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.

Frank Burgin’s reading journey

The only son of a miner and a onetime housemaid, Frank Burgin was born in 1938 in Mosborough, then a small pit village outside Sheffield.  After leaving school, he worked in engineering, a job interrupted by two years of National Service.  Later, when his work at Laycock Engineering became less satisfying, he worked as a technician at the University of Sheffield and, in time, taught in further and higher education in Sheffield.  In recent years,  Frank got his PhD. 

frank-burgin-1953

The book was by Hemingway and Frank had not warmed to Hemingway, but it was no good.  He still had to stand up and talk about it.

You were given a book you had to read before you went and then as part of the course you’d got to talk about it to the rest of the group.

Frank was not, as you might suppose, a student of literature in a tutorial, but a teenage apprentice at the Sheffield firm of Laycock Engineering in the 1950s.  Laycocks is famous in automobile design for the Laycock de Normanville Overdrive, which Frank described as ‘what we had before they invented 5th gears in cars … quite a sophisticated piece of engineering’.

I started work at 15 as an apprentice at Laycock Engineering which of course is now Sainsbury’s at Millhouses.  I still get a funny feeling when I go in there, when I see a bit of wall… that was the fitters… That was the tool room where I used to work.  I still get the feeling that people must get when they walk down the street and find out that the house that they were born in has been knocked down… it’s become flats. You know, there’s a part of your life gone, and I’m a bit like that with Laycocks.

By the 1950s, the firm was part of the Birfield Industries group, and it seemed to be Birfield policy to bring together their apprentices at Goldicoates, a country house owned by the company.

It was a course.  You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

And the Hemingway?  Frank couldn’t remember the title but:

I talked about it. I presented it, I can remember doing it.  I’m sure very, very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue-tied and say aye, well it were crap, like some did.

Perhaps the reason Frank coped with the task was that he had long been a reader, enjoying ‘fairly escapist fiction … not particularly literary but they certainly had something’. (He still reads enthusiastically by the way – ‘bits of physics’ and sci fi and fantasy that is ‘totally and utterly zany’– and these days uses a Kindle.)  Frank’s parents, who had only an elementary school education, were ‘habitual readers’ and saw books as a way for their young son to avoid the hardship they’d known during the ‘terrible economic times of the 1930s’.

Oh, I used to get all the time – look, lad, you’ve got to have some book larnin else you’ll get nowhere.  He [Frank’s father] didn’t know what I’d got to learn, he knew that I’d got to be learning it from books … somewhere. And I was pushed and encouraged to do at well at school which I didn’t particularly.

In fact, Frank failed the important exam which in those days determined the type of secondary education he would get:

I failed part 1 of the 11 plus exam absolutely miserably of course, but nobody had ever done anything about preparing us for the 11 plus exam or even telling us that it was important.

This led, however, to his joining Laycocks, and one day finding himself talking about Hemingway to his fellow apprentices.  The incident seemed to have a big – perhaps even life-changing – impact on Frank.  Why, after all, did Birfield go to all the trouble?

… to get us away from the back page of the Star and things like that … No, it was all done to make us think.  Some of us did think.  It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was [sic] there.  I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.

frank-burgin-soldier-arrow

You can read and listen to Frank’s interview in full here.