“The Marriage-Craft”: Novel Occult Sexuality

CW Was Such a Character

Each investigation into Charles Williams’s life and work reveals new depths of his occult involvement and new peculiarities of his theological system. I have found this to be true whether I am reading his own works, scholarship about him, or (as in this case) novels in which he features as a character. You’ve already read about Nor Fish Nor Flesh, the strange 1933 novel written by CW’s colleague Gerry Hopkins about their love triangle with Phyllis Jones. Well, in 1924, another of his friends had published a novel in which CW is one of the main characters, and it is just as strange, and just as revealing of CW’s personality and thought, but very, very different.

No wonder CW thought he was a “great man” (as he writes in letters to his wife from the 1940s), if everybody he knew was writing novels about him in the 1920s and 30s!

And what strange novels they are–not that this is a surprise, considering the subject. Nicholson’s The Marriage-Craft is a strange beast indeed. It is a philosophical dialogue, as Lindop calls it, consisting almost exclusively of conversation with very little plot, setting, or other typical techniques of fiction.

But first, some background.

How Many Occult Groups?!

As we now know from Grevel Lindop’s 2014 biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, CW was involved in not one but two occult groups. Once we cleared up the confusion spread by early works that claimed CW was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn (he wasn’t), we were able to focus on the ten years he spent in A. E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross from 1917-1927. Very important work has been done recently on the influence of the FRC on CW’s fiction and poetry; more needs to be done about its influence on his theological ideas.

However, very little work has been done on CW’s other occult group, the one that Lindop introduced in his biography. This was, apparently, an unofficial meeting of Williams with Rev. A. H. E. “Henry” Lee, an Anglican priest, and D. H. S. Nicholson, at Lee’s vicarage. They meet biweekly for twenty years “to explore spiritual matters” from 1919 until 1939 (Lindop 63). Lee was a member of Golden Dawn breakaway group, the Stella Matutina (thanks, Aren Roukema!), and apparently Lee got hold of one of the super-secret instructional lectures from a high-ranking Golden Dawn member and taught those rituals to Nicholson and Williams (Lindop 65). It’s possible that “they may well have arranged for Williams to be initiated” (Lindop 68)–which would mean CW was a member of some kind of Golden Dawn group, after all.

What did they talk about? Well, they discussed alchemy, kabbala, astrology, yoga, and “the transformation of sexual energy for spiritual purposes” (Lindop 64). And Nicholson’s novel The Marriage-Craft brings these conversations to life.

Sex on a Boat

Here’s the premise of the novel. At the beginning of the story, the narrator (the Nicholson character, called “Peter”) and “Ronald” (the Williams character) are on a train, talking loudly about sex. Ronald proposes that married couples should not be allowed to live together more than six months out of every year. As they walk through the countryside later, Ronald comes up with the brilliant idea that they should get a party of their friends (along with a priest and a professional prostitute) together on a barge for a week to talk about the whole “tangle” of problems relating to sex and marriage, and solve the darn thing once and for all.

Much to the narrator’s surprise, Ronald actually does gather together 9 people, and they really do live on a barge for a week and talk through a fairly orderly list of topics on sexuality:

1st day. The purpose of sex. Physical reproduction? Mental creation? Spiritual development? Or all three?
2nd day. If for all three, can they be reconciled? If not for all three, for which of them in preference to the other or others, and how is the object to be achieved?
3rd day. Celibacy and Marriage.
4th day. Monogamy and Polygamy.
5th day. Free Marriage and Free Love.
6th day. The sacramental idea.
7th day. The hope of transmutation.
(p. 34)

The nine conversationalists include the Nicholson character, Peter, and his secret mistress, Eileen; the Williams character, Ronald, and his mostly silent wife Mona; an artist and his theosophical wife; a big bully of a barrister, Pearce, and his oppressed and abused wife, Mary; and a celibate priest, “Henry,” obviously based on the Rev. A. H. E. Lee. No prostitute attended, after all, although Peter says Eileen will “do” to represent that element (nice thing to say about one’s girlfriend).

