100 Facts about Charles Williams

Last week, the first full-length biography of novelist, poet, and Inkling Charles Williams sprung on the literary world (in Great Britain; the US release date is scheduled for December 29). Leading up to the book’s release, its author Grevel Lindop tweeted a fact about Charles Williams every day for 100 days. Because I know a good many of you are Charles Williams fans, and an even bigger number of you love The Inklings, I’m posting the full list here, complete as of October 28. (I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the ones I find most interesting. :))

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#1 – In 1942, Charles Williams was called in by the Oxford University Press to exorcise a haunted building (now the OUP shop) in Oxford High Street.

The Oxford University Press bookshop (where Charles Williams is supposed to have exorcised a ghost). Image by Takashi Hososhima.
The Oxford University Press bookshop (where Charles Williams is supposed to have exorcised a ghost). Image by Takashi Hososhima.

#2 – Charles Williams attended the same school as the only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV.

#3 – Charles Williams’s favorite novel was Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (“Baron Corvo”). [Editor’s note: An interesting little summary of that novel can be found here.]

#4 – CW’s [paternal] grandfather was a militant atheist & republican who named one of his sons Cromwell.

#5 – Charles Williams won a bronze medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics—for poetry.

#6 – CW’s Rosicrucian motto “Qui Sitit Veniat,” “Let him who is athirst come,” is from the Bible’s very last verse apart from St John’s colophon.

#7 – Charles Williams wrote his first novel after reading a thriller by Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu, and thinking “I could do that!”

#8 – CW walked to St Alban’s school daily over the spot where Protestant martyr George Tankerfield was burnt at the stake in 1555.

#9 – In 1935, Charles Williams persuaded a cleaning lady at OUP’s Amen House to memorise long passages from Paradise Lost, Book XII.

#10 – W. H. Auden wanted to buy CW’s book Taliessin Through Logres but said it “will require courage as I don’t know how to pronounce it!”

#11 – Charles Williams wrote a series of love poems on themes from Euclidean geometry, including triangles and asymptotes.

#12 – CW said his boss Humphrey Milford consoled him for literary failure by “offering me a reputation in the 21st century.”

#13 – During World War II, Graham Greene at the Ministry of Information commissioned CW to write a pamphlet on Courage to help the war effort.

#14 – Charles Williams disliked Oxford, and thought it “though nice, still a kind of parody of London.”

#15 – Christopher Lee knew Charles Williams and came to his lectures; 60+ years later, he would play Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies. [Before you get too excited, see David Llewellyn Dodds’s comment below.]

#16 – CW gave CS Lewis’s Allegory of Love its title–CSL wanted to call it “The House of Busirane: An Essay on the Erotic Allegory of the Middle Ages.”

#17 – In the 1930’s Charles Williams was a close friend of the novelist and opium-addict Mary Butts, author of Ashe of Rings and Armed with Madness.

#18 – CW’s He Came Down from Heaven was part of a series called I Believe: Mary Butts was to write a companion And Was Crucified but never did.

#19 – In 1939, Charles Williams said that T. S. Eliot was “the only male love of my life since [D. H. S.] Nicholson died.”

#20 – In autumn 1939, Charles Williams used to bring colleague Gerry Hopkins* to Inklings meetings. Hopkins has never been listed as a minor Inkling.

#21 – Charles Williams reviewed Yeats’s A Vision: Yeats said he was “the only one who has understood the greatness and terror of the diagram.”

#22 – Charles Williams’s wife Michal learned from her poacher father to tickle trout: hence the fish image in [Williams’s] poem “Bors to Elaine.”

#23 – Phyllis Jones’s nickname for Charles Williams was “Urban”–alluding to the famous pope, his love of the city, and his poem “An Urbanity.”

#24 – Christopher Fry took all the character names for The Lady’s Not for Burning from his friend Charles Williams’s book Witchcraft.

#25 – Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions is [the] 1st time travel tale with loop—wish yourself back in time, get to where you wished, wish again, ad inf[initum].

#26 – CW’s office at OUP’s Amen House looked into the judges’ retiring room at the Old Bailey, and had a good view of prisoners arriving for trial.

