C.H. Sisson

  • C.S.Lewis: A Biography by A.N. Wilson
    Collins, 334 pp, £15.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 00 215137 5

Lewis was born in 1898, the son of a Belfast solicitor. He was educated first at home, then in England at a preparatory school, at Malvern (for one term only), and by a private tutor. So to Oxford. It was 1917. Lewis had volunteered, and he was in effect an officer cadet, soon in ‘barracks’ at Keble. He returned to Oxford after a brief spell on the Western front, where he was wounded, and at Oxford he stayed until 1954 when he was appointed to a chair in Cambridge. He seems hardly to have set foot on the European mainland, after his wartime excursion, and indeed to have seen remarkably little of England. He died in 1963.

The story A.N. Wilson has to tell is more complicated than that. Empson thought Lewis ‘the best read man of his generation, one who had read everything and remembered everything he read’. He was indeed a man of words, reading, writing and arguing incessantly, when circumstances permitted. His pre-university tutor thought he should consider the Bar as a career: ‘He has every gift, a goodly presence, a clear resonant voice, an unfailing resource of clear and adequate expression.’ Lewis, on the other hand, saw himself, then and for some years afterwards, as ‘a poet, first and foremost’, and this view was confirmed by no less person than William Heinemann himself, who assured him, as he took the MS of Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics (1919): ‘Of course, Mr Lewis, we never accept poetry unless it is good.’ Lewis had the delicacy to publish the poems under a pseudonym. Before he returned to Oxford after the war, he had already decided on an academic career. He took a first in Mods, a first in Greats, and the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize. He was now to be a philosopher, but stayed for an extra year and took a first in English Literature. His first job was as a temporary lecturer in philosophy in his old college, Univ.; then, in 1925, he was elected to a fellowship in English at Magdalen. He was still ‘preparing for Lewis the great Romantic poet to burst upon the world’, but discreetly did not want his gifts in that direction to be known in Magdalen and published his second volume of verse, in 1926, under the same pseudonym as the first.

The way he found to greatness turned out to be something quite different, where the fluency which might have served him as a barrister had more success. He was to be ‘a phenomenon who had a life of his own in the minds of the reading public’: ‘C.S. Lewis the popular Christian apologist, who was reaching so many readers in Europe and the United States’. Best-sellers prove more about the state of their vast readerships than about themselves. ‘There has been a great deal of soft soap about God for the last hundred years,’ says Wilson. But has not the soap grown softer still as time has gone on, and have not Lewis’s writings, by their very fluency, had a part in the deteriorations of the last half-century? ‘To those closest to him Lewis did not seem ever to have been a very convincing apologist,’ Wilson writes; his ‘American admirers’ – his ‘mail-bag’ was ‘huge’ – thought otherwise. Claims that X or Y are Christian writers are always more or less absurd. Hopkins said, ‘Christ is your only literary critic,’ and it may be added that He does not run a book club. But Lewis certainly achieved the distinction of being represented, on an upper floor of Wheaton College, Illinois – Billy Graham’s old college – in the collection of memorabilia of such Christian writers as George MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams and Tolkien. It is evidence of some sort of fame. A.N. Wilson sees ‘unmistakable and remarkable evidence of something like sanctification which occurred in him towards the end of his days’, but that I do not pretend to be able to judge.

Wilson himself is anxious that we should not ‘canonise’ Lewis ‘as a plaster saint’, and this biography should certainly reduce that risk, for any reader who might be subject to it. On the other hand, I find baffling the biographer’s insistence that Lewis was ‘a Romantic egoist in the tradition of Wordsworth and Yeats’. I did not know that there was such a tradition, though I daresay it exists in some critical school somewhere; and I find it difficult to grasp what the three writers are supposed to have in common. Egoism they certainly all had – as we all have in greater or less degree – and Yeats and Lewis might both be said to be hoaxers, in different styles, but that is hardly an accurate classification for Wordsworth, much the most serious character of the three as well as incomparably the most important writer. Lewis is surely rather to be seen as belonging with Dorothy Sayers, or at best with Charles Williams and Tolkien, all of whom figure in this book. A biography such as this, however, is not really an occasion for conclusive judgments about the author’s literary status, but for exploring how a very odd – and able – Ulsterman fared in Oxford, a place not without its own oddities.

Wilson is determined that this shall be no mere tale of outward dealings. From the first page of the Preface we take one of those plunges into childhood which have been de rigueur with biographers since Freud, no doubt because, however shaky the scientific basis of that guru’s pronouncements may be, they promise excitements which have a wide appeal, sometimes to the exclusion of more objective realities. Wilson can hardly be faulted on that account, for we are not spared information about Oxford customs and wrangles, and the subject of his biography is shown to be one who somehow failed to make many of the adjustments which are the ordinary concomitants of growing up. Apart from the implications of Lewis having discovered Narnia in a wardrobe where he played with his brother at home in Belfast, it is difficult not to make much, as Wilson does, of the connection between the course of Lewis’s life and the plain fact of the death of his mother when he was nine years old. Naturally the happiness he enjoyed, with his mother, in those early years, takes us into an obscure and rather vague territory, but it seems to have been real enough, while the evidence of his long-continued hatred of his father is indubitably historical and abundant. It remains astonishing that, at the age of 20, when he returned to Oxford after the war, as an undergraduate, he was accompanied by a lady of 45 from whom he was not to be parted until her death more than thirty years later.

