Two weeks ago we looked at CW’s childhood and early life, 1886-1908. Last week we examined the first phase of his career, 1908-1939. Today we discuss his final, most prolific years, 1939-1945. Please send me any questions you have about his life, and I will attempt to answer them in comments or subsequent posts.
In 1939, Britain went to war against Germany, and Hitler began bombing London. The London branch of the Oxford University Press was evacuated to Oxford, and another season of CW’s life began with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Inklings, and Oxford University. This was his most fruitful phase.
Williams and Lewis had already met through letters. The story is delightful. CW, as editor at OUP, was seeing CSL’s book The Allegory of Love through publication. He was reading it in proofs and glorying in its similarity (as he thought) to his Outlines of Romantic Theology, thinking he had found a kindred spirit–when lo and behold! he got a fan letter from CSL praising The Place of the Lion. CW replied: “If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.” [A Pilgrim in Narnia has posted these letters here]. Thus when CW moved to Oxford with the Press, he found a community ready-made.
The Inklings were very good for Williams. Remember that he did not receive a thorough formal education (but read this). He did not follow the accepted system of public prep school then an Oxbridge degree. He came from a working-class family, went to local grammar schools, then struggled to pay for a few semesters of a London university. He had not read the classics in chronological order; he had no training in logic, rhetoric, or systematic theology. He had rarely met a mind that could compete with his, with the unfortunate results of sloppy syntax, inexact logic, and an inflated self-assessment.
Lewis was his match. You should read through the first four letters they exchanged; the difference in attitudes is astonishing. Lewis is clear, colloquial, and direct. Williams is courtly, polite, and evasive. Lewis slaps him with their disagreement; Williams pretends they agree. It is a lovely sparring match between Lewis’ slashing broadsword and Williams’ cool rapier work.
Lewis adored, almost worshiped, him, writing that “everyone who met him fell in love with him.” His influence can be felt in Lewis’ later work, especially That Hideous Strength.
Tolkien was a bit more suspicious. Perhaps he was jealous of Lewis’ ardor. Perhaps he suspected the existence of mystical, magical, sexual secrets (of which he certainly would not have approved) under the suave manners.
In any case, the Inklings were CW’s greatest consolation during six terrible years. He was deeply depressed in Oxford. He did not like the city. He had to stay in other people’s houses, conforming to their schedules and using a plank over a bathtub for a desk. He was constantly disturbed by air-raid sirens and blackout warnings. He suffered, as everyone did, from the severe rationing, often unable to get a decent cup of tea.
Most of all—or so he claimed—he missed his wife. Michal stayed in London to look after their flat, moving out to a country cousin’s whenever the bombing became too heavy. CW wrote her constant, longing, loving letters. He lived for their occasional weekends together, from which he returned refreshed in body and spirit.
But he was also writing to Phyllis again, and even occasionally saw her in Oxford. At some point in the 1920s, Williams’ office-mate Fred Page had told Michal about CW’s emotional affair with Phyllis. It is not surprising that there were fireworks and glaciers of emotion. What is surprising is that CW never had a physical affair, stayed with Michal, and somehow managed to patch up their marriage and even make it something sweet and comforting.
Meanwhile, CW’s son Michael often came to stay with his father, but their relationship was tempestuous. He eventually moved back with his mother. CW’s personal life was bleak.
But his professional life was looking up. The novels he wrote throughout the ’30s earned him some popularity, though not as much as he thought he deserved. Through Lewis’ manipulation, Williams gave a guest-lecture at Magdalen College (on Milton’s Comus) on January 20th, 1940, after which he gave many tutorials and lectures. Finally, recognition came: he was awarded an honorary M.A. from Oxford University on February 18th, 1943.
CW thought he was finally coming into his own. In 1938 Taliessin Through Logres was published—his best poetry so far. He followed this with The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944. He wrote his two great All Hallow’s Eve (1945). He published his masterful revision of Romantic Theology, which was also his masterpiece of theology and literary criticism, The Figure of Beatrice, in 1943. He began revising all the Arthurian poetry into a narrative whole. It looked liked Oxford would hire him for a professorship. The war was winding down. It seemed that he and Michal would do well together, make good money, settle together in a house, and finally be free from editorial duties and hack-work writing gigs. He could be a professor and a poet at last, secure, happy, and famous.
