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Mythes et mémoires

The Town and the City in Charles Williams's Fiction

Maurice Levy
p. 275-283


Charles Williams n'est pas très connu en France. Il a pourtant eu son heure de gloire entre les deux guerres, comme ami de C.S. Lewis, de Tolkien, de Dorothy Sayers et comme membre du célèbre groupe des "Inklings" d'Oxford. Poète, dramaturge, romancier, auteur de nombreux essais, il a longtemps été l'objet d'un culte fervent de la part d'un groupe restreint de fidèles admirateurs. L'objet de cette communication est d'explorer le rôle de la ville dans ses œuvres de fiction, plus particulièrement dans Shadows of Ecstasy, Descent into Hell, War in Heaven, et All Hallows' Eve. Romans difficiles, dont l'économie tourne autour de la duelle problématique de la Ville et de la Cité, l'une occultant l'autre pour mieux l'appeler, la faire exister comme entité virtuelle, et la convoquer comme illustration de thèses que l'auteur développe dans de nombreux articles et qui relèvent d'une orientation lointainement théologique. Il sera important de montrer comment dans chaque roman la dynamique narrative naît de cette opposition entre la ville des hommes et la Cité de Dieu, et dans quelle mesure est efficace, ou simplement acceptable dans un univers fictionnel, cette tacite référence à St Augustin.

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1It would take hours and volumes to discuss exhaustively Charles Williams's imaginative approach to the city: sometimes described naturalistically in his novels, at other times poetically, symbolically, oneirically, or set up in doctrinal garb. What I propose to do is to briefly introduce an author who is practically unknown in this country and who deserves, I think, a much better recognition. Only one of his seven novels (War in Heaven) has been translated into French under the title La Guerre du Graal, and the book went practically unnoticed on publication, in 1989. Yet, Charles Williams achieved a notoriety of a kind in England, between the two world wars, and became famous when his name was associated, during the second world war, with the names of the Inklings. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis achieved universal fame only when The Lord of the Ring and The Chronicles of Narnia were made into films. It has been recently rumoured that Williams's last novel, All Hallow's Eve (1945), was being made into a film by the renowned producer, Ralph Winter (Planet of the Apes, X Men, Star Treck, etc.). Whether this is a promise or a threat, I could not say...

  • 1 Windows of Night (1924), cité par Ann Ridler, in Charles Williams, The Image of the City and other (...)

2Charles Williams was born in 1886 in London, almost within earshot of St Mary le Bow Bells—as any true Cockney should—and he remained all his life a Londoner at heart, keeping to the end, we are told, a slight local accent, or, as he calls it à propos one of his characters, "the faintest sound of the city's metal in his voice" (Williams 1981, 165). London always was his favourite haunt, even after his parents moved to St Albans and opened a small shop there. It was not a very flourishing enterprise; after his schooling at St Albans Grammar School, and after attending University College, London, for a while, he had to leave before getting a degree, because his parents could not afford to support him. He was then lucky enough to get a job as a proof-reader at the Oxford University Press, whose headquarters were then at Amen Corner, right in the center of the City properly speaking, between the two domes of the Old Bailey and St Paul's Cathedral, which he describes in one of his early poems as "[s]itting up there like the broken halves of the shell / Of the egg of life, whose overspilt yolk we are".1 He spent his whole life at Amen Corner, until the Press moved to Oxford, during the war. Although susceptible to the charm of the Oxford scenery, he used to say that "Oxford is beautiful, so long as one lives in London". In Oxford, his professional activities as editor made him move in literary circles: he was soon recognized as a fellow writer and befriended by Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others who regularly frequented "The Eagle and Child" and went by the name of Inklings. His publications, his talents as an orator earned him an honorary M.A. from the University. He died a premature death in 1945, leaving behind him a huge list of publications, in various fields: poetry, fiction, drama, literary criticism and... theology. The novels alone will be used in this paper, although his narrative poems (in particular Taliessin through Logres, dealing with the Arthurian legends) and his numerous plays (in particular his Cranmer, which was produced for the Canterbury Festival in 1936, the year after T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral) would probably be equally eligible material.

  • 2 Time, 8 Nov. 1948. Italics mine.

3Charles Williams is a difficult author. Although his novels have been described as "thrillers" they do not belong to that class of stories which are read for entertainment and discarded with indifference. They have been portrayed, more accurately I think, as "theological thrillers",2 and the qualifying adjunctive weighs heavily in the appraisal of his fiction. His frequent references to theological or esoterical lore—he was also, for a time, a member of the Golden Dawn—tend to obscure his style. In one of his books, one of his characters, who is a poet and playwright like him, says that in his writings "he would rather have the meaning lost than too firmly explained" (Williams 1981, 92): a formula which could easily apply to his own work.

