Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams makes sense of him, which is no small feat. I do not say Lindop explains Williams in an easy and unsatisfying way that resolves all the enigmas, but he puts the enigmas into context, and shows where they are continuous with what we can understand. It really is an extraordinary work on an extraordinary person. Williams was a complex fellow, and untangling everything, considering he left a lot of scattered and private evidence that Lindop has carefully dug it up, cannot have been easy.
Williams was admired by T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden, in his day. He was admired by another handful of people you will not recognize, but has never been much of a majority taste, nor is he—because he is difficult and resists popularization—ever likely to be. Still, to be admired by those who did says much, and this biography serves to provide a greater understanding and a better appreciation of the man.
It is no small book, but for all that it is not expansive. There is not much of Lindop in it. It could easily be curtly factual; what saves it is careful organization and a deft touch. You realize how many quotations you’re reading, how many excerpts from letters to which few still have access, and you start to think that it is going to be too much. But it is all carefully arranged, and the inclusion of each quotation is obvious and interesting, not to mention new material (I have to wonder if Lindop hasn’t spoiled all the joy that having Williams’ letters published would give, though). Because this is the first full biography, it has to be factual, to stick to its case rather than being expansive and reflective. Lindop does pause to reflect, but in succinct, lapidary ways. And everything else he did was so well done that one is left wishing he had expanded more, just to understand a bit more about the extraordinary biographer.
It is common for people not to exercise sympathetic imagination in dealing with Williams and just to be disturbed, the way Alan Jacobs is in The Narnian. Misgivings abound, and they are warranted, but they should not prevent appreciation. The life of Williams gave itself to wild innuendo. Lindop is tremendous for not doing this (though he used it to market the book on twitter): he relates everything with equanimity, unflinching from the extent of what can be known, drawing the negative conclusions when warranted. He figures out how many degrees Williams advanced in his secret society, what some of the rituals were like, how it spilled out into his life and writing, and what it served to accomplish. But he remains anchored to what he can definitely say, what is factual, and draws good conclusions from it. The emerging result is believable, comprehensible, and adds up: we can see how far things went (far enough), but no farther. One is not surprised to read, when Williams unexpectedly dies, of his friends rushing around gathering up his stuff, sending letters away, making sure his secret life is not divulged too soon. And it shows how careful Lindop has been to research it.
Williams was drawn to ritual. He wanted symbols, meanings, he wanted to know and to handle these things skillfully. He joined societies, he researched witchcraft and wrote a book on it. But more than information, he wanted to undergo things, to immerse himself in order to understand, unflinching and if his relationships with women (physically chaste, if not symbolically so) are anything to go by, in reckless and unheeding ways. Lindop’s thesis is that Williams was a major poet, and what he was doing was developing his skill, going wherever it took him, even when in life he lost his way. I am being persuaded he is right—not that anybody should follow that approach, but that it is what Williams was doing. It is a full picture of greatness and weakness both. Williams at last gained recognition even as his life descended into confusion at the end. As Lindop tell it, it was nevertheless a life worth reading about.