Gilbert Meilaender teaches theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 16-23, 1990, pp. 525-529, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
One of the most striking qualities in all of C.S. Lewis’s writing is that he makes his readers want to read what he has read. Moreover, with respect not only to literary criticism but to all his writing — Lewis’s conversion to Christianity released in him a literary flow which only ceased with death.
It was, I believe, Dr. Johnson who told an author that his work was both good and original — but that, alas, what was good was not original and what was original was not good. Something like that is my own evaluation of A. N. Wilson’s biography of C. S. Lewis. Wilson does not tell us much that is new about Lewis’s life, though he packages what is already known into a lively and readable biography. What is to some degree original is the broadly psychoanalytic narrative thread Wilson uses to unify Lewis’s life.
The first biography about Lewis, also titled C. S. Lewis: A Biography, was. written by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper in 1974 (about a decade after Lewis’s death) Green had been a close friend of Lewis, and Hooper has edited and overseen the posthumous publication of many of Lewis’s essays and letters. But the Green-Hooper biography is not too lively and does not really advance its readers much beyond what Lewis himself had written in his autobiographical works. In 1986 William Griffin published Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life. Griffin deliberately eschews the typical biographer’s task: making sense of the unity of a life. Instead, he provides a chronicle of events, for the most part quoting from letters, books and diaries. His over 500-page work is, in a sense, the precise opposite of Wilson’s: heavy on information, but with almost no interpretive schema. Certainly the best Lewis biography prior to Wilson’s — and quite possibly the best still — is Jack:C. S. Lewis and His Times (1988) , written by Lewis’s pupil and friend George Sayer. Sayer’s biography has more detail than Wilson’s, disagrees with Wilson on some points, is not as readable or as witty and does not attempt to probe Lewis’s psyche in the way Wilson does.
Wilson’s biography presents an overall interpretation of Lewis’s life and offers critical judgments on Lewis’s writings. Some of those judgments are puzzling. For example, of The Great Divorce — which has powerful moments but has always seemed to me rather wooden — Wilson says: “[It] shows Lewis at his very best; it is something approaching a masterpiece.” Reflections on the Psalms is characterized as “notably the scrappiest of all his books” — a judgment I have pondered several times but remain unable to fathom. By far the most peculiar of his critical judgments, however, is the one that is absent. In a book replete with evaluations and magisterial judgments tossed in as throw-away lines, Till We Have Faces — arguably the most powerful piece of fiction written by Lewis — is mentioned only twice. Wilson offers no extended comment on the book, even though one of the themes in Faces is related to his narrative thread: namely, the difficulty of coming to know ourselves as we are and the pain such knowledge involves. Indeed, in one of the best books about Lewis, Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis, Peter Schakel has offered an interpretation of Faces which Wilson might have used in partial support of his own thesis. Since he offers at least a few paragraphs, and often a few pages, discussing almost every other Lewis book, the Faces omission is genuinely startling. One wonders if this could simply be an oversight; there are some indications that Wilson’s biography was hastily written.
Wilson likes best Lewis’s literary criticism. “For me,” he writes, “the most attractive Lewis is the author of English Literature ‘in the Sixteenth Century, a fluent, highly intelligent man talking about books in a manner which is always engaging.” Indeed, Wilson’s praise of Lewis’s literary-critical writings is so lavish one wonders whether he play not have overdone it. But along with the praise, Wilson offers insights about the reasons these books are powerful: Lewis’s generosity toward the authors he discusses, the way he finds passages that make them seem interesting; his sense of “wonder and enjoyment” in all he reads; his willingness to take up the great themes that engaged his authors, to put to work in criticism his “creative intelligence.” And especially the fact that “the distinction between ‘learned’ and ‘popular’ is one which seems in reading Lewis to be quite false. And one feels this even when he is at his most learned.” On several occasions Wilson puts his finger on what is surely one of the most striking qualities in all of Lewis’s writing: he makes his readers want to read what he has read. Moreover, Wilson sees that — with respect not only to literary criticism but to all his writing — Lewis’s conversion to Christianity “released in him a literary flow which only ceased with death.”
Wilson’s biography also highlights certain events as crucial in Lewis’s personal and literary development, chiefly the death of his mother (when Lewis was nine) and his alienation from his father. Calling the death of Lewis’s mother “the catastrophe of his life,” Wilson writes that “in terms of his emotional life, the quest for his lost mother dominated his relations with women. His companion for over thirty years was a woman old enough to be his mother; and when she died it was not long before, like a Pavlovian dog trained to lacerate his heart with the same emotional experiences, he, married a woman whose circumstances were exactly parallel to those of his own mother in 1908 — a woman dying of cancer who had two small sons.”
