A Stupid Renaissance Woman: “Elizabeth I”

Elizabeth_I_Darnley_PortraitA Stupid Renaissance Woman: Elizabeth I

Today I have another of CW’s biographies for your consideration, and, like the short plays I’ve been summarizing recently, this is the best of the bunch. If you read just one of the several biographies CW wrote, read Elizabeth I. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s the shortest. But, more importantly, it is more lively, comprehensible, and interesting than the others. As Grevel Lindop writes in The Third Inkling:

Williams was not a good biographer. He had neither time nor skill for research into original sources (though he did sometimes consult published state papers), and his biographies are badly overwritten. This had much to do with length: the 1936 Queen Elizabeth, at 186 pages, is quite a good read, whereas the other biographies, twice the length, are at times so manned as to be almost incomprehensible.

It is rather a good read, but it is based upon the same assumption as CW’s other biographical studies: It takes for granted that the reader is already intimately familiar with the people, places, events, and details of the subject’s life, so it does not attempt to educate. Rather, it tries to capture some quintessence of the person and/or of the times. This is frustrating to me, because I do NOT know every detail of the lives of Elizabeth I, James I, Francis Bacon, etc. When he writes about The Earl, The Edict, The Problem, The Law in Question, The Plot, I am often at a loss to know to which of the many earls, edicts, problems, laws, and plots he refers. I find myself goggling half the stuff he talks about (which does lead down many fascinating rabbit trails, granted).

A commenter named Dale Nelson recently wrote on my post “What’s Wrong with CW?”:

in his writing Williams too often seems to be speaking urgently, passionately…. to himself. It’s as if the imaginary listener or reader to whom he is addressing himself is too much like himself. He seems to have had trouble really knowing other people; either they are enrolled, in his mind, in some fantastic play, or (my impression of CW at Inklings meetings) he is “performing” for them and feels they are performing for him. Thus on the one hand he wants to be a writer dealing in an enlightening and profound way with the great realities, and yet his writing often seems rather unreal.

I replied:

Yes! I agree! He is writing to himself. He assumes we have already read all the same books he has read and had the same thoughts about them.

This is certainly the case with the biographies. He assumes a certain education—which, okay, maybe he could assume at the time, if all of his audience members where British white males of a particular age and economic status—but that’s a pretty limited audience. Lindop goes on to note, surprised, that most of CW’s biographies received tolerant reviews. I can only imagine that they were from that limited audience.

However! I’m not here merely to condemn. If you happen to be something of an expert in Elizabethan history and politics, you will probably love these biographies. If you are, by the way, I’d love to have you write something evaluating his interpretation of the times, as I am not equipped to do so. He seems well aware of scholarly debates on the subject, so that’s impressive.

Queen_Elizabeth_I_('The_Ditchley_portrait')_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_YoungerBut his skill lies in getting to the heart of a long-dead person’s character, or at least of convincing the reader that he has done so. And in this short look at Elizabeth Tudor, he does just that. It is more of a character sketch than a biography, making sweeping statements about her intellect, her emotional life, and her theology. I came away with the impression of a woman with a brilliant intellect, a remarkable power of self-command, more than her fair share of personal charm and charisma, less than she needed of doctrinal precision, and just barely enough political savvy to keep the British empire afloat during her long and tempestuous life. I think Williams likes Elizabeth; he certainly admires her. He also does not hesitate to criticize her, but he always attempts to provide practical or psychological explanations for her decisions, however rash or illogical they may appear to history’s eye.

Perhaps more interestingly to readers of this blog, Shakespeare hovers behind the biography, a rarely-mentioned but powerful presence. Williams treats Shakespeare like some huge institutional or natural phenomenon, like the Church or the Weather. Shakespeare, CW seems to assume, established the atmosphere of the times—or perhaps he WAS that atmosphere, or, more oddly still, perhaps that atmosphere was created preparatory to his appearance so that the times were ready to be his when he arrived. Remember, simple chronological cause-and-effect wasn’t very high on CW’s priority list. He writes of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I:

Without his genius of exploration and expression, she had in her life a kind of kinship with the method of his genius. She is an active and debased caricature of his power, as egoistic as that was necessarily unegoistic. …the general title of the plays, and of their method, might be The Way Things Happen. It is hers also. She happened, and she continued to happen.

