Life is far stranger than fiction. Life narrated in fiction in even stranger. You might not believe the following story (I scarcely do myself), but it is “true,” in some sense or other. Ready?
Sometime around 1926, CW fell in love with Phyllis Jones. There followed a few years of a passionate office romance, casting all of their coworkers as actors in a myth of earthly harmony. CW’s good friend Gerry Hopkins (nephew of the poet) was particularly involved, performing in CW’s plays and sharing in their daily life at OUP.
It appears that Phyllis returned CW’s love for a time, but the affair was never sexually consummated. After a while, she may have become overwhelmed by his literary outpouring in her direction, and began to cool towards him a bit. According to Hadfield, in 1929 she “began to slip from him,” and for the next two years all his plays are about “the death of love.” Yet he continued to pour out passionate letters, poems, plays, and novels to or about her until at least 1942, fictionalizing their (largely imaginary) relationship in an enormous variety of genres and permutations.
In August of 1930, Phyllis broke her leg in a horseback-riding accident, there were medical complications, and her health and life were in serious danger. In the period of intense emotion surrounding her injury, CW found out that Phyllis and Hopkins loved each other.
Phyllis had rejected CW—a middle-aged, married man—and chosen Hopkins—another middle-aged, married man. Clearly, her rejection of CW was not on moral grounds. The horror of her misplaced passion nearly drove CW mad. The only way he could deal with it was how he dealt with everything: by writing about it. “Letters to Phyllis poured out of him,” and he turned his agony into, of all things, a new literary theory. He called it “the Celian moment”: what Barbara Newman describes as “a trope for ideal love, or the revelation of divine beauty through the vision of the beloved,” or more particularly, through the second beloved woman (the first, Florence, corresponds to Beatrice; the second, Phyllis/Celia, corresponds to Dante’s “lady at the window”).
I have recently finished reading the novel, and I too am “staggered.” It’s an astonishing piece of work. What’s so shocking about it? Here are a few points.
• The first shocker: I now feel as if I know Charles Williams far, far better than I did before. Hopkins’ portrait of him is vivid and unforgettable, as told by the Hopkins’ character, Ralph Giffard. The Williams character is named Peter Meriden, and he is a painter (not a poet). He is small, ugly, long-armed, large-headed, and bursting with a passionate energy that is almost inhuman. He fixes his attention on an object with extreme intensity, focusing his vital forces with all the discipline acquired from a decade of occult practice. Here is the most remarkable passage about his transference of energies:
Peter Meriden was standing, his back to the view and to the startled, suddenly distracted observer upon the terrace. His head was tilted backward; his arms hung loosely. He was gazing at something upon the house wall, and his back showed the intensity of a pointing dog. Every nerve, every muscle, seemed tense: he made not the slightest movement, staring upwards…. Never, [Ralph] thought, had he seen so intense a degree of absorption. The window above seemed to be drawing, almost physically, every quality of active life from the watcher’s body. Meriden’s mouth was sightly open, his eyes intent beneath a bending frown. But just as, seeing the man’s smile for the first time, Ralph had been made aware of a double process, a systole, as it were, and diastole of the spirit, so now it seemed to him that the frozen gaze, drawn from the body by its object, was, in its turn grasping, possessing, mastering the very materials, stone, glass, and fabric, taking into the receptive self an essence that it needed as the lungs need air or the stomach food. It was extraordinary, that gaze, and rather frightening, and after a moment Ralph turned away, treading carefully, almost shamefacedly, as though he had been spying inadvertently upon a privacy. (p. 28)
Meriden is an embarrassing and difficult friend, with wild mood swings and lavish public displays of emotion. At one point, he and his friends go out for an evening of dinner and theatre, and he nearly ruins the whole thing by having a sulky fit because the Phyllis character (Perdita Joan Croft) won’t wear the dress he wants her to wear. But then once they are all out together, he puts on a ridiculous, childish show of voluble enjoyment:
…in the Tube he began a flow of conversation which continued almost without interruption until the curtain rose nearly two hours later upon the detective drama he had chosen as the evening’s crowning pleasure. The change in his mood was as complete as it was unexpected. At each stage of their advance he became progressively more cheerful, bursting head foremost through the daunting rattle of the train, astounding the brasserie where they ate beneath the rumble of Piccadilly Circus, disquieting the rather solemn ladies of the pit queue, who lifted frightened eyes from their books and papers, and pulled their camp stools rather ostentatiously away from the vociferous and gesticulating invasion. (p. 82-3)
While waiting in line to get into the theatre, Meriden starts a loud and totally socially unacceptable conversation about the symbolic meanings of homosexuality.
