It Still Scares Me: “Descent into Hell” Guest Post by Suzannah Rowntree

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell

This is the first post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell.This series serves a double purpose: (1) We have reached 1937 in the chronological blog-through of CW’s books [although I’m missing a few] and (2) I am taking November off from social media and blogging into order to focus on NaNoWriMo and other endeavors. If YOU would like to write a guest post about DiH, do let me know.

 

Today’s post is by novelist Suzannah Rowntree.

 

profile(1)Bio: When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of fiction and non-fiction, including Pendragon’s Heir, a fantasy novel for young people based on Arthurian legend and imbued with her love of all things Inkling.

It’s been a few years since I first read Descent into Hell, Charles Williams’s next-to-last and perhaps most challenging and subtle novel. His peculiar fantasies have been described as “supernatural thrillers”, but that gives the wrong impression altogether. Williams’s novels are more meditative than thrilling, and while the plot usually involves a desperate struggle with unspeakable evil, the stakes are more often souls and symbols than they are earthly lives or kingdoms.

"How They Met Themselves" by D.G. Rossetti

“How They Met Themselves” by D.G. Rossetti

So, for example, Descent into Hell follows the parallel experiences of three people in a quiet suburb, Battle Hill. There is an unnamed suicide, trapped in the pocket of time when he killed himself, awaiting grace or judgement. Intellectual Lawrence Wentworth, watching the girl he desires being wooed away from him, marinates in self-pity until his frustrated lust takes physical form as a succubus. Young Pauline Anstruther, who has been haunted her whole life by a doppelganger which comes a little closer each time it appears, lives in blind terror of the day she will actually meet it.

Like most people, I first heard of Charles Williams as a friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who have numbered among my favourite authors since before I could even read. After I read Humphrey Carpenter’s wonderful book on The Inklings, Williams’s “supernatural thrillers” sounded so interesting that I looked him up on Project Gutenberg Australia and read through The Place of the Lion, merely on the strength of its title. I imagine it must be one of his more accessible titles. Even as a teen, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and at intervals over the next ten years have gone on to read Many Dimensions, War in Heaven, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, as well as Williams’s non-fiction work Witchcraft.

So it’s been a while since I read Descent into Hell, and I’m not sure that at this distance I could tell you anything very profound about it. But I can tell you what it was about the book that sticks with me, even after so many years.

The thing I’ve always appreciated about Charles Williams is the way in which he takes very ordinary people in very ordinary situations, and by the application of a few carefully-chosen fantasy elements, depicts the deep evil or blinding goodness underlying their simplest everyday actions. Lawrence Wentworth, for instance, is struggling to cope with something we don’t usually see as the nadir of villainy: his disappointment that the young woman he has a crush on doesn’t return his affections. Yet his refusal to regulate his very natural grief and jealousy leads him step by little step into Hell itself. The deciding factor? Williams shows us very plainly that Wentworth’s feelings for the girl Adela are simply a complex form of self-love: what he feels for her, he feels for his own sake and not for hers. The succubus—a manifestation of his own desires—may wear her form, but it is more truly himself than it is Adela.

Simultaneously with this chilling portrait of sick love, we are given a picture of the real thing. Unlike Wentworth, whose insistence on having his own way first warps reality and then ultimately lands him in Hell, Pauline Anstruther learns to bear others’ burdens; to receive everything as a gift, so that in her final temptation, Lilith’s offer falls on deaf ears.

51KzHDR-TwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_There is much that could be debated in this book. Charles Williams himself seems to have taken the “bearing of one another’s burdens” idea to extremes, and twisted his own doctrines of love to his own selfish ends—much like Lawrence Wentworth himself. In a recent review of Grevel Lindop’s biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Professor Bruce Charlton explained the dark side of Williams’s genius: he apparently formed and then exploited perverse relationships with young women, channelling the resulting energy into literary creativity.