William_Shakespeare_portraitAnd there, buried in the middle of a generalization about Elizabeth’s personality and rule, is an insightful, profound, universalizing piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare: “the general title of the plays … might be The Way Things Happen.” That’s very good. And yet it’s presented as a throw-away comment designed to support a bigger point about his subject. That’s CW for you.

There are lots of other interesting tidbits in this bio that I could point out, plus some seriously problematic claims. We could apply the fascinating idea, pointed out by Stephen Barber in a (yet unpublished?) work on CW’s literary criticism, that whatever CW wrote about someone else he was really saying about himself. I found this amusing and telling when CW said: “From almost any doctrinal point of view, she was something of a heretic” (82). Are you sure that’s about Queen Elizabeth, and not about a certain 20th-century Anglican occult master, my friend?

And then there are the problems: the racism and sexism that so many critics try to ignore or explain away. There are disturbing comments about slavery, such as the (historically true, but) upsetting observation that “Negro slaves were safer,” financially, than goods (87). This may have been the case from a purely economic point of view, but there is no condemnation of the slave trade in this book. Is CW assuming that we are all civilized readers, and we know that the slave trade was evil, and he doesn’t need to waste ink saying so? Or is the truth uglier (especially given his troubling depictions of slavery, blended with BDSM scenes, in his Arthurian poetry)?

And there is this infuriating, sickening passage:

Most women tend to be Calvinistic in their outlook upon this world, however this heresy may be checked by their intelligence, and even Elizabeth’s skeptical nature beheld the world as composed of the elect, who were her friends, and the reprobate, who were her enemies.

That is offensive in so many ways I can hardly begin to innumerate them. There’s the term “heresy” used for Calvinism! Um, excuse me. No, sir. There is the flippant insult against women’s intelligence: we’re so dumb, we can’t convince ourselves that God doesn’t have exactly the same friends we do. There’s the claim that women are less theologically astute than men. There’s the deep insult that we think our personal preferences are the same as eternal realities. There’s the reduction of women to shallow social creatures, incapable of real doctrinal or political perceptions. Whew. How backwards of him, eh?

Or is it? Sexism has long been rampant in the Christian church. Somehow, the Bible’s beautiful teachings that “in Christ there is no male or female,” the many radical actions of the early church to free women from oppression, have been lost. Instead, we have set up sickening, unbiblical doctrines of “complementarity” and one-way “submission” and false “headship.” I’ll tell you a story. This past Sunday, a 15-year-old boy told me that I was sinful because I color my hair. Of course I told him where to get off, but the really disturbing thing was yet to come: his parents backed him up. They refused to agree with my statement that no boy, no man, has any right to tell any woman what to do with her hair, her clothes, her makeup, her body. They asserted that men are naturally, spiritually higher than women and have a responsibility to protect women—which involves protecting women from their own sinfulness, which apparently includes the rebellious act of dying one’s hair an unnatural shade that God didn’t create as a hair color.

I’m serious. This happened in 21st-century America. What that brat of a teenage boy did is only a few steps away from turning into abuse as he grows into a man: the desire to control women’s behavior–or anyone’s behavior–very frequently turns into emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. And yet the church tolerates, even teaches, hideous doctrines of “complimentarity” that can be used by manipulative men to oppress women.

All this is to say that as a Calvinist woman who has frequently been the target of misogynistic language in a Christian setting, I could hardly be more concerned about statements like CW’s mockery of Elizabeth’s supposed ignorance in deciding who were and weren’t God’s elect. In a way, though, it’s a microcosm for CW’s whole method of writing biography: he makes enormous claims about a person’s character, psychology, and cognition, then sets out those imaginative strokes as if they are historical fact. What arrogance.

In contrast, check out Grevel Lindop’s biography of CW, which provides a refreshing contrast to the biographical methods of his subject. That’s a happy irony.51KzHDR-TwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_



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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44 Responses to A Stupid Renaissance Woman: “Elizabeth I”

  1. I had no idea that CW was a biographer. After reading your piece I am not convinced that I want to read it. The whole thing feels a little too idiosyncratic to me. My first degree was in English history and I have a particular affection for the work of A.L Rouse (who could be pretty eccentric himself!) who wrote a joyous history of the England of Elizabeth. What Rouse celebrates is the astonishing cultural flowering of that age, a flowering over which Elizabeth presided. It was one of the most brilliant periods of our history and Shakespeare may have been the greatest figure but was only one. I have a particular love for the music of her age.
    There is much to think about in the particular manner in which the feminine energises a society. I lived through the Thatcher era. I did not share her politics but there was an energy in national life in her time that no one could ignore. I wonder what might happen to America if you elect a woman to office.
    By the way my own feeling about the boy who thought it appropriate to lecture you was that the right thing was to offer a sharp rebuke. The rest is unprintable!