According to Wilson, Lewis and his older brother Warren were driven by a lifelong desire to return to the days of their youth when as young playmates, before the death of their mother, they could give themselves over to the imaginative life of reading and writing that they dearly loved. In the Narnia stories, Wilson thinks, Lewis yielded to this emotional need. Yet Wilson is guilty of some over-interpretation here, as, for example, when he writes: “We hardly need to dwell on the psychological significance of the Wardrobe in the first story; we do not need, though some will be tempted to do so, to see in this tale of a world which is reached by a dark hole surrounded by fur coats an unconscious image of the passage through which Lewis first entered the world from his mother’s body.” Still, the death of his mother must have meant emotional upheaval which may well have marked his entire life. And Wilson quite effectively suggests the way in which the last of the Narnia stories — with its reunion of parents and children in Aslan’s world — shows Lewis coming to terms with his past. (Wilson might with equal effectiveness have noted the story of Digory and his mother in The Magician’s Nephew.) In his children’s stories — though also in Till We Have Faces and The Four Loves — Lewis does come to terms with the pain of emotional attachment and loss.
Moreover, whatever we make of Wilson’s discussion of the well-known facts, Lewis’s relation with the two women who (after his mother) played important roles in his personal life was, by ordinary standards, quite unusual. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes that he is omitting one “huge and complex episode.” “All I can or need say is that my earlier hostility to the emotions was very fully and variously avenged.” This is, it seems, Lewis’s reference to his relation with Janie Moore, the 45-year-old mother of Paddy Moore, the cadet with whom Lewis shared a room when he took his military training in World War I. She befriended Lewis in the weeks before he was sent to France, at a time when his alienation from his father, who did not come to see him before his departure for the front lines, was very great. More important still; she came to London to be near Lewis when he was in a hospital recovering from wounds (and while she was waiting for news of her own son, who died in the war) “The experience of being mothered, for the first time in his life since he was nine years old, was having a profound effect on Jack,” Wilson writes.
Moore was married, though separated from her husband — and would remain in that state throughout the years she lived with Lewis. An interesting, albeit unanswerable, question has been the precise nature of their relationship. In later years, when they shared a home, they referred to each other as adopted mother and son. Sayer doubts that they were lovers. Hooper concurs and even holds — contrary, I think, to the best evidence — that Lewis’s later marriage was never consummated. Wilson is quite confident that Lewis and Moore were lovers and suggests that “the burden of proof is on those who believe that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were not lovers — probably from the summer of 1918 onwards.” Less persuasive, to me at least, is the claim that this probably continued until 1931, the year in which Lewis converted to Christianity (and would now think a relation with a married woman to be wrong) Wilson’s way of making this point is, however, an instance of a very undesirable trait in his writing: the tendency to assert indirectly and to be glib while seeming to eschew it: “It would be far too glib to suggest that he consciously made the second change, to adopt Christianity, merely to give himself an excuse to abandon sexual relations with Mrs. Moore, whatever the nature of those relations had been.”
Late in his life, a few years after Moore’s death, Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American who, while still married, went to England with the intention of meeting Lewis. She later returned again to England with her two sons and eventually divorced her husband. Lewis married her first in a purely civil ceremony in 1956 — an act of kindness, he said, since the British Home Office was refusing her a permit to remain there. In the fall of 1956 Joy learned that she had cancer and only a short time to live. With some difficulty Lewis found an Anglican priest who would solemnize an ecclesiastical marriage between himself and a divorced woman. Shortly thereafter, Gresham ‘s cancer went into remission and she and Lewis enjoyed three deeply satisfying years of marriage until the cancer returned and took her life.
The bare bones of such a story do not capture the searing intensity that Lewis recorded in A Grief Observed , the short diary-like jottings that he wrote and published after Gresham’s death. Wilson’s prose captures both the strangeness and the poignancy of the marriage, but there are aspects of his discussion about which a reader should be warned. He suggests that Lewis and Gresham engaged in sexual relations prior to marriage (whether civil or ecclesiastical) and before she was divorced from her first husband. This is evidently part of Wilson’s effort to recapture Lewis from those who would turn him into a “plaster saint.” “According to an oral memory of Joy’s son Douglas [who would have been eight years old at the time], transcribed in the Marion E. Wade collection at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two of them were already lovers in 1955. Douglas on one occasion came into his mother’s bedroom at 10 High Street and found it occupied by Jack and Joy in a compromising position.” Readers should be aware that Lyle Dorsett curator of the Wade Collection and the person who videotaped the approximately seven-and-a-half hour oral history interview with Douglas, has said that the comment to which Wilson is evidently alluding here actually refers to a time after their (ecclesiastical) marriage, when Gresham had come to live in Lewis’s home. Dorsett has also noted that Wilson made only one visit of less than three hours to the Wade Center.
