Lethal White: Autobigraphical Elements

There are several unwritten priorities at HogwartsProfessor that serve as something like policies here. We are not only not adverse, for example, to Christian readings of popular texts, we begin there, at least if the author is a professed believer. Similarly, we do not accept as our default critical view the neo-Marxist and pseudo-scientific one that every text is an object of political and social justice issues to deconstruct in order to reveal the racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascist content the clueless author has woven unconsciously into her or his work. We assume, in contrast, that the author is a deliberate artist who is both aware of such issues and even writing about them deliberately (as often as not laughing at the pin-headed self-importance and virtue signaling of the critical community).

We rarely interpret books, for much the same reason, as fictional re-writings of the writer’s autobiography, as wish-fulfillment fantasies in which an author writes his or her self as ‘Mary Sue or ‘Marty Stu’ into the story to ‘work out’ psychologically the issues and events of the artist’s ‘real life.’ It is something of a rule in academia today to begin at this biographical point of reference with many authors, hence the oversized body of work on C. S. Lewis’ issues with mom and dad as keys to the perspective on women in his fiction and on J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experiences as a blueprint for Frodo’s adventures in The Lord of the Rings. HogwartsProfessor ‘goes there’ only with hesitation, lest we start out, as the neo-Marxists do, with the upside down view of the author-as-unconscious-idiot rather than self-aware and mature artist.

Having said that, I am obliged to note, being the pseudonym for a human being, that Robert Galbraith’s work incorporates significant elements that seem to be taken directly from the life of Joanne Rowling Murray, whose primary pen name is ‘J. K. Rowling.’ Lethal White has several autobiographical parts, which, if not as in-your-face as the ones in Casual Vacancy that rather overwhelm what I assume was her first novel, one re-written post-Potter, are important for a full appreciation of the artistry involved. Galbraith is less a literary narcissist and auto-projection unit in the Rowling life-story references he includes in the Cormoran Strike mysteries than a self-aware, deliberate author sharing with his readers in story what he has learned from reflection upon Rowling’s life.

As ‘for instances’ of this, here are three examples of fairly obvious echoes of Rowling’s life in Lethal White with explanation of how this repetition in story of life-events is not the end of interpreting or understanding it — “Oh, that’s why she writes about this!” — but only the beginning.

(1) Rowling’s Experience with Psychological Counseling

Rowling opened up about her experiences with psychological counseling in the Adeel Amini interview for the Edinburgh Student, late in 2008. Here is that longish passage from this important meeting:

“I definitely had leanings towards depression from quite an early age,” Rowling confesses, “but it’s an extremely hard condition to recognise in yourself because obviously there is a grey area before it becomes a clinical illness and, looking back, I can see that I did have features of depression on and off for a while. Then, mid-20s, life circumstances were poor and I really plummeted. What’s sad in a way is that the thing that made me go for help, the thing that made me face the fact that this was not a normal state that I was in, was probably my daughter, and a lot of people your age, very young adults, would not have that. I do know that I looked at her and thought… she was like a touchstone in a sense, she was something that earthed me, grounded me, and I thought ‘this isn’t right, this can’t be right, she cannot grow up with me in this state’.

“And I went to – well, funny story actually, “it does illustrate so many problems.” Rowling says, the amalgam titter making a comeback. “I went to my GP. I rehearsed, on my own in this awful little flat, I rehearsed what I was going to say to my GP because it is not an easy thing to say to someone; I went in to see this GP and it wasn’t my usual one, and I gave my little speech. I had chosen to say certain things about my state of mind to illustrate what I was finding worrying and she said, ‘if you ever feel a bit low, come and speak to the practice nurse’ and dismissed me.

“I went back, and we’re talking suicidal thoughts here, we’re not talking ‘I’m a little bit miserable,’” Rowling laughs nervously, as if to mask the gravity of her psychological state at the time. “But two weeks later I had a phone call in my flat from my regular GP who had looked back over the notes of what had happened while she’d been away, and had been alarmed to see that I’d been sent away. She called me back in, and I got counselling through her.

“So I tell the story but I’m not slighting the medical profession – especially as I’m now married to a GP,” she says with more than a tinge of mischief. “But she absolutely saved me because I don’t think I would have had the guts to go and do it twice. Having been dismissed once, I’d given it my best shot and I went back and I felt worse than ever, but she called me back and I went for counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Counselling.”