I knew nothing of that when I read Descent into Hell, although on thinking it over in the last few days I began to suspect that Wentworth was perhaps a self-portrait—a suspicion confirmed within hours when Lindop himself commented on Twitter that “Charles Williams told Anne Ridler that the monstrous Wentworth in his novel Descent into Hell was based on himself”. That fits in with something else I have always suspected concerning the curiously vivid and realistic portrayals of magical ceremonies in all of Williams’s novels—that when it came to the villains in his books, he seemed far more familiar with evil than he really should have been.Untitled

I don’t know how, in Wentworth, Williams managed to paint such a faithful portrait of his own sins and selfishnesses without being led by it to repentance. But I can tell you that to this day, Lawrence Wentworth sticks in my mind as a terrifying example. I saw myself in him. The same self-love. The same desperate grip on my own hopes, my own desires, and my own will.

The same downward descent.

It scared me. It still scares me. And I’m always going to be grateful for that.

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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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25 Responses to It Still Scares Me: “Descent into Hell” Guest Post by Suzannah Rowntree

  1. Tony Fuller says:

    A very enjoyable review of “Descent Into Hell” which is one of my favourites of CW. I apologise in advance if others have asked, or answered, a similar question but has anyone ever noticed any influence on CW’s novels from the three supernatural novels of Evelyn Underhill? I refer to “The Lost Word”, “The Column of Dust” and “The Grey World”.Of course Underhill was a distinguished writer and thinker on Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) mystical themes but she was also, in her younger days, a member of the “Holy Order of the Golden Dawn” under A.E. Waite. As all will know, CW edited a volume of her letters. Although her novels are an acquired taste, and a little dated today, I thoroughly enjoyed them, particularly “The Lost Word” which has an excellent description of an occult ceremony.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question! There’s a chapter that talks about the influence of “The Column of Dust” in my forthcoming collection “The Inklings and King Arthur”!

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That’s the only one I’ve read so far, I think put onto it by Williams’s introduction to the edition of letters, and I’m glad I did (though it seemed in some ways ‘heavier going’ than the novels of Williams or her friend, R.H. Benson). I wonder if it contributed in any way to That Hideous Strength – maybe the chapter on it will tell us, or show why I might suspect the possibility!

        Curiously, my describing it in some detail to Maeve Henry, back in our Oxford C.S. Lewis Soc days, seems to have contributed to her novel, A Gift for a Gift (1990).

        Like

      • Suzannah says:

        Sørina, I’m ridiculously excited about your book!

        Like

  2. Bruce Charlton says:

    “I don’t know how, in Wentworth, Williams managed to paint such a faithful portrait of his own sins and selfishnesses without being led by it to repentance. ”

    I agree – it is extremely strange. The only similar things I have encountered relate to drug addiction. Thomas De Quincy knew (and, I think, wrote about) the terrible effect that Opium addiction had had on ST Coleridge – and then went and got himself addicted – it seems, almost deliberately.

    I can only suppose that CW felt that repentance would invalidate the relationship with Phyllis, and thereby invalidate the writings which came from it – and his own status as ‘a poet’ (which title and reputation, I think, meant far too much to him).

    But the reality was perhaps more along the lines of the unrepentant souls described by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      You good folk must be much less depraved (to speak Calvinistically) than I am! But what of St. Paul? “For the good that I would, I do not: but the euill which I would not, that I doe.” (Romans 7:19, KJV).

      I had an interesting talk with a clerical friend in Oxford last week about the attention to repentance in your (Professor Charlton’s) 3 October Notion Club Papers online review of Grevel Lindop’s biography.

      What does or can (or ought or must) ‘repentance’ mean, or include, and what was Wiliams’s experience of it (or not)? It is one of those index entries I have not found among the many useful ones supplied in the biography, and which I belatedly add, having come (perhaps) to one of the passages to which you (Professor Charleton) refer your review – from a letter of 15 February 1935 to Anne Bradby (later, Mrs. Ridler): “I might almost have been capable of repenting, but as it would lead nowhere, I decided not to.” (p. 247, note 784). According to Grevel Lindop (p. 246) this has something to do with Phyllis Jones (by then, Mrs. Somervaille), and the two preceding sentences are “I was provoked by a temptation to wish that nothing had ever happened. And that surprised me.” How would it “lead nowhere”? Because past sins have really been sinned and have a historical existence and facticity that cannot be unmade? Am I too (or too ineptly) casuistical? Could not, for example, Henry VIII repent of fathering Henry FitzRoy adulterously upon Bessie Blount, yet also properly rejoice in Henry FitzRoy as a fellow human being – be glad he existed, wish him well, love him?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Ouch! Sorry about adding a superfluous ‘e’ the second time despite looking repeatedly at the spelling of your surname!