    • Thanks for these thoughts, Stephen. It sounds like I would enjoy Rouse’s biography/history much better than CW’s! How is the writing style?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a while since I last read Rowse so I can’t answer that. It was just that his name came to mind when I read your piece. I noted when reading his Wikipedia entry that his photograph as a young man was taken by Ottoline Morrell so he was clearly a part of that set who were the most fashionable intellectual set in English life at the time. The Inklings were most definitely not a part of them. Might one say that they were almost an anti-Bloomsbury set? Still I enjoyed Rowse’s extravagant style.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I used to watch A.L. Rowse on chat shows when I was in school: searching YouTube didn’t turn up any snippets, but did find this audiotape of a lecture given during the Shakespeare Centenary (which I pass on before listening to his lecture, which starts c. 4:36, myself):

          Browsing his Wikipedia article, I see Queen Elizabeth and Her Subjects (with G. B. Harrison) (London: Allen & Unwin, 1935) appeared the year before C.W.’s Queen Elizabeth, “his first full-length historical monograph”, Sir Richard Grenville of the “Revenge” the year after (london; Jonathan Cape) – with no Duckworth ‘Great Lives’ contributions, seemingly, but something of which C.W. might have been cognizant at the time: “In 1935 he co-edited Charles Henderson’s Essays in Cornish History for the Clarendon Press.” (I don’t have a fine sense of what Clarendon Press publications C.W. would, or would not, be likely to have particular knowledge of!)

          Browsing more generally I find his Glimpses of the Great (London: Methuen, 1985) is reported to provide “some fascinating insights into the lives, characters and intellects of fourteen of his well-known contemporaries all of whom he knew personally”, including C.S. Lewis!

          When I was at Oxford, I was once surprised to find the vehemence with which he was disliked by one of my professors.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I had heard that some disliked him intensely. How fascinating that he wrote about Lewis. My memory is of a writer who could paint vivid pictures which was a pleasure to a young undergraduate who had to suffer so many dry lectures and books too.


  2. Seeing this reminds me that I’d promised to review this for you and never did. I read it and took notes at the end of the 2015 and then promptly forgot to actually write the review. Sorry! I agree with your assessment though.


  3. Interesting. So many books have been written and read about Elizabeth I, it really is difficult to find one with any new insight or approach.
    Without Elizabeth as patron and protector Shakespeare and theatre in general might have had a more difficult time as drama and players were looked down on/considered sketchy so much at that time. Perhaps that is where he got the connection? Elizabeth I certainly did flaunt a great deal of that era’s society’s conventions.
    Generalities,terms, and concepts of an era are best viewed in context of the times – as museum pieces – not really compatible with modern ideas. Often words change meanings through times.
    (But the hair coloring made me laugh. I’ve actually heard people trying to get teenagers to swear they would never go in “mixed bathing”/public swimming pools …much less wear a bikini” HAHA. It takes all kinds or the world would be a very boring place. And we are all about accepting diversity of thought now.
    Free to believe whatever you want – just stop trying to jam ideas down the throats of those that disagree…not a whole lot of that going on any more.
    Enjoyed your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tess says:

    I hope you schooled them fools! 🙂 That’s the kind of situation I keep a tube of fire engine red lipstick in my purse for….

    I’m curious what you thought of Frederick and McBride’s “Women and the Inklings.” I’ve long wanted to read it but it’s a bit out of my price range on Amazon and neither of my libraries has access to a copy.

    It’s amazing that for as much spiritual wisdom as men have been given over the centuries, how frequently one comes across some stupid piece of unexamined sexism. A friend of mine once postulated that perhaps the modern world’s abolition of slavery is the intellectual turning point for the beginning of change in the discussion, though obviously it’s taking it’s time in coming. But really, for most of human history, human beings have been quite comfortable with the idea of different classes of humanity, whether based on sex, skin color, or caste.