King Kong poster#27 – In 1933, Charles Williams took his colleague and sweetheart Phyllis Jones to see the movie King Kong.

#28 – In committee, T. S. Eliot and Charles Williams proposed including “From the desire of damnation, Good Lord, deliver us” in Anglican litany.

#29 – Charles Williams’s salary in 1934, the only year we have figures for, was £50 per annum.

#30 – In 1940, Williams edited a version of Milton’s Samson Agonistes for performance and live broadcast on BBC Radio.

#31 – CW’s novel [The] Place of the Lion [was] inspired by a dream of an escaped lion in a cornfield in J.W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time Chapter 12.

#32 – In its first draft Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve was to be called Clarissa after its heroine, a psychic detective.

#33 – Whilst denouncing magic in his book Witchcraft, CW taught a disciple the banishing pentagram ritual, telling her it was “high magic.”

#34 – CW’s 1940 play The Devil and the Lady anticipates Rosemary’s Baby–plot to conceive a baby Satan so he can become incarnate in the world.

#35 – War poet Sidney Keyes (1922-43) admired Charles Williams & based his poem “Gilles de Retz” on material from CW’s book Witchcraft.

#36 – [In] Nov. 1940, Charles Williams reviewed a volume of Carmina Gadelica–Gaelic spells, chants, & invocations–calling it “a work of high importance.”

#37 – In 1922, A. H. E. Lee commissioned a horoscope for CW: it predicted financial success but advised against getting married.

#38 – Charles Williams once joined Oxford friends using a ouija. Formerly “slow, uninteresting,” it “just went batty…shot around the board!”

#39 – Charles Williams’s poem “Taliessin in the Rose Garden” was inspired by a fine rose garden under his office window at Oxford OUP headquarters.

#40 – CW’s Many Dimensions concerns [a] quest to get rid of [a] powerful, transcendent object. The theme would appear later in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

#41 – Charles Williams’s first publication was a story, “My Cousin Dick,” in Temperance Record, Dec. 1899. He was 15 years old.

Auden Sepia
Williams had such a profound effect on Auden personally that, after meeting him to discuss business, Auden said, “For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.”
#42 – W. H. Auden cherished the dream that Charles Williams would move to OUP’s New York office to act as his guru.

#43 – In August 1935, Charles Williams nursed Catholic poet Eugene Mason on his deathbed, reading poetry to him and fetching heroin as a painkiller.

#44 – [In] 1934, Charles Williams got a publisher’s questionnaire asking if he’d ever had an “experience that you consider supernatural?” He said “No.”

#45 – Charles Williams put a long quotation from Lenin’s Selected Works into his 1937 biography of Henry VII.

#46 – Dylan Thomas attended Charles Williams’s lectures: said, “Why, you come into the room and talk about Keats and Blake as if they were alive!”

#47 – Charles Williams came to hate his 1930 book Poetry at Present, calling it a “horrible book”–“this pathetic attempt of my immaturity.”

#48 – Charles Williams couldn’t shave himself because of his hand tremor: so he would go to a barber each morning on his way to work.

#49 – Anne Ridler reported that Charles Williams psychically detected [the] site of [a] Dark Age battle at Aisholt Somerset. (But failed at dowsing for water.)

#50 – Charles Williams reckoned he could write 7,000-10,000 words of prose in a weekend, finishing a book in six weeks if necessary.

#51 – Chloe in the novel Many Dimensions is portrait of CW’s colleague & sweetheart Phyllis Jones—he apologised for the name (she disliked “Chloe”).

#52 – In [the] novel Many Dimensions, Charles Williams killed off his arch villain Sir Giles Tumulty at the special request of girlfriend Phyllis Jones.

#53 – In Many Dimensions, Arglay considers “wishing himself into the heart of Vesuvius” with the Stone, to destroy it: anticipates Tolkien’s LOTR.

#54 – Charles Williams wrote his play Judgment at Chelmsford and visited rehearsals as “Peter Stanhope”: the actors didn’t know who he really was.

#55 – With girlfriend Phyllis in hospital after [a] riding accident, Charles Williams circled building sunwise to provide magical energy for recovery.

