The audacious and unabashed believer or the sceptical ironist

There is ... a quality in his prose that is both ubiquitous and unsettling. Some readers will consider this quality to be a great strength in Williams' prose, and others will write it down as a weakness. It is an extension of the rather elliptical quality that we observed in his handling of Isabel. An amateurish and quasi-psychological way of getting at this quality would be to guess that Williams never could make up his mind which image of himself he liked better: the audacious and unabashed believer or the sceptical ironist.

He obviously was enthralled with everything preternatural, from the black arts and the Cabbala to the Mass; and there is something electrifying (and you get the impression that Williams enjoyed being electrifying) about a literate man in modern London and Oxford who makes no bones about believing all sorts of unclassifiable things like Virgin Birth and so forth that ordinary moderns balk at. On the other hand, there is something slightly eager, even fevered, in what looks like the wish on Williams' part that we see him as an easy member of the urbane and donnish fraternity of sceptics.

He had not himself been to university, least of all to Oxford, and he cannot have been indifferent to the stigma. If it comes to kindred minds, we seem to hear him saying to himself, give me the Sir Bernards of this world. He has a whole section in his brief history of the Church on "the quality of disbelief", and he cannot conceal his fascination with Voltaire and company.

Williams himself was squarely on the side of the orthodox believers, as his books and his circle of friends at I Oxford testify. But his prose seems bedevilled with an intermittent uncertainty of tone.

Thomas Howard
"Shadows of Ecstacy"
The Novels of Charles Williams (1983) OUP

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