Book Review by Chris Hopkins.
I remember reading Charles Williams’ novel The Place of the Lion (1931) at school in the 1970s, at the suggestion of my friend Robert Jones (now sadly lost touch with, but who was definitely an intellectual aged eleven onwards). He said that it was a very weird novel and that I must read it. I agreed with that evaluation then, and having re-read it twice since, I still agree. At all three readings, I was uncertain whether I liked Williams’ writing or not – and at the second reading in 1984 and the third in 2015 the novel seemed to me decidedly patronising to women, and even misogynist (I probably didn’t know that word in the 3rd form in 1972).
However, at the Reading Group discussions on Charles Williams in May 2015, while most members also felt quite uncertain about this author, Thecla was a notable exception, arguing fluently and knowledgeably (as always) for the unique features and appeal of Williams’ work, and explaining why he was one of her favourite authors. After Thecla sadly passed away in December 2016, Reading Group members agreed that we should do something to remember Thecla’s always lively contribution to the group. With generous donations from Reading Group members, we first of all located and bought some attractive editions of three novels by Williams complete with dust-wrappers to present to the Sheffield Hallam University Library Special collection of Popular Fiction 1900-1950. The three we chose were The Place of the Lion (1931, but here in the 1947 Gollancz edition in their ‘Connoisseurs Library of Strange Fiction’ series), The Greater Trumps (1932, but here in Faber & Faber’s new UK edition of 1954), All Hallows Eve (1945, but here in Faber’s 4th impression of 1947). These are now part of the Special Collection, each with an inscription remembering Thecla:
Readerships and Literary Cultures Collection 1900-1950
Presented by the Middlebrow Book Group
in loving memory of our friend
who was a passionate and knowledgeable member from 2012 to 2017,
and who loved the novels of Charles Williams.
We miss Thecla very much.
‘She had always been an unashamed reader of novels.’ (Barbara Pym)
This review of one of those books, The Greater Trumps, is an attempt on my part to engage with a novel which I had never previously read and to explore it in the light of Thecla’s high regard for Williams’ work. The novel explores, at one level, two families, the Coningsbys and the Lees (and their two households) who are bought into contact when two of the younger generation, Nancy Coningsby and Henry Lee come to an arrangement (though there is some doubt about whether it is anything as conventional as an engagement). The opening of the novel introduces us to the Coningsby household on what seems to be an average day of sustained sniping at each other. The father (always called Mr Coningsby since he detests his first name – Lothair) holds a somewhat mysterious (and unexplained and I think entirely fictious) legal office as Warden of Lunacy, a role of which he is immensely proud. His pride in his office may partly explain his tyrannical and argumentative position in the family – in his view he defines what is normal and what is reprehensible. He is a widower and his two children, Ralph and Nancy, and his sister Sybil, are used to listening to (or filtering out) his daily rants about the state of the world. The first page of the novel picks up his habitual kind of commentary on the contemporary, often sparked off by reading the newspaper : ‘perfect Babel … I see the Government is putting a fresh duty on dried fruits’ (p. 7; William B. Eerdman’s US edition, 1976 – all references are to this edition). Ralph is relatively passive towards his father, but Nancy is almost always annoyed by him, and her father seems to see her as a representative of the modern young woman and therefore, of course, to be disapproved of. The third family member, Sybil, seems, like Ralph, to be quite passive, and explicitly says early on that she is not annoyed by her brother and indeed that she is hardly ever annoyed by anyone whatsoever (however, the hidden virtues of her patience rise ever closer to the surface as the narrative develops, and the novel’s attitude towards its chief female characters does seem very different from those in The Place of the Lion).
One cause for Mr Coningsby’s continual criticism of his daughter is that he disapproves of her relationship with Henry Lee, partly on the grounds of what is presented as a clear and unreasoning prejudice: ‘ for to him Henry Lee, in spite of being a Barrister … was so obviously a gipsy that his profession seemed as if it must be assumed for a sinister purpose’ (p. 11). In fact, Henry certainly is attracted to Nancy partly (though not only) because he has heard that Mr Coningsby has had an unusual legacy from a friend: a collection of playing-cards, which also includes a very early Tarot pack, apparently painted on papyrus and, with some unusual cards, particularly one of The Fool. This Tarot pack is key to the novel (and perhaps to the operations of the universe) for it is the only pack which matches a set of golden figures of the Tarot characters which the Lee family has preserved in utter secrecy for many centuries. Henry and his grandfather , Aaron, hope that the unique card pack will allow them to understand the meaning and function of these mysterious figures, which always appear to be involved in the constant and ordered motion of a dance which the viewer is aware of yet can never understand nor quite be sure they have truly perceived (The Fool is especially puzzling, always appearing in a new position, but never seen actually to move). The novel’s descriptions of this dance are remarkable, with an almost mesmeric feel to them.
When the Coningsbys see the golden figures at the Lee’s house, it is Sybil who seems to see and understand best: ‘it’s all quite the loveliest thing I saw in the whole of my life’ (p. 74). In due course, Henry and Nancy, who seem to have unique qualities in combination, explore more deeply into the power which the cards and figures have together, entering into understandings of the universe attainable by no other means, but also threatening to undo the harmonies which bind the cosmos together (if you want to know more, you will have to read the book yourself, though I am tempted to issue a warning against delving too deeply into mysteries beyond normal human knowledge).
Though generally not very in tune with the mystical, I was very gripped by this novel, and particularly by scenes where the card pack, the figures or both were conjured into their strange life . C. S. Lewis famously called Williams’ novels, ‘spiritual shockers’ (Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1948, viii) and indeed this novel certainly is a kind of unusual thriller where one very much wants to know, not who dunnit (though Henry does plan to murder Mr Coningsby in order to possess the cards – and any one, including the reader, might be open to suspicion as an accomplice in that crime), but what do the cards and figures mean? As it happens, my colleague/ wife, Lisa Hopkins, has spent Christmas reading thrillers featuring murder(s) at Christmas (nothing more relaxing , she says) and I now realise that the climactic and potentially murderous events of The Greater Trumps are set at Christmas too, so I had better pass on my copy for her perusal. Indeed, Nancy left alone in the Lee house for a while over Christmas (I think Henry is busy luring her father outside so he can murder him) feels that a ‘shocker’ will be the ideal distraction: ‘It’ll be perfect heaven to look at the furniture or read a murder story’ (p. 111).
I don’t think I would have revisited Charles Williams if it had not been for Thecla’s advocacy, but I hope that this review does some justice to her enthusiasm for his writing and for its very unusual atmosphere, and might tempt other readers to try him too. To get something of the flavour of Thecla’s own thoughts and feelings about William’s writing do read her excellent review of All Hallows Eve (1945): https://reading19001950.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/all-hallows-eve-by-charles-williams-1945/