4His is a corpus in which London, and a number of small satellite towns (all of them probably standing for St Albans) play a central part. Alice Mary Hadfield, who was Charles Williams's collaborator for a number of years, thus describes the relationship of his working life to his fiction:

The most essential thing was that we were in London: ... We were totally surrounded by city streets, crowds, noise, people, buses and cars.... London was where life happened, the seat of the soul, the scene of war, of the African ecstasys of black power (Shadows of Ecstasy), framework of the spiritual city (All Hallow's Eve) the place to which you returned after getting upset by your young man or your family in the country. (Hillegas 125)

5The town is not a mere backdrop for the action, but a structuring element, the mutations of which, closely coupled with the acts of the main characters, are the real subject of the stories. Easily identifiable, the town is very real, very present. All Hallow's Eve opens on a scene where the central heroine, Lester, is standing on Westminster Bridge, waiting for her husband. The war has just ended, and large areas of London are in ruins... Her husband failing to come, she walks up Whitehall, reaches Trafalgar Square, takes Charing Cross Road up to Leicester Square Tube station—and later, sits for a while with her friend Evelyn in St James Park... The urban setting in which this fictional character moves around is non-fictional: topography is there to convince the reader that the whole scene is real.

  • 3 "La phrase inouïe 'je suis mort' n'est nullement l'énoncé incroyable, mais bien plus radicalement l (...)

6A problem arises, however, when Charles Williams goes on writing: "the two dead girls went out of the Park" (Williams 1987, 22). In fact, the two girls have just been killed by a plane which crashed on the bridge. And they have just realized that they were dead. Roland Barthes once wrote that Valdemar's ejaculation, "I am dead", in Poe's well-known talc, was "not a marvelous utterance, but more radically, an impossible enunciation".3 And yet Williams chooses to place his fiction under such a sign of the unacceptable. The London in which the two girls move, suddenly becomes different, the streets are deserted, strangely noiseless, the sky is starless: very much like nocturnal Smetham—the small satellite town in which the action of Descent into Hell takes place, where a workman who has committed suicide is doomed to wander: "all was quite still. There were no footsteps... there was no moon in the sky; perhaps it was not night; perhaps it was dawn, but there was not yet a sun" (Williams 1981, 32).

7Underneath, or by the side of, the visible town, or superimposed upon it, lies another London, another Smetham, concealed to the view, only accessible to the dead; a timeless place, or rather a place where all times coexist. In All Hallows' Eve, Simon the magician, who nourishes conquering ambitions over the world, wants at one stage to know if his dream of hegemony has come true; he uses one of his conjuring tricks to send his own daughter into this timeless region of the dead to explore the future. Later, Lester—still walking the streets of the London contemporaneous with her death—suddenly watches the transformations of the town from its creation to the present day, if such an expression can mean anything:

The streets were first the streets of to-day, full of business of to-day.... Then, gently opening, she saw among those streets other streets.... Another London, say—other Londons, into which her own London opened or with which it was intermingled.... Down a long street she saw, beyond the affairs of to-day, the movement of sedan chairs and ancient dresses, and beyond them again, right in the distance and yet very close to her, the sun shining on armour, and sometimes a high battlement gate: it was no phantasmagoria of a dream but precise actuality. She was (though she did not find the phrase) looking along time. Once or twice she thought she saw other streets, unrecognizable, with odd buildings and men and women in strange clothes.... Beyond all these streets, or sometimes for a moment seen in their midst, was forest and the gleam of marshland, and here and there a river, and once again a village of huts and men in skins.... There was a moment when all houses and streets vanished, and the forests rose around her.... This was the place of London before London had begun to be... (Williams 1987, 187-88)

8Although topographically correct, the representation of London—or for that matter of any other town—is never static, but changes, evolves, reflecting the moods, aspirations, situations of the main characters. I think it could be said that towns, however realistically described, are mental spaces. Wentworth, in Descent into Hell, is constantly going down "the soft sweet stairs of his mind, into the streets of his mind, to find the phantoms of his mind" (Williams 1981, 50). Phantasizing always assumes an urban dimension. Anthony, in The Place of the Lion, exclaims: "[m]ightn't it be a good thing if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind—say every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were empty?" (Williams 1986, 9).

