The Dawn of the Age of CW: Mini-Review of “The Third Inkling”

51KzHDR-TwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The official biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, written by Grevel Lindop and published by Oxford University Press, is scheduled to be released tomorrow! I have had an advance copy for a few days now, and let me tell you: It has been worth the wait, and you will not be disappointed! I am awash in happiness as I read this book: it’s big, thick, thoughtful, and rewarding. It is top-notch scholarship written in a beautiful style. There are quite a few surprises about CW (pleasant and otherwise!), and layers and layers of rich detail. It is hard to review the biography itself without slipping into a review of CW’s character–so I will try to do the one first and the other second. This is only a mini-review, as I have not finished reading the book (I’ve only had it for 5 days and spent 1 of those on the road and another in the ER!) and plan to reread it carefully, making notes, etc., so I will review it again more thoroughly later. I also plan to write reviews focusing on various aspects for Books & Culture and for Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal.

grevel

Grevel Lindop, poet and biographer

So, then: let me review the quality of Grevel Lindop’s research and writing in this book. I think it’s perfect. That’s saying a lot from critical old me. I have a hard time with weird prose styles, and lots of biographies are written in a strange, disconnected manner, with unrelated facts crammed into the same sentence. This is not. Grevel’s prose style is lovely! It’s smooth, precise, intelligent, and aesthetically pleasing. This is probably the result of his many years as a practicing poet. So that’s the first hurdle: the sentences are smooth and sweet, making the reading of this long book a pleasure.

Then there’s structure. It is very difficult to shape a biography into a coherent, compelling narrative. I visited with Louisa Gilder on Monday evening, author of The Age of Entanglement, and we talked quite a bit about the shaping of biographies. Right now, Louisa is working with the manuscript of a biography about Edith Wharton. This MS was written in French, and after the author’s death, her widow asked the Edith Wharton estate and The Mount to publish the book. They hired Louisa to edit, reshape, revise, and polish the book for publication. The original material with which she’s working wasn’t all in chronological order, so she has had to revise it extensively. Anyway, Grevel has structured his biography beautifully. Each chapter has its own narrative arc, building to some high point or turning point in CW’s life. The book as a whole has a lovely progression, but without implying that the Life was moving toward some pre-determined climax. biography

And then there’s the research. This is meticulously done. It is thorough and far-reaching. In fact, the scholarship is so good that it gives rise to the only disappointment that I have experienced while reading this: There’s no gossip. I haven’t learned a whole lot of new, juicy facts about CW’s private life. If there isn’t evidence, Grevel hesitates to put forward speculation. There are a few times that he says something “may be” or “probably is” the case, but I trust these instances because they are so rare and restrained.

As a work of biographical scholarship, then, The Third Inkling leaves nothing to be desired. I will read it and read it again and again and recommend it to everyone I think might have even the slightest interest. Bravo, Grevel! It’s been worth the wait!

But then, there’s The Third Inkling himself. What does this bio tell me about CW? Do I feel differently about him than I did before? What has it revealed about his character that I didn’t know before?

Phyllis

Phyllis Jones

In short, it has confirmed all my worst suspicions. His affair with Phyllis Jones was uglier and creepier than I knew–she once wrote him a letter suggesting they go to a toy store and buy a cane and a delicate whip and then rent a hotel room for six hours of fun. She sat on his lap. They kissed. The volume and passion of their love letters is extensive. He even once threatened to renounce Christianity if she left him.

His involvement with the occult was also more extensive than we have previously known. I won’t spoil the biggest surprise about that–read the biography to find out for yourselves!–but let’s say CW was involved with more groups and for much longer periods than we knew, and that his magical experimentation (as opposed to the purely mystical) was probably considerable.

I’d also say, however, that this book helps me to understand CW much, much better. Perhaps I may judge his behavior and beliefs to be sinful or erroneous, but I can certainly see why he did and thought those things, given his background, upbringing, struggles, disappointments, and influences. And really, in the end, perhaps that is what a biography is for: to understand its human subject fully as a person, as someone I now know.

Well done, Grevel!

