Guest post by Tilly Guthrie
Summer intern at Bodleian Libraries Archives & Modern Manuscripts
As part of the Oxford University Summer Internship Programme, three interns were given the opportunity in the summer of 2019 to experience the working environment of an archivist in the Bodleian Library’s Archives and Modern Manuscripts team, during which time they were allocated a collection, or a number of small collections, to catalogue independently. After spending a few university holidays volunteering in small archives and museums, I was delighted to be offered a place as an intern, to not only see, but also participate in the process of cataloguing from beginning to end. Being allowed to slot myself into this well-oiled machine, I am full of admiration for how archiving is managed on such a large professional scale as at the Bodleian. I have just finished my second year studying History here at the University, and so this opportunity has come at the perfect time to consolidate my interest in archiving, and show me what my next steps should be after I finish the degree (though I will miss being able to sneak behind the scenes at the Weston next term!)
The collection assigned to me was the papers of Charles Williams (1886-1945) – author, theologian, lecturer, and member of the Inklings alongside C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (interactions with whom appear in the collection). The acquaintance with Lewis began in a suitably literary manner, as the two authors coincidentally sent letters to the other simultaneously in 1936, praising their most recent work. Williams stood as the odd one out in this literary set, however, as he did not benefit from an Oxford education to hone the writing style that earned him a place in the Inklings. Instead, he developed his craft as a hobby alongside working for the Oxford University Press; he took up a post in 1908 as a reader at Amen House in London, after failing to fund the third year of his degree at the University of London, and spent his spare time constructing novels and poetry, inspired by his interest in Arthurian legends and theology. This period also saw him write a series of plays for his colleagues based on the world of book publication, in which he blends amusingly mundane titles (‘The Masque of the Manuscript’, ‘The Masque of the Termination of Copyright’ and ‘The Masque of Perusal’) with the language of epic poetry and biblical allusions.
Williams also found the time to write a series of plays to be performed by the Chelmsford Diocesan Drama Society, directed by Phyllis M. Potter, extensive correspondence with whom is preserved in the collection. Their increasingly close friendship over the years is mirrored in these letters, donated to the library by Potter in 1957, and they thus offer insight into Williams’ personal life and sense of humour. It is here that the collection provides the most information on Charles’ relationship with his wife Florence Sarah (Michal) nee Conway, and their son Michael, born in 1922. Michal is also the subject of a series of poems that appears in the collection, and more generally it can be said that Williams’ writing is coloured by his interest in the idea of romantic love as a passage to God.
Charles Walter Stansby Williams, lithograph by Anne Spalding, 1942 © National Portrait Gallery, London (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
The diverse range of media penned by Charles Williams continued throughout his life, as his repertoire of novels, plays and poetry expanded to include biography, theology, and literary criticism. Consequently, Williams was well qualified to begin a lectureship with the Oxford English Faculty (despite having never graduated himself) when the University Press was forced to move all its operations to the city on the outbreak of the Second World War. It was also at this point that Williams began attending Inklings meetings, though letters with his old thespian friend Phyllis Potter reveal that he largely resented the move to Oxford.
As it happened, Charles Williams would remain in Oxford until his death in 1945, having been awarded an honorary MA with the University two years previously. Obituaries included in the collection reveal a general admiration for the scale of Williams’ literary output, though with the reservation that his speed of writing (often to deadlines) damaged the quality of his work. It is perhaps for this reason, or simply that his sweeping Arthurian allusions no longer have traction with the reading public, that Charles Williams has been so much neglected in our collective historical memory of early twentieth century authors.
– Tilly Guthrie, The Queen’s College