#56 – Charles Williams gave Phyllis in hospital Wallis Budge’s “Amulets and Superstitions” because it had [a] diagram of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

#57 – The whole correspondence between Charles Williams and Phyllis Jones is in Bodleian Library, closed since 1958 & unseen til very recently.

#58 – Charles Williams’s father was brought up an atheist and was baptized age 36, only a month before his church wedding in 1884.

#59 – In 1933, OUP asked Charles Williams to check The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz before publication to see if it contained anything indecent.

#60 – Charles Williams considered writing [a] novel about the moon and lunar influence—“Artemis, perhaps—cold, terrible, inhuman influence thrilling us!”

#61 – After reading D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, Charles Williams planned to write a “White Column novel” to “pull DHL and other things all together.”

#62 – Charles Williams hoped a Royal chaplain whom he knew might persuade King George VI to join the Companions of Coinherence.

Eliot, in a photo taken by Lady Morrell. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Eliot, in a photo taken by Lady Morrell.

#63 – Charles Williams first met T. S. Eliot at a tea party of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s—meeting set up by TSE’s friend Montgomery Belgion.

#64 – P’o L’u, the centre of evil in Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, is the medieval Chinese name for the seaport of Barus in Sumatra.

#65 – Charles Williams always “looked surprised at the Eucharist; would mutter ‘Well, well, well!’ in evident astonishment at what had taken place.”

#66 – Charles Williams’s tarot pack still exists, in private hands – but certain cards are missing.

#67 – An 1918 article in G. K. Chesterton’s New Witness attacked Charles Williams as “The Satanist”: but its author soon became CW’s keenest fan.

#68 – Charles Williams used to speak of his 1930 near-fatal intussusception as a death: “my experience of death”; “having died once…”

#69 – Charles Williams’s Judgment at Chelmsford name checks Thaxted whose Red Vicar hung Red Flag in church- ‘people must be saved in earth as in heaven’ [Having never read/seen Judgment at Chelmsford, I’m not sure how to translate this from Twitter shorthand. Sorry.]

#70 – Charles Williams asked Phyllis Potter to take on by “substitution” his anxiety over getting his book on witchcraft written.

#71 – In 1919, Charles Williams underwent a Rosicrucian initiation ritual which involved his being tied, standing, to a full-sized wooden cross.

#72 – In Charles Williams’s poem “Vision of the Empire,” [the] image of the headless Emperor is from Byzantine historian Procopius Secret History XII.

#73 – Charles Williams wrote his 1943 Dante book [The] Figure of Beatrice from lecture notes because he couldn’t face reading the whole Commedia again.

#74 – Charles Williams’s magical sword was buried in the garden at 9 South Parks Road–Oxford University’s chemistry lab now stands on the site.

#75 – Charles Williams’s wife Michal offered him a divorce during his relationship with colleague and sweetheart Phyllis Jones.

#76 – Charles Williams hoped to write trilogy: The Figure of Beatrice (Dante), Figure of Arthur, Figure of Power (Wordsworth). Only the 1st & part of the 2nd [were] written.

#77 – In [a] 1941 verse letter to Anne Renwick, Charles Williams wrote of “laying you on the altar/whole & bound & glorious” in St Cross Church, Oxford.

#78 – Charles Williams drafted 1944 codicil to [his] will: “I do not wish that anything written before 1939 shall be published …”  [He didn’t get his wish, by the way.]

#79 – Charles Williams used to tell his students: “You must get poetry into your blood and your bones! Yes, into your BLOOD and your BONES!”

#80 – Charles Williams researched roses in the Encyclopedia Britannica to write his poem “Taliessin in the Rose Garden.”

#81 – W. H. Auden’s long poem The Double Man (in UK New Year Letter) was inspired by Charles Williams’s book The Descent of the Dove.

#82 – Charles Williams’s wife Michal saw [the] first performance of his play Terror of Light and said “I think it is dreadful!” CW rewrote it over the weekend.

