Tuesday, 25 August 2020

The death of Charles Williams, and the decline of The Inklings - a 'transcendental' perspective

When Charles Williams died in May 1945, The Inklings seemed to be a thriving creative force - since the war years had seen CS Lewis produce some of his very best, and most impactful, work; Tolkien was working on Lord of the Rings; Warnie Lewis had begun to publish his histories of 17th century France - and Charles Williams had written and published some of his very best (and forward-looking) work in poetry and fiction.

All this was brought to an end by the sudden death of Charles Williams following surgery, aged only 58. This knocked the heart out of The Inklings - as they all immediately acknowledged. The gathering afterwards became a looser and more casual, less purposive, less valuable gathering of friends - instead of a focused and productive collaboration of writers, critics and thinkers.

Yet, in a sense, the end was coming anyway; since CW had already decided to return to London, to serve-out his years at the Oxford University Press. Furthermore, Williams felt himself to be already in a decline of health, energy and motivation.

By 1944, by my judgment; Williams had proved that prevarication and dissipation of effort was a part of his nature. CW was continually profligate with his money, which led to him wasting time and effort on hack work (pot-boiler books and reviews, done purely for money). Consequently he seldom gave the fullest time or energy to his significant books and poems; or didn't get around to writing them at all (e.g. critical monographs on Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth; which he was so well-equipped to write). My point is that Williams needed explicit encouragement and pressure (from those he respected) if he was to retain courage and a sense of high purpose - left to his own devices, he would be likely to waste his abilities and remaining strength.

At this point; I wish to take a transcendental view - a 'God's Eye' view - of CW's mortal life, and the question: Why did Charles Williams die when he did?

Of course, this kind of alternative history is completely subjective and speculative; but here it is...

As the war came to its end, the situation for Charles Williams was that his status at the Oxford University Press had declined, he was tolerated rather than being the centre of things - as he once had been. He was overlooked for 'in house' commissions - he reported that when an OUP meeting was gathered to consider who should be invited to author a new book on Shakespeare, it seemed that it did not even cross anybody's mind that CW might be well-suited to the job.

The Press declined to publish the new collection of poems The Region of the Summer Stars - despite that this proved to be the best-selling, and (I would say) best-quality poetry of Williams's career (both aspects of which were perhaps bolstered by the intense interest in Williams's poetry by Oxford's wartime undergraduates).

Apparently, CW was now a has-been from the perspective of the OUP. All that he could expect from the return to the London offices, was to work-out his final years in quiet seclusion, qualify for his pension, and then retire.

And the reason for this coolness at the Press was probably Oxford University itself. CW had, throughout the war years, devoted a great deal of his work time - i.e. the hours for which was paid by the OUP - teaching for Oxford University as a tutor and lecturer; even to the point of supervising pupils in his office on the premises of OUP!

More significantly, Oxford University valued CW far more than the Press. He attracted respect beyond his friends Lewis and Tolkien (the major Oxford 'fixer' and administrator Maurice Bowra - head (Warden) of Wadham college, was an admirer); was awarded an honorary degree (MA) qualifying him for full academic privileges; and he had become something of a cult figure among the students. His lectures were well attended, impactful and influential; and student societies (and other clubs in the area) called upon him frequently to give talks.

There was nothing definite to keep Williams in Oxford; but there were distinct and plausible possibilities for Williams if he was to stay - especially given his powerful and high-level support. There was talk of making him a University Reader (a faculty level, not college, sub-professorial appointment); and putting him in for the Professor of Poetry election (this was a prestigious public platform, but time-limited and essentially unpaid). Plus there were possibilities of college Fellowships, in the usual Oxford way.

Therefore in late 1944 to early 1945; Charles Williams was faced with two possibilities.

There was the high risk but potentially high reward path of staying at Oxford, continuing with The Inklings, and continuing to grow in fame and influence from that base.

And there was the 'safe' path of going back to London, and time-serving towards his pension at the Press.

Here comes my speculative explanation of Williams's premature death... My feeling is that by choosing the safe but mediocre path of London, Williams was signalling that his creative life was over, and that there was no compelling reason for him to keep living: therefore, he died.

And the counter-factual speculation is that if Williams had chosen the Oxford path - he would Not have died.

Instead, CW would have continued to develop creatively as a poet, novelist, critic and teacher. And, as a side-effect, the Inklings would have continued as a generative and significant gathering of co-workers - since they had come to depend-upon his presence for their distinctive cultural role.

