Charles Williams and Race

I’ve been working on a multi-year project publishing nice, collectors hardback editions of the novels of Charles Williams. (I may have mentioned this before.) Williams is great because he’s full of weird ideas, but he can also be problematic because he is… full of weird ideas.

There are lots of things in Williams that can get squicky - his 1930s views on gender are pretty retrograde, and the sort of not-quite-sexual master/slave relationships he was purportedly into also show up. But race is where we I really uncomfortable.

In Many Dimensions, there are Persian Muslim characters that are clearly admired by Williams. While they may be self-isolated and removed from action, they do ‘Proclaim the Unity’ of the monotheistic God: There is no god but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God. The Persians - they are identified primarily that way but also have kinship and relationships with the whole muslim world - are respectable, and almost guru-like in their truth. The author definitely is showing some affinity here.

Williams also has a… thing… about Jewish people. I don’t know what to call it really, others have used the word philosemitic, but that feels generous to me. He sometimes combines the really gross characteristics of Jewish characters that we see in earlier English writers (Shakespeare and Dickens come to mind) with a Christian’s reverence for another People of the Book, especially Jehovah’s chosen people.

In War in Heaven, a Jewish character exists only as a cynical trader in antiquities: mean and bitter, aware of the holy and important artifacts he deals in but also willing to allow them to be desecrated and perverted. In Shadows of Ecstasy, a couple of pivotal characters are Jews, and they are either filthy rich and urbane, shallow jewel-collectors - or poor ghetto-dwellers isolated from their larger community, focused only on The Law of Israel and the restoration of the Temple with an austere zealotry.

But Shadows of Ecstasy is about an attack on England from “Powers” from Africa. It’s really centered around English people’s fear and exoticizing of black people. The plot moves around a rebellion of colonial-era Africans and then an invasion of England. SO. Is it… racist?

First and foremost: man, I don’t know - I’m a 38-year-old white guy who moved to Kansas on purpose. I am the white-privilegiest of whites. But some angles to think about:

There’s a real Africa Is A Country issue here, although Williams both knows about this and deals with it: he details specific nations and places in Africa at first, but reverts to the way the interwar English people in his story refer to all Africans as monolithic, from Egypt to South Africa to Morocco. I think this is an intentional choice.

Most glaringly, there is the use of the n-word, which is always in the mouth of the most villainous or reviled characters, and often in moments of extreme duress that expose their worst qualities. And yikes, there’s a riot scene in Shadows where a bloodthirsty, maddened crowd of English uses the n-word a bunch while they attack a pair of Jewish brothers they suspect have aided the African invasion. I was tempted to edit it somehow. That’s not allowed under the agreement we have with the estate, and it would be pretty difficult, short of grawlixing it. It would also undermine how terrible, how vile, this mob really is… but still feels awful to read (or print).

There’s also a kind of colonial critique to this writing: villain Nigel Considine strip-mines cultures in Africa for his mystical powers, and then uses them to raise armies of African people to invade the global north. And when the people of Africa do push out their colonizers, it doesn’t feel shocking. It feels… maybe problematic, but ultimately the sentiments expressed by Williams really seem like he really admires the Africans in this story, even as he exoticices them.

Williams is also really aware of prejudice in general: in Shadows he mentions specifically that the English public’s racial prejudice about Jewish people will pale in comparison to the panic sparked by racial prejudice about the people of Africa. It’s not like he’s unaware! When sentiment turns against the revolts in Africa, black and brown people (‘even one or two Southern Italians’) are mobbed and attacked in the streets of London, and Williams clearly draws this as the actions of violent idiots. When tensions get high, an internment of all Africans is threatened by the government ‘for their own protection.’

I tend to read Williams generously and sympathetically. It seems to me that while Williams exoticizes black and brown peoples in ways that are gross, he is actually impressed by and admires the stereotypes that he uses.

Is that a conclusion? I don’t have a conclusion here.

The Sea Hates a Coward