I’m having two problems in my Charles-Williams-related life right now.
The first is the inaccessibility of his books. I’m not teaching at a local campus these days—only at Signum University online, where I recently took on the role of Chair of the Department of Language and Literature, so I’ve got plenty to do—which means that I do not have a college or university library system I can use. I was keeping the Interlibrary loan department busy with my odd requests regularly when I was teaching at the local state school and/or community college, but I can’t expect my little tiny public library to do that all the time. Here’s a recent phone conversation I had with a librarian at my little local library:
Me: Hello. I’m wondering if I can submit an interlibrary loan request online.
Librarian: Yes, you can.
Me: Okay, excellent. I’m on the book’s catalog page, and I can’t see where to do it.
Librarian: I’ll talk you through it.
<gives about 20 steps, ending on the book’s catalog page>.
There you go.
Me: But… that’s where I was when we started. I still don’t see how to submit the request online.
Librarian: You have to print the page out and bring it to the library.
Me: But… you said I could do it online.
Librarian: Oh! You wanted to do it *online*?
The other solution is to use WorldCat to find a copy in a college or university library near me, sneak in, and spend a day reading the book there without checking it out. That’s what I’ve been doing a lot recently. (Don’t tell). But the ones I need to read these days aren’t anywhere near me: CW’s bio of Rochester, for instance, isn’t in any libraries within an hour drive of here. I could buy it on amazon, but I really don’t want it; I hope I never have to read his biographies more than once.
And then there are others that have never even been published, but are held in manuscript in either the Wade or the Bodleian, and I certainly can’t afford the time or the money to travel there again right now.
Therefore, I’m having to skip several of his works in my chronological blog-through. Here are the ones we are missing so far:
- Prince Rudolph of Silvania (1902, drama, in the Wade)
- Scene from a Mystery (1919, a play, I think?)
- Bethnal Green Pageant (1935, a play, in the Wade)
- Rochester (1935, a biography)
- Queen Elizabeth (1936, biography)
- Henry VII (1937, biography)
- Stories of Great Names (1937, biography)
So here is my question: Do YOU have access to any of these books? Would YOU be willing to write up a 1000-word summary like the ones I’ve been posting for the others? Please say Yes! You will be my hero!
Now on to my second complaint about Charles Williams. He’s really starting to annoy me. I shouldn’t confess that, I know. I am dedicated to getting others to read his works, to blogging my way through, to annotating his poetry (someday). But not all of his works are super great. There’s definitely a hierarchy. And even his best works feel unfinished, unpolished, inaccessible. Here’s a conversation I had recently at MidMoot with The Tolkien Professor:
Corey Olsen, talking about the house he and his wife bought recently: “We kept telling the real estate agent, ‘We don’t want “potential.” We want “actuality.”’”
Me, later, talking about getting sick of Charles Williams: “Charles Williams has a lot of potential. It would be refreshing to work on a poet with actuality.”
Corey: “So, Charles Williams is a bit of a fixer-upper?”
That’s exactly it. I want to grab my purple pen and fix up his works. If I could just re-arrange his syntax, substitute clear words for needlessly obscure ones, and cut some of the more impossible phrases, his works would be so much nicer. Maybe we could actually understand them.
It’s frustrating: I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 6 years reading his stuff, studying it, analyzing it, writing about it, transcribing it, editing it, publishing it—you’d think *I* of all people could understand it by now. And I do, at least a fair percentage. But then I pick up something like Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, and I only understand maybe 60%. That’s frustrating. Yes, it’s partly me: I’m not the brightest lightbulb in the chandelier. And maybe if I kept it up for the next 10 years, reading every book he ever read, studying the philosophers and church fathers/mothers he most loved, and getting myself initiated into a Rosicrucian secret society, then maybe I would understand.
But it’s not all me. There is an awful lot of that needless obscurity, for which C.S. Lewis scolded him, in Williams’s works. And I don’t think that a reader should have to go through that rigorous training I described above in order to enjoy a book. I don’t mind difficult, but this is near impossibility. That’s frustrating.
And the continuing revelations about his shady life, tweeted out day by day by @GrevelLindop, are also disturbing. How dare this guy call himself a Christian and set himself up as an example, a teacher, a “master” of disciples, and then continue on in his philandering ways? What’s worse is that he worked his sins into his theological system in such a way as to persuade himself (and some others) that his vices were actually virtues. That’s far worse than confessing them and getting on with sanctification. I know that’s a separate question from pure literary criticism, but it’s frustrating to me.
I’m not giving up. I just might make it through his works within the next year. There are quite a few left to go—26, by my count—but lots of them are plays and most of them I have read before, so I should be able to do it. Then I’ve got two or three chapters I’ve said I’ll write about him for various collections, and a keynote speech about him to give—and then maybe I’ll give him a rest for a while. That might be good. Maybe I can go away and study some other big topics in British Modernism, and/or Arthuriana, and then come back someday smarter and more patient, and annotate his poetry.
What do you think? Good plan??