9The fact that houses are often in ruins, in bombed areas of London, or half-finished, like the buildings of a new estate in one of those new dormitory towns around London, further illustrates the timeless dimension of this mental world: "unfinished walls, unfilled pits, roofless houses, gaping holes of doors and windows" can easily become the remains of "an overthrown, rather than an arising city" (Williams 1981, 28). Devastation and construction seem to be contemporaneous processes (Williams 1981, 116). Before and after, as time categories, merge into one another; or, to use Charles Wiliams's own words, "propinquity no longer depends upon sequence" (Williams 1981, 70).

10The interesting consequence of this, is that the dead become contemporaneous with the living. When Wentworth stands in front of a window, in his flat, he is not aware that next to him, elbow against elbow, stands the dead suicide, looking through the frame of the same window, which he has not that long ago helped to build: "the dead man stood by him, arm to arm, foot to foot" (Williams 1981, 77). A nearness in space which seems to suggest some sort of shared fate, almost graphically represented by the image of the rope—the rope with which the dead man hanged himself, and the rope which haunts the dreams of the living Wentworth:

he did nothing but climb down a rope. It was a white rope, so white that it shone of its own clarity in the pitch-black darkness where it and he existed, and it stretched up high above him, infinitely high, so that as he looked he could not see where or to what it was fastened.... The descent was perplexing, for he never felt himself move and yet he knew he was continually further down, down, towards the bottom of the rope.... A million yards or years of rope stretched above him; there might be a million years or yards below him. (Williams 1981, 36-37)

11Both men provide a sad illustration of what life in towns is like. The suicide, as an exploited workman on a building site, who, when his work is no longer wanted, is turned down with no compensation and left desperately destitute. Wentworth, as a famous historian, an intellectual who arrogantly refuses to share, to communicate with others and shuts himself up in his own thoughts, "shrinks into his own desires", to use Williams's own phrase. The former shows how an urban community can reduce an individual to an intolerable state of humiliation and poverty, leaving no alternative other than death. The latter epitomises the dehumanizing effects of the social urban fabric on inflated egos. In both cases, towns are literally speaking, instrumental in the two men's damnation.

12But whereas Wentworth, eventually reaching the end of the rope, concludes his phantasmal existence "looking up an avenue of nothingness", and is drawn "steadily, everlastingly inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void", the suicide is spared the everlasting torments of Hell to which his desperate act would normally have condemned him. Instead of Gomorrah—another name for the town, in Charles Williams's imaginative world—he is permitted to enter the City. The City is the direct opposite of the Town. The town is a symbol of exploitation, corruption, illusion, greed. Wentworth is described as "a heavy bulk of monstrous greed" (Williams 1981, 81). Greed, despair and hatred. A greed which, incidentally, is often explicitly associated with Jews; in Shadows of Ecstasy, Williams's first novel, the story begins with the suicide of a certain Simon Rosenberg who has accumulated interests "in railways and periodicals and dyeworks, in South African diamonds and Persian oils and Chinese silks, in textiles and cereals and patent medicines, rubber and coffee and wood" (Williams 1980, 21)... When his relatives, "fanatically, insanely devoted to the tradition of Israel..." (Williams 1980, 32), inherit this colossal fortune, a crowd gathers outside their London lodgings and starts shouting ugly words, like "dirty Jews", "lousy old Jews" and "bloody Jews" (Williams 1980, 138). Words which Williams probably disapproves of, but are not necessary to the economy of the narrative. In All Hallow's Eve, Charles Williams's last novel, the arch villain, the magus Simon Leclerc, whose ambition it is to dominate the world, is a Jew. In practically every novel there is an unpleasant if fugitive flavour which one would have wished Williams had dispensed with. It would be unfair to exaggerate this orientation by saying that towns are places for Jews, while Cities are places for Christians—at least a certain category of Christians—but there are certainly hints that invite such suspicions. But of course there are worse things in Dorothy Sayers, in Chesterton, in Wyndham Lewis, in Belloc...