My first surprise about this novel is that it’s written in a very clear style. Somehow I thought that any occult friend of CW’s would write in the horribly obscure style that he used, which he may partially have learned from A. E. Waite; hermeticists are not generally known for the lucidity of their prose. But The Marriage-Craft is written in a clear, simple, straight-forward style that’s easy to understand.

My second surprise was that it’s pretty good. There’s not much by way of plot, since it’s all dialogue, but there’s a fair amount of human tension. Not as much as one expects in a novel in which you take 9 passionate humans and lock them on a boat for a week to talk about sexuality, but there’s a build-up to a moment of the Big Reveal when Eileen says that she and Peter are lovers. And there is character development, especially in Pearce, who loses some of his sickening, bullying arrogance and complacency.

Do They Solve the Problem?

What about the question(s), though? What about the conversations? What do they talk about, and what conclusions do they come to? Do they “solve” the problems of the purpose and praxis of sex?

I don’t think so. They do come pretty close; the best part is the discussion of sacramentalism, which I believe must be at the heart of any Christian teachings on sexuality (and isn’t, which is why American Evangelicalism is such a cesspool of bigotry, misogyny, and sexual abuse–but I digress–or do I?). They do believe that love, romance, marriage, and sex are extremely important in the grand spiritual scheme of the universe, and are important in order “to remind us of the realities they reflect” (70), but they disagree heartily on the specifics. In the end, occult ideas win out over traditional or mainstream ones.

The question of the purpose of sex, the occultists in the group agree, “is as vital as the question that had to be asked by the seekers in the Grail romances.” “It is that question,” the Henry Lee character insists, “exactly that question and no other. ‘What serves the Grail?’ And the Grail, of course, stood for the whole sex mystery” (39). They go so far as to suggest that “sex force” is somehow the most primal, essential reality of all: it might be the force of creation itself, even the power that drives the soul to God. “Fundamentally, everyone is burning with desire for the upper world,” Henry claims (70), and sex force is an expression of that desire. It can be captured and re-directed into anything else: into art, or devotional fervor, or anything. That’s the transmutation part of it, towards which the whole book drives.

As you can see from even this brief summary, these characters are very spiritual, but not particularly Christian. They don’t quote the Bible or discuss patristic theology. Even Pearce, the voice of the Establishment, doesn’t; he merely blusters and talks about “tradition” and “society” and “culture” and “the family.” The others enact what it is easy to imagine Williams, Nicholson, and Lee discussed month after month at the Vicarage in their [quasi-] Golden Dawn meetings, as they developed a theory of the transmutation of sexual desire.

Stranger Than Fiction Should Be

My final surprise, then, was what a vivid picture this novel gives of Charles Williams. Of course, it’s fiction, so I mustn’t give it too much weight. But the portrait conforms to those painted for us by C. S. Lewis, Lois Lang-Sims, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and others who knew CW. He is charismatic, dynamic, ebullient, and also cynical and bitter. He brings out the best in others as they talk, guiding their thoughts until they express themselves with greater profundity than they could on their own. And yet he is also thoughtless and cruel, ranting against marriage with vehement hatred while his wife looks on and listens, calmly (there’s even a hinted suspicion that perhaps they are living in marital celibacy, p. 77, although “Ronald” claims to have enough sex force for the usual outlets and plenty left over for spiritual transmutation).

Perhaps more importantly, the conversations are startlingly exact copies of ideas, concepts, and even quotes from later works such as Shadows of Ecstasy,* Outlines of Romantic Theology or Letters to Lalage or the Arthurian poetry. What this reveals is the profound influence of Nicholson and Lee’s particular brand of occultism on CW’s thought and work. In particular, they–not A. E. Waite–gave him the fundamental ideas that he later perverted into his own “Romantic Theology,” which included “the Celian moment” (loving a second person besides one’s spouse), consensual but unconsummated BDSM, and emotionally and physically abusive master-disciple relationships that were not fully consensual.