Is it something she’s recommend to others, then? “I would recommend it highly. I would. Yeah, I think it was absolutely invaluable. Well it worked for me so obviously I’m very ‘pro’ it. You have to do a lot of work yourself, you know. Realistically, you have to do a lot of work, you have to be prepared to do what you’re asked to do and persevere. I think I was in counselling for nine months, I probably could have done longer. I think I was very hung-up on the idea of becoming reliant on anything, which was partly a feature of my condition. I was in such an isolated position and bizarrely you become afraid of dependent on anything because then [you think] ‘I’ll lose that’. So I probably came out of it a little bit early but…” She pauses. But it all worked out for the best, I venture? “Absolutely. And it gives you strategies for thereafter. I’m worried now that you’ve said that to me about depression and I want to tell everyone that they must go and get help..!”

I argue that perhaps Rowling’s endorsement may help remove the stigma still attached to the ideas of depression and counselling. “The funny thing is, I have never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. Never. I think I’m abnormally shameless on that account, because what’s to be ashamed of? What is there to be ashamed of?” she reiterates. “I went through a really rough time, and I’m quite proud of the fact that I got out of that. It’s a lot of work, it’s not a passive thing, counselling, you’ve got to work with that person and…” 

There’s a lot in there which re-readers of Lethal White will pick up on. The dismissal of her concerns by the NHS doctor with whom she first met, for instance, I think has to play into the nuanced treatment the NHS gets in Strike 4, with “nuanced” meaning “not especially flattering.” More obviously, though, Robin’s post prologue story in White begins with her bailing out on her outside-the-NHS Cognitive Behavior Counselling before the end of her program. She uses the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) tools she’s learned there on her own to greater or lesser effect to control or endure her panic attacks throughout the books. She has prepared a “little speech” for her therapist to get out of the program. Et Cetera.

This is not straight-up autobiographical projection, though, because Rowling was dealing with clinical depression and Robin with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rowling isn’t making a pitch for or against counselling in her negative portrayal of the therapist in Lethal White, however liberating Robin finds her release from visits to the Clinic, but for taking responsibility for your psychological condition by doing what needs to be done to take care of yourself. Strike’s resolve at the end of White to do his stretching and watch his diet is the physical parallel to Robin’s pledge to do what needs to be done. The autobiography explains only Rowling’s familiarity with the experience of counselling, not the ultimate message she imparts.

(2) Rowling’s Experience with Peter Rowling, Her Father

Joanne Rowling has not had the best of relationships with her father, Peter. It is something of a consensus in the tabloids that Peter was unfaithful to Rowling’s mother in the final stages of her terminal struggle with multiple sclerosis (MS), a charge he vehemently denies. The daughter’s change in social status due to the many millions of Pounds Sterling she earned via Potter Mania had its effect on their family ties. Peter’s selling autographed Harry Potter books at auction to raise money in 2003 to cover the expenses of his bankrupt business, most notably, caused a rift. Read “I’ve Lost J. K.” an article in the Sunday Mirror for a snap-shot of that fall-out. They are believed to have reconciled in 2012 – or so The Daily Mail reports.

Fathers, however, do not fare well in Rowling/Galbraith novels. The good ones die young and heroically — and the bad ones are very bad. Rowling once said that Mr Weasley was originally a fatality in Order of the Phoenix and, as we know, she never changes her planning; he got a reprieve only when she realized that all the good dads or father figures were dead or their demise was in the cards. (See ‘Rowling: I wanted to kill parents’ interview with Today in 2007 for more on this.)

And the bad dads are really bad. I’m not the only one who thinks Simon Price, the father of two boys and the husband of a meek woman who goes back to work as something of a scientist, is a transparency for Peter Rowling, father of two girls and a husband of a woman who took a similar job as lab assistant in a Comprehensive school. And Simon Price is a raging, violent lunatic, of whom his family lives in fear (and borderline murderous hatred). And Merope Gaunt’s father’s abusive treatment of her is the genesis of the Dark Lord — whose first and defining crime is parricide.

