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Charles Williams and his Contemporaries

Charles Williams and his Contemporaries. Suzanne Bray and Richard Sturch, eds. Suzanne Bray and Richard Sturch, eds. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-0565-3. xi + 149 pp. $52.99.

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher


[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 111/112.]

This volume collects the papers presented on Williams at a 2008 conference of the Charles Williams Society, at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, over three days. The content is, in general, very good; the papers are substantial. The titular emphasis on Williams’s contemporaries appears in six of the nine papers. Since Williams is one of the Mythopoeic Society’s major interests, all of the material is of value. But I will start with four essays in which Williams’ contemporaries are also of specific interest to this Society; next, two discussions of The Place of the Lion; then, the other three essays in the book; and finally some brief comments on editorial problems.

Flora Liénard’s “Charles Williams’ City against J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Green World’” is a fairly obvious topic, but she develops it satisfactorily for such a broad topic. (She had written a thesis comparing Tolkien’s “Green World” and Shakespeare’s woodlands.) She mentions Hobbiton as an anomaly in her contrasting thesis; she does not investigate, as Verlyn Flieger has, the inconsistencies in Tolkien’s ecological vision. Liénard does a fairly thorough survey of Williams’s use of nature — e.g., including the chorus of the play in Descent into Hell — although she gets the great image of the archetypal forest with clearings from Anne Ridler’s introduction to The Image of the City, not from its context in The Image of Beatrice.

Richard Jeffery’s “C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Paradise Lost” describes the difference between Lewis and Williams in these terms:

a mind [Lewis’s] usually in very close agreement with Williams but seeing things in a very different spirit, analytic rather than unifying, likely to over-simplify, but sometimes more penetrating, sometimes perhaps one could say heading straight towards God instead of standing and seeing Him in almost all directions at once. (85)

Jeffrey, as his title suggests, is primarily interested in Williams and Lewis as critics of Milton. Given Lewis’s dedication of A Preface to “Paradise Lost” to Williams, this is no surprise; but Jeffrey points to five places where Lewis clearly (and presumably intentionally) disagrees with Williams’s early Miltonic discussion in The English Poetic Mind. One example (because it is confusingly cited) will do for all five. In The English Poetic Mind, Williams writes that God, Satan, and Adam all talk mainly about themselves (Adam with a shift after the Fall). Lewis has a lengthy passage (quoted by Jeffrey) in which he contrasts Adam’s variety of topics, not just after the Fall, with Satan’s monomania. (This discussion may be confusing to the reader because the quotation from Williams’s book is footnoted as to Lewis’s book; cf. p. 89, n. 21.)

Suzanne Bray’s “Dorothy L. Sayers: Disciple and Interpreter of Charles Williams” is, quite frankly, the best essay on the intellectual and spiritual relationship between Williams and Sayers that we have. (Barbara Reynold’s two biographical volumes on Sayers have almost all of what Bray says, but of course they are not focused exclusively on this topic.) Bray’s treatment of Sayers’s original insights into Williams’s writings include (1) the restrained tone of Many Dimensions being due to emphasis on justice; (2) the relationship between Lord Arglay and Chloe being based on equality, a balance of separate abilities; and (3) the use of Chloe at the end being part of Williams’s “commonplace people” as spiritual agents.

Gavin Ashenden’s “Charles Williams and Owen Barfield” treats the two men’s world views as parallel in four ways and very different in a fifth. Rather than try to condense the essay into a paragraph, perhaps two specifics can suggests its tenor:

Barfield’s mentor, Rudolph Steiner, and Williams’s mentor, Arthur Waite, were both involved with the growing theosophical movement. Both would also move beyond the contours of theosophy; but in different directions. Steiner […] accept[ed] provisionally that [the Theosophists’] dallying with the Hindu east acted as a way of alerting Europe to the gaps in its understanding of spirituality in the numbing face of materialism. A.E. Waite reconstructed a neo-Rosicrucianism [that gave Williams] an esoteric, hermetically influenced Christian orthodoxy. It had a number of elements in common with Steiner’s and Barfield’s ‘neo-Christianity’[…]. (55)

(I realize that some on the Williams-related Coinherence web-discussion group consider Waite to be secretly anti-Christian, but Ashenden — as in his book Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration — considers him orthodox. Unless the discussants produce a documented, convincing essay or book, Ashenden wins without contest.)

The other discussion is part of the contrast between the men:

In Saving the Appearances Barfield commits himself to the position that the mind precedes matter […]. The concomitant of this view is that the Fall was a fall of spirit into matter. […] [But] the mutual interdependence of the polarities of spirit and matter were for Williams, at the head of theological and aesthetic hierarchy. (64, 66)

That is, the coinherence of matter and spirit would not allow for a separate Fall of one aspect.

