Charles Williams was a bad writer, but a very interesting one. Most famous bad writers have to settle, like Sidney Sheldon, for the millions and the made-for-TV adaptations and the trophy wife. Williams had a following, and in the 1930s and 1940s some highly respected literary figures declared him to be a genius. But why did Williams appeal so strongly to a particular age — and what, if anything, can he offer us now?
He belonged to that wonderful generation liberated by the 19th-century spread of education. He came from a family with no resources, but a terrible, pathetic yearning for literature. His father, Walter, managed to scrape into print, writing moralising short stories and sentimental poems for the cheapest magazines. Grevel Lindop says that he was published in Dickens’s All the Year Round and Household Words, but I don’t see how that could have been possible, because Walter must have been 11 when Household Words came to an end. An aunt wrote verses for greetings cards, and one uncle had a scholarly bent, publishing on local history and ‘early earthworks’.
Education was at a charity-funded parish school — the smallest of educational opportunities. Against the odds, Williams won a scholarship to St Albans Grammar School and, at the age of 15, a county scholarship to UCL to a pre-degree course. But money in the end was too short, and Williams had to withdraw from formal education.
For the rest of his life, he combined writing with working in the book trade. There is something telling about the particular flavour of Williams’s professional life; it was in the dignified but ineffective part of publishing, first in the Methodist Book Room and later at Oxford University Press. A lot of his output there consisted of writing introductions to other people’s books or whole short books, commissioned by the Press.
Then as now, OUP was not quite like normal publishing. Lindop’s account of the peculiar atmosphere of the place has considerable charm — lolling around, conducting chastely sado-masochistic affairs with female members of staff, writing poisonous novels about your male colleagues who were at the same time writing poisonous novels about you. It had its own money-saving ideas; amusingly, Lindop shares in the outrage in 1936 when W.B. Yeats, having compiled a very large anthology, did not accept that it was his job rather than the publishers’ to send a copy to every contributor. (Note to inexperienced future collaborators with OUP: it’s their job.) All in all, the curious, half-scholarly, cloistered air of the Press encouraged what perhaps should have been discouraged in the unworldly, painfully dignified Williams: the pretence to rarefied and hermetic wisdom. He might have been better off working at the Daily Mail.
Williams was out of fashion from the start. His poetic influence, touchingly, was Coventry Patmore, just when Harold Monro was stripping the archaic and the ornamental away from English poetry. But if his style is dated and his poetic rhythms are those of a tone-deaf man, his subject matter at least was arresting. He signed up to a number of mystical secret organisations involving Rosicrucianism and even alchemy. After the first world war such movements were very popular, when acquaintance with the recently dead was a universal condition. When Williams turned to novels in the late 1920s, their bizarre world found an extraordinarily fervent — if limited — following.
Reading them over the last week, I can understand their appeal — and even wonder whether an age that loves Haruki Murakami might rediscover them. They are pretty bad — cardboard characters, long, abstract ramblings, dialogue like nothing on earth — but sometimes bad writing can reach places that good writing hardly knows about. The last of them, All Hallows’ Eve, follows the posthumous adventures of two girls killed by a bomb. At the novel’s climax one of them enters into the body of a female dwarf created out of earth by the villain of the piece (a Wandering Jew who has married a Highgate society hostess and enslaved her daughter), in order to conduct a conversation with her own widower, the enslaved daughter (who she was at school with) and others.
Whether Williams in person was as saintly as many claimed is another matter. In private, he was a sexual sadist of rather a schoolmasterly kind, and he surrounded himself with female disciples. Masochists are often cheerful, well-balanced people; sadists are generally unhappy egotists, filled with shame. The evidence for Williams’s saintliness I find unconvincing. One observer was astonished, and moved, to see that Williams once ‘helped to carry a baby in a pushcart up the steps of a Tube station — an entirely unknown baby’. Perhaps manners have changed, but I think anyone now with a moment to spare would help a stranger in this way, and not expect friends to cite it as an example of their virtue. Rather more to the point is how Williams treated his long-suffering wife, Michal, conducting affairs when she thought he was off on his Rosicrucian evenings. His son, Michael, was a psychological disaster area.
Williams ended up in an environment that exactly suited him and which supplies the subtitle for this biography. In Oxford, he was taken up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and admitted to their Inklings group. Their association strangely propelled him into a sort of fashion, and he became an immensely popular, oracular lecturer on poetry — his unregenerated Cockney tones when reciting Milton must have been compellingly
unfamiliar in 1940s Oxford. His death was sudden, tragic, and coming as it did in the last days of the war, brought into focus all sorts of complex feelings about loss and the purpose of existence.
This solid and scholarly biography explores the byways of literary history with much verve and energy. I guess that Lindop has contemplated this for many years. He doesn’t quite make the case for his hero as a writer; but as a phenomenon who attracted the likes of Eliot and Tolkien,Williams is shown in all his weird and slightly pathetic glory.
He is, of course, the property of a tiny literary sect, who regard him as the greatest writer who ever lived, and they will be kept busy arguing about this book for years to come. For the rest of us, Lindop has provided a fascinating account of a literary life of a very particular sort. His subject was of the generation that tried — not always successfully — to burn with a hard, gemlike flame.