And then he died unexpectedly on May 15th, 1945, just a week after victory was declared in Europe. He suffered intussusception after a minor operation.
C.S. Lewis was on his way to a meeting of the Inklings, heard that Williams was in hospital, and stopped by to lend him a book. Upon arrival at the hospital and inquiring after Williams, Lewis was told that CW had just died that morning.
CSL wrote a beautiful, poignant poem on CW’s death, recalling their conversations. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that his sense of CW’s presence after death was astonishing: “what the idea of death has done to him is nothing to what he has done to the idea of death.”
CW was cut off in the flower of his poetic mastery, and we are the poorer for the loss.
I like this: “Lewis was his match.” Well done. I felt sad reading this.
I’m sorry you felt sad — but isn’t it fascinating how moved we can be by reading the lives of people in the past, or even of fictional people?
I throw myself into the story. My wife can predict endings–I can’t. I’m lost in the world of the story until it’s done.
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Good to see this three part biography – more detailed than previously available online I think.
A couple of corrections – Williams School was/ is a Public School
and is indeed very grand
I don’t think there was any talk of Williams becoming a ‘Professor’ as such (Lewis was not a Professor at that time), but rather CW wrote to his wife that Lewis was arranging from him to become a *Reader* – which was one rank down from Professor (an English Professor in C.W’s time was about equivalent to the Chair of a US department). (I am a Reader!)
I look forward to your detailed reflections to come.
Thanks for these details, Bruce. Much appreciated. It is difficult for us Americans to understand the school system in the U.K., since the words mean almost the opposite. Here, a “public” school is the most accessible, the least elite, with the reputation of having the lowest academic standards. It would never be a boarding school. So, what you’re telling us is that the grammar school in St. Alban’s is one of the nine English independent schools, along with Eton and Harrow? That is very important.
Right: again, I was using “Professor” in the more generic American way, which means “anybody who teaches at a college or university, regardless of actual rank.” I am an adjunct, with the rank of lecturer, and my students have the option to call me “Professor.” Lewis was a Tutor for most of his career, correct?
“So, what you’re telling us is that the grammar school in St. Alban’s is one of the nine English independent schools, along with Eton and Harrow? That is very important. ”
The first line of the Wikipedia entry says “St Albans School is a public school in the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, in the East of England.”
There are the nine public schools you mention, but the term is most often used to refer to those whose Headmasters are members of the Headmaster’s Conference – of which there are many more.
Here is the list:
You’ll see that Tolkien’s King Edward’s Birmingham, Lewis’s Malvern and Williams’s St Albans are all on the list.
Some of these are/were residential boarding schools, mostly rural, like Malvern; and some are the ancient city grammar schools which are mostly day schools – like St Albans and King Edwards.
My point is that Lewis came from an educational background not as dissimilar from Tolkien and Lewis as is often made out. But with parents as shop owners his class background was lower.
When he was born his father was a clerk, which was at the very bottom, right on the border, of the upper class (‘gentleman’) – but owning a small shop was lower class. Going to university was so rare in those days that it did not have much to do with defining someone’s class – clearly it was upper class, but most upper class men did not go to university: school was much more important.
And as a clerk for the Oxford University Press, Williams was again uper class, although right at the very bottom, on the borderline. As an editor, he was definitely upper class.
So why all the fuss about Williams being different, which Lewis and others wrote about?
I think it was mostly a matter of accent: Williams clearly has a South East England, lower class accent. In those days, and this still applies, class is judged by accent and general manners; probably because accent is very difficult to fake – the insider can nearly always detect it.
(This comes up in Dorothy L Sayers Peter Wimsey stories, when people sometimes betray their dishonesty by lapses of manners, dialect and the like.)
Why Williams happened to retain a lower class accent is hard to explain – sometimes it just happens (and of course nowadays lower class it is affected, by upper class media people such as DJs and pop musicians – with the ‘Mockney’ or mock-cockney accent – and Leftist politicians such as Tony Blair), but it led to this labelling of CW as lower class, which was not really justified by the facts of his biography.
Reblogged this on Liturgical Credo and commented:
Third and final installment of Sorina Higgins’ bio on Charles Williams.
I’ve at last managed to read CW’s WWII ‘Serge to Michal’ letters, and reviewed them here:
Great! Thanks for sharing this.