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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24 Responses to The Dawn of the Age of CW: Mini-Review of “The Third Inkling”

  1. Tony Fuller says:

    I agree – it is indeed an astounding biography. And I too will not spoil readers pending pleasure by giving tidbits. But I can add that I have some additional material on the involvement of the Anglican clergy with the occult if any are interested. The good Reverend A.H. Lee, for example, remained an active “Chief” of the Amoun Temple of the Stella Matutina right up to – at least – 1938 and he collaborated with several other clergy – also members of the Order- in introductions to books written by other writers similarly involved. The Anglican writer on mysticism et.al., Evelyn Underhill, had also been a member and went through at least the first four Grades of the Golden System. And so on. To indulge in one piece of speculation, Charles Williams was almost certainly aware that one of the GD Temples was actually entered through a wardrobe, and then via a staircase. It is tempting to wonder whether he related the wardrobe story to C.S. Lewis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tony! That’s all fascinating information! I didn’t know about the wardrobe. I would be a bit surprised if he told CSL, since he was pretty close-lipped about occult matters around the Inklings, but it’s certainly possible he did.

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  2. It is rather disturbing about his personal life and affairs etc., and it even more frustratingly seems to be a pattern not uncommon in some otherwise very brilliant theological minds – more recently with Yoder and Barth, but it is a pattern going back I think as far as theologians such as Abelard and (far earlier) King Solomon. There really needs to be a book written discussing the mystery of how some men can be so theologically and mystically brilliant in some ways and in other ways so very stupid.

    One of the questions I suppose is whether to understand the relation between Williams’ personal flaws and overt theology as one of the latter beginning to redeem the former or the former pulling down the latter. It is more tricky in that, whereas normal sinners simply sin and repent, brilliant theologians can try to theologize their way out of it – there are I think parallels between the case of Yoder and the case of Williams.

    However, I have the same very mixed feelings about Williams’ model, Dante, in terms of courtly love, even while recognizing the Comedy as one of the most brilliant works of literature in any language. As one of my friends put it, we are still waiting for an account of the Comedy from Dante’s wife, who, it would seem, had to endure watching another woman lead her husband through heaven, and this is kind of built into the pattern of courtly love which, as Lewis notes, is at least at the beginning always strictly adulterous (and people want to “bring back chivalry”!). It is arguably in part mitigated by a cultural milieu in which there was perhaps an assumed gulf fixed between marriage (political) and romance (mystical?) – as there is rightly not in the modern world. And one could also argue that Dante was doing what Christians have always been doing – spoiling the Egyptians and taking something cultural bad and making it a vehicle for grace. Still, when I get to heaven, I’d like a replay of the moment when Dante’s wife met Beatrice. I am wondering if words or something more might not have been exchanged.

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    • tess says:

      Karla, doesn’t it make you wonder whether these men (even going back to Solomon and David!) ever properly knew how to value the women in their worlds as spiritual equals?

      I’m not talking any of the shoddy rag-tag scholarship that passes for feminist theology, either. I’m talking about how it’s almost like for millenia, men simply could not comprehend women as possessing the same fullness of humanity that they did (and thus, they were able to perform their actions with clean consciences).

      A friend of mine once commented that it might not have been possible for men to graduate from this hierarchical view of sexuality until after the passing of the culture of slavery. That even equality in marriage wasn’t really possible until someone realized that all humans are spiritually equal. And that this may be one of the great callings of our Christian era– to show that human sexuality is not meant to be hierarchical, and that true romantic love indeed does have fantastic powers of elevation, especially within certain contexts.

      Anyway, I share the spirit of your comment!

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I have yet to read Robert Graves’s Wife to Mr. Milton, but the fact of its existence makes me think you might enjoy trying a 1000-word version of an account of the Comedy from Dante’s wife or the moment when Dante’s wife met Beatrice for the Signum writing contest (where submitting still seems possible). Come to that, it might even make an interesting contest theme or prompt in its own right – I’d enjoy seeing various attempts (am I up to making one, though?… hmm..).

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  3. can’t wait to read it. Thanks, as always, Sorina.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. CW Seper says:

    After counting dozens of errors in a mini bio of Williams that Lindop wrote a few years ago, some of which were just plain fictitious, I’m expecting this new full length biography to be about as accurate as the nefarious bio AN Wilson wrote of CS Lewis some decades ago. Before anyone takes any of this bio as gospel, it would be well advised for readers to read the actual letters written between CW and Jones among others for themselves to make sure they haven’t been taken out of context or reverse-bowdlerized beyond recognition. People have been doing their best to read all sorts of nonexistent nonsense “between the lines” of CW’s letters since time out of mind, and not one of CW’s detractors who actually knew him while he was still alive ever dared to say or print anything against his good name until long after he was dead, which I believe tells us much. Behind every good man is a legion of devils with lies and gossip doing their level best to bring him down. It has always been so.