        Like

  3. Bruce Charlton says:

    @David – The above passage you quote does seem signififcant to me – but the argument that Williams failed to repent does not hinge on it.

    My understanding of repentance is that it is not so much about feelings (and certainly not about feeling guilty or ashamed – although these feelings may be hepful), and certainly it has nothing to do with Christians sinning any less than other Men – as it is about acknowledging God’s law as Good, and admitting the failure to live by it.

    In CW’s case it would be saying that what he was doing with Phyllis (and the others) was adultery and wrong. Even though the extramarital infatuation helped him write poetry, and even if he was not capable of stopping himself from continuing in his adultery, he must be clear that it is nonetheless against God’s moral scheme.

    WIlliams probably could not gather the strength to break his addiction, just as many drug addicts cannot – but that is not the Christian problem: humans are weak, and Christ did not come to save perfect Men but sinners (including far worse sinners than CW – whose transgressions were trivial in the scheme of things that includes murder, rape, theft etc).

    But WIlliams certainly could and should have refrained from *defending* adulterous infatuation – even if in a hard-to-understand and roundabout way – in his writings on Romantic Theology including the Figure of Beatrice.

    It is this considered written defence of his own personal sins that I would regard as Williams’s most grave failure to repent; because he did not *need* to write it, indeed went to considerable efforts to write and publicize it; and the fact that he nonetheless did write it meant that he was not merely sinning (everybody does that nearly all of the time) but was promoting sin in public discourse, by denying it was sin and instead saying it was a virtue.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you – well-pursued!

      That “admitting the failure to live by it” is important. My clerical friend was also pointing out an aspect of that responsibility. He did not cite it, but recalling what he said, I think of 1 Corinthians 10:13 (KJV): “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” We are responsible and should repent of having failed to escape when we could have.

      The “considered written defence of his own personal sins” is a complicated business, as far as I can see. In He Came Down from Heaven, Williams says, acutely enough, that it cannot “very easily be maintained that Dante was a striking example of New Testament monogamy, considering the extent to which his imagination concentrated itself on one woman while he was married to another.” But, can it not in fact be maintained that Dante’s ‘imaginative concentration’ cannot be assumed to be “adulterous infatuation” – that it cannot be assumed to be either ‘infatuation’ or ‘adulterous’, although it peculiarly – and dangerously – concerns another woman than his wife?

      In The Figure of Beatrice,Williams, attending to the problem “of the appearance of the second image of the Beatricean kind”, suggests this image is not to be denied but that we are “asked to free ourselves from concupiscence in regard to it.” In Dante’s case, this apparent “second image” was not his wife, either. In Williams’s. the first was his (future) wife, the second, Phyllis Jones, and the further young women a distinct and possibly different matter. But the question again is, can it not be maintained that Dante may have, and Williams could have, freed himself “from concupiscence in regard to it”?

      Our Lord saying (Matt. 5:28, KJV), “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after [Vulgate “ad concupiscendum”] her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”, seems to imply that it is possible to ‘look on a woman without lusting after her’.

      Insofar as Williams is explicitly criticizing succumbing to concupiscence, he is implicitly criticizing his own failure to resist succumbing to concupiscence, whether he repents of that failure or impenitently persists in adulterous infatuation.

      This is not to say that there may not also be implicit, roundabout apologia for his own personal sins in his writings, but to argue that here, too, we need to sift and distinguish carefully.