You're welcome, General. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
You’re welcome, Gen. MacArthur. 😉

#83 – Charles Williams thought WWII could be affected by his poems: “Must write poem about archangels destroying octopuses, ensure MacArthur conquers in East.”

#84 – Payment for Charles Williams’s play House of the Octopus went to cover dental work: he said, “That play will always mean teeth to me!”

#85 – It was Anne Ridler who first proposed the idea of a spiritual group or society of Charles Williams’s followers.

#86 – Charles Williams’s “dearest male friend” was writer D.H.S. Nicholson, editor of The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse.

#87 – 1948 CS Lewis nightmare: chased by lions; ‘Figure approached—touched my hand—’Hallo Jack!’—it was Charles. And I knew everything was ALL RIGHT’

#88 – After conversation about some other poet, Charles Williams said to his wife “I say, you won’t ever write my biography, will you?”

#89 – Having failed to get OUP to publish Dylan Thomas’s poems, Charles Williams wrote a reference supporting DT for a Royal Literary Fund grant.

#90 – Charles Williams told Anne Ridler his 1935 bio. Rochester “shall not be about John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester at all. It will be about me.”

#91 – Charles Williams told Anne Ridler that the monstrous Wentworth in his novel Descent into Hell was based on himself.

#92 – Expecting poor sales, OUP paid Charles Williams nothing for his finest book of Arthurian poems, Taliessin Through Logres (1938).

#93 – Charles Williams hoped to write a novel called White Martyrdom dealing with all the themes he wanted to treat in fiction but hadn’t.

#94 – Anne Ridler undertook mystical “substitution” to carry Charles Williams’s pain over his love for Phyllis when she married & went to Java.

#95 – Anne Ridler often read drafts of Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, helped to polish them and modernise his style.

#96 – Charles Williams reviewed his own book Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind anonymously in the Week-End Review, 1933.

#97 – Charles Williams’s poem “Vision of the Empire” was inspired by Olive Speake, a typist in the OUP music department.

#98 – In 1927 Charles Williams wrote an article for music journal The Dominant about being tone-deaf & unable to appreciate music.

#99 – Charles Williams to A. M. Hadfield: “I…leave my reputation in y[ou]r care–prevent me being called sentimentalist, philanderer & 1000 other things.”

#100 – For 20 years Charles Williams spent alternate Sunday evenings with Stella Matutina (Golden Dawn) members at vicarage of Rev A.H.E (“Henry”) Lee.

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And there it is! One hundred bizarre and little-known facts about an author who gives new meanings to the terms “bizarre” and “little-known.”


*Gerry Hopkins, by the way, was the nephew of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

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7 thoughts on “100 Facts about Charles Williams

  1. Ah, this is a great list! And I’m so happy that I’ve found your blog! I love all things Lewis, and from him, Chesterton, Sayers, and I have plans to soon start reading some of Charles Williams and Owen Barfield’s books. I can’t wait to have a look around your blog! 🙂

    ~ Cleo ~

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To bring the circle round, your readers might be interested in some of my (maniacally frequent and detailed?) responses to and embroideries upon Grevel’s facts at:

    https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/follow-grevel-lindop-the-biography-is-near/#comments

    Maybe I should revisit and embroider further, there, having now read the whole, splendid biography…

    One example of which would be, at # 15, sadly, probably not ‘that’ Christopher Lee (however possible and plausible in terms of date and interest) – the Christopher Lee to whom Grevel’s footnoted sources refer is almost certainly the poet, Christopher Lee (whose widow, Belinda, whom I happened to know from the Group of Oxford Players play-reading circle, gave me copies of letters from Williams to him), and not the late Sir Christopher (whose son-in-law told me that, if he had known C.W., he never mentioned it).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t been able to read all of your responses and embroideries yet, but so far, they look very interesting! About your comment on #46, I too would have loved to have seen Charles Williams and Dylan Thomas tag team a poetry reading. Between Thomas’s gift for performing and Williams’s spastic energy, I’m sure they would have been a sight to behold. I was also a little curious to find out which author in G. K. Chesterton’s newspaper called Williams a Satanist, so thank you for that.

      What a shame about Christopher Lee. I suppose that one was just too good to be true!

      Like

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