Grevel Lindop, ‘Unveiling an Esoteric Life: Writing the Biography of Charles Williams.’

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:





Are we silence-proof? A response to Silence in the Archives by Dr Katherine Collins

Dr Katherine Collins was a delegate attending Silence in the Archives on 7th November. She has kindly given us permission to reproduce her response to the day. Katherine is on twitter @aliceinacademia.

Are we silence proof?

Cause sometimes

I said sometimes

I hear my voice

And it’s been here

Silent All These Years

Tori Amos

The interior of Wolfson College is a concoction of natural materials: vivid green grass visible through the windows, slate and stone, wood old and new (and, apparently, the best toilets in the university). I had come to Oxford for Silence in the Archives, to learn about censorship and suppression in women’s life writing in the long nineteenth century. A strange choice of conference perhaps, for a social researcher more typically found in her native habitat of critical ethnography, working with marginalised and excluded groups of people. So, why was I there?

I left home in the sort of dark early morning silence where headlights make the world crinkle its eyes at the intruding brightness. By the time I reached the Cotswolds the streetlights were off but the wind wasn’t, trees stirring the sky with the tips of their branches, whipping up an orange snowstorm across the fields. But my journey towards the study of silence began many months before that blustery morning in early November. In my doctoral thesis, I had written about the ways in which participatory research methods, conceived by activists and radicals as a political methodology of empowerment, are being adopted (co-opted, really) by local government and health services to change people’s behaviour. The context was two deprived neighbourhoods, the behaviour risky drinking. I wrote about the loneliness of young mothers gulping wine at lunchtime, about the need to hide the bruises of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, and women’s determination to keep families together under a protective blanket of silence.

But there’s something missing in the books and articles I’ve read about the origins of participatory methods of enquiry. These methods are founded in conscientização, or critical consciousness: the process whereby people wake up to the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that work together, externally and internally, to oppress them (Ledwith, 2011). It involves techniques like culture circles: discussion groups based on participants’ lived experiences. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the women’s liberation movement will be hearing some bells ringing right about now, and engraved on those bells will be the words ‘consciousness raising’. And yet, Freire, Horton, Gramsci, Nyerere, Ghandi – radical males – are given the credit for the innovations that led to participatory enquiry. bell hooks is thrown some crumbs in these accounts, for her innovations in feminist pedagogy.

That’s a very specific example of a very specific silence, but what is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure is that, much as Elaine Bailey argued so eloquently of the poet Matilda Betham, the radical women in 1970s New York knew that this silencing was happening. Like Betham, ruefully they watched the spaces appear as they were rubbed away from their work:

“Shulamith Firestone, in the women’s liberation movement’s first theoretical journal Notes From The First Year, described and wrote about the process of the feminists in general and the radicals in particular being written out of the history of the last century and we ourselves almost immediately began to experience this invisibility happening to us even as we were there. The more successful the radical, feminist women became, the more widespread our slogans and ideas, the more invisible we got – even as what we produced was becoming visible” (Sarachild, 1976, p. 13).

It seems women may face a stark choice: on the one hand speak and write radical words and risk suppression, erasure, absence. Face punishment like Betham, who was once incarcerated for insanity; or Germaine Greer who has met accusations of bigotry and rhetorical violence recently, and been dismissed as old, irrelevant, rigid and authoritarian in editorial and on social media. On the other hand, we can censor and sanitise our radicalism, and be remembered through a rosy lens of male approval. As Bailey pointed out, her calm, musical voice in stark counterpoint to the humming, floodlit intensity of the lightbulb moment this represented for me: men’s silence ensures their continued grasp on power. But women’s silence is just… silence.

Feeling silenced as an individual and a scholar can be hard to talk about (take a moment to appreciate the irony). It feels like paranoia verging on narcissism. I’m not silenced; I just don’t say anything worth listening to, don’t write anything worth noticing. But the more I explore this topic of women’s erasure across disciplines, the more silence I find. In 200 years, when another group of scholars gather in Wolfson College on a rainy autumn day, I can’t help but wonder about our contemporaries: active, curious, creative, radical female scholars, writers, performers, composers, and poets, prolific as the falling leaves… today. How many of us will be, as Karen Hunt said in her keynote, “hidden beneath the noise”.

Are we silence proof?

Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized oppression. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sarachild, K. (1976) “The Power of History” in Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement (ed) Feminist Revolution. New York: Random House.

Thank you to Bethany Sagar-Fenton and Millie Slavidou, who offered constructive suggestions on the first draft and whose contribution should not be silent.