Above all, the concept of permanent quest(ioning) pervades this book. Henry reminds them: “But remember, there never was any answer given, as far as I have been able to find, in the Grail stories, even when the question was asked and the Quest finally achieved” (39). Maybe the point, Henry speculates, is merely to ask the question. It seems to me that this is what Charles Williams was doing all his life: Asking the interrelated questions: “What was the purpose of the Grail and everything it represents? What is the purpose of love/romance/marriage/sex, and is it the same as the purpose of the Grail? Where is history headed? In what way(s) are we members of one another? What is the Body of Christ? What is real truth, and is it secret or public? What more is there to know? What shall I do with these raging [sexual/poetic/power-hungry] desires? How can I get what I want with them, and/or give them to God? What is the point of poetry?”

For Williams, these were all the same question, and he dedicated his life–personal and creative, though they were not separate spheres–to asking them. I for one do not think he answered them. Do you?




*This novel seems to add extra weight to Brenton Dickieson’s “Irresponsible Suggestion about Charles Williams’s First Novel”: that Considine is at least partially a self-portrait.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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20 Responses to “The Marriage-Craft”: Novel Occult Sexuality

  1. ahnemann2013 says:

    Where can one get this book? Ann Ahnemann


    • It’s out of print and very rare. Amazon.co.uk has a few copies; AbeBooks has one. I’m investigating the possibility of reprinting it with Apocryphile!!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Grevel Lindop’s sorted out when Nicholson died, among other things, so I imagine that The Marriage-Craft is out of copyright everywhere (though the world of copyright law is a dense and thorny thicket to my thinking, too).

        I read it in the Bodleian (ah, copyright libraries! – yet only accessible if you’re near one, etc.), but if you’ve got a copy/access to the text, how about considering giving us all a treat and scanning it for the Internet Archive (however that works)?

        Truth to tell, I like having a real old-fashioned paper book in my hands, by preference – and I get the impression I am not alone in this, so perhaps Apocryphile and the Archive are not such mutually exclusive possibilities as my pleading for the latter might suggest – especially if the reprint has alluring extras like a new introduction, a note of other works by Nicholson and Lee, etc. (And then, perhaps a LibriVox – or more commercial – audiobook version?)

        Anyway, having read and enjoyed and been set thinking by Brenton’s Shadows post, I’ve just been wishing I could reread The Marriage-Craft itself, beyond my mere notes, and thinking it would be handy if it were widely available… so, hurrah for all this!


  2. I’m afraid I’m going to have to read this super weird novel if I ever go down the road of trying to capture CW (as you know I want to do, somehow).
    I wonder, was CW always limited in his relationship with Lewis and Michal because they lacked the occultic link with him?


  3. Afalstein says:

    I may have mentioned this before, but I’ve never been a great Charles Williams fan. Partly out of loyalty to Tolkien, who didn’t like him much either, but also just because I find his obscure style unhelpful. What I’ve since learned about his views on the occult and sexuality has not endeared him to me in the least.


  4. justreader says:

    Curiouser and curiouser 🙂 I feel I’d like to read this novel after your vivid description.


  5. Some of those ideas have worked their way into pop culture. Nine Inch Nails, the “industrial metal” project of Trent Reznor (who happens to be one of my favorite musicians) speaks of the sacramental aspect of sex. You can google the lyrics of his song “Sanctified” to see a bit of that. It’s a simple song, with more than a few double entendres, but the idea is still there. It’s stated even more explicitly in one of his songs “Closer.” There’s a sanctifying aspect to sex in that song as well, stating that it brings him “closer to God.” The lyrics get a hard “R” rating, so be warned. The salvific imagery is apparent in the snippet below.

    You can have my isolation
    You can have the hate that it brings
    You can have my absence of faith
    You can have my everything
    Help me
    Tear down my reason
    Help me
    It’s your sex I can smell
    Help me
    You make me perfect
    Help me become somebody else

    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Reading this in dialogue with both Outlines and Shadows seems very worthwhile.

