Wednesday 10 November 2010

Was Charles Williams un-educated?


I have often seen references to Charles Williams (1996-1945) as if he were uneducated, which is not true.

Indeed, it is based on a misunderstanding of the English educational system - which seems worth clearing-up here.

Charles Williams was, however, while being as an adult a member of the upper middle class (although at the bottom level of this class - as are most members of it) of a lower rank within the upper middle class than most of the other Inklings.

This was because C.W. had begun life as the son of a lower middle class tradesman (a clockmaker).


In the old English class system, the main cleavage was between the lower middle class - who were skilled tradesmen and craftsmen - and the upper middle class, who were non-manual workers, privately educated (at a fee paying school, or else at home by a governess/ tutor).

The upper middle class were 'gentlemen' and the lower middle class were not - even though many or most of the top rungs of the lower middle class might be much wealthier than the bottom rungs of the upper middle class which consisted of the likes of clerks, school masters and junior civil servants.


As son of a skilled craftsman, Charles Williams began life at the top of the lower middle class; but since he was privately educated at the school now called St Alban's Grammar School, he became a member of the upper middle class - albeit at the very bottom.

The fact that C.W. went through St Alban's school is also evidence that he could not remotely be described as un-educated.

Americans often do not realize the selectivity and advanced education which went on at schools like St Albans - the leaver reached an academic level pretty much equivalent to that of a college graduate in the USA.

Take a look at the alumni of St Albans:

There are few schools (some, but not many) who could boast such a roster of famous ex-pupils: including the most famous living scientist: Stephen Hawking.

To be have completed one's education at a major English grammar school like St Alban's was to be among the intellectual elite.


From St Alban's, C.W. went to University College, London - which has always been highly ranked among English universities - in the rank below Oxford and Cambridge.

Williams left UCL after two years (due to financial problems) without taking a degree - but to complete two-thirds of a degree at an English university in the early twentieth century was, again, to reach a very advanced level of education - just a few percent of the population would ever get that far.

And the level would be considerably beyond that of a US college graduate - perhaps about equivalent to a US Masters degree of that era?


So it is nonsense to imply that Charles Williams had an inadequate or deficient education.

Of course Williams was at a lower level than CS Lewis (Oxford triple first class degree in Classics - both parts - and English) or Tolkien (first class degree in English, one of the youngest Oxford Professors of recent times).

But the main difference was in Williams's class origin - Tolkien's father was a bank manager and Lewis's was a solicitor - both upper (not lower) middle class, although at a lowish level within that class.

As lasting evidence of this origin on the 'wrong' side of the great class divide, Williams retained a South East English regional accent throughout his life (which some people refer to as 'cockney').


So Williams was someone who was highly-educated, but of a lower class origin - although having been to a great grammar school and studied at university, before becoming a clerk then editor in the immensely respectable firm of the Oxford University Press. 

By middle age, Williams was very firmly a member of the upper middle class; and part of the same social circle as the other Inklings.

Nonetheless, it was his relatively lowly class origins (and not his level of education) that account for the unmistakable tone of condescension observable when Lewis and others talked or wrote about Williams. 


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