Charles Walter Stansby Williams (20 September 1886 – 15 May 1945) was a British poet, novelist, theologian and literary critic, a member of the Inklings and of the Golden Dawn.
Williams was born in London in 1886, the only son of Richard and Mary Williams of Islington. He had one sister, Edith, born in 1889. Educated at St Albans School, Hertfordshire, Williams was awarded a scholarship to University College London, but was forced to leave in 1904 without taking a degree because his family lacked the financial resources to support him. In the same year he began work in a Methodist Bookroom. Williams was hired by Oxford University Press as a proofreading assistant in 1908 before quickly climbing to the position of editor. He continued to work at OUP in various positions of increasing responsibility until his death in 1945. One of his greatest editorial achievements was the publication of the first major English-language edition of the works of Søren Kierkegaard.
Although chiefly remembered as a novelist, Williams also published poetry, works of literary criticism, theology, drama, history, biography, and a voluminous number of book reviews. Some of his best known novels are War in Heaven (1930), Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows' Eve (1945). T. S. Eliot, who wrote an introduction for the last of these, described Williams’s novels as "supernatural thrillers" because they explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual while also examining the ways in which power, even spiritual power, can corrupt as well as sanctify. All of Williams’ fantasies, unlike those of J. R. R. Tolkien and most of those of C. S. Lewis, are set in the contemporary world. More recent writers of fantasy novels with contemporary settings, notably Tim Powers, cite Williams as a model and inspiration. W. H. Auden, one of Williams’ greatest admirers, reportedly re-read Williams’s extraordinary and highly unconventional history of the church, Descent of the Dove (1939), every year. Williams’s study of Dante entitled The Figure of Beatrice (1944) was very highly regarded at its time of publication and continues to be consulted by Dante scholars today. Williams, however, regarded his most important work to be his extremely dense and complex Arthurian poetry, of which two books were published, Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), and more remained unfinished at his death. Some of Williams’ best essays were collected and published in Anne Ridler's Image of the City and Other Essays in 1958.
Williams gathered many followers and disciples during his lifetime. He was, for a period, a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He met fellow Anglican Evelyn Underhill (who was affiliated with a similar group, the Order of the Golden Dawn) in 1937 and was later to write the introduction to her published Letters in 1943. Williams also formed master-disciple relationships with young women throughout his lifetime. The best known (though probably not the most significant) of these occurred in the early 1940s with Lois Lang Sims. Lang Sims, whom Williams referred to as Lalage, published a series of letters that Williams wrote to her during this period in a volume entitled Letters to Lalage (1989). Though Williams married his first sweetheart, Florence Conway, in 1917, he continually struggled to reconcile a lifelong (though probably unconsummated) love affair with Phyllis Jones (who joined the Oxford University Press in 1924 as librarian) with his Christian faith (he was an unswerving and devoted member of the Church of England, reputedly with a refreshing tolerance of the scepticism of others and a firm belief in the necessity of a "doubting Thomas" in any apostolic body).
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