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.