    • I actually haven’t read the Frederick & McBride book yet — but I can say that I have several really good chapters on the Inklings and gender in the forthcoming book I’ve edited, “The Inkling & King Arthur.” They are:
      “Fair as Fay-woman and Fell-minded: Tolkien’s Guinever” by Alyssa House-Thomas
      Beatrice and Byzantium: Sex and the City in the Arthurian Works of Charles Williams” by Andrew Rasmussen
      “Those Kings of Lewis’s Logres: Arthurian Figures as Lewisian Genders in That Hideous Strength” by Benjamin Shogren.

      Hope you read my collection when it comes out!


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I love how Williams works out the little imaginary but possible meeting between Elizabeth and Shakespeare in A Myth of Shakespeare seven years earlier. (Someone ought to put that online, insofar as it’s out of copyright – and someone ought to bring it out in an inexpensive paperback: it would be a fun play to put on, also as an introduction to Shakespeare’s works for general and student audiences.)


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Is CW assuming that we are all civilized readers, and we know that the slave trade was evil”? I think so. It’s interesting to compare and contrast Charles Kingsley’s emphatic treatment in Westward Ho! of the small but momentous and terrible beginnings of English involvement with the African slave trade under Elizabeth – but that was in 1855, when England had done much, through the course of his lifetime, to oppose it, while the situation in the U.S.continued to become ever more intense. My guess is that C.W. took Kingsley’s position as ‘read’.

    C.W. and the imagination of historical slavery (and not only historical colonization, for that matter) and his literary/artistic antecedents is an area that deserves a lot more attention than it has received, so far, in my opinion. (Grevel is very good, I think, on Shadows of Ecstasy, in this context; the relation of the development of P’o-l’u imagery to the monstrosities of Japanese racist imperialism throughout the 1930s and 40s, by contrast, has not, to my knowledge, really been studied.)


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The “infuriating, sickening passage” strikes me as rewarding detailed discussion: of such things as the varieties of “Calvinism” (and the various ‘Calvinist’ attacks on Elizabeth: cf. Lewis’s OHEL vol.), the considerable ‘intelligence’ variously evident in them, and its context, contours, and ‘limitations’ (again, cf. Lewis’s OHEL), the history of the idea and vocabulary of ’emotional Calvinism’ (which the “intelligence” Williams sweepingly attributes to “most women” may be considered from his phrasing as often substantially ‘checking”). If he still seems to attribute these problems of judgement too exclusively to women in this passage, it is probably worth comparing many details of his Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury from the same year (as, the Skeleton’s critical remarks to Cranmer about “how absolute we are…”).


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The question of audience or readership – from both Williams’s perspective and that (or those) of his three biography-publishers (Barker, Duckworth, OUP), as well as of who actually ended up reading them, in distinction from all such intentions and expectations – is an interesting one, but may not be easy to sort out satisfactorily. “He assumes a certain education”, which obviously would include “British white males of a particular age and economic status”, and (by the 1930s) surely also British white females of a similar age and economic status – people like Dorothy L. Sayers, Helen Gardner, C.V. Wedgwood (who reviewed The Descent of the Dove, though I have never managed to discover where) – but, including what further range of ages, races, and social and economic statuses? Undergraduates and those at school? The people who attended evening classes like the ones Williams had attended himself and later taught? Who frequented public libraries and subscription libraries? Who had been buying ‘Everyman’ and ‘Home University Library’ editions for decades, on both sides of the Atlantic, and had just started buying Penguin Books from July 1935? Who joined book clubs (there were ‘Readers Union’ editions of Queen Elizabeth)? Of His Stories of Great Names (1937), OUP prepared two versions, one directed for the Indian market.


