Common room Book essays and reviews
Charles Williams The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop, OUP, £25
eralded by none other than Geoffrey Hill in his valedictory address last year as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Grevel Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams arrives with well-merited fanfare. Despite the passionate advocacy of Hill and others – not to mention Williams’ multifoliate output – it is principally because of his association with C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien that this ‘third Inkling’ remains unforgotten. After rising from poverty, slogging his way into a secure position at OUP in London, and teaching adults in the East End, by the time he met Lewis and Tolkien in 1934 Williams was reaching critical mass. Lindop’s complex, warty portrait will be troubling to many. Williams had married the first woman he fell for, a country lass spotted in a pageant. He changed her name from Florence to Michal (pronounced as Michael), fathered a son also called Michael, and left them as often as possible sequestered unhappily in Hampstead. When not at Amen House, the London HQ of the Oxford University Press, or beavering away at his desk at home, Williams was always off mysticising or lecturing, or (so it might seem from the raptures inspired in his lecture audiences) a brew of the two. Lindop reconstructs his initiation into the ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’ in 1917 (hand tremors and poor eyesight excused him from war service). Williams rose to the topmost grade. By the end, however, it seems he may have been using his weekly Fellowship schedule as cover to meet Amen House librarian Phyllis Jones. She was his muse when he began the Arthurian sequence on which his poetic reputation rests, starting with 1938’s Taliessin Through Logres, with its map of Europe superimposed over a woman’s naked form. He visualised the Grail quest happening on Phyllis’s own body, yet believed that only by enforced chastity could he aspire spiritually and creatively. She seems to have seen the ‘punishments’ he dished out with pencils or rulers across the palm (sometimes elsewhere) as good fun. For him it was clearly a compulsion. Ultimately he derived as much misery as Phyllis from a love affair spanning several unconsummated years. When Michal discovered it, and Phyllis began another relationship, the situation grew more complicated. Williams no longer visited her library, a staircase away. But when he fell dangerously ill in 1933, he concluded that his gut was the staircase, its blockage a corporeal manifestation of his self-imposed ban. Such symbolic superimposition was Williams’ talent. He wrote masques for OUP which, Lindop shows, inveigled the staff-actors into blessing the premises 50
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with Rosicrucian ritual. After Phyllis left, he used his OUP office for further sexually tinged domination games, bound up with his mysticism, his criticism, his thrillers, and his poetry. It is only this knot of connections that justifies drawing us in as voyeurs. Williams tried it on with an astonishing sequence of women. One ‘disciple’ accepted that his mild sadism released his creative powers, but also felt – with great insight or charity – that it must ‘have caused him a great deal of pain and bewilderment’. At least one woman suffered significant psychological damage. By the time Lindop’s narrative reaches the Inklings, we already know Williams as intimately as it is possible to know someone so secretive and strange. Lindop suggests it was he who influenced W H Auden to read Kierkegaard, thus returning him to Christianity. Williams won praise from W B Yeats, tickling his vanity with a review of A Vision. Lloyd George, it is said, thought Williams had one of the 12 best brains in Britain. Oxford made him unhappy – ‘heavy and relaxed’ compared to the frenetic atmosphere of the capital; it was ‘a kind of parody of London’, he said. Living in South Parks Road with the Spalding sisters – artist Anne and actress Ruth – necessitated pitching in with housework: when T S Eliot visited, he and Williams compared bedmaking techniques. He wrote relatively successful supernatural thrillers, but saw criticism and poetry as his real work. Yet it was not until 1944’s The Region of the Summer Stars, his second Taliessin collection, that his poetry sold healthily. ‘This selling of and passion for my verse is something altogether new, and I want to cry a little,’ he wrote. He died the following year at the Radcliffe Infirmary after surgery for the old intestinal problem. Lewis found out when he popped in to see how his friend was doing, on the way to an Inklings gathering at the Eagle and Child. There is no evidence of what Lewis knew about Williams’ darker side, if anything. Errors exist – Nevill Coghill appears as ‘Neville’ – and we are told too often how Williams somehow anticipated Chuck Palahniuk, or Jacques Derrida, or whoever. But Lindop’s narrative, packed with incident and parcelled into satisfying arcs, is exemplary. His insights are hard-won from sometimes exceptionally obscure source material; and where the darkness is impenetrable he resists guesswork. John Garth, former web editor for Oxford Today, is the author of Tolkien and the Great War and the 2015–16 Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Black Mountain Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
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