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      • pennkenobi says:

        In Lewis there seems to be a greater tension, a more distinctive discontinuity between a pursuit of the Divine via earthly beauty and revealed truth: “Not in Nature, not even in Man, but in one/ Particular Man . . . ” Williams seems to have assigned a greater importance to “extra-revelatory” beauties as a medium for pursuing, experiencing the Divine or Divine Truth. And that is perhaps (from an Orthodox standpoint) where he got in trouble. With Lewis you have a more profound sense of a man going forth from his own country to “a land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1). God was cleansing Abram’s spiritual palette so to speak. Can we find a similar discrete break with the ‘earthly’ or the ‘elementals’ in Williams, a discontinuity between the old and the new creation. What was Williams willing to ‘negate’? As you mention he seems to have been clearly willing to negate the specifically ‘libidinous’ element in his Romantic Theology. Or perhaps did he see a value of retaining something of it, could it be ‘cleansed’ ‘santified’ for use in pursuing the divine? Was he negating any and all libidinous content or just the selfish lustful element of it. Did he think there was a way to retain the ‘sexual’ without it being concupiscent? It is clear by now that John Howard Yoder believed that one could retain the ‘sexual’ in some distilled manner in his own ethics of extra-marital relations and that this could be imbued into a theology of Christ. And we see how that panned out.

        From a specifically Orthodox standpoint, did Williams infract the spirit of the commandment regarding the use of images?

        I wonder if Williams had written his own “The Four Loves” how it would have been conceived in contrast with Lewis’s “The Four Loves.”

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          What a lot of great questions! Each, I think, deserving exploring – testing on possible evidence (or it on them), not least, evidence new (or newly accented or placed in context) in Grevel Lindop’s biography. (With respect to The Four Loves, for instance, Lewis’s 23 March 1936 letter to Williams – which readers of the 3-vol. Lewis Letters will have known, but I did not, yet.)

          A partial answer (I think) to the matter of continuity and discontinuity would be that Williams would stress that the created goes on being creaturely and sustained by God and has been newly related to the zoopoeic Trinity by the Incarnation and that this applies especially to created persons, retaining the Image however defaced the Likeness.

          As Suzannah admirably shows, “in Wentworth, Williams managed to paint such a faithful portrait of his own sins and selfishnesses” – and one salutary to others (including herself) insofar as they are willing to benefit from it – yet, terribly, does not clearly seem to have benefitted from his anatomy of one sort of abuse of images, himself, by (dogged) repentance.

          But, as you suggest (or I will, on the basis of what you write), Wentworth is not, within this novel, contrasted to another character who explicitly attempts to “retain the ‘sexual’ in some distilled manner” – we do not see Stanhope – or a third figure – spanking young women or rubbing a magical sword on their buttocks for the sake of his poetry, for instance.

          Such behaviour seems possibly to be a kind of ‘brinkmanship’ with concupiscence: not (I take it, in its intended working) indulging in ‘looking on to lust after’, but provoking the risk of that, to raise and use ‘energy’, in what is a different abuse of the Image-bearer.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Listening to Trollope on Cicero’s De Amicitia (in his Life, II, 13: thanks to LibriVox.org), I encountered his quoting chapter 19, “Should a new friendship spring up, let it not be repressed” – which sharpened further my sense of the interest of your thinking about a Williams version of The Four Loves. He’s variously interesting on friendship (especially in The Place of the Lion), but would he have cross-referenced it with ‘second appearances’, comparing and contrasting?

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            • Dmitry Medvedev says:

              I also highly recommend Marcilio Ficino’s “De amore”. Romantic theology right there in 1484. It is also interesting in relation to Williams’s platonic views, as Ficino was one of the greatest neoplatonic thinkers of the Renaissance. One may argue that the connection between CW and Ficino may be a bit strained, but I found the comparison between “De amore” and CW’s writings on romantic theology quite thought provoking…

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Thank you! I see the German Wikipedia article links a scan of the 1641 Opera: O, to be the Latinist just to read In Convivium Platonis De Amore Commentarius… I’ll probably fare better with Karl Paul Hasse’s 1914 translation, Über die Liebe oder Platons Gastmahl scanned in the Internet Archive.

                I was trying to refresh my Cicero as I embark on St. Aelred of Rievaulx for a study group: Williams’s treatment of both his wife and ‘his young ladies’ seems to fall far short of friendly in St. Aelred’s terms.

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                • Dmitry Medvedev says:

                  There is an English translation by Sears Jane – Marsilio Ficino: Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Out of print, but probably available somewhere online. There is also an Italian version, contemporary with the Latin original if I remember correctly.

