16 July 2007

Biography of Charles Williams

In connection with my work for the upcoming Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, I'm continuing to write a series of posts about Charles Williams. Keep an eye open for thoughts, ramblings, and other installments each day or so for a while. These are pretty much just notes right now, rather than smooth lucid brilliant prose [like I usually write, right?]. I would be delighted to read your feedback on these posts, especially if you notice errors, omissions, or other inaccuracies. Projected topics include:
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Personality & Influence
Writing Style

Charles Walter Stansby Williams (20 September 1886 - 15 May 1945), British

Charles Williams was born on 20 of September, 1886, in North London (Islington). His father, Richard Walter Stansby Williams, was a clerk, then later opened a stationary store. Later in life, Richard lost his sight. Charles's mother's name was Mary; he had one sister, Edith, who was three years younger than himself. They were Anglicans. His first education outside the home came at St. Mary Magdalene. In 1894 the family moved to St. Albans, where he attended the Abbey School. He was confirmed in the Anglican church on 27 March 1901.

In 1903 Charles was awarded a scholarship to University College, London, but had to drop out after two years because his parents could not afford to keep him in school. He secured a job at a Methodist bookroom in London in 1904, and then began work at the Oxford University Press on 9 June 1908; he remained with the Press for the rest of his life. He worked his way up from a proofreading assistant or reader, to ______________ [what? does anyone know?]. In 1908 he met and fell in love with Florence Conway; they carried on a romance for nine years before they finally married on 12 April 1917; Charles was 30, Florence was _____________ [how old?]. During those years of courtship (CW was unfit for service in WWI [_____________ why? does anyone know?]), Charles wrote two books of complex love poetry, involving themes of renunciation and the theological, sanctifying power of love. Apparently Florence mocked him for loudly reciting poetry in public; he nicknamed her “Michal” (after King David’s wife; see II Samuel 6:14-23) and the nickname stuck. She even referred to herself by that nickname.

Williams was a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for either four-five years or for his entire adult life, according to various sources. Through this mystical associate, he met Evelyn Underhill and William Butler Yeats. [keep your eyes open for an upcoming post on Rosicrucianism and the Golden Dawn].

In 1922 Charles and Florence's only child, Michael, was born. Charles began to lecture through the London County Council at the Holloway Literacy Institute on literature in the evenings in 1924 [?] and continued until 1939. The Press moved to Amen House in 1924. This same year, Phyllis Jones joined the staff of the Press as librarian—and Charles fell in love with her. For the next nineteen [can anyone confirm that number?] years, Phyllis was his muse, his subject-matter, the index to all his ideas, and the center of his theology of Romantic Love. One of the centers, because he intentionally continued to nurture his marriage to Florence (and, as far as we can tell, never consummated the relationship with Phyllis, thus remaining at least physically faithful to Florence). Williams believed that marriage follows the pattern of the earthly life of Christ, including the times of temptation, crucifixion, and death. He developed this idea in Outlines of Romantic Theology, published posthumously. Charles struggled to use both his marriage and his emotional affair as ways of sanctification. But Phyllis, whom he names Celia, was his chosen image, the symbol and embodiment of his Arthurian cycle--to which he related all the events of his life and poetry. Sometime in 1926 or ’27 he wrote a volume of poems, The Century, about/to Phyllis. They also carried on an extensive, intellectual, passionate, affectionate correspondence. She eventually began a love affair with another married man, Gerard Hopkins, who also worked with Oxford University Press, then in September of 1934 married Billie Somervaille, then divorced him two years later and returned to the Press and to Williams’ company.

The Oxford University Press was evacuated from London to Oxford in 1939. Williams moved there, leaving Michal and Michael in London. Michael often came to stay with his father. Williams joined C. S. Lewis’s informal group, The Inklings, with whom he shared manuscripts and ideas. His influence can be felt in Lewis's later work, especially That Hideous Strength. Lewis adored, almost worshipped him; Tolkien was a bit more suspicious and possibly jealous of Lewis’s ardour. Through Lewis's manipulation, Williams gave a guest-lecture at Magdalen College, Oxford University, on Milton's Comus on 29 Jan 1940. He finally received an honorary MA from Oxford 18 February 1943, and later became a member of the Dante Society. Williams was only a member Lewis's unofficial society for six years, when he died unexpectedly in 1945 [__________ of what? does anyone know?]. Lewis tells the poignant tale: Lewis was on his way to a meeting of the Inklings, heard that Charles was in hospital, and decided to stop and visit him on the way. Upon arrival at the hospital and enquiring after CW, Lewis was told that CW had just died that morning.

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