In brief; I am saying that Charles Williams made the wrong decision in opting for London over Oxford; therefore there was no reason for him to continue living: so he did not.


PhilR said...

Intriguing. I have to admit to indulging in similar speculations. For example, why did Thomas Merton, ambivalent and fascinating figure that he was, die when and as he did. I suspect we shouldn't indulge.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Phil. If it is 'indulging' (for one's own amusement), or is based on a superficial and externally-derived knowledge of the person and situation; then I agree we shouldn't do it - but that was not the case here.

John Fitzgerald said...

Fascinating. Wasn't there some talk in early 1945 about him possibly going to Birmingham University? I've always envied CW in that he really enjoyed his working life, to the extent that his workplace became a source of his creativity. Maybe he was too wedded to his memories of how the Press was before the war and imagined on some level that it would continue like that?

CW should perhaps have taken a break as Tolkien did around the same time - the Notion Club Papers era - just to recharge his batteries and refocus for the next stage of his life. But Williams wasn't one for taking breaks. He only had one gear - forwards at 100mph - and maybe he just ran out of petrol, as it were, and didn't know any way to step off the wheel and take that 'Gods eye' view.

G. said...

Who knows? But our impulse to say, no, it can't be, God isn't mean! is of course a false sentimentalization.

God is fantastically kind. But His kindness usually takes the form of letting us make choices that make a real difference in the world for good or for ill.

So, yes, this is exactly the Kind of Thing He Would Do.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of that Birmingham possibility to - which Helen Gardner was apparently willing to step aside and let him have (but I have not paused to reread about it - and never asked Dame Helen about it). The success of The Region of the Summer Stars might have spurred him to get on to complete the fragments I include in my Arthurian Poets volume, and maybe even tackle the most difficult 'Grail' episodes... And moving to Faber and Eliot's encouragement there - successful I think, where Figure of Beatrice and All Hallows' Eve were concerned - might have gotten him working on his next novel (maybe among other prose things). Another interesting area to ponder is how he might have fit into the interest in verse drama which continued and grew in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, notably with Fry and Eliot, but also Dorothy Sayers. He ended the huge, fascinating (and influential, where, e.g., Troilus and Cressida criticism was concerned) 'Cycle of Shakespeare' chapter in The English Poetic Mind thinking, "That Shakespeare [...] could, finally and deliberately, determine to write no more seems impossible" ans asserting, "It is to the pure elements of this life and some other that Shakespeare's poetry is now directed; free.

"Only he died."

Might something analogous can be said of Williams?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Oops! "ans">"and"; delete "can".

The contemplated Sayers-Williams collaboration about Dante (which I have not reread about...) is something else 'for the mix'.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

I don't really regard a move to Birmingham as a possibility - given CW's special sense of place. It took him a long time to acknowledge that Oxford had come to occupy a significant place for him; and I think Birmingham would have been too arbitrary. Off the proper path of his life.

@G - I saw the 'decision' as mutual, rather than something God did 'to' CW. By refusing the new life in Oxford, CW was himself choosing death of the spirit; and the comments he is reported to have made to people in the last months suggests that CW was more worried about the future than hoping. He was ready to die. Oxford versus London was a life or death decision.

@DLD - You are surely correct to highlight the verse drama possibilities of the postwar period. Theatre is very fashion driven. CW might well have ended-up with a West End play...

@John - " He only had one gear - forwards at 100mph". Yes, some people are worried that if they once stop, they will never get started again (I knew several such people at medical school). Perhaps this was an element in the hack work, he needed to be doing something. But I think the problem runs deeper.

For CW to take-on writing such an arbitrary book as Flecker of Dene Close in his last year, when his energies were lessening; when there were poems, novels, plays, monographs to be written - shows truly appalling judgment, and an almost wilful embrace of oblivion.

Bruce Charlton said...

A further general comment. I feel there is a great deal more work to be done on Charles Williams! As I have said before; the lack of serious Christians among the best literary scholars and critics has a serious problem for a couple of generations - this has a massively distorting effect on Lindop's biography, for example; where CW's theology, and Christian life generally, were given very little attention.

The Big Thing about the Inklings as a group was that they were maybe the last top-notch intellectual group to exist in Britain who *lived* as Christians; in the way that so many people had Christianity at the focus and prime motivator of their lives in earlier eras.