His voice was loud enough to carry beyond their own particular group, and a shudder, an almost audible gasp, seemed to reach them from the closer couples…. A sort of horrible fascination seemed to keep their neighbors within earshot of the discussion…. Ralph, on the outskirts of the talk, could see clearly the prurient curiosity, the fascinated distaste, in the eyes of the waiting crowd, and the sight infuriated him. (p. 86, 87)
Here is another moment that seems characteristically CW. Ralph and Meriden have a passionate argument about their attitudes to the past, and:
It was Ralph’s first experience of a characteristic that was later to be constantly a matter of amusement and not infrequent embarrassment, of the other’s forgetfulness in argument or in a thought’s first onset, of place and occupation, so that he would stop in a crowded street (once, with his foot on the step of an omnibus that jerked away impatiently and flung him nearly in front of a following taxi), in the middle of a meal, amidst the polite conversation of strangers, to follow out the implications of a point, or to vocalise an enthusiasm. And at such moments, restless though his mind seemed to be, and his paintings all of a rush, he would show an odd immobility, sitting or standing without movement while the fit was on him. Beyond half-humorous resentment at the social complications in which, as a result of this eccentricity, he was apt to find himself involved, Ralph found himself by degrees growing fearful of this intensity of thought and partly envious of it. (p. 50-1)
Yes, of course: I know it’s fiction. I’m struggling here with a particular mental process that I want to share with you. I’m both a scholar (of sorts) and a creative writer (of a few sorts) myself. I recently wrote a novel in which the two main characters were loosely based on myself and one of my best friends, just to get a grounding for their two personalities, and then the characters took off and did their own thing. The people in the book are no longer me and my friend, by any means. But as I read Nor Fish Nor Flesh, I felt like I knew for certain, at any given moment, which bits were fiction and which bits were actual memories of Hopkins’ interactions with CW. I felt like I could mark sentence by sentence which ones he made up and which ones were taken “from the life.”
Obviously, that’s a dangerous interpretation for me to make. I’m basing Hopkins’ writing process off of my own, for one thing (and everybody’s process is different), and I’m making historical judgements about things that are undocumented. But wait! They are not entirely undocumented. We do have testimonies by CW’s other friends about what he was like. Hopkins’ descriptions, made lively and thorough in this fictionalized context, match up to the more prosy accounts given of him by his contemporaries: Lewis, Eliot, Auden, Hadfield, Lang-Sims, Heath Stubbs, and others. And there are his own writings, published and unpublished, including private letters. So there is some historical evidence for his personality that we can put against this novel and see what rings true. Combining that with my own inside look at writing fiction, then, made me fairly confident about what was a realistic description of CW and what was modified for the sake of the story.
• Several other elements astonished me. There is surprisingly explicit hermetic content; was Hopkins, too, in a secret society? I do not know. The novel is a meta-novel: a commentary on the process of writing novels, and a condemnation of the making of life in to art, as if that is to objectify and commodify life. There is no Christian content, and absolutely zero guilt for adultery, as least for the sexual part of it; there is a little bit of compunction for the emotional infidelity.
• The unflinching accuracy (or putative accuracy) of Hopkins’ self-analysis and self-condemnation is startling. His character is introspective to a fault, and loses the girl in the end because he is in love with the past and cannot see the present. It is a good novel in its own right: not great, certainly not flawless, but a good novel, with sharp psychological analysis. Its biggest blemish is structural unsoundness: the book begins as an investigation of a remarkable friendship: Hopkins’s character is overwhelmed by Williams’, and the book sets out to explore their relationship. Yet after the interposition of the love story, the friendship tale never returns. Yes, I know it’s based on nonfiction—but one must make sure to shape the story in a literary way. Instead, the Williams character simply drops out of the narrative almost completely. He makes one notable appearance (at the equivalent scene to Phyllis’s riding accident), then is never seen again. This is disappointing to a Williams fan, but also just a literary letdown: since the novel is interesting in its own right, even if it weren’t about Williams, it should have stayed true to its own beginnings and followed through with a well-rounded structure.