  9. Stephen Barber says:

    Just to say that my piece on Williams as a literary critic was first published in the Charles Williams Quarterly 133, Winter 2009 and is available at https://www.academia.edu/11809160/Charles_Williams_as_a_literary_critic
    I have to say I have noy read his biographies.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thinking further about the matters of intended and actual (whether likely or unlikely) readerships, Joseph Wright (1855-1930) and his wife Elizabeth Mary Wright, née Lea, somehow sprang to mind. Relying (not too dangerously, in this case, I think) on Wikipedia, I see “he was unable to read a newspaper until he was 15.” But “Wright became increasingly fascinated with languages and began attending night-school to learn French, German and Latin, as well as maths and shorthand. At the age of 18 he even started his own night-school”. “By 1876 he had saved £40 and could afford a term’s study at the University of Heidelberg, although he walked from Antwerp to save money.[…] He later returned to Heidelberg and in 1885 completed a PhD. on Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek.” Having become Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, in “1896 he married Elizabeth Mary Lea (1863–1958), with whom he co-authored his Old and Middle English Grammars. She also wrote the book, Rustic Speech and Folklore (Oxford University Press 1913)” – which has a very interesting-looking chapter on “Supernatural Beings”, which, as a Tolkien and Rowling fan, I ought to read, soon! (Thanks to Internet Archive, i can, easily.)

    An unusual pair of British life-histories, no doubt, but also possible ones, already, a couple generations before C.W.’s Elizabeth biography was published. I can imagine young Joe or Elizabeth Mary Wright analogues of the 1930s reading it, if they ran into it.


  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Another thought which struck me, was Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism. Here is Sørina, as someone interested in Williams’s work (and life and thought), coming to it, and recording her complex response, including relating part of the text to a recent experience in her own life “as a Calvinist woman”. Here is Stephen Barber, well, widely, and thoughtfully read in Williams’s, noting he has not read his biographies. There was Dorothy L. Sayers, happily supplying a new introduction for a posthumous reprint of James I in 1951, and Dame Helen Gardner specifically mentioning it as a book of his she admired when she was very kindly indulging my questions about her acquaintance with him (and other Inklings) in 1979.

    And, by way of further Lewisian reader-response criticism, going to search unsuccessfully for the upteenth time to discover where C.V. Wedgwood wrote about The Descent of the Dove, I ran into A.N. Wilson’s interesting 2008 article about it, including, “I remember beginning this book about 20 years ago and flinging it down after a few chapters, thinking it was written in absurd ‘funny language’ and that it was all rather ‘creepy’ “, but also, “Indeed, the first time I tried this book, it made me think I was an atheist. But if I had read on to the chapter called ‘The Quality of Disbelief’, I think it would have persuaded me I was not.” Same reader, different times of life, different attempts – but also the thought that reading a different bit 20 years earlier would have impressed him then, and, indeed, had an existential impact on his life!

    Also interesting, in light of Sørina’s post here, one thing he singles out to mention is Williams’s treatment of “the abolition of the slave trade. ‘What is remarkable is that, just as it was Christendom which had led the attack on the Slave Trade and defeated it, at a time when it was supposed that Christendom was all but dead, so in France, at a time of the same hypothesis, it was found that Christendom was already reviving.’ ”

    And another, is a quotation in it from Montaigne as illustration that Williams’s “analysis of Montaigne, Pascal and Voltaire is light, witty and deep all at once.” The quotation from Montaigne reminds me of part of Hooker’s analysis (in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) of both Calvin himself and various contemporary (and very hostilely Elizabeth-critical) British Calvinists, which Hooker yet applies so generally as not to exclude himself, or anyone, as subject to the problems and dangers he focuses on. Montaigne: “when we are angry we defend our proposition the more hotly; we impress it on ourselves and espouse it with greater vehemence and approval than in our cool and calm moments”. Hooker (in one of the passages that came to mind: in Preface, II, 2) focuses, not on anger, but, perhaps on a sort of confidence leading to public commitment, with, as sequel that the authors of church orders could not admit the good of “entering into further consultations afterwards” about them: “Which though never so necessary they could not easily now admit,without some fear of derogation from their credit: and therefore that which once they had done, thy became for ever after resolute to maintain.”

    Here’s Wilson’s article, well worth reading, I think:


    Williams’s generalization about ‘Calvinistically’ beholding “the world as composed of the elect, who were her friends, and the reprobate, who were her enemies” seems to me to be comparable with the observations of Montaigne and Hooker. A readiness to ‘identify’ ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’, and assign a sort of predestined unalterable character of being variously ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’ to each, somehow eluding any and all checks not only of opposition by natural “intelligence” (as a equally generalized assumed characteristic of the same women) but also by “Elizabeth’s skeptical nature” (as an added specific perception).


