Saturday, June 6, 2015

Charles Williams: Some Puzzles Remain

So, I've now finished reading Wms' wartime letters home to his wife (TO MICHAL FROM SERGE, ed. Roma King [2002]), I find myself left puzzling over a few points.

(1) For example, when Williams expressed a wish to own slaves [p.220], was he serious? Or should this be put down to the extravagant babble he sometimes resorts to to fill the page of yet another letter home?* I wd say the latter, were it not for not one but two poems in his Taliessin series idealizing the master-slave relationship. And certainly Roy Campbell, who memorably visited the Inklings, was ardently pro-slavery long after the point when everyone else abandoned such positions.

*(of which he wrote almost seven hundred during their wartime separation -- and that's even though he and his wife got together in London most weekends)

(2) Speaking of Campbell, we know that Williams was present when Campbell gate-crashed a Tuesday Eagle-and-Child Inklings meeting [Tues. Oct 4th, 1944], yet he makes no mention of it in his letters home [cf. p. 225]. This is odd, because Williams devotes a good deal of space in the letters to mentioning important people he's met and what they had to say about his work. He does avoid topics that he knows are likely to upset his wife, so perhaps she shared some of Lewis's suspicion and dislike of Campbell.** Perhaps he did mention it, and the editor omitted this passage from these selected letters (King mentions having made "a judicious selection" from among the 680 letter total). Still, the omission seems odd; a bit of a mystery there -- a good reminder that even when we have a lot of evidence, we still don't have everything we'd like; things fall through the gaps.

**it's one of the few times I can recall CSL using the word loathe

(3) Towards the end of his time in Oxford, he muses about how few Oxford people he's met during his five years there, aside from the people who are boarding him and his fellow Oxf.Univ.Pr. workers at the (temporary, wartime) office:

"4 at Magdalen (whom I knew before),"
 David Cecil
 Eugene Lampert
Lionel Ovenden
Gervase Mathew
Miss Morrison & Miss [Helen] Gardner

Of these, "Magdalen" is Williams' name throughout these letters for The Inklings, but it's interesting to see that he doesn't think of Lord David Cecil or Gervase Mathew as members of the group. Lampert and Ovenden appear only this one time in the entire correspondence, with brief descriptors of who they are. Morrison and Gardner are the ones who arranged for Williams to give tutorials at the women's colleges, which also seem to have made up the main audience for his lectures.

The intriguing question remains re. the four Inklings whom he knew before the war. We know three of them must be CSL, Tolkien, and Warnie, but who's the fourth? Coghill, Wrenn, and Fox are all possibilities, but I'd say it's overwhelmingly likely to have been Havard.

(4) And finally, the whole business of Williams' thinking he was going to get the Professorship of Poetry [p. 227, 252]. I've seen this referred to before, but I've never seen any sign that it was more of a pipe-dream on Williams' part, like his wistfully hoping to become Poet Laureate [p. 125, 193]. But apparently he thought it was a serious possibility, and that he wouldn't even have to stay in Oxford to hold the post but could commute back and forth from London. It all seems wildly improbable to me. He seems on much more solid ground in his hope that he'd get a Readership (though I'm not familiar enough with the Oxford system to know whether this would make him a Fellow as well), but his reasoning for this was odd:

I found myself this morning thinking how admirable 
it would be if I could get a Readership here when I retire.
I know it may be only a dream; on the other hand, CSL 
& Tolkien are only human, and are likely to take more
trouble over a project which would enable them to see
a good deal more of me than over anything that didn't.
And I think, in the future, they may take steps. Let
me know your reaction . . . O I know; a thousand
things may go wrong. Still . . . we have not altogether
failed to put ourselves over Oxford. And Oxford
might . . . it just might . . . want me
[p. 189]

--when I first read this, I took it as saying that Lewis and Tolkien were "only human" and so might fail in their attempt to secure Williams the post. But going back and rereading it, I see that he's actually saying that, being only human, they won't be able to resist taking any steps which will secure for them the pleasure of his company. Which seems a bit much.

--John R.
current reading: TO MICHAL FROM SERGE (just finishing), CHARLES WILLIAMS: AN EXPLORATION OF HIS LIFE AND WORK by Hadfield (just started re-reading)
current music, from the haven't-listened-to-in-a-long-long-time: MODERN TIMES by Jefferson Starship, STATE OF CONFUSION by The Kinks



David Bratman said...

I'd have to re-read the book to be definitive about these things, but:

1) Although Williams says in the letters phrase like "going to Magdalen" when he clearly means the Inklings, it's not entirely certain that this always means the Inklings. As ever, we must be careful about jumping to conclusions here.

2) I recall a letter in which Williams recounts meeting Cecil, I believe at the Inklings. He's flattered than an aristocrat knows who he is.

3) I can't say if this sheds any light on who the "4 at Magdalen" are. But Mathew, though known to the Inklings, is not recorded as attending until after the war.

4) Despite Tolkien's later distancing of himself from Williams, he and Lewis certainly did put themselves to some effort to secure positions for him. They gave him lectureships and tutorial positions during the war, they probably sponsored and certainly did not object to his being asked to join the Dante Society - the only member without formal academic affiliation that the Society had ever had - and they certainly encouraged and applauded his receiving of an M.A., even if they did not arrange for it (it appears to have been a customary honor for senior OUP editors).

Considering that the Inklings had already elected Adam Fox Professor of Poetry, it's not in the least surprising to me that Williams might think they would do it for him, especially as it'd be the perfect job for him: one he could do part time from London without having to give up his job at the OUP and the pension he'd get on retirement. A readership would be less easy to combine. This would be a Department of English job (and thus fairly easy for Lewis and Tolkien to arrange for), and though usually held by college fellows would not, I think, require the holder to be one.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

"4) Despite Tolkien's later distancing of himself from Williams, he and Lewis certainly did put themselves to some effort to secure positions for him. They gave him lectureships and tutorial positions during the war"

--I think if you check, it's not "They" (Tolkien and Lewis) but Tolkien who had the authority to assign lecturers and the like. No doubt Lewis's support helped, but it was Tolkien who actually drew up the schedules as to who would be responsible for lecturing on what and when. Some of his memos survive among the material at Marquette wh. arrange for who will take which classes; I was just looking at them last month. Tutorials seem to have been a more informal process, and it's clear that once Wms got started the women's colleges were eager to have him continue. That Wms too lectured mainly to women at Oxford is something I wd have devoted a footnote to in my piece on Tolkien's support for women in academia ("The Missing Women", now in the book PERILOUS AND FAIR), had I known about ti at the time.

--John R.
current reading: a book on the Crow Indians (Apsaalooke), bought in Billings seven years ago, having patiently waited its turn.

David Bratman said...

Yes, I knew it was Tolkien who drew up the schedules, but that only reinforces my point, and Lewis was not uninvolved in the effort to find Williams academic work. So for simplicity's sake I named them both.