Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work by Alice Mary Hadfield (Oxford, 1983) is both unbearable and indispensable. It is unbearable because it is one of the most poorly-written books I have ever read (and that's saying something) and indispensable because it is the only full-length biographical study of Charles Williams, packed with analysis of his works and all the essential information about his ideas. It is still number one on the “must-read” list of books on Williams, and will remain so until that distant, longed-for, doubtful day when Grevel Lindop publishes his official biography, The Last Magician, on contract for Oxford University Press. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Hadfield is an appalling writer. The book is written almost entirely in passive voice, riddled with unaccountable shifts of verb tense (even within sentences), run-on sentences, a kind of private language much like Williams's own (which leads into a strange loop: we read Hadfield to understand Williams, then have to read Williams to understand Hadfield, and around and around we go), indefinite statements and qualifiers galore, peculiar habits of non-standard punctuation, quotes dropped into the text without integration, endless typographical errors, and disorganization on every level from the sentence through the paragraph to the chapter and the book as a whole. Oxford University Press should be ashamed of themselves; haven't they ever heard of an editor?
This atrocious writing makes the book almost impossible to read without physical illness. I've read it twice now, and persisted in a kind of permanent nausea for the entirety of both readings. Even now, I get mildly—or moderately—sick to my stomach just looking into its pages again for the purposes of writing this summary. Just open the book at random and jab your finger down at any old sentence. I guarantee you that there will be at least one oddity of sense or syntax.
Yet this book must be read. It is the best—because the only—source of thorough biographical information on Williams united with analysis of his writings. Hadfield knew Williams and all the chief members of his circle personally, and worked with him for many years. She was the librarian at Amen House (Oxford University Press's offices in London) after Phyllis Jones left that post, attended Williams's lectures at the City Literary Institute, and corresponded with him for many years. She was close enough to him to be able to write an intimate account full of personal and professional details, yet appears to have (or at least to have gained) enough objectivity of time and distance to write about him honestly, dispassionately, and even a tad critically. Her account, together with the even more incisive commentary by Lois Lang-Sims on one episode in Williams's life, provides a healthy corrective to C. S. Lewis's lavish, exultant encomiums.
Hadfield beings her study biographically: that is to say, chronologically, with family history and a discussion of Williams's early home and school life. After that, she mixes chronology with a thematic/generic organization, sometimes dividing a period of years into multiple chapters in order to deal separately with novels, poetry, and other works. This is quite confusing, especially as she never, ever uses anything remotely resembling a thesis statement, topic sentence, or transitional expression to help the reader follow her idiosyncratic organization.
There is no point in my going on to summarize the book, since it consists of biography and literary analysis. Instead, I will simply comment on some points that are of interest to me and hope that they are of interest to you.
First: I believe that Hadfeld misinterprets The Silver Stair. You can read my summary of The Silver Stair here. Hadfield writes that the renunciation in this book “is to be of a different kind of desire [than sexual desire]: renunciation not of human relationship but of particular qualities: self-will, personal power over one's choices, desires, aims or achievements without concern for the beloved” (18). Let me translate that bizarre syntax before I disagree with it. It means that Hadfield thinks the narrator of The Silver Stair is allowed to get married and all that, but just needs to be nice to his wife.
As I wrote in that previous post, the narrator talks about Convents, Brotherhood, a Monastic Chapel, and abstinence. He claims that the cross rebukes us and makes us turn from earthly love, saying that any who have “put off love for Love’s sake” do the “greater thing.” In his most extreme moments, he believes that love must be renounced if Christ is to enter. He believes that “love can be consummated and so grow old and die”—or it can be consecrated to perpetual virginity, which is its true telos. And in the end, the consummation of the love appears to be a commitment to perpetual virginity.
Not to get too entangled in biographical criticism here, but I am convinced that in 1910-1912, Williams sincerely believed that he would have to, like Abelard or like his own later Taliessin, give up married love in order to serve God. It was only sometime between 1912-1917 that he changed his mind. I suspect, without evidence, that Florence changed it for him.
But to say the same thing in a more academically sound way, avoiding the personal heresy: The narrator of The Silver Stair certainly believes that he must give up human relationships. Hadfield is gravely mistaken there.
She is also mistaken about the title of The Silver Stair.
She writes a long, speculative paragraph in which she says that “no one whom I have consulted can give a reason” for the choice of title, then suggests various possibilities. She concludes: “I think that the book's title relates directly to sonnet LXVII. The two stairs are his names for the holy and the human ways of access to Man's house, and he calls his sonnet sequence after the human” (18, 19).
Again, I differ. While the title does come from Sonnet LXVII—the 13th line is “The silver and the golden stairs are His”—I believe that the two staircases are the two ways to God: the via negativa and the via affirmativa. The Affirmative Way is Golden, while the Negative Way is Silver. Hence the title—this sonnet series dramatizes the sacrificial ascent of the ascetic stairway to Heaven.
Second: Hadfield's discussion of The Chapel of the Thorn is mistaken, because she did not have the blessed access to the Marion E. Wade Center that I have had. She believes that The Chapel of the Thorn was lost, with the exception of “eight pages of extracts....These pages in my possession are all that seem to remain of the work” (p. 39, p. 238 n. 10).
Nope! I have the entire play on my harddrive (and backed up quite a few places, don't you worry) in typescript, and the full MS original and a photocopy safely reside in the vaults of the Wade. Now, I for one am glad she was wrong there.
Third: This re-reading of Hadfield reminded me of many details I had forgotten or hadn't stored away in my mind at all the first time around. One was the significance of a fourth collection of Arthurian verse. I only had in my mind:
- Heroes and Kings (1930)
- Taliessin Through Logres (1938)
- The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)
Hadfield reminded me of another, which I should have known (and did, vaguely, but not in the forefront of my consciousness) from Dodds' 1990 edition of the poems. It should be called number 1, although it was never published:
The Advent of Galahad (c. 1924).
Hadfield writes that “forty-five [of the poems] have survived in typescript and may well be the whole series” (49). Dodds says that “ there were nearly forty by February 1930, written over the preceding two or three years” (“The Holy Chalice of Valencia” 9), but he included only 24 of them in his edition. I know he is working on a “complete” critical edition with variant texts; perhaps the rest will be in that volume. Meanwhile, where are these poems? The Wade's catalogue lists only CW / MS-138, “Dedication to The Advent of Galahad: Poems for Margaret and Isabel Douglas.” 7 pp. in 7 lvs.: 1 p. pc. TMs., 6 pp. TMs. with revisions.
I will email David Dodds and ask him to enlighten me on this mystery.
And that is quite enough to be going on with, if you'll pardon the preposition. If there are other points I feel I have to make, I'll do so in a later post. Cheers.