This liaison has been variously interpreted, but there is no doubt – and Wilson has none – that what began as the finding of a substitute mother was soon complicated by what is normally quite a different relationship, and that this large ex-combatant did not feel the need for any of the developments which ordinarily turn an adolescent’s attention towards his contemporaries of the opposite sex. Mrs Moore was the mother of a fellow cadet, and the two boys, before going to France, agreed that Clive – who never used his own Christian name but was known as ‘Jack’ – would ‘look after’ her should her son be killed. Her son was killed, and it is possible, even likely, that Jack’s relationship with her would have developed differently had he lived, though the emotional aberration – if it is allowed to call it that – seems already to have been established, in its main lines, before the news of Paddy Moore’s death came through. Before Jack had undergone – in Oxford – ‘his only piece of practical training for trench warfare’, ‘he had reached the point where he could not bear to see his father à deux,’ and Mrs Moore, who was separated from her husband, thought then to be ‘somewhere in Ireland’, was letting it be known that the man was a monster: she referred to him as ‘The Beast’. ‘Jack was given to understand that he had treated her badly and failed to give her enough money. The Lewis family knew nothing of this and assumed that Mrs Moore was a widow.’ Jack of course knew about ‘beasts’, for his own respectable father was one, according to him, though it must have been of a different kind.

Wilson gives all the details of Janie Moore’s domestic arrangements in Oxford, from Jack’s first undergraduate days when she was in lodgings, already partly dependent on him, to the various states of joint domesticity during the years when the two lived together at the Kilns. The common feature, so far as Jack was concerned, was that he attended to Janie’s wants and needs daily, and satisfied his own more obscure needs, whether as undergraduate or don, in a state of semi-detachment from college and university. There he blustered and talked big; in his own retreat, with his mother-and-mistress-in-one, with whom his relationship was for some years embarassed by the presence of Mrs Moore’s daughter, who had sometimes to be sent out so that they could be on their own. In his domestic role he was submissive beyond the wont of husbands, and never failed to respond to the frequent and peremptory calls from the kitchen, whatever academic or other work he may have had in hand.

This might have been a preparation for saintliness, but he was not there till long afterwards – not, indeed, until after the death of Janie, and indeed after the death of his second de facto, and first legal, wife. The latter was an American, with whom he had been in transatlantic correspondence – he in the role of the famous Christian apologist – for some years. Mrs Gresham, herself a poet, was, like Janie, rescued from an unsatisfactory husband. He was 54, and she 37, when they met, and with her, too, he lived till she died, which was in 1960. Lewis approached Christianity in stages. When he was confirmed, as a boy, he was – perhaps not surprisingly in one naturally argumentative – an atheist. His first conversion, in 1929, ‘as befitted a man who had sung the pleasures of the ordinary ... occurred on a bus going up Headington Hill, on his way back to Mrs Moore’s house’. It was, Wilson says, not a conversion to Christianity, but ‘a recognition that God was God.’ It was in the early Thirties that he ‘came to an acceptance’ of ‘ “mere Christianity” ’. The story of this phase seems not to have been frankly told in Surprised by Joy, in which he elected to ‘draw a veil over the two greatest facts in his emotional history: his relationships with his father and Mrs Moore’. ‘Probably,’ Wilson speculates, ‘his way of looking at himself had become so idiosyncratic that he was not able to see the significance of these two relationships in his religious, as well as his whole emotional, development.’ The third stage – ‘the second, or more radical phase of conversion, twenty or more years after the first’ – appears to have been in some sense deeper. ‘His intimates,’ Wilson tells us, ‘were the last people to know what was going on inside Lewis ... It was this inability to be personal – to be, in one sense, natural – which led so many of Lewis’s friends to be surprised by sides of Lewis which emerged in his work.’ The outward events of his life, after this third stage, seem to bear out Wilson’s judgment that he was ‘in a tremendous muddle’.

Lewis was unpopular ‘in the English Faculty in Oxford, and indeed in the University at large’. ‘He disliked his colleagues at Magdalen.’ ‘Even colleagues who were Christians ... noticed that his variety of Christianity did not extend to meekness, or even necessarily to politeness.’ A notable debate took place in 1948 in the Socratic Club, when Elizabeth Anscombe – represented by Wilson as being as tough and unscrupulous in argument as Lewis himself – ‘thoroughly trounced’ him in argument, and showed up his inadequacy as a philosopher. This occasion seems to have had an extravagant effect on Lewis, arousing ‘not least’, according to Wilson, ‘his fear of women’. ‘Once the bullying hero of the hour had been cut down to size, he became a child, a little boy who was being degraded and shaken by a figure who, in his imagination, took on witch-like dimensions.’ Lewis, who is said to have preferred boys’ books in the second half of his life, became a real – if perhaps somewhat unwholesome – success as a children’s writer with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ‘being stung back into childhood’, Wilson plausibly informs us, by his defeat at the Socratic Club.

It is difficult to know what to make of Lewis, whom Lord David Cecil declared to be ‘a great man’, yet who seems to have had only a minimal self-knowledge and who had a capacity for getting things ‘plumb wrong’ in human relationships. It was certainly a man of unusual talent who produced some sixty books, including English Literature in the 16th Century, excluding Drama, the famous books of theologically-uninformed apologetics, and a series of best-selling children’s books. Yet the impression one gets, from this biography, is that the man was a shambles. Wilson asserts that there was nothing ‘ “donnish” about Lewis’s intelligence. In all his talk, and in his writings, he addressed the sympathetic, lively-minded “general reader” or “average man”.’ There is something in this, but it is impossible to resist the conclusion that his success did not come from any gift for rapport with ordinary people, or from any unusual penetration of mind or ability to simplify complicated matters, but rather from a superficiality with which his readers felt quickly at home.