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                  • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                    Thank you again! Searching around a bit, I see there is a second edition of the English translation available from Spring Books. And you are right – I quickly found two scans of a 1544 Italian version in the Internet Archive. (Alas, my Italian is about as plodding as my Latin.) The connection doesn’t sound strained to me, whether because Williams may know of the Ficino book, or, with common Neoplatonic and Hermetic interests, may arrive at similar results.

                    Like

      • @David

        Thank you for this challenging and clarifying exchange! (And I hope Suzannah will not consider this to be a hijack of her excellent blog post – but rather a direct consequence of its being thought-provoking).

        I need to conisder this matter further.

        I am not clear on what authority CW is writing when he makes that statement “suggests this image is not to be denied but that we are “asked to free ourselves from concupiscence in regard to it.” – Perhaps Dante? But is Dante really advocating a set of moral principles here?

        More importantly, in marriage there is both a husband and wife – and both must be considered. And men and women are different (complementary) and have different needs and priorities.

        Williams does not consider his wife (or, in his theology ‘the wife’); and his scheme of morality does not consider the husband and wife as (ideally) a ‘unit’ – with both spouses engaged in the sacrament.

        With reference to concupiscence (as a generalization…) men and women have different ideas. Men focus mainly on the sexual act, women on emotional committment

        So men regard sexual infidelity in a wife to be the worst thing (not least because, through most of history, cuckolding may lead to rearing other men’s children at the expense of your own); but women regard emotional infidelity (being in love, redirecting scarce money and time towards the mistress, putting the mistresses happiness above that of the wife and her children etc) as worse – as the worst thing.

        For many or most wives, a long term infatuation with a specific women, giving her presents and money when the family is kept short, spending time with the other woman rather than the wife when time is limited – all this is a worse betrayal than a one-off act of repented sexual infidelity without pregnancy (although that too is very bad).

        When we consider the Charles Phyllis relationship, we need to see it from both sides. I would suggest that Michal’s horror was related mainly to her discovery that Charles had been putting Phyllis first (and above Michal and Michael) for several years – had been lying to her, again and again – elaborately – about his whereabouts and actions; had been taking money the family badly needed and spending it on Phyllis… and things like that.

        She quite likely felt that the lack of sexual consummation made Charles’s behaviour pathetic rather than ignoble (putting him in the role of a sugar daddy, rather than a lover). Michal’s way of taling about Phyllis seemed to suggest she regarded her as a ‘tease’ – pseudo-seductive, apparently offering but never giving. And that Charles had fallen for it hook line and sinker. So as well as the emotional hurt, Michal probably despised Charles as the pathetic dupe of a manipulative hysteric who is taking and taking but never giving (and everybody could see this, except the dupe).

        At any rate, the extraordinary detailed focus on money, and the spending of every shilling that is found in the Letters from Serge to Michal beings to make sense to me – by this audit, Charles was trying to prove to his wife that he was no longer wasting money on Phyllis; the apparently minute (but actually highly selective) account of daily activities was probably intended to show the same.

        http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/light-on-very-strange-personality.html

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        • Bruce Charlton says:

          Typo – above when I wrote “pathetic rather than ignoble” – I intended to write pathetic rather than *noble* – meaning that Michal likely saw Charles’s non-consummation less as a noble restraint on his behalf, than the fact that Phyllis would not allow the relationship to be consummated, and Charles remained pathetically attached to her despite this one-sidedness.

          Michal’s name for Phyllis was the Virgin Tart – meaning that she was a ‘tease’ who behaved like a tart with Charles, but had no intention of allowing the relationship to become sexually consummated.

          (I presume, from Gerry Hopkins serial womanizing reputation, that this resistance to consummate was not applicable in PJ’s other liasons – but only with CW. For Williams to accept this arrangement and remain enslaved to Phyllis certainly would make him – in the eyes of most detached observers – a pathetic or pitiful character.)

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Thank you for continuing it – and I certainly see it all as continuing on from Suzannah’s excellent blog post!

          I, in turn, will need to consider the rich details of this response further, but will try you take up some of it, now.