The same problem applies to Inklings scholarship generally; including Carpenter's 1978 group biography. e.g. Carpenter has an outsider's, post-Christian, reductionistic/ materialistic view of Christianity - such that he simply cannot see what ought to be blindingly obvious about the shared Christian values (more accurately Christian Life) of the group (instead, focusing upon their doctrinal differences and specifities... as if every serious Christian was not, in some sense, unique).

John Wain could see this, because he was himself an alien spirit from the Inklings (to the point that it is extraordinary that Wain was invited to attend and continued for a while!) - and Wain could see that they were *obviously* Christian, coherent, and had a 'cultural' agenda - all of which Carpenter goes to such lengths to deny.

If, on the other hand, we take the Inklings seriously, and believe that they were 'more right' about things than the later triumphant secular mainstream; then we can begin to understand the group in a way that puts CW at the centre of the best of it; rather than regarding the group as merely a social club, with Williams as peripheral to the group and the group as peripheral to Williams.

It seems to me that an empathic person can sense that the most important things about the Inklings were not recorded on paper, or expounded explicitly by the participants. These things must be inferred.

We would not expect to understand or define a marriage by analysing the surviving written statements of a husband and wife about the nature of their relationship - and the same should apply to such a long-lived and intense gathering as the Inklings, which - somewhat like a marriage - went through developmental phases.

In an important sense, the Inklings did not end on earth until Christopher Tolkien died this year; and in another spiritual sense the group has not ended yet - as this exchange makes clear.

Anonymous said...

I should get better acquainted with Joel Heck's painstaking chronological work... Bowers' Tolkien's Lost Chaucer gives some fascinating reminders and further glimpses of Christopher in the life of academic Oxford after the war, which includes with fellow Inklings and at Inklings meetings. Rereading the post-Williams Inklings references in the published excerpts of Warnie's diaries leaves me keen for a better sense of what that 'Inklings configuration' was like - e.g., two days after the "No Inklings tonight" of 10 November 1949 (which Kilby & Mead footnote with the observation that "The last Thursday night meeting of the Inklings recorded in Warnie's diary was October 20") we find Warnie writing "I have just finished in MS. Tollers' sequel to The Hobbit" - much as Tolkien reported Williams "reading it all" at an earlier stage, in a letter to Christopher of Christmas Eve, 1944. How I hope some good Wade folk (or anyone else) will get around to giving us more of Warnie's diary someday!

After the sort of limited confessions to and asking forgiveness from Michal by Williams in the hospital in 1945, what if he had recovered as he did the previous time - how might their lives have turned for the better, how might new and different 'female elements' have contributed positively - working with Sayers, the continuing friendship Helen Gardner showed Michal and Michael having included C.W., - and what might things have been like if Williams were still around when Joy arrived on the scene?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David LD - I have been reading through Heck's chronology of the late twenties into the thirties, because there are many, quite detailed, summaries of Warnie's diaries at some points: I can recognise the characteristic subject matter and opinions. It seems that this is as close as I am likely to get to reading the unpublished material.

I just re-read the closing chapters of the Lindop biog; and there is certainly a sense of gathering gloom and winding-down over those last few months, before going to London.

I would suggest, from what I read, that Williams's death was Not *medically* inevitable - his admission to hospital was delayed too long (by Williams), and it is possible that Williams's failure to tell the doctor about his previous operation may have worsened matters - if, as is implied, the doctor treated him for constipation. Again it sounds rather like a covert desire to die.

I was struck by the fact that when Williams died his colleagues at the OUP, including Sir Humphrey, sprang into action to censor the material he left behind - esepcially from Michal. And it sounds like this sorting-out and filtering process was a big job, involving many people!

That is really quite extraordinary behaviour, and suggests an extraordinary situation that CW inhabited.

Anonymous said...

I get the impression from various of Williams's unpublished letters - as well as from Grevel Lindop's biography - that there were various 'extraordinary situations' at the OUP in his days.

Bowers' Tolkien's Lost Chaucer makes me realize that there are books about the OUP that I should probably get acquainted with - and also leaves me wondering if there are all sorts of interesting Williams-related papers in their archives.

Again, from references in assorted unpublished letters I've read with respect to Williams's death, I don't get the impression of a covert desire to die - though they are perhaps in keeping with fears that might have contributed to his delaying too long.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks for this. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that - having chosen (as I suggest) the safe path of uncreative decline in London - Williams (from his own persepctive) lacked a compelling reason to continue to live, rather than having a covert desire to die?