The central crime of Lethal White, which book I’m assuming is the central novel of the Strike series a la Goblet, is a parricide in parallel with the death of Barty Crouch, Sr., in Goblet. [Yes, Goblet is dedicated to Peter Rowling.] Are we to assume from this portrayal of Jasper Chiswell as a mean Tory and despicable person, unfaithful to his first wife, unkind to his children and all subordinates, and from his brutal murder at the story turn of this pivotal novel that Rowling is still ‘acting out’ in print her anger with Peter for not being the best of fathers?

If you’re playing literary connect the dots that is an inviting, easy explanation. But it obscures rather than opens up the complexity of the story and the nuance of its morality.

Freddie dies from a sniper’s bullet in Basra, I think, as poetic justice for his killing Spotty the minature horse with a rifle from a roof-top, i.e., as a sniper. His death is also rooted in his strangling of his bastard younger brother Raphael(a) in the ‘eye of the horse,’ which made Raff’s wish for Freddie’s death in return to ‘come true.’ Bad Dad Jasper’s crime in this was in his not punishing his son Freddie for the Spotty killing or for strangling his illegitimate child, the fruit of his infidelity.

That otherworldly back-drop and harsh justice, karma if you will, is only the action backstage in the morality play of Lethal White. Rowling’s epilogue is all about the guilt and responsibility of the murderer in the face of a sibling’s attempt to defend him with explanations of how cruel the father had been. Strike and Robin, while not Jasper apologists, are having nothing of it. Strike insists that Raff’s itinerant childhood, so much like his own and so much better than Billy Knight’s, cannot be offered as justification for the murderous decisions of a sociopathic son, full stop.

If Robert Galbraith is writing about Peter Rowling, in other words, in Lethal White, it would have to be in his judgment as pseudonym that it is time for Joanne Rowling to get over it and be the best person she can be outside the shadow of her childhood experiences and a father’s possible perfidy.

(3) Rowling’s Experience with Violent Men

Oddly enough, it is from Peter Rowling that we first learned that his daughter suffered at the hands of her first husband. From another Sunday Mirror article in June, 2003:

Joanne travelled to Portugal as she struggled to overcome her grief and met handsome journalist Jorge Arantes in a bar. They bonded over a shared love of literature, married in 1992 and had a daughter Jessica, now nine, in August 1993.

But the marriage turned into a violent nightmare for Joanne.

Retired engineer Peter said: “She has told me he used to knock her about and because of that I hate him.

“Any man who hits a woman is a coward and I could only wish all the evil in the world on that man. I cannot imagine anything worse than the torture of having a young child and a violent husband.”

The marriage lasted only 13 months, ending in November 1993 when Joanne left their Oporto home after a blazing row. She fled with baby Jessica to Edinburgh to stay with sister Dianne.

“That marriage was a low point and an awful time for her,” said Peter. “But it may have spurred her on and I am so proud of the way she has recovered.

“I do know Jorge was violent to Joanne and that’s why she was best off out of it.

“I used to ring her a lot when she was in Portugal with him. I knew there was something wrong because she could never speak properly as there was someone else in the room.

“When I went over to Portugal Jess had just been born and everything was fine but I knew it wasn’t always like that.”

The extraordinary terms of their divorce — Orantes was forbidden any visitation or access to their daughter by courts in the UK — suggests this is more than tabloid twisting of a father’s suspicions. Patrick McCauley has written in Into the Pensieve that this experience may be the root of the violence-against-women theme running through everything Rowling has penned; McCauley points out that the lives of the four key figures in the Hogwarts Saga, all men (Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Snape), are all forged in the crucible consequent to the rape, murder, or abuse of women.

And Lethal White? It is, of course, largely the story of Robin’s escape from a demeaning relationship with an idiot of a husband, who, if not physically abusive, is verbally and emotionally sadistic towards her. Robin is traumatized by her having been raped as a college student, knifed by the Shacklewell Ripper, and beaten by a child abuser, the latter two in Career of Evil. ‘Violence against women’ and her resistance to and recovery from it are in large part the heroic events of Robin Ellacott’s interior and exterior lives.

Flick Perdue is hit by Jimmy Knight when he comes to her workplace to find the Chiswell note she’d stolen, a conversation recorded by Robin’s hidden cell phone. A case could be made that even Strike is abusive to women and at last is called on his acting as something of an “emotional vampire” to his lovers. Lorelei Bevan certainly attempts to argue just that.