          I think, though Williams most often puts the example of a woman being “the image” to a man, he thinks it equally true that men are so “images” to women. Men and women are equal and alike in this, being created persons. But, as you say, “importantly, in marriage there is both a husband and wife” – those created persons are distinctly related to each other (whether either or both being or having been such an “image” to the other, or not), they have become one flesh (Matt. 19:5-6). The properly non-concupiscent relationship with any “image” other than the spouse after this must be radically different from the together-one-flesh spousal relationship. And how may the two (types of) relationships be related to each other? Does Williams ever ‘fictionally’ explore this? (I can’t remember the details of the “Any Amazement”/”Dianeme” poetry (Grevel, pp. 137-38), or think of another possible example.)

          As you say, he certainly did not live out considering “the husband and wife as (ideally) a ‘unit’ ” upon which the other “image” relationship(s) did not improperly impinge – even had they been completely, successfully devoid of concupiscence – of ‘spiritual infidelity’ in that sense.

          I think you are probably right about Michal’s horror at Williams putting Phyllis first and being so deceptive about it. I’m only five-sixths of the way through the biography, and have not skipped ahead to how Grevel treats the end, but I think Michal was equally horrified on learning the sense in which Phyllis was not the only one during the last 11 years of Williams’s life (if I recall correctly, she uses the plural “virgin prostitutes” in a letter to John Pellow soon after Williams’s death). Grevel also writes (p. 211) of how “Michal was horrified: what she had thought to be a private sorrow now appeared a public humiliation. She felt that the entire editorial staff of the Press had connived over the affair.” Of Charles’s “seven year itch with the virgin tart”, she wrote (in 1956), “It lost him my love forever, & my respect & I very much loathed being used as the inhabitant of a brothel which was my humiliating lot for years” (p, 174, note 540).

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          • Bruce Charlton says:

            “what she had thought to be a private sorrow now appeared a public humiliation. She felt that the entire editorial staff of the Press had connived over the affair.”

            And in this she was, of course, perfectly accurate! – it wasn’t just what Michal ‘thought’ and ‘felt’ it was what happened.

            Having said all that – Michal was (by all accounts, and I mean *all* accounts) an extremely ‘high maintenance’ woman, incredibly moody and in general ‘unreasonable’. Her decision not to stay with Charles in Oxford but to remain in London (on the basis of an unreasonable, intolerant, shallow, snap judgment) was a pretty terrible thing for any wife to do and placed Charles in an extremely difficult situation for the whole war.

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Yes, and what I quoted from 1956 does not in my (limited) experience of her correspondence represent anything like a final word. (John Pellow’s son, Roy, got the impression from his father that Michal was not the easiest person in the early 1920s, before any of the ‘ Phyllis-stuff’ we now know about could have been a factor.) I’ve not quite finished Grevel Lindop’s biography, but suppose I will end up still thinking Lois Lang-Sims’s vivid sketch of Michal in her Letters to Lalage is the best, most balanced impression in print so far.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Correction: I’ve looked up my notes on Michal’s letters to Pellow, and what I was remembering was not from that of 6 June 1945 but from 14 July 1960, in which she was both recalling Williams’s words to her in hospital, and clearly reflecting on matter treated in Alice Mary Hadfield’s first book in particular, and also (I think) reacting to the fact in general of others having manuscripts/texts (I think including Margaret Douglas as she also refers to “spinsters”). Her expression was in fact a plural of that used of Phyllis: “virgin tarts”: they are distinguished from the “spinsters”, but whom she had in mind (if anyone she could name) is not clear. (It is worth noting that a letter of ten days later is much more positive in tone, not least about Williams’s work.)

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  4. pennkenobi says:

    Williams got involved with the sorts of things that one just doesn’t choose to leave behind. How did Don Henley put it? “Relax said the night man/ We are programmed to receive/ You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave.” The Faustian bargain clung to him. He couldn’t exorcise it. The question is, whose Faust was he, Marlowe’s or Goeth’s? Can any of us be 100% sure? Anyone who thinks this is a ridiculous question needs to read Ms. Rowntree’s post again.

    Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
    And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough,
    That sometime grew within this learned man.
    Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
    Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
    Only to wonder at unlawful things,
    Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
    To practice more than heavenly power permits.

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