hindsights. (Heath-Stubbs is one of those figures like John Wain or even Evelyn Underhill, who has pertinence for people interested in one or other of the Inklings...)

Wurmbrand said...

PS To my taste, at least, the finest poet related to the Inklings is Ruth Pitter -- who never attended, but was a friend of Lewis, who much admired her work. Publication of her first book or two was assisted by H. Belloc, for what that is worth.

Anonymous said...

A poet who seems to have admired Williams's late poetry is Hugh MacDiarmid. Another is the Dutch poet and verse-dramatist, Willem Barnard. Grevel Lindop will soon be telling us more, I suspect.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I used to be quite a scholar of MacDiarmid! and even had a drama broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in which he was a character

I can imagine that McD would have liked Williams late verse (or said he liked it - he would sometimes give opinions based on reviews seen in the TLS) for its experimentalism and uncompromising intellectuality - which was the direction of McD's own later verse (but not of his best verse!). Unfortunately, my copies of McD's biography, letters etc are packed away at present so I can't check whether the men might have met in London at some point.

But I am pretty sure that Williams was not one of McD's particular favourites as a modern poet - Williams had the 'disadvantages' of being English and not a Communist!

Anonymous said...

Wow! (I look forward to hearing your drama, but reply before doing so.) I have still only a dabbling acquaintance with his work, always at least half meaning to read more - and not yet doing it! As far as I remember, it is in The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961) that he quotes some of the late Arthurian poetry and comments a bit. (I think I read the relevant section in an anthology but have no access at present, either!) I would think the fact of Williams's 'disadvantages' may illustrate MacDiarmid's appreciation of the poetry as poetry - though the late Robert Conquest, given his "The Art of the Enemy", might see totalitarian sympathies.

It is tricky (to me, at least) thinking of possible examples where the appreciation of the poetry is handily distinct from acquaintance with the man, and even more so from broader interest in his thought and so on - not that it need be so, but that all that can interfere with critical distance (and can more easily be suspected of doing so). Having finally read the 1964 Lewis Poems right through, I have a much stronger sense that Lewis was impressed with C.W.'s poetry distinctly as poetry.

I suspect there may be more appreciation of the verse-dramas by other authors of verse drama, but am not widely enough read to have tested the notion. (Grevel Lindop on, for example, C.W. and Christopher Fry may be illuminating, here.) Willem Barnard never met C.W. but used a Taliessin quotation as an epigraph for one of his poems, and made an adapted translation of one of C.W.'s plays into Dutch. Though not a question of verse, my old professor (and a playwright) William Alfred thought Bolt's A Man for All Seasons would not have been written as it was, without the example of C.W.'s Thomas Cranmer.

David LLewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - The Kind of Poetry I want was an example of MacD's late style, in that a lot of it was quotation and paraphrase (often taken from from the Times Literary Supplement as I mentioned) so of itself it would not imply MacD having actually read any CW.

Having said that, TS Eliot is a plausible link person between the two men, since Eliot helped MacD on several occasions, MacD submitted some work to Eliot, and they met and corresponded.

BTW - another strike against CW from the late MacD's perspective was Christianity, since he was a typical atheist Communist (although MscD used a lot of Christian references in his early and best dialect work, and in his early 20s 'flirted' with converting to Roman Catholicism).

Anonymous said...

I wonder what element of degree of knowledge of literae humaniores may come into Lewis's characterization of C.W.? Tolkien was far more of a 'lang.' man than Lewis, but both read Greek and Latin fluently, which I suspect is more than Williams did (though I have no clear sense of how good his Latin was, or any sense to speak of where his Greek is concerned).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

What you say about MacD, TSE, & CW sounds plausible, indeed likely. (C.W. read David Jones's In Parenthesis in proof, if I recall correctly, and might well have gotten it from TSE in an analogous way. Jones is interesting in turn on C.W.'s poetry.) Williams's last Arthurian volume being published by Tambimuttu's Editions Poetry London may, in good part, have reached a different audience than his earlier work - it certainly sold out quickly. What, if any, lasting interest it generated with unexpected readers I do not really know. (I don't know what, if anything, was quoted in the 1944 TLS review of it, or if later OUP reprints of 1950, '52, and '60 were reviewed.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Unknown said...

Certainly William's "obscurity" in the novels I have read ("Descent.." "The Lion's.." "War..") need no exotic explanation - like Shakespeare's? I agree with Wumbrand's opinion in the first comment to this post that - as in Shakespeare - the torrent of his imagination and thought was overriding - and his genious was precisely how masterfuly and beautifully he had the capacity to command it sometimes into poetic prose (metaphors, similes, word-play etc) of extraordinary heights with muscular "speed" (a recurrent concept in Williams) which as in Shakespeare dazzles and leaves you reeling and in need of re-reading ("confused between metaphor, implication, and rebuke" like Pauline before one of Mrs Anstruther's replies that - like William's - could include simultaneously three and more elements - plus dizzy with wonder at sheer beauty of poetic utterance). And the "obscurity" was certainly conscious many times - was that not the aim of the Romantics - any of the poet - flee from Reason's clarity - love the shadows, the Gothic darkness rather than Classic limpidity? But as far as I have checked (and I have read and re-read paragraphs) the obscurity was not simply for obscurity's sake - a Gongorism that under scrutiny shielded banalities - it seemed to me rather the inevitable result of wanting to present complex ideas and subtle realities (such as for example the inner psychological ever changing attitudes - from micro-reactions to saviing or damning decisions - to unfolding dialogue - not to mention unfolding events - of many of the characters, often several one's simultaneously, alternating those psychological depictions with costumbrist tableaux, philosophical musing, theological observation and super natural revelation)compressing it into the format of a narrative scheme of often cliff-hanger-ending chapters driving plot advancment - not "playing down to the audience, but neither playing away from the audience" as Mrs Parry wisely adviced Adele. Truly I cannot recall any instance in those novels where a complex paragraph did not yield under analysis a coherent and intelligent meaning!