Are we supposed to read the telephone exchanges that Strike and Robin have in which Cormoran fears Matt Cunliffe is a threatening presence in the background as autobiographical memories of the calls to the Orantes home Peter Rowling remembers? And the final Matt-Robin confrontation in their home as something of a wish-fulfillment fantasy of what Joanne wishes she had done when she left her first husband?

Sure, you can do that. But what does it do for understanding the novel except close down the discussion? Psychobiographical readings inevitably imply that this exorcism-via-publication is the real meaning of any work rather than, at best, a beginning or entry point, and much more often, a dead end.

The theme that runs through the book, I’d say of all Rowling’s work not just Lethal White, is that of both the hero’s and the reader’s transformed vision. Strike tells us as much in White when he says “Getting to be a bit of a theme that, isn’t it? People who’re supposed to be too crazy to know what they’ve seen” (ch 20 p 179). Many of the witnesses are unable to know because of their psychological condition if what they think they saw is what they saw. Human beings try to escape the Cave for a truer understanding of the Real — and their experience in story is largely their growth in the virtue of what Austen and Dickens called “penetration,” seeing beyond the surface of things.

Rowling is certainly writing about violence against women and this almost surely is rooted in her own experience. This, however, is only the jumping off point from which she explores all human relationships, not just male-female ones, and how we are to understand them correctly. Her literary artistry is directed to our experience of ‘penetration,’ of a more acute vision and grasp of how things really are. Pigeon-holing her as an abused woman story-teller in recovery, a one-note symphony composer, is to demonstrate a profound failing in the quality her characters demonstrate.

Because the books aren’t just about Robin. The Cormoran Strike stories are about him as much as if not more than her. Yes, the death of Leda Strike, his mother, colors the background of his life. But the foreground is his struggle to come to terms with the loss of his leg in Afghanistan and the emotional disaster area of his life as he struggles to recover from a toxic, even violent relationship with a woman (her abusing him).

Matt’s most abusive trait, I think, is that he does what he can to discourage Robin’s vocation as a detective, to stifle her desire to find out the truth and to serve justice, even at the risk of her safety, of her life. Rowling is not offering in this another Woman Who Walked Into Doors, as much as she loves that book; she gives us a heroic model for everyone, not just abused women, to free themselves to listen to their calling and, above all us, to find what is True, Good, and Beautiful within themselves and in others, for others.

I think if we’re going to go the autobiographical route, it is the centrality of vocation and ‘penetration,’ our transformed vision via right understanding of stories, rather than Rowling and Robin both being/having been abused women we need to focus on. For that, all the biography of The Presence you need to know is that she is a writer. In the Tillyard-Lewis debate about The Personal Heresy, I’m all in with Lewis. The best part of the Shakespeare authorship debate is how little, though ever growing I admit, the ‘Playwight as Autobiographer’ school guides our reading of the Bard’s plays. There’s just not enough dependable biographical data to ‘go there.’

Would that this were the case for Rowling, celebrity author and philanthropist! Still we can do our part here at HogwartsProfessor to focus on the artistry and meaning  of her work rather than the personal biography, if not neglecting it entirely. Let me know what you think of this with respect to Lethal White and the mission of Potter Punditry in general in the comment boxes below!

 

 

Comments

  1. I’ve decided to break my comment into at least three, maybe four sections due to length. The first part goes as follows.

    When it comes to the debate between Tillyard and Lewis, the irony is I find myself siding not with the two authors concerned, but with two others. Specifically, T.S. Eliot and Charles Williams have more or less come to shape my take on the relation of the author’s personality and life experiences to their novels or works of art in general.

    If I had to make a case for why the personal is not a problem if it should ever crop up in a work of art, then it would have to be in the following terms:

    To start with, in his final book of critical essays, “On Poets and Poetry”, Eliot makes an observation on the nature of the writer’s personality in relation to the artwork itself

    “…The poet…, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol (299)”.