    Fascinating questions which you light up nicely, here, are, in how far did these ‘Inklings of the Golden Dawn’, AEW, DHSN, AHEL, and CWSW, agree, and in how far, disagree, about ‘marriage-craft’ and other transmutations of energy?

    We’ve now got the Lewis-Barfield ‘Great War’ material, but I’ve never encountered or heard of anything comparable for any of our ‘GD/FRS Foursome’ – alas! Nor, as far as I know, anyone of them saying about any other, something like, “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one . . . How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?” But I am – haunted? teased? – by the possibility that any of them might have said something of the sort about any of the others.

    In what sense is this ‘Nicholson’s version’? Might either or both of Outlines or Shadows be significantly, among other things, Williams’s answers, or replies in the dialogue, anyway? What sort of cases might we make for that, to test the possibility?

    Again, is Richardson some kind of serious playful partial version of Nicholson, in The Place of the Lion?

    (And what is it with these other ‘R’-names, I wonder – in addition to this Ronald, there are Roger Ingram and Lionel Rackstraw – two of my choices for most Williamsy characters in Williams novels – though not obviously Ralph Coningsby between Henry and Aaron Lee…?)


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Curious and possibly simply squirrelly thought – any correspondence between Peter, Ronald, and Henry and Bors, Percivale, and Galahad as developed by Williams, as Grail Knights?


  8. megmoseman says:

    I’ve thought Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” has a little romantic theology (possibly even intentional). First:
    And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
    And you know that she will trust you
    For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

    And then, of Jesus:
    And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
    And you think maybe you’ll trust him
    For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

    And finally, of Suzanne again:
    And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
    And you know that you can trust her
    For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    On this Feast of St Francis, people might be interested to have a look at another curious book by Nicholson which preceded this novel, The Mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi (1923):



  10. Qoheleth says:

    Very strong and gifted analysis consonant with an intimacy that holds: The Grail in one hand, and breaks a pyramid in two with a karate chop with the other. CW’s world suffers from the Age of Poetry he lived in, there was an abundance of masters. CW walking along rain filled side streets in Oxford after a purgatorial day at the OUP fretting and secretly cursing his hermetic entrapment, entertaining and partially fulfilling as it could be. CW was an invidious, one too many. His secrets the same as, mostly, everyone else’s, but as with all secrets deals have to be made and exacted. Magicians in grey suits and dead-end jobs are sharpened, as spears needs to be, ready to lose their souls on a cosmic gamble that for many so gifted came as such a surprise they succumbed to sexual vanity and the chicanery of satisfaction masquerading as an intricate philosophy. For Christianity burns to a cinder what we do not need for salvation; or, if one prefers, deliverance from one’s tormented innate present and past, figuratively and twisting away in fright from all that is contradictory and impossible to quell. The stage seems just not big enough to have everyone taking an encore. Tolkein’s humanity presages CW’s vented sexual pretensions in a circus of intelligence highlighted by pentagrammatic architecture. A friend to none but the lonely self and in fear of the truth that is the anointment of love’s will waiting behind the Temple’s sacred walls of Arthurian romance. We wake each morning thus…


  11. Christie says:

    So interesting! I initially chose Charles Williams to write my thesis while pursing an MA in Arthurian Literature. I’m fascinated by the Atlantean/Numenorean/Logres mythology of Lewis’s space-time trilogy and knew he was influenced a great deal by Williams. My professor suggested to study David Jones alongside this. The result can be summarized in my professor’s suggestion to “not make it so obvious you prefer Jones.” Williams’ Arthuriana is attractive because it asks the questions, but I don’t think they’re answered. I feel like “the answer” could be the entirely of Jones’ Anathemata.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Zappa says:

    Isn’t CW Judas Iscariot?


  13. Pingback: The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse | The Oddest Inkling

  14. Pingback: Was Charles Williams an Anthroposophist? An Interview with Owen Barfield’s Grandson | The Oddest Inkling

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