We all know about the Inklings, that astounding coterie of men who met twice weekly for some years in the l940s and 1950s at Oxford to drink beer and talk about everything. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are, of course, by far the best known of the group. But there was another regular, namely their friend Charles Williams.
Williams was an editor at the Oxford University Press, which had moved its offices to Oxford when the blitz began hitting London. He was a self-educated and omnivorous reader, and he seems to have been a sort of animating spirit in the group’s meetings at The Eagle and Child (“Bird and Baby”) pub or in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. Lewis and Tolkien managed to secure a lectureship for him at the University. T. S. Eliot describes Williams lecturing — hopping about, perching on the desk, jingling coins in his pockets, and pouring out a torrent of coruscating prose. In one place, Eliot remarks that he looked somewhat like a monkey.
Williams also poured out books: poetry, literary criticism, theology, drama, and novels. It was his novels that gained him a modest measure of fame.
They are hardly novels in the ordinary sense. Eliot tried the category “metaphysical thrillers” to refer to them, and that is perhaps the closest anyone can come to describing them. The thing is, it turns out in each of his seven novels that heaven and hell lie under every bush.
This would seem to be a wild overstatement, of course. There may be grass or twigs or insects under the shrubbery: but heaven and hell?
Well, yes. The story will open, for example, at the rehearsal for a summer drama being put on by the local players’ group. There is the usual bustle. The playwright, Peter Stanhope, is present, as it happens, and it very quickly becomes clear that he is an unusual man. There is none of the officiousness or self-importance that we might reasonably expect of such a key figure. He has been happy to oblige the group with a pastoral drama, if that is what they want (not perhaps his own preference); and he obliges them all, most especially the outspoken, opinionated, and self-assured producer, one Mrs. Parry, when it comes to the thousand potentially sticky details attending upon such a production. It turns out, as the action proceeds, that this modest and self-effacing pliability, far from suggesting anything flaccid or weak in Peter, arises from the tremendous well of Charity, that fountainhead of all virtues, in the depths of his being. It has been won at great cost to him, as the saints all testify.
Another character, the aged Margaret Anstruther, exhibits this same strong tranquility, and both she and Stanhope are called upon presently to come to the aid of the young and appealing Pauline Anstruther who, it turns out, is being pursued by a doppelganger.
Obviously, the arrival of such a spectre on stage opens the whole scene out onto unmanageability, we might say. What happens in the ordinary, light-of-day foreground is occurring, clearly, against a mighty backdrop that reaches finally to heaven and hell — which, come to think of it, is the bald truth about our ordinary, light-of-day, mortal existence.
Christians know this, of course. The smallest detail — the lift of an eyebrow, say, by way of disparaging somebody — stands at the near end of a road that, if followed all the way, leads to hell, since hell is the place where the inhabitants all disparage each other. Quarrelling and disdain and wrath and treachery and fisticuffs and finally murder lie along that road. The other road, the way of Charity, leads finally to everlasting Joy, and the milestones along that road are courtesy and self-forgetfulness and generosity and self-giving and eventually crucifixion.
We all know this. But we don’t always think about it. And certainly the novels we read for our relaxation don’t ordinarily punch through the scrim that lies between the commonplace exchanges of life and the domain where those exchanges loom in their true and final color. Envy, for example, often enough a merely passing mood, if habitually indulged, leads on to a parsimonious state of soul where self-forgetting delight is impossible. Or sloth: Just harmless little procrastinations and dawdlings whose final end, if indulged habitually, is a torpor of soul that finds itself unable to arise and respond to any call of duty; that way lies inanity, which is one of the properties of damnation.
Very ferocious stuff when one comes to ponder it all. But it lies about us hourly. The main character in this tale is one Wentworth. He is a respectable and aging historian. But he has gradually allowed jealousy of other scholars’ work to supplant his original interest in history. He has become defensive, and thence surly, and thence misanthropical altogether. Anyone else — anybody at all — is a bore and a threat to him, except for one person, a young woman named Adele who has awakened a fugitive flicker of romantic interest in him. Here is the offer of an other — someone besides himself, who might become the occasion for his escaping this self-wrought cell of his. But no. So fiercely has he barred all other selves from his life that even the real selfhood of Adele turns sour for him, especially when it turns out that she has now become interested in a nice young fellow named Hugh. Wentworth has lost her. But now, instead of making the admittedly difficult effort of wishing them well, or of trying to wish them well, he retreats into sullenness and malice, and presently finds that he prefers an imaginary, undemanding Adele — a ghost who whispers sweet nothings to him — to the flesh-and-blood Adele. He refuses offer after offer of kindness from others, and finally opts for bitter solitude — that is to say, hell. (The title of the novel is Descent into Hell.)
In all seven of his novels, Williams raises the stakes in this unnerving way. Surely it’s all unpardonably far-fetched — until one pauses and reflects. Is it perhaps cold realism? Either there are everlasting consequences that follow upon everything I think and say and do, or there are not. Sacred Scripture and the Church would seem to suggest that there are.