And now for the two treatments of The Place of the Lion. These are not general introductions, such as the one published in Thomas Howard’s Novels of Charles Williams; they are specialized studies about the book. L.S.B. McCaull’s “‘A Woman Named Damaris’: Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy in The Place of the Lion” begins by pointing out that the De Angelis by Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna, cited in Williams’s book, is actually Williams’s invention. McCaull discusses this type of background detail in Williams’s work, praising some but faulting one (“the Master in Byzantion”). He identifies Williams’s probable actual sources (suggested in the essay’s subtitle) and Williams’s invention (the serpent in the archetypal beasts). Much of the essay is concerned with the combining of Platonic Ideas, Angelic Orders, and Neoplatonic theurgy. (Despite the titular emphasis on Damaris, she receives only three or four brief mentions — five sentences — but McCoull does identify her with the Damaris of Acts 17:34 and explains the similarity.)

Robert Louis Abrahamson’s “Est in Re Veritas: Models for Sacramental Reading in The Place of the Lion” is more popular than McCaull’s essay but still specialized reading. He defines “sacramental reading” in terms of Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker: in this case, “the words of a text are a kind of incarnation of the idea that lies behind the words” (130). The good reader is interested in both the outward and visible form and the inward spiritual grace (not that Abrahamson is that explicit). After defining his basic term, he goes through the characters in the novel, treating them (for the most part) as analogous to types of readers. “Berringer is like the scholarly and critical material surrounding a text” (132). Mrs. Portman (the housekeeper) is a sentimental reader. Mrs. Rackbotham is a proofreader. Dr. Rackbotham is a type of academic, scholarly reader, finding knowledge but no wisdom. Quentin Sabor is the student who is uninterested in or adverse to reading certain texts. Foster and Dora Wilmot are ideologues, reading only to advance their cause. Damaris Tighe begins as one who reads only for his or her own advancement; through a mentor or tutor, he or she may become a real reader (Abrahanson is not quite this thorough in his analogy). Mr. Tighe is the devotional reader. Richardson has no analogy to readership. Anthony Durrant is the type of reader who is “centered on [his] relationship with the text” (140); when he considers ideas (the meaning), he checks them against the text. Abrahamson ends with applications of sacramental reading to actually life.

Three essays remain. Grevel Lindop (who is described in Richard Sturch’s preface as “surely” working on the “definitive biography” of Williams) begins with a survey on the titular topic of Williams and his contemporaries. He is interested in the poetic influences on Williams, mainly late Victorian, and in the literary circles of which Williams was a member — one around Hugh Evelyn Lee, for example, that met twice a month for twenty years. Lindop discusses the Williams-T.S. Eliot acquaintanceship, with its ambivalences, at some length. Also in Lindog’s survey is W.H. Auden’s rather one-sided admiration of Williams. Lindop’s list of fictional presentations of Williams is only four books long (pp. 13-15), but it has two not in David Bratman’s list (Mythprint, Jan. 2010, p. 11). (Bratman’s list of Charles Williamses is longer, but he is not restricting himself to writings contemporary to Williams’s lifetime.) Neither Lindop nor Bratman list an early novel by A.N. Wilson, set at the beginning of World War II, about a female Anglo-Catholic publisher who gave literary parties, attended by Williams, Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. (This is from a comment by Christopher Fry in an interview — Raymond H. Thompson, “Taliesin’s Successors: Interviews with Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature,” available on the internet.) Perhaps the attendees are just mentioned, not really fictionalized.

From a Publisher’s Point of View: Charles Williams’s Role in Publishing Kierkegaard in English,” by Michael J. Paulus, Jr., does deal with Williams’s contemporaries — the man underwriting the publications and the translators. While the fact is interesting that Oxford University Press was not paying to publish the books (not much different from the “subventions” that pay for publishing some scholarly books today), the main interest is Williams as publisher, carrying on professional correspondence. (As often with Williams, he manages to cause the underwriter to think they are deeply simpatico — in this case, on Kierkegaard.)

Paul Blair’s “Charles Williams, Dante, and Recent Catholic Theologians” compares Williams’s treatment of marital love as sacramental with that of three more recent theologians, without any claim of influence from Williams. The three are John Paul II, Cardinal Scola, and Cardinal Ouellet. (A long, substantial footnote summarizes the Biblical sources for treating God’s and mankind’s relationship as spousal love.) Blair finds the theologians more precise in their language than Williams, but much of value in Williams. “What is immature in the Outlines of Romantic Theology is mature in The Figure of Beatrice” (49) — hence Dante comes in.

Finally, some comments on the problems with the volume — basically, little proofreading and almost no editorial consistency are present. The footnotes and the Works Cited in Lindgop’s essay often repeat the same bibliographic information (the publisher, the date). Ashenden’s essay has the title of one essay at least twice italicized, as if it were an independent publication, and a work by Stephen Thorson does not appear in the Works Cited. In Liénard’s essay, an essay by Charles Huttar is never given a name and is cited only by the anthology in which it appears — alphabetized under the editor’s name. In Jeffrey’s essay, as said above, a paragraph by Williams is credited in the footnote to Lewis. In several essays, book titles are missing their italics, and there are many minor proofreading errors.

In short: interesting and often valuable content, often marred by poor presentation in the mechanics.


Charles Williams and his Contemporaries. Suzanne Bray and Richard Sturch, eds. Suzanne Bray and Richard Sturch, eds. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-0565-3. xi + 149 pp. $52.99.

Buy Online