    Now the key for Eliot is that his definition goes a bit further than just a snapshot of any malformed or neurotic personality. It is not just a question of the writer’s personality taken in isolation. Instead, for Eliot, all personalities can attain a significance only in relation to “general truth”. For Eliot, this truth is the fact or existence of a Mind which rises above humankind to such a level that the only words we can use to describe It are terms such as Supernatural, Transcendent, Divine, or else just plain God.

    In addition, the experience of the writer is not left in stasis. It doesn’t stop or remain at a particular experience of one particular individual. Instead, he claims the mental processes of the creative imagination are able to, for lack of a better choice of words, reflect and mirror, or else distill the valuable aspects of the personal experience so that it becomes an expression of universal values or ideals. In this regard, all the work of fiction does is shine a light on the experience in order to display what was already there, but which goes unnoticed. This transformation of real life experience depends for its operation on the fact that it is all about the character of the author “in relation” to what Eliot called “the permanent things” (what we sometimes refer to as Eternal Verities).

    To be continued.

  2. Continued from above.

    This is where Charles Williams comes in, as I’m convinced he is able to provide concrete illustrations of Eliot’s statement. In her book-length study of CW, Agnes Sibley is able to provide a very neat summary of the transformational process that takes place in Williams fiction. It should be noted, this process is the same alchemical sequence as on display in the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and even Rowling. Sibley writes:

    “A first step to be taken is to accepts that the meaning and purpose of life can only be found in God; in and by himself man is helpless. Paradoxically, he can achieve his full stature as a spiritual being only by seeing that as a separate individual he is nothing – he comes to his full powers not on his own but by entering in into his part of God’s glory (10)”.

    What stands out in Williams practice of alchemical transformation, or rather religious transfiguration, is that he doesn’t see this process as limited to something remains on the page. Instead, he holds that it is a process at work in the life of both the author, and ordinary people in general. The easiest demonstration of this is in Williams’ 1935 play, “Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury”. Here again, Sibley’s book is a great help in understanding, as she sums up the main points of Williams practice in a way that the majority of people will be able to understand:

    “The life of Archbishop Cranmer, until near its end, was not outwardly dramatic; and In Williams’s play the action is inner, rather than outward or obvious. It lies in a progressive nature of Cranmer’s nature and motives. As Williams portrays him, he is weak and vacillating, fearful of pain and death, essentially a good man – a peacemaker, a scholar, a man of prayer – but not a hero.

    “He tries to be honest but doesn’t understand himself. Beneath his concern for King Henry, his tenderness for Anne, and his worry over having a part in religious persecution, there lies a deep-rooted self-love. By the end of the play, however, he has been stripped of all intellectual and spiritual pretensions. Just before his death he finds something better than his personal being, for he runs away from self and flees into God’s love (12)”.

    To be continued.

  3. Continued from above.

    Now, it is possible to ask where in all the description is any of the stuff that Rowling accomplishes in her books? The answer is that Sibley has stripped the concept of Literary Alchemy down to the religious truths that lie behind it, so that we are left with the real meaning behind all possible literary symbols. The key difference to note here is just this, Archbishop Cranmer isn’t a fictional character, he was a real flesh and blood English martyr. Therefore Williams isn’t just giving us a straight-up work of fiction. He is instead taking the concepts of Mythopoeia and showing how they apply to the lives of real human beings.

    When applied to real life, Williams hints that it is precisely here that the personality of the subject gains its value through its transformations brought about by God’s actions. Alice Mary Hadfield is able to describe how this works in real life from her very helpful book, “An Introduction to Charles Williams”. Hadfield writes as follows:

    “C.W.’s mind was deeply and naturally ‘existential’, though it had other saving and coordinating qualities as well. Existentialism in this context might be focused in the phrase ‘Not what it is but “that” it is’. This kind of life is produced by, and produces, a sense of crisis working on the mind and heart. Everything is on the point of change; an enormous and hardly graspable threat or ‘other’ quality rises in every detail on which the mind turns; our very existence all but slips from us at times in the pressure of crisis and becoming – becoming what, we dare not say, but either something wildly different from ourselves, or sheer loss.