  12. pennkenobi says:

    Regarding the “neither male nor female” reference, when Christ said the departed would be like the angels in heaven, neither marrying nor giving in marriage, he wasn’t nullifying the institution of marriage. By the same token, when Paul said “in Christ there is neither male nor female” he wasn’t nullifying their distinction within the temporal order. There are still male and female restrooms even in the most liberal of Christian communions. Well, as of right now at least. But that could change soon by the looks of things.


  13. Richard Johnston says:

    The sexist treatment you received from a teen-age boy and (far worse) from his parents–who should know better–is appalling. As a (heterodox) Roman Catholic I am only too aware of the truth that sexism and gender discrimination is indeed rampant.
    On the charge regarding Calcanism as a heresy, is it not possible that Charles Williams may have had an extreme view of that theological position in mind and that, to him, it would have indeed been “heretical”?


    • Richard Johnston says:

      “Calvinism” not “Calcanism” –sorry about the typo.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It sounds to me like Williams is considering ‘double predestination’ in particular as a “heresy”. I’ve never tried to catalogue Willliams’s explicit references to John Calvin and to ‘Calvinism’, nor do I remember anyone else doing so – though someone may have, as it would be an interesting undertaking!

      My trying to search the online Wade catalogue of Williams manuscripts using ‘Control F’ only turned up ‘CW / MS-285 “John Calvin.” Review of CALVINISM by A. Dakin. (n.d.) 3 pp. cc. TMs. in 3 lvs.’ This was published in Time and Tide, 22 (March 29, 1941), 271-72, and reprinted in The Image of the City (1958), pp. 142-43, according to Lois Glenn in her Checklist (1975) [ item I-D-196]. It was preceded by his discussion in The Descent of the Dove, where the index has four entries for Calvin, which I will not attempt to summarize. I will just note a striking sentence in the present context (p. 191): “Augustine’s predestination was safe with him, comprehensible in Calvin, tiresome in the English Puritans, and quite horrible in the Scottish Presbyterians.” Perhaps worth noting, too, is that on p. 174 he quotes from the posthumous collection of pieces by Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (1931).


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Speaking of the Scottish and Calvin, Calvin got involved in controversies on account of John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558).

      An interesting letter written by him in this context to William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, can be read here:



    • It’s quite possible he would have had that in mind. Interestingly, he also calls Islam a “heresy.”


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes, as does Lewis, in (for example) his fascinating paper, ‘Christian Apologetics’, which Walter Hooper, in publishing it for the first time in God in the Dock/Undeceptions (1970), says (p. 14) “was read to an assembly of Anglican priests and youth leaders at the ‘Carmarthen Conference […]’ […] during Easter 1945” (Easter Sunday fell on 1 April in 1945, some month-and-a-half before Williams’s sudden, unexpected death). It includes this packed parenthesis (p. 102): “Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies, Buddhism only the greatest of the Hindu heresies. Real Paganism is dead. All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.” A year later, in a Socratic Club paper, discussing ‘minimal religions’ and their production, Lewis writes (p. 139), “The greatest of such attempts was the simplification of Jewish and Christian traditions which we call Islam.” Twelve-and-a-half years after that, interestingly in the context of discussing his own work and the question of audiences, readerships, and attempts to address them effectively, he says (p. 182) of a hypothetical reader who could read ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ “with tranquil pleasure”, “Such a man is not ripe for the Bible; he had better start by learning sense from Islam” – and quotes a translation of a Koran verse by way of example.

        Williams and Islam is a subject that would reward study, though I am not sure how gingerly it would need to be approached. (I don’t know of a lot of attention to it, whether from before the time of Lois Glenn’s Checklist or since – but who knows what I’ve missed?) One aspect that is of obvious interest is what similarities and differences Williams has in his treatment of Palomides in comparison with other modern ‘retellers’ (in T.H. White, for example, so far as I can remember, Palomides is not a Muslim – but not a seriously impressive character, either.)


  14. That 15 year old has a lot of issues going on, and also his parents. It’s strange because when I think of complimentarianism, I feel like it makes sense and that it’s a balanced way of understanding marriage, but then people who talk about holding to complimentarianism act in ways that don’t seem at all consistent with it. So either I have a very different understanding of the concept or there are lots of people running around throwing the label of complimentarianism on top of their chauvinism and hoping it doesn’t show….


