Friday, April 2, 2021

Charles Williams and Sax Rohmer

Among his many other accomplishments, Charles Williams was an assiduous reviewer of crime and detective fiction for several newspapers and magazines, during the period 1930-35. These have been collected and edited by Jared Lobdell in The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935 (McFarland, 2003), and they make fascinating reading.

One of the reviews is an important source for revealing how Williams came to start writing his seven occult thrillers. On 29 December 1933 he reviewed a group of five books, which included The Bride of Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer.

Commenting on this, he says (p.104): ‘As for Mr Sax Rohmer, there again my piety, but this time a more dutiful and less exhilarating piety, comes in. There are some few absurd books of my own which exist only because one evening, having finished one of Mr Rohmer’s, I said suddenly to myself: “I also will write a novel.” It wasn’t, when finished, much like any of his, but can one now see the mother in the kid’s milk?” He goes on to complain that “The Mandarin Fu-Manchu doesn’t seem quite as good as he used to be . . .”

Another source, quoted in Grevel Lindrop’s Charles Williams – The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press, 2015, p.116),  gives us the exact date when Williams read the Sax Rohmer novel. Writing to Olive Willis on 23 December 1925, he told her that, having decided to write a thriller: “It took me seven weeks; it was first thought of on 8 July and finished by the end of August.”

This was Shadows of Ecstasy (1933), then called Adepts of Africa, his first novel but the fifth to be published. So far as I know, Williams did not name the Sax Rohmer thriller that inspired him, in a somewhat backhanded way, to start his own career in fiction, perhaps out of tact, for he undoubtedly thought his were better. But can we make any guess at which title this was?

By 1924, Sax Rohmer was already the author of about a dozen novel-length thrillers and it could of course have been any of these that Williams was reading. It might be thought that it was a Fu-Manchu thriller Williams read, and that in his own novel he simply substituted an African adept for Rohmer’s Chinese master, before developing the idea along his own lines. But as he was reviewing a Fu- Manchu novel when he revealed Rohmer’s inspiration for his own work, surely he might have specifically made that link if it had been one in that series that had started him off.

The two Rohmer thrillers to which Williams’ own books are closest are probably The Orchard of Tears (1918) or Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918), since they both involve his own often-invoked figure of a sinister magician,  and like his have somewhat breathless plots. The second of these is the one that I think likeliest, in the absence of other evidence, to have set Williams thinking that he could do that, since it is the one by Rohmer that has the most intricate occult dimension.

However, perhaps there may be a clue in the chronology. Williams had been working for the Oxford University Press since 1908 and was already a busy man-of-letters, well-informed on topical literature. He had read the Rohmer book in question on the tube, going home in the evening from giving a lecture. 

It is possible, therefore, that what he had was the latest Sax Rohmer, perhaps picked up from a station book-stall. I haven’t found out if it was in the publisher’s Spring or Autumn lists, but the Sax Rohmer book that appeared in 1925 was Yellow Shadows, a Limehouse thriller which also happens to begin on a train, when a beautiful Chinese woman bursts in on the protagonist and begs him for help.

Other than its tumultuous action and ‘exotic’ dimensions, this book is not particularly close to the book Williams went on to write, but then he does say his wasn’t like Rohmer’s. And perhaps Williams, who could have an impish sense of humour, nodded whimsically to the title of the book he read when he in the end named his own book Shadows of Ecstasy.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Fascinating speculations. I've read "Brood of the Witch-Queen" and it is an extremely powerful novel, arguably Rohmer's best, and the occult is central to it.

  2. I remember asking my parents for a couple of Consul's paperback reissues of Fu Manchu novels in 1965. I wanted them because I'd read a review that said Rohmer's work was * of course unreadable to modern audiences*, so naturally I was keen to take a contrary view if possible. Btw, Rohmer is buried next to Lionel Johnson in Kensal Green cemetery.

  3. Thank you for this! Idiotically, I never read that review when I was within walking distance of the Bodleian, nor have yet caught up with Jared Lobdell's excellent-looking book. It is worth noting that Grevel Lindop precedes his quotation from the letter to Olive Willis by saying, "Like Shakespeare in his own recent poem". That poem was published in Windows of Night which Hadfield's 1983 book notes "came out on 8 January 1925" (p. 49). Grevel quotes the whole poem on page 101 (following Carpenter's happy example in The Inklings). In it, Williams refers to Shakespeare having "Sax Rohmer's best novel under his arm" - and, in characteristic playfulness, does not identify which this "best" one is! - but it must be one published before January 1925.

    I think I was the first to quote Willis's letter in print, in my article in Dictionary of Literary Biography 153 (1995), and quoted it again in my talk at Mythcon 32 (which will finally be published, with many another, by the Mythopoeic Press in an upcoming collection).

    It is also worth noting that Joe Christopher published an intriguing article on Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu novels and Williams's first three novels in the Charles Wlliams Society Quarterly No. 137 (which I complemented in a following number).

    To the mysteries of which Williams thought Rohmer's "best novel" and which he was reading in summer 1925 (to which your Yellow Shadows is an attractive suggested solution - if the publication date - also unknown to me! - supports it) is that as to Williams's likely sources for the matter of Shadows of Ecstasy, other than Rider Haggard. Here, it is interesting to note that C.K. Meek's The Northern Tribes of Nigeria was published in two volumes by the Clarendon Press in 1925 and P.A. Talbot's Southern Nigeria in three volumes by the Clarendon Press in 1926 - though the chronology of their publication histories is also unknown to me. I am only - thus belatedly! - beginning to try to look into such possible sources, spurred on especially by the curious Appendix in Frank Hives and Gascoigne Lumley's Ju-Ju and Justice in Nigeria (Allen Lane, 1930).

    David Llewellyn Dodds

    1. Thank you, David, for your very interesting comment. I do recommend the Jared Lobdell book. The reviews are full of CW's wit and also his enjoyable enthusiasm for the crime fiction field - his recommendations are worth pursuing. I think that allusion to Sax Rohmer's best book tends to suggest either the original 'Mystery of Fu Manchu' or 'Brood of the Witch Queen', especially viewed from CW's angle. Mark

    2. Mark, thank you in turn. I always enjoy trying the recommendations of writers I like! And I certainly enjoyed both the first Fu Manchu novel and 'Brood of the Witch Queen' myself (after a very disappointing first Rohmer experience with 'The Quest of the Sacred Slipper'!).

      Something that occurs to me, is to wonder if there is any conscious contribution of, or interplay with, Joseph Conrad's 'The Heart of Darkness' - I can't immediately recall any Williams references to Conrad, but see in the Wade Center online list of Williams manuscripts an essay or lecture notes on Conrad which they date circa 1926, as well as a poem (or two?) entitled 'Conrad'. Conscious connection or not, they make interesting comparative reading, I think.

      David Llewellyn Dodds