13Towns are places that generate gratuitous hatred, encourage self-absorption, disrupt all natural human relationships: in Battle Hill (probably another name for St Albans), "the roads were filled with many figures who hated.... They could not find anything they could spend their hate on, for they slipped and slithered and slid from and through each other, since it was their hate which separated them.... It was the hate of those men and women who had lost humanity in their extreme love of themselves amongst humanity" (Williams 1981, 91). Wentworth belongs to that class of men, he has withdrawn into himself and "like the deadman on the hill, he has declined communion" (Williams 1981, 142). Both arc the sad by-products of Gomorrah, and Gomorrah is illusion, and the end of illusion: it is "the opposite of holy fact and the contradiction of sacred love" (Williams 1981, 203). Towns are a place for the dead, as we have already seen (one thinks of T.S. Eliot's "unreal city" with its crowds of "dead" people flowing over London Bridge, "so many, I had not thought death had undone so many", Eliot 62), who when they break up their graves do not wake up to any kind of resurrection, but just stand there, with imbecile faces: "the faces—those that were still faces—bleak with a dreadful starvation. The hunger of years was in them.... They knew the void and the sickness" (Williams 1981, 206). Those arc the men and women who have died without coming to terms with life, with urban life—with themselves. Men and women who walk the streets of Gomorrah and who "beget themselves on their adoration of themselves", who "live and feed and starve on themselves" (Williams 1981, 174).

14This is where Wentworth, who is one of them, is doomed to wander eternally. The suicide, on the other end, is permitted to enter the City. Why? Because an old dying woman, Margaret Anstruther, has on her deathbed, with the help of "the Omnipotence", decided to "carry his burden". Not metaphorically, but literally. Just before dying, she says to her niece Pauline: "I think perhaps he ought to get back to the City" (Willliams 1981, 160). And by her death, the mortal sin of suicide is repealed. Pauline, who has her own problems, has eventually understood that the only way to gain admittance to the City was "by gift and gift and gift, in no secrecy of greed, but all glory of public exchange" (Williams 1981, 111). She has been suffering from frightening hallucinations, like seeing and meeting herself, her double, in the streets. Like Zarathustra, according to Shelley. But Peter Stanhope, the poet and playwright who has explained to her the mysteries of the City, has offered to carry her burden: immediately on accepting his offer, she has been freed from her hallucinations. Why couldn't she help someone else in her turn? Couldn't she for instance carry the burden of that ancestor of hers who was burnt at the stake during Bloody Mary's reign? "But he's dead!" she exclaims. How could she help that Struther who died three centuries earlier? How could one give backwards? Suddenly a new conception of time offers itself to her mind: perhaps centuries didn't mean anything. "Perhaps... everything was all at once, and interchanged devotion; perhaps even now he burned, and she and her friends danced, and her grandmother died and lived, and Peter Stanhope wrote his verse, and all the past of the Hill was one with its present" (Williams 1981, 150-51). Perhaps the City itself "is the place of the present and all the past" (Williams 1981, 168).

15The curse of chronological time belongs to the town. When one gives, time does not count. The City is a place of good will, of exchange, of substitution of pain, or to use Williams's word, of co-inherence—as opposed to the town, where incoherence reigns. The City is Union. Exclusion from the City is what theologians call Hell. Williams defines it elsewhere as "the sense of many relationships between men and women woven into a unity" (Williams 1958, 92). A rather loose definition which he completes by quoting from the Apocalypse: "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven". He particularly praises T.S. Eliot's Family Reunion, because it throws a light on "the true relationship of the generations, and therefore of the great principles of the City. Mr. Eliot said some time ago that 'propinquity is not enough'.... The whole effort of imagining the City... is the use of propinquity as a means to neighbourliness, and so to the continual interchange of courtesies of the spirit. It is that interchange of which the theme of The Family Reunion is, between the dead and the living, a sign. And the title has, in that sense, a profound meaning" (Williams 1958, 101). I suppose that in Williams's mind, the meeting of Pauline with her ancestor Struther across three centuries is a "family reunion".

16The City is not necessarily always of a religious nature. In an article significantly entitled "The Redeemed City", published in 1941 in The Dublin Review, Williams makes his point even more clearly. The City can indeed have something to do with "the noble Republicans of earth, the great humanitarian champions"—people like Burke, Wilberforce or even Voltaire—because they have fought against what he calls "the Infamy", because "all of them were striking at one evil, at 'the grand Infamy'—the horror of human tyranny, cold and cruel"—and because "the opposite of the Infamy is the City" (Williams 1958, 102). Although Williams's ultimate message is that "Christ is the City", republicans (in other words: unbelievers) can also contribute to the edification of the City, if they labour against iniquity, ignominy, infamy. But however much they deserve our respect and admiration, "the lack in their vision of union is that they cannot include the dead; the past for them is indeed past, and its agonies remain for ever unatoned" (Williams 1958, 102). Communion across generations (like Pauline's with her ancestor) is for them impossible.