Wilson emphasizes the importance of both women for understanding Lewis; unfortunately he is facile in discussing these two relationships. When he describes Lewis as having had “two liaisons with married women,” the reader will certainly presume that “liaison” means “illicit sexual relationship.” Yet the only evidence Wilson even offers in the case of Gresham is his disputed claim about her son’s interview. In the case of Moore, where the circumstantial evidence is much stronger and to me relatively persuasive, Wilson himself writes: “Nobody would ever quite know, truly know, what he had shared with [Moore] in those early days.” And in another context, asserting that it would be surprising if the relationship had been asexual, he also writes that “no evidence is forthcoming either way.”
The story of Lewis’s relationships with these two women is one very important element in Wilson’s interpretation of his life: having lost his mother as a young boy, Lewis spent his life searching for a substitute. The second time around, after Moore’s death, Lewis found himself at a point where he could finally unwind and open up emotionally. He “found a woman with whom he felt able to be completely open about himself’ — and this not long after the Narnia stories, in which Lewis finally made his peace with the loss of his mother and his alienation from his father. But there is another thread in Wilson’s interpretation — namely, the debate with Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948 at the Socratic Club in Oxford. Lewis was the president of that society from its founding in 1941 until he went to Cambridge in 1954. (It is worth noting that he continued to participate after the Anscombe debate.) In this context Lewis was known as a sturdy and polemical defender of the faith. The dispute with Anscombe centered on Lewis’s argument against naturalism in Miracles. I doubt that most readers of Wilson’s pages are likely to get a very clear idea of what the dispute was. Indeed, they are likely to conclude that we hardly need a philosopher of Anscombe’s status to disprove Lewis; for Wilson writes that “any dispassionate reader can at once see many flaws in Lewis’s arguments here.” Lewis had argued that the deliverances of reason could not be trusted if they were ultimately produced by something less than rational. Anscombe had responded that, however our rational nature came into existence, reasoned argument might be valid even if our reason was the product of nonrational causes.
The debate was a fierce one and many, including Lewis, felt that Anscombe had the better of it. This confrontation, writes Wilson, “had a profound effect on his career as a writer. It was the greatest single factor which drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children’s stories.” This may be difficult to reconcile with Wilson’s statement that Lewis had already begun trying to write the first of the Narnia stories in 1939, but, in any case, he regards its psychological impact as crucial. The encounter “awakened all sorts of deeply seated fears in Lewis, not least his fear of women. . . . [H]e became a child, a little boy who was being degraded and shaken by a figure who, in his imagination, took on witch-like dimensions.” As a result, Wilson concludes, “Lewis never attempted to write another work of Christian apologetics after Miracles.” He came to feel that the “method and manner” of his apologetic works were “spurious,” and he turned to “make-believe” as “another way of talking about the reality of things.”
It is, to begin with, not fully accurate to say that Lewis wrote no more Christian apologetics after Miracles. The Four Loves — with its argument that the natural loves cannot flourish if isolated from supernatural love — is, among other things, an apologetic work. Looked at from a different perspective, Miracles is by no means simply a piece of apologetics. The second half of the book is as deeply infused with Lewis’s imaginative power as almost anything he ever wrote. And Wilson’s theory will have considerable difficulty explaining the fact that when, as late as 1960, Fontana Books published a new edition of Miracles, it included a revised version of the crucial third chapter to which Anscombe had objected. Lewis does not seem to have given up on the argument. We do not, in fact, need Wilson’s theory about the effects of the Anscombe debate in order to explain the shifts in Lewis’s writing. Wilson sees that the children’s stories might have emerged from Lewis’s imagination without the supposed impetus of philosophical disillusion. And the kind of philosophy that was coming to prominence — logical positivism and then ordinary language analysis — was bound to seem less engaging to one with Lewis’s long-standing metaphysical interests.
Thus, what is original in Wilson’s biography — the exploration of Lewis’s psyche in search of a unified understanding of the man and the location of that center in his relationships with women — can’t carry the interpretive load Wilson places upon it. The threads form an informative and witty narrative, but the facts do not fully persuade.
