Sunday Books: The Inklings didn't have an inkling .... about women

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom called Literature with a capital L.  The borders were very strictly controlled by Guardians, who were predominantly white, male and upper middle class, educated in boys' schools and male-only Oxbridge colleges.  If you were a woman, a person of colour, or a member of the working class, it was virtually impossible to get past these Gatekeepers. For decades their notion of what Literature was, and who could write it, was The Law in publishing.

 I’ve just finished Grevel Lindop’s excellent biography of Charles Williams, the third ‘Inkling’ and an influential figure in thirties and forties literary and theological thought. Grevel does a beautiful job of fleshing out the nervous, fragile body of the man as well as analysing a brilliant and unique mind.

Williams was an unusual member of that exclusive Oxford club, the Inklings.  A working class London boy whose strange vowels and missing consonants continually proclaimed his plebeian origins, Williams didn’t even have a degree. But he had been working, since he left school, at the Oxford University Press, gradually rising through the ranks and becoming a published author as well as a respected editor.  He was gifted, eccentric, and charismatic - he mesmerised both men and women.  Williams’ literary works are almost all out of print now, but Grevel Lindop ranks his Arthurian poems among the best in the twentieth century and there are intriguing glimpses of his novels. Williams is definitely a candidate for the ‘best first line’ award for an opening sentence; ‘The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.’

I found Grevel’s biography both fascinating and saddening.  It accurately portrays an academic and literary world dominated by men; in particular men moulded by single sex (often boarding) schools, who had been brought up to equate the feminine with weakness and irrationality.  Men who were, through the confused morals and religious teachings of the time, distrustful of and confused about their own sexuality.  The Inklings were supreme examples of the species - Tolkein’s sexless and idealised characters in the Lord of the Rings, which has an absence of women and a heroic male comradeship myth at its heart; C.S. Lewis’s guilt-ridden musings on ideal love, literature and religion (an unmarried man who wrote a treatise on marriage as well as the Allegory of Love); and Charles Williams who believed that sexual frustration fuelled literary inspiration and required the odd, mild spanking to get his work off the ground.  In the wider literary landscape there was Eliot, celibate for much of his life, identifying with the mythical wounded Fisher King, John Middleton Murry whose sexual hangups could provide fodder for an entire psychiatric conference, F.R. Leavis, described by ex-student Stephen Fry as ‘a sanctimonious prick of only parochial significance’  . . . etc etc  These were the influential literary figures of the thirties and forties (and beyond).

Literature was a men’s club. Charles Williams neglected his wife and child (the pram in the hall was an enemy of male creativity as well as female), for hours of heated discussion on poetry, theology and abstract ideas in smoky all-male rooms.  When his wife Florence accused him of infidelity, it wasn’t for adultery, it was because her mind had become unimportant to him. She referred to her rival as ‘the virgin tart’ and felt that she herself was there for only One Thing. ‘I very much loathed being used as the inhabitant of a brothel which was my humiliating lot for years.’ Marriage to Charles Williams reduced Florence from a bright, impulsive and ambitious girl to a ‘harassed housewife’ and mother of a ‘frequently ill’ child.  Williams’ son suffered from depression and was never able to establish an independent life.

Williams was obsessed with the mythical and mystical.  He belonged to secret ritualistic organisations including the Rosicrucian inspired Order of the Rosy Cross, and the Morning Star (an offshoot of the Golden Dawn).  Not surprisingly he became pre-occupied with the Arthurian legends. These had their roots in more ancient pagan mythologies in which women played a more powerful role which had been stripped out in the Christian sanitisation of the stories.  In these later versions women appear as temptresses and witches, trying to distract men from their real goals in life - which are male solidarity (Guinevere threatens Lancelot’s relationship with Arthur), truth, purity and the pursuit of the Holy Grail.  Women represented earth, reality, bodily processes, rather than heavenly aspiration and the life of the soul. Only a saintly virgin, untainted by sexual desire, could be excepted and presented as an ‘ideal’ of femininity.

This is all generalising a bit, but it was difficult then, (and still is) for a woman rooted in her own cycles of fertility and the realities of human procreation and development, to take much of it seriously, since she was excluded by the source material as well as discussion of it.  And very few women had the education, or the ego, to force the male establishment to take them seriously.  Charles Williams had a large following of female acolytes who attended his lectures and fell in love with him almost as a matter of course.  Some of them were summoned to his office at the OUP for a bit of ritual punishment with canes, swords and pencils, whenever he had a literary emergency.  This was never on the level of Fifty Shades - a bit of mild S&M that appears to have been consensual.  One has to wonder what else was going on inside the hallowed offices of the distinguished Press!

The Third Inkling is a very readable book which wears its meticulous research lightly - and that’s no mean feat. It raises some important and troubling questions.

If you’re interested in the current gender imbalance in the literary world, this is an interesting survey:

Also by Grevel Lindop

The Opium Eater - A Life of Thomas de Quincey
A Literary Guide to the Lake District
Travels on the Dance Floor
Selected Poems, Carcanet Press
Luna Park, Carcanet


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