Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Charles Williams in the TLS

So, thanks to David Doughan for letting me know about a letter to the editor regarding Charles Williams that appeared in a recent issue of the TLS (TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT). The letter itself wasn't available through the online TLS at their website (that is, not to non-subscribers), so I put off posting about this till I had time to go down to Suzzallo-Allen and make a copy of the piece. Having done so, but before I got around to posting anything re. it to the blog, I discovered that there'd been not one, not two, but three follow-up letters, plus (what I had not known before) that the original letter was in response to the cover story of a previous issue. So here's the whole sequence:

(1) Geoffrey Hill's cover-story review of Grevil Lindop's new biography THE THIRD INKLING [March 25th, cover + pages 3-5]

(2) letter from Olivia Byard re. Anne Ridler [April 8th, p. 6]. This is the original letter David D. drew to my attention.

(3) letter from A. N. Wilson objecting to Hill's review and Byard's letter [April 15th, p. 6]

(4) letter from Andrew McCullach praising Ridler [also from April 15th]

(5) letter from Andrew Anderson praising Wms' poetry and expressing puzzlement at Hill's review [April 22nd]

Of all of these, by far the weirdest is the original article. I'm not familiar with Hill's work, but a little checking revealed he's a distinguished figure, the former Professor of Poetry at Oxford (a title Wms coveted but that eluded him). And yet what he writes here seems to me to be willfully obtuse.

First and foremost, Hill objects strongly to the 'Third Inkling' in the book's title -- yet surely the only reason anyone reads or has even heard of Wms today is through his links with the Inklings; it's pretty much the only thing that has kept him from sliding off into oblivion. Hill values Wms chiefly as a critic --which I think as eccentric a view as saying CSL shd be remembered primarily as a poet. He focuses his discussion of Wms' writings on a single unfinished and unpublished poem, passing breezily over the novels -- the works by wh. Wms is best known today -- and I don't think even  mentioning that Wms was a playwright (a part of his work so important to him that his persona in his next to last novel is universally recognized as the great playwright of his day). Instead Hill wanders off into discussions of Coventry Patmore and Walter Landor, Robert Lowell and Ford Madox Ford; anything, it seems, to avoid discussing Wms himself. Insofar as Hill has any thesis, I think it's that he sees a spark in Wms that, had he followed up on it rather than get distracted by all that Arthurian business, might have led to his becoming a poet Hill wd have found interesting.

I think I'll file this one under damning with v. faint praise.

Two tangential points: Hill repeats, without much comment, the famous story of Wms' lecture on chastity. I have to say that my sympathies here have always been with the students, who thought they'd come for a lecture and wound up getting preached at for an hour (or howeverlong an Oxford lecture of the day was). I've been in classrooms like that, and can imagine the sinking feeling when it sunk in to one and all that they weren't getting any answer that wd help on their exams.

And secondly, I was surprised to see that Lindop's book has achieved the feat of getting Wms's picture on the cover of the TLS -- something I'm pretty sure Wms never pulled off in his lifetime. A pity their caricaturist made him look exactly like T. S. Eliot, whom he really didn't resemble at all.

Next up were the letters. First Olivia Byard had a piece ("Anne Ridler and Charles Williams") that essentially argues that Rider was a promising young poet who was captured by Wms to her own detriment. Byard reveals what I had not known before, that Ridler was another of the young women with whom Wms engaged in dodgy practices: "[she] had a ten-year romantic relationship with Williams from the age of eighteen on. It was never completely consumated, but she describes long years of titillation, secret meetings and control -- something she thought she would never escape, until Vivian Ridler came into her life". Essentially Byard advocates a new appraisal of Ridler's work, independently of the shadow her involvement with Wms cast across her life and works.

This strongly worded piece called forth two responses under the shared header "Anne Ridler and Charles Williams". The first is a defense of Wms by A. N. Wilson, who had written glowingly of Wms a few months back in his own review of Lindop's book. Wilson describes Byard's letter as "mean-spirited" and praises Wms' poetry, theology, and novels. The second letter, by Andrew McCulloch, devotes his letter to praising Ridler and her poetry.

Finally (so far as I know) came a letter ("Charles Williams") from Andrew Anderson, expressing his puzzlement at the review and his own personal enjoyment of Wms' Arthurian poems. So the somewhat fractious sequence came to a quiet end in appreciation of a poet little-read today but of whom Lindop has written hoping to revive some interest therein. He's certainly succeeded in raising Wms' profile after many years of his drifting toward oblivion, or at least settling into a very small  and out of the way niche. Now the interesting thing will be to see if it takes.

--John R.
current reading: this and that (Lovecraft's Letters; THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW; bits of Lewis & Currie's pseudo-biography of JRRT.; bits of Tolkien Mss; &c)


David Bratman said...

My response to this is a little long, so I put it on my blog and LJ.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

re. your blog post: 'oblivion' is perhaps hyperbolic; 'obscure' wd be nearer the mark. We're seeing a serious effort in the last year or so to rehabilitate Wms and recapture a shadow of his 1938-1947 reputation: the Zeleskis' book, Lindop's book (many years in the making), and what seems to be A. N. Wilson's efforts to recapture John Wain's hero worship of the man. And I'd be remiss not to mention the ongoing good work by Sorina Higgins on her blog, THE ODDEST INKLING.

And yet I think all this good work will be its own reward but ultimately unsuccessful in reviving Wms above the level of a v. strange man who had the reputational good fortune to befriend CSL and JRRT. He was an Inkling, and in the end that will be the most important thing remembered about him.

--John R.

David Bratman said...

If your point is that CW is primarily known of today because of his Inklings connection, I can only agree. And you seem to be withdrawing the implication that without that, he'd by now be completely unknown.

That leaves only the question of whether "The Third Inkling" was a well-chosen subtitle for a full biography that doesn't focus on his Inklings connection, and I maintain it was not. There could have been other ways to get it up there where people would notice it, without a misleading emphasis. When I wrote a biographical article on Hugo Dyson, I titled it "Hugo Dyson: Inkling, Teacher, Bon Vivant." Something like that.