Charles Williams: ‘no novels anywhere quite like them…’

Following our previous post about reading and religion, here is a reader’s encounter in the 1950s with the ‘Christian fantasy’ novels of Charles Williams.   

One of our readers, Madeleine Doherty, recalled the novels of Charles Williams (1886-1945) in her interview. They made a tremendous impression on the young Madeleine but she found it hard to describe them or to account for their impact.

Charles Williams is perhaps best remembered now as one of the Inklings, the Oxford literary group which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, with both of whom he has been compared. ‘What I owe to them all is incalculable,’ said Lewis. ‘Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?’

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, known as the ‘Bird and Baby’, where the Inklings met (GNU Free Documentation License)

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Williams was employed first as a proof-reader, then as an editor, at the Oxford University Press. He had been denied a university education (and therefore career) by his family’s financial difficulties, but was scholarly and in demand as a public speaker. He produced seven novels, as well as poetry, plays, theology, biography, literary criticism and reviews. His novels are strong stuff, featuring for example:

  • the discovery of the Holy Grail, which is then stolen by a black magician to aid his evil plans (War in Heaven, 1930)
  • the original and powerful deck of Tarot cards (The Greater Trumps, 1932)
  • succubi and doppelgangers (Descent into Hell, 1937)
  • a necromancer and ghosts (All Hallows’ Eve, 1945).

But the novels are not straightforward fantasy or horror. Instead of Narnia or Middle Earth, they are set in the Britain Williams knew, which has the effect of emphasising the stranger elements. More importantly, Williams used them as an instrument for examining the complex philosophical and religious ideas which gripped him. He saw, for example, no difference between the natural and the supernatural and thought it required only extra awareness to experience the supernatural. This review of The Place of the Lion (1931) from the Yorkshire Post of 23 September, 1931 sums it up well:

… one of the most remarkable [novels] I have read for a long time. Ecstasy and demonic power run through it like tongues of fire; the princes of heaven are abroad in the world and through the terrors of an earthly cataclysm we see ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory.’ And yet the apocalyptic vision is convincingly related to mundane cares.

Madeleine Doherty came across the novels through the church she went to in the 1950s, when she was in her late teens.

We had a curate at church who introduced me to some books that I have never yet found since, and they were not religious ones. They were … not spiritualist either, what’s the word I’m looking for? Word’s gone out of my mind, I can’t remember what I want to say. … Not science, oh what’s the word? Well they were fantasy in a way but that is not the word I would use to describe them. Oh dear, I can’t think of the word I want. …

It’s not magic either, it’s like magic but I don’t mean magic, I just can’t think of the word to describe, a bit Dracula type things … I suppose so they were weird, they were weird. Sometimes I used to frighten myself.

Madeleine was fascinated.

I think basically they were unpleasant things but once I started reading I was hooked, I’d take one back and bring another home … I would bring one and I would stay up, I can remember one night I woke. I was reading in bed and there was this spider and I’m terrified of spiders. I had been so absorbed reading this book, it was probably two in the morning or whatever and I thought, ‘I’ll have to stop, shut me book, there’s a spider hanging straight in front of me.’ It absolutely terrified me. I just couldn’t put them down.

She found it hard to describe what happened in the novels, although she remembered typical features like spirits, talismans and struggles between good and evil.

I just can’t even relate one of the stories really at all. All I know is that I was absolutely hooked on those books. So how old would I be? 17 or 18, something like that. I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that. I don’t know how many he wrote. You know, they’d have ghostly things in or they’d go to castles or houses and … I think there was a religious theme in it as well, kind of thing, in the background probably.

Williams’ novels[i] were never particularly popular, and there was of course criticism (J B Priestley, for example, described one novel as ‘painfully incredible’). But his adherents were warm in their praise. For C S Lewis, Williams showed the ‘everyday world … invaded by the marvellous’. T S Eliot, whose firm published one of his novels, said that there were:

…no novels anywhere quite like them … [Williams] makes our everyday world much more exciting because of the supernatural which he finds always active in it. … and seeing all persons and all events in the light of the divine, he shows us a significance, in human beings, human emotions, human events, to which we had been blind.

After Williams’ novels, it happened that Madeleine’s habits changed:

… after that I don’t think I read so much really. I think I seem to have, after I had been, started me teaching, me books sort of more or less went out the window. I didn’t sort of have time I suppose, to sit and read as much.

