There seems to be little question that the dynamics of the Inklings changed when Charles Williams arrived in Oxford during WWII. More than one biographer of the Inklings suggests that the Lewis – Tolkien relationship turned onto the path of estrangement because Williams supplanted Tolkien as being especially close to Lewis, while this may have played a part in this unfortunate development, it was only a part.
I don’t want to write about Charles Williams, and I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days because I’m uncomfortable writing it. Even now, as my fingers touch the keyboard I find myself struggling to break out of the eggshell and into the light. I don’t want to write about Williams because to write about him in the context of the book, The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings, means that I have to write that the authors treat Williams in a straightforward manner as they describe his unusual relationships with women who were not his wife. There…I’ve written it. When one is acutely conscious of one’s own sin, sins, and failings, one is (I hope) reluctant to write about the sin, sins, and failings of others.
There are two elements of Charles Williams that should not be glossed over, one is that he engaged in practices that are tainted (a word which may in itself be a gloss) with the occult, the other is that he poured energy and emotion into relationships with women who were not his wife; in at least one case a woman was the wife of another man. And this is what I really want to say, the fact that these relationships were Platonic means nothing, writing “love” letters to women not your wife is as much adultery as engaging in physical acts; not to mention other behavior which is bizarre (a word without gloss). Again, the authors treat these aspects of Williams in a straightforward non-sensational manner, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – the narrative is painful to read…as it should be.
Williams had friends and admirers who presumably had little or no knowledge of his strange relationships with women, and it seems as if his personality was such that those attracted to him would focus on the attraction and intellectual and kinetic stimulation that Williams radiated – for he was, by all accounts, a man who radiated a presence. Yet, what you saw was not always all that was there, and the question arises as to how much of himself he revealed to the other Inklings; or was it there for them to see if they thought about some of the things that Williams was writing, saying, and doing?
Lewis seemed to consider Williams transparent; Tolkien, however, did not agree with this assessment – perhaps this disagreement over a man whom Lewis thought so much of contributed to the estrangement between Tolkien and Lewis.
When C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters it was a painful experience for him. Lewis wrote concerning the process of writing Screwtape, “…though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.”
Williams’s novels are dark, touching on unseen things in the shadows and in darkness; in light of Lewis’s account of writing Screwtape, which is nowhere near the dark genre in which Williams wrote, I wonder how Williams wrote what he wrote and what effect it had on him as he inhabited the lands of which he wrote. I have read four of Williams’s novels and I have read his Descent of the Dove (though I stopped early on because I thought it unreadable), and I have read his The Figure of Beatrice – which is to say that I think I have a pretty good feel for Williams. While I would recommend Lewis’s Screwtape, I would not recommend Williams’s novels.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the story of Charles Williams is that his marriage seemed to be getting better just before he suddenly died, a contributing factor to this improvement appears to have been that there were fewer other women for him to direct his attention toward due to his move from London to Oxford during the war. So sad to think that he might have had a wonderful marriage if he had directed his affection and energy to his wife before all others.
I don’t enjoy writing this, but Charles Williams is one of the four principals of The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings, and as I wrote in a previous post, this book is for adults.