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    • pennkenobi says:

      Dozens of error? Do tell. I think we would all benefit from a quick overview of these ANWilsonisms. And perhaps while you are at it you could cite one or two of Mr. Wilson’s errors themselves just to ground us a bit. Or were you intending to fall on your own ironic sword?

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      • CW Seper says:

        Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of CW can see those errors, and several papers have been written outlining Wilson’s errors, one of them listing over 400. Since you obviously have no knowledge of either matter, perhaps you can cease posting to me please? And I’ll be happy to delineate any errors I find in Lindop’s book in my review of it. Fortunately, I live a short distance from the Wade Center and have equal access to the same letters he used. I can only hope Lindop has learned from his past, but reading this blog article makes it appear he has not and is only intent on tearing a god man down just as you are intent on helping him to do without even bothering to do any homework on the subject.

        Regards.

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        • pennkenobi says:

          Or perhaps I won’t cease posting to you, but thanks for being polite about it. Anyway, I am quite familiar with ANW’s tabloid atrocities, and since I don’t know this Lindop bob and couldn’t care one dollop about him, I’d just as well see him skewered up on the same record straightening fork as Wilson. We await your cross examination with glee.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            An interesting way to get a sense of some major Wilson errors is to compare a first edition hardback (if you can find one) with a later reissue – the latter is significantly though silently revised: I don’t have any copy to hand and can’t remember how it’s indexed, but try it with references to June Flewett (who told me there were, I think, 20 significant errors she drew his attention to) and with references to Joy Davidman.

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          If any of those Wilson papers are online and you know where, I’d enjoy having links. I was in The Kilns on Saturday and was pleased to find the English first edition annotated by Dr. Clive Tolley and myself still on the shelf there.

          Andrew Wilson has made some sort of return to Christianity but I have not happened to see him address the subject of correcting the biography as part of it (I hope he has or will, but I only run into things by him sporadically, online).

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          • CW Seper says:

            Dear David,

            The only WORKING link I still have on the subject of Wilson’s Lewis bio is the paper Arend Smilde wrote several years back and published on his website. He also added a postscript in 2009 about Wilson’s supposed reconversion:

            http://www.lewisiana.nl/definitivebiography/index.htm

            Note: His web pages don’t seem to come up using IE 11. They view quite well with Google Chrome though.

            Warm regards,

            CWS

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Thanks – that is a good one! I was in fact thinking of Arend Smilde in general with respect to the Lewis biography and the fruits in this context of Wilson’s return (or their absence, so far): it is interesting to see he “slightly revised” the postscript a couple months ago, in August 2015, which suggests he has not yet encountered any recantations worth reporting.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It would certainly be interesting to read the Williams-Jones letters which are quoted in their entirety, putting the quotations further in context, and to read others besides. Alice Mary Hadfield effectively prevented this happening from 1958 through 2008, even as she prevented my interviewing Phyllis Jones McDougall. But as someone who has read the complete surviving letters (the original manuscripts) to Lois Lang-Sims and to Joan Wallis before they were in any library and talked to their recipients about them, I can confidently say there are clearly and inescapably very disturbing things in them, that are anything but a matter of reading “all sorts of nonexistent nonsense ‘between the lines’ ”.

      Do have a look at all the letters in Wade Williams correspondence folders 45-49, 84-87a, and 78-80, when you get the opportunity,and, unless things are no longer present which were there when I read them, you should be able to see for yourself easily enough.

      But whom do you include under ” CW’s detractors who actually knew him while he was still alive”? And what scope does your “ever dared to say”, have? I have, for example,read sharp criticisms in letters written by Williams’s wife (the original manuscripts) – said in writing, but not published or printed, and indeed written (shortly) after his death when she had become his widow (in once case referring to things she only discovered after his death)..

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      • CW Seper says:

        I have no doubts that CW had his faults like all of us, but I’ve learned from past experience that even the people who should know an author best often think they have an insight to a man or woman’s life and work that is anything but insightful. A great example might be Greville MacDonald’s writings about his father’s last fantasy novel, Lilith. As you probably know, Lilith was almost completely rewritten three times with seven total revisions. Of the first draft Greville says Lilith, “…was originally set down as it came directly to its writer. He wrote it with the pen, continuously, its 50,000 words showing scarcely any emendations or punctuations….”