Madeleine (third from left, back row) as a student teacher

She was training as a teacher, and then she married and had a family. She had less time or energy to read. Perhaps this is one reason the extraordinary Charles Williams remains so vivid for Madeleine. He was the author she read at the time she left her girlhood for the world of adults.

 

This post is for Thecla Wilkinson (1956-2016) who sometimes wrote for Reading Sheffield. She enjoyed Charles Williams’ novels and had planned to write about them for us.

[i] You can read some recent reviews of Williams’ novels at our sister blog, Reading 1900-1950.

Madeleine Doherty’s Reading Journey

Madeleine was born in Sheffield in 1940 and grew up near the Botanical Gardens. She lived with her parents and her brother, who was four years older. Her father was an engineer. Her mother was French and Madeleine’s French grandmother also lived with them. After leaving school, Madeleine trained as a teacher. She married and had a family; her husband taught engineering.

madeleine-treeby-1952-.okMadeleine says of the house she grew up in:

…it was a house full of books,..a lot of them were my father’s engineering books, then there’d be my mother’s French books, and then there were my brother’s books.

Her early memories of books are of being read to but by the time she was eleven she was choosing books and reading them. From this time she remembers the Milly Molly Mandy stories, a French book called Les Malheurs de Sophie about a naughty girl, a weekly comic called Sunny Stories which came out on a Friday and a series of books, The Twins, about twins in different countries. Her favourite book was a beautifully illustrated edition of The Water Babies, which was a present from her father’s mother. Although she understood French and had French books read to her, she didn’t read any herself.

She used to go to the Children’s Library in Sheffield, first with her mother and later with her brother. He would also take her to the Saturday morning film shows at the Library Theatre. When she was a bit older, she would sometimes get the tram to Ecclesall Library but she always preferred the Central Library. She loved Enid Blyton and probably read them all. She read some of her brother’s books, for example, historical stories by G.A. Henty.

Later on school became important for Madeleine’s development as a reader. She went to grammar school and when she was about 14 had a form teacher who was also Head of English. She had a cupboard full of books which anyone could borrow. Madeleine identifies this as the point at which she became an avid reader.

I used to stay up reading half the night, you know. I’d not turn my light out but I read them too fast…

She read many classic novels at this time: Thackeray, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell. She read what was there and didn’t necessarily seek out other books by writers she liked; in fact she thinks that even now there are Dickens’ novels she hasn’t read. She remembers C.S. Forester and E.M. Forster from that time as well.

Another powerful memory for Madeleine comes from when she was about 17 or 18 and she was introduced to the novels of Charles Williams by the curate at her church. He ran a youth club after church on a Sunday evening which she went to with friends, though she was the only one who borrowed books. Madeleine doesn’t recall the titles of these books but she remembers clearly their compelling quality. She has sometimes looked for them since but has never found them.

…I was absolutely hooked on those books…I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that.

Madeleine talks more about Williams than about any other writer and his books clearly had a great impact on her. He was one of the Inklings group of writers, along with Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. His novels are very difficult to categorize but are usually described as religious or supernatural thrillers. Each one features a conflict between good and evil, with powerfully drawn characters on either side. This conflict is played out in a world where the boundary between the everyday world and the spiritual world is porous, with certain characters able to move between the two. The atmosphere of the novels is uncanny and quite unmistakable.

During the 1950s, Madeleine’s family didn’t have a television though she used to watch it at friends’ houses. She remembers seeing Quatermass at a schoolfriend’s and thinking that she wanted to read it. Later on she got the book.

Madeleine went to Notts County Teacher Training College in Retford. She used to come home at weekends and collect books to read. She mentions 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World and also the novels of Nevil Shute. Madeleine’s husband wasn’t a reader and after she was married and had children, she read less. Television had a big effect. She thinks that having one meant she read less, although sometimes it would lead her to read something, as with Quatermass. Watching a television version of a book is different from reading,

…television actually spoilt people’s reading. I still believe it now. I watch things and that’s giving you a picture…and it might not be what you would have thought if you had read it yourself.

Or if you have read the book first, ‘I watch it and I think, “That’s not what I read”.’

Madeleine also enjoyed reading poetry and ‘years and years ago’ had a hardback book into which she used to copy poems. She also learned some off by heart.

She does read more now, mostly books given to her by her daughter.

Read or listen to Madeleine’s interview in full here.

Note: reviews of three of Charles Williams’ novels can be found on Reading 1900-1950 and further information about his life and work from the Charles Williams Society.

Access Madeline’s transcript and audio here