17The question then arises, is Charles Williams's fiction readable by all, or is it reserved for those who share his beliefs? I think it is eminently readable by all. Just like T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday, or The Power and the Glory, or the novels by Georges Bernanos. After all, one does not need to be a serial killer in order to appreciate a good detective novel, or a sex athlete to read Sade. What makes All Hallows' Eve, or A Descent into Hell very readable, is precisely their dramatic construction which rests on the dynamic opposition between town and City. An opposition which innervates the action from beginning to end, allows impressive rhetorical effects, and justifies the distribution of characters on either side of a compelling psychological, moral and possibly eschatological line.

18I am not even sure that Williams's inspiration in his novels is of a compulsively religious nature. I can't possibly agree with W.R. Irwin when he writes, in an article entitled "Christian Doctrine and the Tactics of Romance", that "[t]here is no need to prove that Charles Williams' seven works of prose fiction are romances dedicated to the propagation of faith" (Hillegas 139). I do not think that Charles Williams wanted to propagate anything, except perhaps the notion that life is a dramatic issue and that one cannot compromise between infamy and communion, between town and city: one has to choose. But he certainly did not mean to impose a single choice, and never tried to convert anyone to his own vision of life. To the best of my knowledge, he never converted anyone. He was not, like C.S. Lewis, allegedly responsible for the conversion of a pizza-king billionnaire who, after reading The Narnia Chronicles, gave all his money away and built a Catholic City named Ave Maria in Florida. It seems to me that Alice Mary Hadfield is more in the right, when she writes, that "[Charles Williams's] concept of the City... is a fore-thinking to the churchless religion of our times.... He was a prophet in this as in his deeper visions, for he wrote before the unchurching of Christ became a public issue, and though he did not write in terms of how it might be done, yet he thought in terms of it having been done" (Hillegas 135). The unchurching of Christ... When Stanhope explains to Pauline the doctrine of substituted love, and offers to carry her burden, he adds:

To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you're still carrying yours, I'm not carrying it for you—however sympathetic I may be. And anyhow there's no need to introduce Christ, unless you wish. It's a fact of experience. If you give a weight to me, you can't be carrying it yourself. (Williams 1981, 98)

19A doctrine which is not very original and has often been used in literature: Georges Bernanos' Le Dialogue des Carmélites is based upon it, and many short stories by Flannery O'Connor develop similar approaches to faith. But Williams's originality lies in his use of the dynamic opposition between Town and City to substantiate his vision and illustrate man's options; and in spite of the occasional apocalyptic imagery, in spite of his tendency to poetic frenzy and circumvoluate style, in spite of some developments dressed in doctrinal garb and the permanent unspoken allusion to Augustine's De Civitate Dei, his novels remain very much concerned with ordinary, everyday human lives, human ambitions, frustrations, agonies and dreams. Therefore, significantly appealing to all.

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Barthes, Roland, "Analyse textuelle d'un conte d'Edgar Poe", L'Aventure sémiologique, Paris: Seuil, "Points", 1985.

Cavaliero, Glen, Charles Williams, Poet of Theology, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2007 (1983).

Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, "The Burial of the Dead", The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Freud Loewenstein, Andrea, "The Outrageous and the Foul: Charles Williams's Novels", Loathsome Jews and Engulphing Women, Metaphors of Projection in the Works of Wyndham Lewis, Charles Williams and Graham Greene, New York: New York University Press, 1993, 214-40.

Hillegas, Mark R. ed., Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

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Ridler, Ann ed., Charles Williams: Selected Writings, London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Rosenberg, Edgar, From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Prototypes in English Fiction, Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press, 1960, 288-90.

Williams, Charles, War in Heaven, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983 (1930).

Williams, Charles, The Place of the Lion, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986(1931).

Williams, Charles, Many Dimensions, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981 (1931).

Williams, Charles, The Greater Trumps, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986 (1932).

Williams, Charles, Shadows Of Ecstasy, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980 (1933).

Williams, Charles, Descent Into Hell, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981 (1937).

Williams, Charles, All Hallows' Eve, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 (1945).

Williams, Charles, The Image of the City and Other Essays, Ridler, Anne ed., London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

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1 Windows of Night (1924), cité par Ann Ridler, in Charles Williams, The Image of the City and other Essays, London: O.U.P, 1958, "Introduction", p.xxxiii.

2 Time, 8 Nov. 1948. Italics mine.

3 "La phrase inouïe 'je suis mort' n'est nullement l'énoncé incroyable, mais bien plus radicalement l'énonciation impossible" (Barthes 354).

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Bibliographical reference

Maurice Levy, « The Town and the City in Charles Williams's Fiction », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 275-283.

Electronic reference

Maurice Levy, « The Town and the City in Charles Williams's Fiction », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 17 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Maurice Levy

Université Toulouse-Le Mirail

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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