    • I’m sure there are lots and lots of definitions and applications of “complimentarianism.” It would be a good idea for me to read a book on various Christian theories and theologies of gender, if I could carve out the time. I thought it meant “the masculine is really, spiritually superior to the feminine, and thus women are actually, really subordinate to men.” If that’s what it means, I don’t think the Bible teaches that.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Having a look at the Wikipedia “Complementarianism” article brings home to me how little I have read in detail about various definitions and applications!

        Interestingly, it says the term ‘hierarchicalist’ is “usually avoided by complementarians,” as it “ ‘overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence’. Therefore, they prefer the term complementarian, ‘since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences’.” The sense here given reminds me of Williams’s imagery of ‘hierarchic and republican’, where he preserves the term ‘hierarchic’ in a way that tries not to overemphasize “structured authority” while going beyond exclusively suggesting ‘equality’ by means of his characterization of ‘shifting hierarchies’ in practice, where the ‘structured lower’ (to coin a phrase) can – and often will – be ‘actually higher’ (without abolishing “structured authority”).

        Among “Noted Supporters” the article lists C.S. Lewis (but not the less famous Williams). My impression (always subject to correction!) is that the developed terminology of ‘complementarianism’ is ‘post-Lewis’ as well as ‘post-Williams’. But perhaps Williams was in some ways more consciously exploring the ‘concept’ (or whatever) avant la lettre than many a contemporary? (To raise that possibility is not to cut short any discussion of what may well be problematical in Williams’s own specific applications of ‘hierarchic and republican’, or more deeply in the imagery.)


  15. Charles Huttar says:

    Montaigne speaks of circumstances under which one expresses an otherwise valid point with “greater vehemence and approval than in our cool and calm moments” (The quotation comes to me fourth-hand — via CW (“Dove”), A. N. Wilson, and David Llewellyn Dodds in a recent Comment.) It prompts me to say this about Sorina’s remarks on “Elizabeth I.” In mounting a vigorous critique of Williams’s biography — which I don’t doubt it deserves — might it be well to take into account his seemingly perennial need for more income, which drove him to work into the small hours on those little books (were they done on spec or commissioned, in which case deadlines might also be a factor?), a feat made possible by his unusual fluency; plus the ebullient enthusiasm which is famously revealed in the public behavior that led to his giving Florence the nickname Michal — all of which may have enabled him to allow into print things which in more “cool and calm moments” might have been revised, even to the extent of showing us more truly what he actually thought? Revision of course can be a means of concealment, and I grant that what one first blurts out must come somehow from within, but as Paul notes in Romans 7, “within” are two selves, and what the better self “would not do” (or say) may not be the best evidence about the person’s character, even though in unguarded moments it may get said. Of course in his poetry (as opposed to these pot-boilers) he was more careful, and there it is proper to hold him to account.
    That said, I too, like Sorina, am sometimes frustrated by what seems an opaqueness in CW’s writing, prose as well as poetry. In thinking about this I have been helped by Lewis’s discussion in “Torso” of different kinds of obscurity. But I wonder if another kind might be mentioned, the deliberate withholding of plainer speech for a pedagogical purpose: the idea that the need to figure it out oneself is part of the learning process. Not that Williams was Zen incognito, but that the rhetoric we associate with Zen sayings is actually a more universal one. In poetry, we take for granted the reader’s necessary participation. Williams defined himself as a poet. With an eye mainly on the prose, Glen Cavaliero in 1983 called him a “Poet of Theology.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve dug out my copy of the 1941 Readers Union edition of four ‘Great Lives’ reprinted in one volume, one of which is this ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and thought it might be worth some comment. Mrs. Hadfield described the Duckworth ‘Great Lives’ series as well established by the time Williams was invited to contribute. Searching online for ‘Duckworth Great Lives’ did not immediately produce any historical sketch, but did elicit many and varied examples of a great variety of subjects – and variously famous authors, including Rose Macaulay and C.V. Wedgwood. If the subjects in the 1941 reprint are no obvious group of any sort at first sight, Williams finds himself in academically distinguished company: Benjamin Ifor Evans on Keats (1934), Maurice Ashley on Marlborough (1939), and Geoffrey Webb on Wren (1937). (See their Wikipedia articles for an idea how distinguished – though, curiously, Sir Benjamin Ifor Evans’s German article is much more detailed than his English one.)

