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.
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.