    “The pressure has results in the actions of each person. If the existence of God, or the passing of time, or truth, has no effect upon your living, but is one of your favorite ideas, it remains a hobby. It has no reality for you as, say, money has. If you continue not to let your ideas affect your living, your whole existence becomes in the end mere play. If they are felt as authority or terror, they issue in acts, however small and daily. The operation of that Being behind the crisis and the pressure is therefore known finally through its effect upon people and actions. It is in the sense of observing this operation that C.W. was, like Kierkegaard, the spy of God (77 – 78)”.

    It sounds like what Hadfield and Williams are talking about is the main actions and plot of a book like “The Casual Vacancy”. The difference however lies in the fact that Williams is applying all this to real life. Again, it is Williams’ “observing this operation” “of that Being behind the crisis and the pressure is therefore known finally through its effect upon people and actions” that counts. For Williams, the reality behind the symbols exists beyond the page in everyday life. This includes the life of authors (C.W. included).

    To be continued.

  4. Continued from above.

    Williams’ best example of this might be his “Myth of Shakespeare”. As with Cranmer, Williams is once more taking a real-life subject, and highlighting what he believes are the important transformations that personality underwent. Here it just happens to be England’s most famous writer. C.W. scholar Sorina Higgins provides a very useful summary of the play, and so it’s her words that follow:

    “Let me explain it. This play is a fictional biography of William Shakespeare, interspersed with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. So the text is about half Shakespeare, half Williams. Shakespeare interacts with Marlowe, Jonson, other playwrights, and Queen Elizabeth, talking about his work and theirs. Whenever a play gets mentioned, actors then perform the scene in question as a live example of whatever principle Shakespeare and his friends are discussing. Sometimes the characters from Shakespeare’s plays are “real” in his life, holding conversations with him in a meta-meta-theatrical manner. It’s very clever and beautifully well-composed.

    “…But that is only the plot. And as is usual with Charles Williams, the plot is really only the smallest part of the work. The IDEAS are the real essence of the play. What, then, is the idea-essence of this play?

    “It is the Crisis of Schism. Remember that CW measured the power of a poet by how he faced, expressed, and overcame a sense of a split identity: an “Impossibility” in which something simultaneously could not be, yet was. Furthermore, he claimed that Shakespeare faced this crisis, poetically, in Troilus and Cressida. In The English Poetic Mind, a work of literary criticism written four years after A Myth of Shakespeare, Williams would construct a proposed chronology of Shakespeare’s plays. In A Myth of Shakespeare, he (roughly) follows this order of composition, building up through the light-hearted early plays (according to his order) through to a moment of climax with Troilus and Cressida, then leading to the great final ambiguous masterpieces such as Othello, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. Later, in my discussion of The English Poetic Mind, I will compare CW’s proposed chronology with what the latest scholarship suggests. But for now, scholarly accuracy is not so important (for A Myth of Shakespeare) as are story and concept.”

    Prof Higgins’ entry on the play can be found here:

    https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/the-momma-of-mash-up/

    To be concluded.

  5. Concluded from above.

    Chris Calderon

    Oct 30, 2018, 3:45 PM (21 hours ago)

    to John
    Mr. Granger,

    I’m mailing in a reply I wanted to make on the HogPro Blog to the article above. The trouble is I don’t seem to be recognized by the server for some reason. It might be because I’m now on Blogger as part of that particular Blogosphere, though I’m not at all sure. I don’t know how different server domains handle this kind of stuff. Not knowing what to do, this seemed like the best option at the moment. Either way, sorry for the inconvenience. The intended reply is below.

    When it comes to the debate between Tillyard and Lewis, the irony is I find myself siding not with the two authors concerned, but with two others. Specifically, T.S. Eliot and Charles Williams have more or less come to shape my take on the relation of the author’s personality and life experiences to their novels or works of art in general.

    If I had to make a case for why the personal is not a problem if it should ever crop up in a work of art, then it would have to be in the following terms:

    To start with, in his final book of critical essays, “On Poets and Poetry”, Eliot makes an observation on the nature of the writer’s personality in relation to the artwork itself

    “…The poet…, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol (299)”.

    Now the key for Eliot is that his definition goes a bit further than just a snapshot of any malformed or neurotic personality. It is not just a question of the writer’s personality taken in isolation. Instead, for Eliot, all personalities can attain a significance only in relation to “general truth”. For Eliot, this truth is the fact or existence of a Mind which rises above humankind to such a level that the only words we can use to describe It are terms such as Supernatural, Transcendent, Divine, or else just plain God.