• Here’s another big shocker: the Phyllis character (Perdita) apparently never knows that the Williams character (Meriden) is in love with her! It seems she never has the slightest hint. He paints her portrait, tries to help her develop her own mediocre artistic talents, attempts to further her career, and makes sacrifices for her comfort, but the thought that he loves her never seems to cross her mind. The Hopkins character doesn’t know it until very, very late in the book, and even then Meriden’s confession is merely a subtle lamentation over the impossibility of anyone’s ever loving him. It is nothing like the story we get from CW’s perspective: his declared, partially and temporarily returned, life-long, literary, romantic passion. CW’s love (if that’s what we can call it) for Phyllis was arguably the defining event of his adult life (if we consider Florence and the FRC as part of his formative years). Not only did Phyllis know about it: everyone knew about it! His whole workplace was in on the open secret. The only person who didn’t know was Florence, and she found out sometime in or after 1930. By 1933, then, the whole world knew. CW’s office-mates had performed the Masques in which his love grows visibly. He had already published Many Dimensions, whose female protagonist (Chloe) is modeled on Phyllis. So Hopkins appears to have downplayed and silenced CW’s love, perhaps to try to protect his friend’s feeling, perhaps in a desire for vengeance, or perhaps out of a kind of self-deception that his friend didn’t really love the girl as much as he did.
• One of the biggest astonishments is contained in the title, Nor Fish Nor Flesh. What in the world does that mean? There is no explanation given in the text. Images of fishes are absent. Nobody meditates on that metaphor.
It seems that this phrase, “Nor fish nor flesh,” is perhaps a somewhat common British saying. It appears in a play by Thomas Heywood (c. 1570-1641), talking about whether something is a fish or not: One character says: “It is nor fish nor flesh,” and another responds: “Nor good red herring.” In this work by Ruskin, it is used in parallel with a book being “neither Scotch nor English,” i.e., neither one thing nor another. In this random chat forum, somebody accuses of Anglican of being “neither fish nor flesh”; I assume this means neither Catholic nor Protestant. And in this awful racist discussion, somebody says that “Turks” are “nor fish nor flesh” because they are both/neither “eastern” and/nor “westernized.” Anyway, you get the idea.
It would take a perspicacious reader indeed to interpret the main character’s love of the past as an indication that he doesn’t fit with either nature (fish) or humanity (flesh). I only have any idea what it means because of this passage in CW’s Taliession Through Logres, published in 1938. The poet, Taliessin (one of CW’s alter-egos), is singing a song about his mysterious origins and his ambiguous identity:
It is a doubt if my body is flesh or fish,
therefore no woman will ever wish to bed me
and no man make true love without me.
In the Arthurian poetry, Taliessin and Blanchefleur fall in love, but dedicate themselves to celibacy. She joins a convent. His love, then, is a kind of rarified spiritual passion that transmutes the desires of the flesh into the desires of the spirit. He is neither fish nor flesh: he doesn’t belong to either this world or the other exclusively, but serves as a kind of mediator between then. He is an initiate of both of the Two Ways: practicing Negation in his relationship with Blanchefleur, but practicing Affirmation in his making of poetry. He is also, as CW himself, the poet of Romantic Theology: therefore no one is ever truly in love without having something of Taliessin in themselves.
Wait, so CW stole those lines from Hopkins’ title? Or was CW’s poem “The Calling of Taliessin” already circulating in draft among his friends as early as 1933, and Hopkins saw it? Who is making fun of whom? Is Hopkins mocking CW by using a line of his own poetry against him? Or is CW gently mocking himself by appropriating the title of the novel?
I don’t know. And I don’t know how to find out.