Silence in the Archives: Conference Report

On 7th November, OCLW welcomed scholars from around the globe to our much anticipated conference, Silence in the Archives. This conference was designed to bring to life ways in which women’s life writing was censored or suppressed in the long nineteenth century, whether by the self or others, what those silences meant, and how they might speak to us today.

Our two keynote speakers were obvious highlights. Karen Hunt, of Keele University, spoke about silence – and rumours and gossip – in the representation and self-representation of Dora Montefiore: a ‘difficult woman’. Involved with a married man – an ‘intellectual soul friendship’ she claimed, though the scandal-mongers drew different conclusions – there was much chatter and little silence at the time, as private letters were made public, privileged communications were dragged into a court case, and the whole thing written up in the press. Montefiore was moved to defend herself in a powerfully emotional letter to Keir Hardie, expressing her disappointment at ‘sliding scales of morality’ among socialists. Yet in her autobiography, the entire episode was completely ignored. Hunt suggested that in working on women’s lives, scholars must take care to work around the silences without creating ‘straw women.’

Our evening keynote speaker was Janet Todd, departing president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her topic was the biographies of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft by their relations: nephew Austen-Leigh and husband Godwin. Both, Todd suggested, were writing autobiographies as much as biographies. They took on the role of ‘keepers of the flame’ but prioritised male figures in their stories and their own particular roles. Godwin was successful in personalising the feminist cause, but in his over-frank candour he made it impossible for other women to take Wollstonecraft as a role model. Austen-Leigh praised his aunt’s femininity. Godwin rejected Wollstonecraft the polemicist, criticising her writing as too masculine; Austen-Leigh rejects Austen the professional writer. Both wrote within the ideological confines of their cultural moment: Godwin emphasising sensibility; Austen-Leigh stressing sweetness. But neither engaged with or analysed the work. Godwin’s changes made Wollstonecraft less exceptional: the woman who had so trenchantly critiqued gender was situated firmly within it. Austen-Leigh did encourage a new generation of readers: he was the first of many men to try and rescue ‘dear Aunt Jane.’ Both were hugely influential biographies, but as Todd said, ‘happily neither had the last word on their subject.’

In between we were treated to a series of diverse and intellectually challenging papers: some engaged in the recovery of forgotten figures; some taking fresh perspectives on well-established figures. Our first panel of the day confronted issues of representation, reputation and manipulation. We were introduced to the ‘hostage letter’ by Catherine Delafield in her talk on the correspondences of Austen and Burney; the ‘ghost manuscript’ by Sonia Di Loreto, exploring the post-humous legacy of Margaret Fuller Ossoli; and the ‘White Queen’ image of Mary Margaret Slessor, so at odds with her Victorian heroine persona, by Baptiste Moniez. A concurrent panel focused on silencing poetic voices was led by Elaine Bailey, whose paper on Mathilda Betham revealed the empowering, if dangerous, capability of poetry for women writers as a tool against oppression; Jordan Lavers discussed the vital task of investigating beyond established critical representations, particularly in the case of Romantic poet Karoline von Gunderrode; and Mary Breen unravelled the public and private discrepancies in the suppressed archive of Mary Tighe, detailing how newly discovered manuscripts prompt fresh evaluations.

In a panel on politics and conflicts, Helen Mathers explored Josephine Butler’s complex and contradictory attitudes to autobiography and biography; and Stephenie Woolterton drew a tentative trail between suggestive archival clues and family traditions about a link between William Pitt the Younger and some servant girls within his household. Another panel looked at women involved with public life through theatre and the arts. Kate Newey led the discussion with her comparison of the archival remnants of Fanny Kemble and Constance Beerbohm, probing the ethical limitations of what researchers confront in the archive; Natalia Yakubova looked at the skewed representation of Polish actress Irena Solska through public censorship; and Paula Higgins spoke on the challenges facing talented women composers through familial suppression by investigating the case of siblings Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn.

In a fantastic session on the private (and not-so-private) thoughts contained within diaries, Kathryn Gleadle brought to life the lively, self-conscious and subversive Eva Knatchbull-Hugesson, elaborating on how her extraordinary diary might open up new perspectives on juvenile agency. Rhea Sookdeosingh analysed how women spoke about their complex relationship with food without a cultural discourse; while Lucy Ella Rose explored how women used diaries as a form of dissent by discussing her recent transcription of Mary Watt’s journal.

Our next panel brilliantly confronted some of tactical interventions made by women on their own archival records. Susan Civale discussed the ellipses in Mary Robinson’s memoir, rereading omissions as a strategic method of self-representation; Elizabeth Denlinger spoke on the potentially fabricated letters of Claire Clairmont, which could be read as autobiographical correctives rather than authoritative records; and Ceylan Kosker unravelled the coded meaning within the existing archival fragments of Violet Fane through a comparison of her multi-layered autobiographical projects.