    In addition, the experience of the writer is not left in stasis. It doesn’t stop or remain at a particular experience of one particular individual. Instead, he claims the mental processes of the creative imagination are able to, for lack of a better choice of words, reflect and mirror, or else distill the valuable aspects of the personal experience so that it becomes an expression of universal values or ideals. In this regard, all the work of fiction does is shine a light on the experience in order to display what was already there, but which goes unnoticed. This transformation of real life experience depends for its operation on the fact that it is all about the character of the author “in relation” to what Eliot called “the permanent things” (what we sometimes refer to as Eternal Verities).

    This is where Charles Williams comes in, as I’m convinced he is able to provide concrete illustrations of Eliot’s statement. In her book-length study of CW, Agnes Sibley is able to provide a very neat summary of the transformational process that takes place in Williams fiction. It should be noted, this process is the same alchemical sequence as on display in the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and even Rowling. Sibley writes:

    “A first step to be taken is to accepts that the meaning and purpose of life can only be found in God; in and by himself man is helpless. Paradoxically, he can achieve his full stature as a spiritual being only by seeing that as a separate individual he is nothing – he comes to his full powers not on his own but by entering in into his part of God’s glory (10)”.

    What stands out in Williams practice of alchemical transformation, or rather religious transfiguration, is that he doesn’t see this process as limited to something remains on the page. Instead, he holds that it is a process at work in the life of both the author, and ordinary people in general. The easiest demonstration of this is in Williams’ 1935 play, “Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury”. Here again, Sibley’s book is a great help in understanding, as she sums up the main points of Williams practice in a way that the majority of people will be able to understand:

    “The life of Archbishop Cranmer, until near its end, was not outwardly dramatic; and In Williams’s play the action is inner, rather than outward or obvious. It lies in a progressive nature of Cranmer’s nature and motives. As Williams portrays him, he is weak and vacillating, fearful of pain and death, essentially a good man – a peacemaker, a scholar, a man of prayer – but not a hero.

    “He tries to be honest but doesn’t understand himself. Beneath his concern for King Henry, his tenderness for Anne, and his worry over having a part in religious persecution, there lies a deep-rooted self-love. By the end of the play, however, he has been stripped of all intellectual and spiritual pretensions. Just before his death he finds something better than his personal being, for he runs away from self and flees into God’s love (12)”.

    Now, is it possible to ask where in all the description is any of the stuff that Rowling accomplishes in her books? The answer is that Sibley has stripped the concept of Literary Alchemy down to the religious truths that lie behind it, so that we are left with the real meaning behind all possible literary symbols. The key difference to note here is just this, Archbishop Cranmer isn’t a fictional character, he was a real flesh and blood English martyr. Therefore Williams isn’t just giving us a straight-up work of fiction. He is instead taking the concepts of Mythopoeia and showing how they apply to the lives of real human beings.

    When applied to real life, Williams hints that it is precisely here that the personality of the subject gains its value through its transformations brought about by God’s actions. Alice Mary Hadfield is able to describe how this works in real life from her very helpful book, “An Introduction to Charles Williams”. Hadfield writes as follows:

    “C.W.’s mind was deeply and naturally ‘existential’, though it had other saving and coordinating qualities as well. Existentialism in this context might be focused in the phrase ‘Not what it is but “that” it is’. This kind of life is produced by, and produces, a sense of crisis working on the mind and heart. Everything is on the point of change; an enormous and hardly graspable threat or ‘other’ quality rises in every detail on which the mind turns; our very existence all but slips from us at times in the pressure of crisis and becoming – becoming what, we dare not say, but either something wildly different from ourselves, or sheer loss.

    “The pressure has results in the actions of each person. If the existence of God, or the passing of time, or truth, has no effect upon your living, but is one of your favorite ideas, it remains a hobby. It has no reality for you as, say, money has. If you continue not to let your ideas affect your living, your whole existence becomes in the end mere play. If they are felt as authority or terror, they issue in acts, however small and daily. The operation of that Being behind the crisis and the pressure is therefore known finally through its effect upon people and actions. It is in the sense of observing this operation that C.W. was, like Kierkegaard, the spy of God (77 – 78)”.