        Greville makes it sound as though it was dictated straight from the Almighty directly to his father’s pen. That fact is, however, that it’s a very rough draft chock full of revisions, the very first page of which has eight phrases crossed out along with additions. And mind you that Greville was a man of medicine, a scholar in his own right, and big fan of his father’s work.

        I’m simply saying that I’ve seen this over and over with biographers and quotes from even close family members where they tend to see what they want to see. Whatever faults CW had, I’d be willing to bet that an open-minded reading of his letters to and fro will reveal a man who was probably, if anything, more saintly than most of us.

        Also, many biographers have written that Lewis and Mrs. Moore very likely had an intimate relationship early on, and indeed Mrs. Moore’s daughter says their rooms were next to each other and even she says they almost certainly lovers for a time. What every one of them fails to mention though is that this was in the 1920s before Lewis became a Christian. Why do they omit such an obvious fact that would clear things up considerably unless they wish us to think worse of their subject than we have a right to.

        I will approach Lindop’s bio with an open-mind, and I’m quite willing to let the chips fall where they may, but I’m willing to bet that many of the things he takes as _proof_ of an allegation of some sort can be looked at in an entirely different light when one isn’t focussed on finding fault, and that this proof will often be nothing more than a “maybe” or “it could be” which is often the case with poison pen bios.

        Regards,

        CWS

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  5. I don’t know if there can be people who sit on the edge of Williams’ territory, but I’d like to be one if I can. He is just so mercurial! I wonder if this bio will confirm or disconfirm (or both) the image in my mind.

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  6. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Sorina– Happy to get your mini-review. This has been a rough year to keep up with all the significant books appearing in the Inklings area. I’ll get a copy of this biography as soon as possible, (Probably after the Davidman biography that came out earlier, and… But I’m having problems making a time sequence for purchases.)

    Like

  7. I am thinking a lot about Thomas Merton at the moment by way of preparing work with a small group in a church near my home. What strikes me as I do this is that the complexities that he displays are in many ways the necessary clay from which God does his making. Might we not say the same about CW? Few writers that have written about the hidden world seem to understand it better than CW. He seems to know what he is talking about. You wonder sometimes whether the dark might win even whose side he might take and yet the light is eventually and gloriously triumphant. I wonder if he describes his own inner struggle? What you have done is to convince me that I should read this book. Thankyou!

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just reached half-way – the account of Williams’s and Eliot’s first meeting – exactly 82 years ago, today, it would seem.

    I thoroughly agree about Grevel Lindop very readably presenting familiar and lots of previously unfamiliar material – I would suppose probably equally well for unacquainted and well-acquainted readers.

    To add one point that impresses me, he repeatedly gives a lucid sense of the different things Williams was working on at a particular time (with lots of useful detail of composition and publication history).

    Like

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ” I will read it and read it again and again” – indeed! Meanwhile, a hint, having reached ch. 15: it is very richly and usefully indexed, but I am finding it worthwhile, when something strikes me as important, to check how – or indeed, if – it has been indexed, and sometimes finding the answer is, that it has not been. For example, ‘Ianthe’ is there as a poem-title under the Williams entry but not as a separate nickname, and the nickname uses aren’t indexed under the poem title. And, for another, I’ve added a Palomides entry to keep track of all the interesting things relating to him.

    (Maybe an ‘additional index entries/references’ might be a useful feature on the site at some stage.)

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  10. Pingback: Our Hearts Are Restless: Guest Review of “Rochester” by Karl Persson | The Oddest Inkling

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just encountered (a year after it appeared!) A.N. Wilson’s lively, thoughtful, interesting, detailed review:

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/03/havent-an-inkling

    Like

    • I didn’t think I would like it, but I ended up giving it a 4-star review at Amazon. I noticed some people criticized it negatively for focusing on the poetry more than the novels, but I thought that was a good idea since no biography before this had done that. Could have done without the so-called “affair” info (which I still don’t think proved anything happened beyond an occasional kiss–not that I’m justifying extra-marital kissing), and there were some formatting problems with the eBook edition I have (the footnotes made my Paperwhite hang etc.), but otherwise it was well-written.

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