Sunday 18 July 2021

Circling back to Charles Williams

Durham Castle (University College) is the silhouette on the right (Cathedral to the left) and my rooms were located just to the right of the keep, looking out on this view

I have recently been re-reading some of my favourite Charles Williams bits and pieces - including what began my interest in this writer: Humphrey Carpenter's biographical account in The Inklings (1978). I would recommend this to anyone who thinks they might be interested, because Carpenter highlights Williams's most appealing and exciting aspects. 

I recall first reading about 'CW' in my dark rooms located in Durham Castle one autumn morning; and being so energized and gripped that I dashed off to the university library to borrow some of his books. The included the Place of the Lion novel, Image of the City collection of essays and the Taliessin through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars poems.   

Yet I have never appreciated the actual work of Williams as much as I did the biography, the idea of what he was trying to do; the fact that he lived this strange life in which the natural and supernatural were not divided - and in which the eternal and perfect forms of reality were perceptible behind the everyday and mundane. 

For this reason - one of my favourite Williams books is the early (long since out of print) An Introduction to Charles Williams, by his friend Alice Mary Hadfield - since this gives the deepest and most vivid account of the best aspects of William's point of view on life.  

However, after periods of immersion and when I attempted to live my spiritual life in a way modelled on that of Williams; I have ended in a very different place indeed. And I am much now more aware of the fact that Williams's ideas failed in Williams's own life: that he was always a deeply unhappy (even desperate) man, who consistently made (and doubled-down on) wrong choices. 

Because (again and again) that which he most wanted at a surface level, and which he adopted as life-assumptions; was also exactly what hurt him the most profoundly. And as a consequence, made his own life worse than it needed to be.

This tragic situation (which lay behind the surface of success, charisma, and apparent spirituality) was mostly a consequence of CW's deepest metaphysics and most rigorously followed-through philosophical convictions

So, you can see why Charles Williams continues to fascinate over such a time span, and draws me back recurrently to engage with his life and work. 


John Fitzgerald said...

I've always wanted to read the Alice Mary Hadfield biography but so far haven't got around to sourcing a copy. The single thing that most impresses me about CW's life is the sheer impact he had on those who encountered him in person. Gravel Lindop recounts these stories very well in his biography. It's a bit of a myth as well,I think, that all these people were female.The majority undoubtedly were but there were plenty of men whose lives were changed fundamentally by meeting CW.CS Lewis and WH Auden are the most prominent examples - TS Eliot too to a degree.

When we read the newsletters of the CW Society (all freely available online) we can see that all these people maintained a highly positive view of CW all the way into old age. Even - maybe especially Lois Lang Sims - who got pretty badly burned in her liaison with CW.

A man like that must have something going for him. Certainly,to my mind,his ideas on Substitution/Exchange and how he put these into practice with his 'disciples' during WW2 deserve way more attention and respect than they've thus far received.

He was indeed a deeply flawed individual,but he did his best - and more than his best - with the limited material his personality and character gave him. He had a go and left a legacy, and he left it to us - his 'household' to pick up the baton now that 'that which was once Taliessin rides for the barrows of Wales.'

I admit that I pray to him sometimes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Good and important points. I have certainly gained a great deal from my decades of engagement with CW.

You are certainly correct that many men (as well as women) benefitted greatly (had their lives changed) by interaction with CW - to you list we could add Warnie Lewis (a very good, common sense judge of character) who wrote in his diary that CW was "one of he best and nicest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet. "

Tolkien, too, greatly appreciated Williams during his life and for some years afterwards would probably never have written the Lost Road and Notion Club Papers (and what they brought into Lord of the Rings) without the example of Place of the Lion.

More examples can be found in "Charles Williams - a celebration", edited by Brian Horne.

Indeed, it seems that men got more substantive positive benefit from Williams than did women - and this must not be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Dorothy L. Sayers embarking on becoming Dante translator - and annotator - is a striking example of a woman getting substantive positive benefit from Williams.

And, in a different way, Dame Helen Gardner in what seems her life-long rereading of Williams's New Christian Year - now happily accessible online and on Facebook, thanks to Tom Wills (see the link at the Williams Society site).

A disappointing additional note - not all the issues of the Newsletter/Quarterly are available online, there - the last few years' worth have yet to be uploaded, I know not why (and should have been asking around, more!).

David Llewellyn Dodds