In 1955 Lewis published Surprised by Joy, omitting, as mentioned above, any discussion of his relationship with Moore. Even were he free to speak of it, he wrote, he doubts that “it has much to do with the subject of this book.” Likewise he passes over his father’s death with the comment that it “does not really come into the story I am telling.” At several points Wilson flags these omissions as indications of Lewis’s repressed emotional life. Wilson describes the claim that his father’s death does not come into the story as a “preposterous assertion,” and he may be right. Yet Wilson’s story line does not account for Lewis’s reticence in 1955. Wilson claims that the great emotional reawakening had already occurred after Moore’s death when the Narnia stories were written. “The children’s books . . . were a sort of sluicing of the system which . . . represented a conversion every bit as deep as the conversion to a belief in the supernatural and the divinity of Jesus Christ which occurred in 1929-1931.” These years (when the Narnia stories were written) are years in which, according to Wilson, “the self-disclosure in what he wrote became still more marked and more relaxed.” Yet they are also the years in which Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy — over which Wilson pauses on several occasions to emphasize its reticence about the self. The longer one ponders Wilson’s narrative the more difficult it becomes to grasp its logic.
Two other features of this biography deserve some mention, since they are, for me at least, troubling. One is a matter of tone. I have already said several times that Wilson’s writing is lively, readable, witty and enjoyable. It is also snide and condescending. Very few people are mentioned without that tone of voice creeping through. Hooper is “one of nature’s devotees.” Green is “a rich man who had cultivated Lewis ever since he had heard his lectures before the war.” J. B. Phillips thought that Lewis’s spirit had twice appeared to him after Lewis’s death. “It would be churlish to point out that in a subsequent volume of autobiography Canon Phillips explained to his readers the nature of these ‘difficult circumstances’ through which he was passing: depressions and nervous breakdowns so severe as to constitute periodic bouts of lunacy; churlish because irrelevant. However we explain the experience, it was an experience.” Now this is all rather funny, and I admit to smiling. But I ought not. By remaining aloof from such claims, Wilson teaches us to take them less seriously. One would take Phillips far more seriously — or take Hooper ‘s reported mystical experience during an audience with the pope more seriously — if Wilson vigorously questioned them. Letter XI of The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape distinguishes between the “Joke Proper” and “Flippancy,” is relevant here: “Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. . . . It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”
Similarly, Wilson very quickly dismisses the questions raised recently by Kathryn Lindskoog in The C. S. Lewis Hoax, asserting incorrectly that her central thesis “has been disproved.” In brief, Lindskoog argues that Hooper systematically misrepresented his relationship with Lewis, making it appear much closer than it could possibly have been, and she claims that “The Dark Tower” (a posthumously published fragment of a story) is a forgery not actually written by Lewis. There are other elements in Lindskoog’s web of arguments, some more persuasive than others, some eccentric. But there is nothing there to warrant Wilson’s description of it as “one of the most vitriolic personal attacks on a fellow-scholar . . . that I have ever read in print” — especially not for a man as widely read as Wilson. Moreover, he clearly accepts several of Lindskoog’s claims: that Hooper could only have known Lewis for a few weeks before Lewis’s death and that he has changed his handwriting over the years so that it closely resembles Lewis’s own.
More disturbing than Wilson’s tone is his attitude toward religion, chiefly in asides which seem to need no argument. Wilson observes that it is not the “rational Lewis” who has continuing appeal; rather, “it is the Lewis who plumbed the irrational depths of childhood and religion who speaks to the present generation.” But why should religion (or, for that matter, childhood) be irrational at its depths? Wilson’s assumption, so glibly stated, almost steals by us. Again: Over their Christmas vacation in 1910 the Lewis brothers went to see Peter Pan. According to Warren Lewis, it was a momentous experience for them, and Wilson therefore finds it surprising that the experience is not mentioned in Surprised by Joy. He terms it “one of the Grand Conspicuous Omissions” in that book; “For there was no children’s story more apposite to his life than that of the little boy who could not grow up, and who had to win his immortality by an assertion of metaphysical improbabilities.” Speaking of what he regards as ‘unedifying” disputes among the several camps of Lewis scholarship, Wilson writes that it shows us “in microcosm something which is perhaps symptomatic of the religious temperament as a whole, the need to erect images and worship them.” As a theory of religion this can use a little work, and one wonders why it is only the religious temperament that displays this touching need.
Near the end of his book Wilson mentions the eight-foot-high stained-glass window of Lewis in an Episcopal Church in California. It might, he notes, seem to be the “ultimate idolatry”; yet, he says, the matter is more complex. “Many perfectly sane religious believers have received insight and help from Lewis’s writings, and it seems a natural progression from here to commemorate him in a window. . . . If people have found it so, it is so.” Now my own taste in stained-glass windows runs more to triangles, circles and lambs carrying banners. Nonetheless, like Wilson I can think of some good reasons for a Lewis window. But the way Wilson rests the matter — “If people have found it so, it is so” — again fails to take the issue seriously. Wilson’s manner does not take us much further than the words of the song in The Music Man: “How can there be any sin in sincere?” No sin, Wilson seems to be saying with a wink — but plenty of occasion for gently mocking laughter. Screwtape would, I fear have approved.