    It sounds like what Hadfield and Williams are talking about is the main actions and plot of a book like “The Casual Vacancy”. The difference however lies in the fact that Williams is applying all this to real life. Again, it is Williams’ “observing this operation” “of that Being behind the crisis and the pressure is therefore known finally through its effect upon people and actions” that counts. For Williams, the reality behind the symbols exists beyond the page in everyday life. This includes the life of authors (C.W. included).

    Williams’ best example of this might be his “Myth of Shakespeare”. As with Cranmer, Williams is once more taking a real-life subject, and highlighting what he believes are the important transformations that personality underwent. Here it just happens to be England’s most famous writer. C.W. scholar Sorina Higgins provides a very useful summary of the play, and so it’s her words that follow:

    “Let me explain it. This play is a fictional biography of William Shakespeare, interspersed with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. So the text is about half Shakespeare, half Williams. Shakespeare interacts with Marlowe, Jonson, other playwrights, and Queen Elizabeth, talking about his work and theirs. Whenever a play gets mentioned, actors then perform the scene in question as a live example of whatever principle Shakespeare and his friends are discussing. Sometimes the characters from Shakespeare’s plays are “real” in his life, holding conversations with him in a meta-meta-theatrical manner. It’s very clever and beautifully well-composed.

    “…But that is only the plot. And as is usual with Charles Williams, the plot is really only the smallest part of the work. The IDEAS are the real essence of the play. What, then, is the idea-essence of this play?

    “It is the Crisis of Schism. Remember that CW measured the power of a poet by how he faced, expressed, and overcame a sense of a split identity: an “Impossibility” in which something simultaneously could not be, yet was. Furthermore, he claimed that Shakespeare faced this crisis, poetically, in Troilus and Cressida. In The English Poetic Mind, a work of literary criticism written four years after A Myth of Shakespeare, Williams would construct a proposed chronology of Shakespeare’s plays. In A Myth of Shakespeare, he (roughly) follows this order of composition, building up through the light-hearted early plays (according to his order) through to a moment of climax with Troilus and Cressida, then leading to the great final ambiguous masterpieces such as Othello, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. Later, in my discussion of The English Poetic Mind, I will compare CW’s proposed chronology with what the latest scholarship suggests. But for now, scholarly accuracy is not so important (for A Myth of Shakespeare) as are story and concept.”

    Prof Higgins’ entry on the play can be found here:

    https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/the-momma-of-mash-up/

    To be concluded

  6. Concluded from above
    If I had to criticize anything, then it might be the question of the importance of scholarship. To be fair, it is Williams, and not Higgins who stakes the claim that Shakespeare’s crisis was brought about by an affair with Mary Sitton. To be even more fair, it is a subject then up by others. Bard scholar Aubrey Burl has written an entire book, “Shakespeare’s Mistress”, on just this subject.

    For my part, I believe Williams when he highlights some of Shakespeare’s writings as proof that the Bard id endure a crisis of Schism, or spirit. However, my own reading (specifically, Greenblatt, Asquith, Healey, and Spencer) always leads me to believe it was one not of infidelity, but of loyalty, cowardice, and courage. Specifically, I can’t help but think that Shakespeare’s Schism reflected the wider religious schisms developing between the Church and Protestantism. I think Shakespeare believed at first that he could ride above the whole storm, and just indulge in his pastime as a writer.

    At some point, much like Thomas Cranmer, he could have realized that the care-free attitude was really just a mask for an inward cowardice. This could have been brought home by the addition of thinkers beginning to question the seven tiered Elizabethan World Picture. Both elements might have led to a moment of self-awareness where the Bard was forced to confront his own shortcomings in relation to the larger changes going on in society. This crisis might have led to the Crisis Plays, and then later, resolved works. In this scenario, Shakespeare’s crisis of self echoes the three stages of literary alchemy, albeit on an inner level reflected in the action and plots of his plays.

    The point is that such a scenario demonstrates the point Williams and Eliot are trying to make. The personal element doesn’t have to be a distraction, or a heresy, in a work of fiction as long as it is a chronicle, or marker of the personality in relation to the changes made on it by the Natural Law of God. At the very least, there is one possibility that might be considered.

    Happy Halloween everyone!

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