The final panel discussed how women confronted and understood mortality. Wendy Jones discussed Mrs Birkbeck’s album as a form of life-writing; Sophie Coloumbeau described Hester Thrale Piozzi’s fragmented attempts to write her own life; and Joetta Harty suggested how two parents movingly wrote and rewrote their experiences of an exceptional child’s untimely demise. The parallel final panel investigated documentations of displacement in women’s archives. Molly Mann grappled with the mediation of the male-authored captivity narratives of Olive Oatman and Susannah Willard Johnson; Carrie Crockett presented her methods for assembling a fragmented archive based on the undocumented women of the Sakhalin Island penal colony; and Lorraine Paterson traced the paper trail of exilic experience in Algeria, revealing the gender transformation of one Vietnamese woman made possible by her expatriation.

Our aim throughout the conference was to overcome the challenges of silence by promoting discussions which would challenge the boundaries of period, genre and discipline. We were delighted by the positive atmosphere and the many exciting conversations and would love to hear of any future research avenues or collaborations which may develop.

We are grateful to Janet Todd, Karen Hunt, Kathryn Gleadle, Laura Marcus and all our chairs, speakers and delegates for their contributions to this very successful day. We also thank the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies for their generous sponsorship.

Lyndsey Jenkins (OCLW DPhil Scholar) and Alexis Wolf (PhD candidate, Birkbeck University)

Clare Broome Saunders: Becoming a Nineteenth Century Writer – The Life and Career of Louisa Stuart Costello

In a fascinating talk, Clare Broome Saunders introduced friends of OCLW to Louisa Stuart Costello: poet, travel writer, artist, historian, medievalist and biographer. Across her long life, she exploited her skills as a writer across genres and had an acute grape of reading trends and publishing markets. In her time she was extremely well-connected and had a strong critical reputation. But she was forgotten in the modern period: her image as a ‘poetess’ jarred with the changing times and Stuart Costello fell out of fashion. In the 1990s her poetry was rediscovered, and there has also been some academic interest in her travel writing, but both of these only give a snapshot of her extraordinary breath and range.

Louisa Stuart Costello was born in Middlesex to an Irish father. He was in the army and died in the Napoleonic Wars, possibly after changing sides. Thereafter she was the family breadwinner, aged only fifteen, and put her brother through Sandhurst. Her mother, Elizabeth Totridge, wrote a novel which reads like a plea for female education and possibly explains Louisa’s breath of reading and grasp of languages. Her first job was copying manuscripts in Paris, which gave her a lifelong passion for medievalism.

Her first book of poetry was published in 1815 when she was only sixteen. More books followed, which earned her the patronage of Francis Burdett and Walter Scott. By 1825, one critic said that she was revitalising poetry after the death of Byron. She was savvy and knew how to make money, publishing her work in periodicals, and writing reviews which enabled her to mention her own poems. In 1829 she wrote the first 19th century version of the Lady of Shalott, heavily influenced by medievalism. In her version, the Lady is mistress of her own space and chooses to die.

Louisa Stuart Costello translated and illustrated French poetry, reintroducing forgotten poems into English. Though this was a work of serious scholarship, critics focused primarily on the pretty pictures. She switched genre as poetry began to fall out of favour, and became part of the mid-nineteenth century boom in travel and travel writing. Her travel writing encompassed an extraordinary range of styles: from guides to sights, to practical advice, to masculine subjects women were not supposed to engage with. From the 1840s she began to write novels: primarily historical novels which drew on her extensive scholarship, but also a contemporary story which used her travel experiences.

She also capitalised on the genre of life writing: acceptable for women where history was not, writing both literary and historical biographies. Her masterpiece, published in 1850, was The Lay of the Stork, an analogy of the catastrophic Crimean War, again drawing on medieval allusions to suggest that women should have a role in public and political life.

After her mother died in 1846 and her brother in 1865 she moved to France, but returned to England in 1869. She died shortly afterwards of cancer of the mouth, caused by her habit of sucking her paintbrushes. Among her artworks is a miniature of Queen Victoria on her accession.

Louisa Stuart Costello was not only a gifted writer and exceptional scholar but also an extremely professional woman. She had a thorough understanding of the literary marketplace and was confident in switching genres in order to capitalise on new trends. Clare Broome Saunders gave a thoroughly engaging presentation which more than did justice to this multi-talented 19th century author.

Louisa Stuart Costello: A Nineteenth Century Writing Life is available now.


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