The lights dimmed at the Leonard Wolfson auditorium, and a clip from the ITV series Inspector Lewis filled the main stage. Turning to one of his aides, the famous detective said the case at hand was connected to a certain Charles Williams, described as the ‘lesser known inkling’. With this opening, Grevel Lindop, who has just published a biography of Williams, emphasised the obscurity of his biographical subject while at the same time suggesting the similarities between detective work and biography writing.
To give his audience an initial impression of Williams, Lindop took us back to the lecture room of the Oxford Divinity School on the 5th of February 1940. A large audience waited as three men walked onto the stage: C.S. Lewis, then Professor of English, J. R. R. Tolkien, then Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature, and in between them Charles Williams, the new lecturer in English Literature. Leaving his notes aside, Williams gave a powerful lecture on Milton’s poetics and the theme of chastity, telling the students that chastity was not only an issue of restraint but ‘a matter of spiritual power’. Lindop described Williams’ lecture as a ‘spell’ that ‘hypnotized’ the audience. By starting with an account of this lecture in his preface, Lindop wanted to give a sense of Williams’ time at Oxford, where he ‘hit the place like a thunderbolt’, drawing many disciples. But Lindop was quick to point out that this was only one aspect of a very complex life. Williams had a tormented personal life; he was a prominent Christian theologian immersed in occult traditions; he worked for Oxford University Press for many years, eventually selecting the Oxford World’s Classics series; and he was a poet who was admired by the likes of Eliot and Auden.
The biographer’s task, in Lindop’s view, was ‘to find out what was going on’, and working on an obscure figure added an extra challenge. Finding a publisher was not easy, and the final title of the book, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, is specifically designed to bring attention to Williams by connecting him to the famous Lewis and Tolkien. Finding a suitable structure for the biography was also an obstacle. Lindop pointed out that traditional cradle-to-grave biographies often start with an exciting and interesting childhood, move on to an early adulthood that reveals the seeds of what the person will eventually become and, if they do not die young, generally devolve into duller narratives until death ends the story. Williams’ life, however, did not fit this pattern. Lindop described a childhood devoid of romanticism, living with ‘boring’ conformist parents in North London with no record of intense childhood memories. To overcome this, Lindop decided to start his biography with the 1940 lecture described above, offering the reader a promise of interesting content further ahead; a promise that would be fulfilled since Williams’ life became more interesting and more active as he aged. Born in 1886, it was at age 58, Lindop felt, that Williams had been at the height of his powers.
Examining the life-story of his biographical project, Lindop told us that the idea of writing a biography of Williams has been on ‘the back burner’ for some time. In the late 1990’s, when many of Williams’ friends were getting old, Lindop decided to start collecting material, since there is ‘nothing like having people who had known your subject’. Through many conversations Lindop built a sound archive of ‘vivid lived memories’. After he secured a contract with OUP in 2005, Lindop had access to the OUP archives where he found masses of material through which he could put together a timeline and identify ‘the connections and the gaps’. It became evident that there was a mystery at the centre of Williams’ life: the nature of his occult activities. Evidence suggested that Williams was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, which was not associated with a particular faith, but it taught magic, clairvoyance and had rituals designed to alter the cause of events. At the same time, there was contradictory evidence that Williams was part of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a Christian organization that didn’t dabble in magic. While Williams said he belonged to the first organization, documentary evidence suggested he belonged to the second. Lindop needed to find out why, when there was so much information about Williams’ life, this fact remained obscure. Intricate detective work and a biographers’ ‘obsession’ finally revealed that Williams had belonged to both organisations. Lindop read an extract from his biography where he reconstructs the initiation ritual at the Rosy Cross to give the reader a sense of the experience.
Lindop offered many examples to illustrate the sleuth nature of biographical work. One day, for instance, he received an email from someone letting him know he had found a bundle of papers by Williams left in trash bags at a skip. Discovering the circumstances of Williams’ death was also a fortuitous find. Even though the records of Radcliffe’s Infirmary from the relevant period had all been shredded, Lindop managed to locate the doctor who had been present as a medical student at Williams’ operation and post mortem.
Lindop told his audience that in his biography he wanted to confront readers with an enigmatic figure, one he felt it was time to reassess. He hopes that this biography will inaugurate a new era of Charles Williams studies and that it will encourage people to read his novels and his poetry. Lindop ended by saying that ‘there is still so much research to be done. Over to others now’.
To enjoy what promises to be a fascinating read, please find the book here: