So far on this blog, I have written about Charles Williams’ life (here, here, and here) and the best books to read first. I also gave an introduction to what he was like. Now I want to share with you more particularly about his personality. Of course, it is impossible to capture the complexities and peculiarities of a human being in words, and of course I did not know Williams, so I am writing at third hand. Yet I will do what I can, culling hints from the writings of people who knew him and from his own letters. (As usual, I am not providing in-text citations. Leave me a comment if you want them).
The best source for CW’s personality may be C.S. Lewis’ preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, in which CSL does an admirable job describing his recently deceased friend. If you read that, then balance it with the much more disturbing portrait painted by Lois Lang-Sims in Letters to Lalage. Then you will have a fairly even account.
The word that comes up over and over in descriptions of Williams’ personality is CHARISMA. When he walked into a room, people felt the place light up with charity and sanctity. Whenever he conversed with someone, that person felt more intelligent, godly, virtuous, and beautiful. He was known for a frantic, high-energy work life and a tendency to break into creative flight-of-speech. According to Lewis, everyone who met him fell in love with him. Apparently he was charismatic enough to have started his own cult, had he so desired (some think he did desire that, and some even think he did start one: his Companions of the Coinherence).
But before we get to the charismatic side of his personality, which was best expressed in his workplaces and his literary circles, there is another side we should examine first.
Williams was a man of ambivalent intellect. He lived within a constant negative capability, combining doubt and uncertainty with a choice to believe. He told his coworker Alice Mary Hadfield that “At bottom a darkness has always haunted me—as you know, I am a Christian (as far as I am) by compulsion of mind and sense.” Once when he was asked to speak at a conference about the Christian faith, he wrote to his wife, “Am I a Christian? I don’t know, but I know what Christianity possibly may be.”
This deep skepticism may be traceable to his childhood. As I mentioned before, his father took him on long walks and engaged him in profound debates, always encouraging him to consider, and even take, all sides of an argument. This habit of striving to understand all sides, including the outside, of an argument or of a system of belief appears to have stayed with him all his life. It is possible that this approach added to Williams’ difficulty in believing in the Christian faith.
This skepticism, this tendency to doubt, grew into a deep internal darkness, and even a profound misanthropy. This saintly man was, by his own report, full of “wells of hate … which are terrifying, & wells of suspicion and even malice.” Williams wrote to his wife about this weakness frequently, making such shocking remarks as: “I am in the period when I find everyone’s face repulsive; and their voices unendurable,” and “…It is extraordinary how I dislike people.” He seems to have attributed this to a kind of chronic depression, saying that he suffered from “a sense of gloom” and “It’s a gloomy day, and I am gloomy.” Although his friends were mostly unaware of the depths of this internal sadness, Lewis caught glimpses of it. He writes that Williams was characterized by “a double-sidedness [which] was the most strongly developed character of his mind.” One side was “a skeptic and even a pessimist.” Hadfield writes that “In his teens and twenties he seems to have kept the dark pit in himself boarded off from other people. The boards began to break soon after his marriage.” But there is evidence that he suffered in this way even as a child, and did not always hide it; his sister Edith reports that he was subject to “nervous explosions.”
Yet Charles Williams was an extremely lovable person: the words “saint” and “angel” come up over and over again in his friends’ descriptions, along with “radiant” and “riveting.” According to Lewis, “Both in public and in private he is of nearly all the men I have met the one whose address most overflows with love.” Upon his death, Lewis called him “my great friend Charles Williams, my friend of friends, the comforter of our little set, the most angelic.”
Auden, Eliot, and Tolkien all admired him. W. H. Auden wrote about their first meeting: “For the first time in my life…[I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity….I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.” T. S. Eliot claimed that “the man himself had an immediate charm and likeability, a radiation of benevolence and amiability” that “he was somehow protected from evil, and was himself a protection,” and that “I have never known a healthier-minded man than Williams.” Tolkien was more distant, especially later in life, reflecting back, but appreciated his work and enjoyed his company.
Williams was also “extremely attractive to young women,” and Lewis writes: “none of his male friends ever wondered why.” Young women were devoted to him in a strange, inexplicable, nearly uncontrollable way. The attraction was as to a lover, father, teacher, and master all at once. He referred to them in terms of endearment and of authority, and practiced bizarre sexual, magical rituals with them—of which more in due course.
He was also a wildly influential teacher. He was a “walking encyclopedia of literature” who could quote massive passages of poetry from memory, pacing up and down the classroom, declaiming great verse with energy and passion. He would stay after classes to talk to his students for hours, often moving from academic topics into therapy sessions on their personal problems.
He also lived as if the supernatural was always right nearby. Martin Browne wrote: “I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted.” He lifted his friends and associates up into a world of angelic order and chivalry where everyone treated everyone else with the gracious etiquette of heaven.
In sum, Williams was complex and inconsistent, but very well beloved: in any company, he “set the room aflame.” That is perhaps a better testimonial than a spotless record.