      There is no indication who edited the volume as a whole, and as I don’t have a separate edition of any of the four, I don’t know if the little “Chronology” which precedes, and “Bibliography” that follows, each, is identically found in the first editions, or not.

      Speculating freely, I wonder if Williams’s earlier biographies account for the invitation from Duckworth, and the success of the Readers Union reprint of The Decent of the Dove led to his inclusion, here?


  16. Charles Huttar says:

    This is in response to Dodds’s post 21 March at 19:12. Thank you, David, for drawing together Lewis’s remarks about Islam (which parallel Williams’s). I suspect both were following Dante, who places Mahomet among the Sowers of Discord in the Eighth Circle because, as Sayers explains in her Glossary, “in accordance with medieval opinion, [he] regards Mohammed as a Christian schismatic” (which is tantamount to “heresiarch”).
    For 10 weeks or so I’ve been thinking about a possible post on Palomides — it seems to me especially timely since the question of how most truly to regard Islam has entered so much into current political discourse. I’d better get on with that, if Sorina is willing to have me as a “guest.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am very willing! Whenever you like!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you for mentioning Dante and Sayers on “medieval opinion”: I did not feel I had a sharp enough sense of the details of that, to embark on it.

      Another point I would have to swot up on to try to say anything, but which I think comes into the difference between T.H. White and many others, is that (if I recall correctly) ‘Saracen’ seems often to be intended to mean ‘Muslim’, but that it need not. I tried to say something about this where Wolfram is concerned in my Williams Society Quarterly article on the Holy Grail and the ‘Santo Cáliz’ of Valencia a few years back…

      Something I have lately been wondering about is Williams’s use of ‘Circassia’ (including, in his tripartite symbolism of Phyllis Jones in the Century poems, and on into the Advent of Galahad and later pre-Taliessin through Logres poetry). What-all ‘Orientalist’ contexts does this have, going back how far? (The Wikipedia “Circassian beauties” article seems relevant, here.) I have been specifically wondering if, were I to know more about ‘Circassian’ imagery, I would see ways in which Williams’s treatment of Palomides and Iseult differs from it (with, perhaps, implicit comparisons intended?).

      It would be very good to read your thoughts on Palomides!


  17. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dale Nelson has just drawn my attention to a very interesting review essay on Williams and Grevel Lindop’s biography by Sir Geoffrey Hill, published in the TLS yesterday. It touches on matters addressed here, audience and readership and style – for example, “Williams himself in his best criticism – and his best criticism may be the best of all his writing (if he truly does have a spark of genius it is here) – is plain and stubborn”, and, “that commingling of formality and bloodymindedness that I would indicate as one of the characteristics of Williams’s verse” – but also (via a quotation from Grevel Lindop) ““a paradoxical dynamic between egalitarianism and hierarchy”:



    • Charles Huttar says:

      It is refreshing to hear a voice from outside the coterie. Whoever assigned Lindop’s book to this reviewer knew what he or she was doing. Much here to be chewed and digested (as I’m only beginning to do, and only then will be able to say whether it’s all wholesome).


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        An interesting conjunction of points – or meaty fibres to chew on – is Sir Geoffrey’s suggesting consideration of David Jones and R.S. Thomas is a necessary preliminary to any claims about Williams being anything like “the Great Christian poet of the Twentieth Century” with his regretting “Williams’s entire enmeshment in the Arthurian matter.” What of Jones’s analogous “enmeshment”? And would a late-style non-Arthurian (and non-dramatic?) Williams such as he entertains be more an analogue to R.S. Thomas?


  18. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A curious and interesting footnote struck me in John Rateliff’s recent “Lost Letter” article, drawing upon Lyle W. Dorsett, “The Biographies of Charles Williams: Some Suggestions”, Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal (No. 85, Spring 1994), 25–48:

    “Williams did not limit his habit of arranging and re-arranging elements in his work to correlate with events in his own life, and vice versa, just to his Arthurian cycle. Lyle Dorsett, in his study of the six biographies of historical figures written by Williams (of Sir Francis Bacon, James I, the Earl of Rochester, Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII, and Rev. W.H. Flecker), discovered that Williams was apt to change biographical facts so that the lives of his subjects reflected the events of Williams’s own private inner life (Dorsett 36–37, 47). I am grateful to Dr. Dorsett for sharing his discovery and the Wade Center for providing me with a copy of his essay.”



    I’d like to know more about that!


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