CS Lewis and John Betjeman
When I picked up A.N. Wilson’s highly readable C.S. Lewis – A Biography I thought Lewis might get a little rough treatment. That’s because I’d already seen how Wilson dealt with him in his biography of John Betjeman.
It’s true that Lewis and Betjeman couldn’t stand each other, but it wasn’t entirely Lewis’s fault. Lewis, a young man, had become a Tutor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford. Betjeman was one of his first difficult students. To Betjeman Lewis seemed overly serious, unimaginative and hard. To Lewis Betjeman appeared affected, unintelligent and lazy, regularly failing to hand in essays on time. In fact, on one occasion Lewis was pleasantly surprised by Betjeman submitting a decent essay and looked forward to the tutorial. He later wrote in his diary, ‘I soon discovered [the essay] to be a pure fake, for he knew nothing about the work when we began to talk. I wish I could get rid of the idle prig.’[i]
He did eventually, and possibly unnecessarily. Betjeman never forgave him and, in letters written years later, referred to Lewis as ‘my old enemy’.
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898 and died on November 22, 1963. Although bright, he hated school and was moved from place to place until his father finally agreed to have him privately tutored. After gaining a triple first at Oxford he became Tutor of English Literature and Language at Magdalen, Oxford, a position he held for nearly 30 years. Shockingly, he was never made Professor until he was invited by Cambridge University to take the Chair of Medieval English Literature where he served until retirement.
His literary ambition was to be a poet, but he is best known for the Narnia Chronicles a series of children’s books. Through the influence of friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others he moved from atheism to theism and finally to Christianity. He wrote some of the most influential Christian books of the 20th Century and was the central member of an influential literary circle called ‘The Inklings’.
A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis – the best bad biography I’ve read!
It’s a speedy, engaging, infuriating read. Wilson is rightly peeved by attempts to ‘canonize’ Lewis. ‘There are those readers who are so uplifted by the sublimity of Lewis at his best as a writer that they assume that he was himself a sublime being, devoid of blemishes.’ Even though that is an exaggeration one can understand Wilson’s desire to describe the man more realistically. There’s a difference, however, between bringing a man back down to earth and burying him.
After reading Wilson I also read an earlier Lewis biography to get a little balance. Wilson refers to (and draws heavily from) Green and Hooper’s biography from the early 70s. Undeniably less well written, I didn’t, however, find it gushing with hero-worship. Surprised by Joy although frustrating for different reasons, is also essential reading.
Why is ANW’s biography of Lewis ‘bad’?
Where to begin? First of all, it must be said that since writing about Lewis, A.N. Wilson has had a change of heart about Christianity itself, and has moved from atheism to the Christian Faith. This does, in some degree, temper our response to what appears to be one of his aims in the biography: to discredit Christianity itself. This constant sneering disrupted my enjoyment of the book, like an irritating fly.
From the cover endorsements to Wilson’s clunky misunderstanding of ‘A Grief Observed’ (Lewis’s most authentic, mature expression of belief was doubt, supposedly) the reader senses a quiet celebration that this is the book that humiliates Lewis and his faith. With a silent nod and smile, we can breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate Wilson and go back to our skepticism unscathed: Lewis has been put in his place.
My copy is the Harper Perennial 2005 edition (which I understand includes some revisions based on reader’s reactions to the first edition of 1990). Before this, I don’t recall ever seeing the cover of a biography which says more about the biographer than the subject:
‘Wilson’s biography is probably the best imaginable…he is a brilliant biographer.’ Anthony Burgess (front cover).
‘The more biography Wilson writes, the better he gets – this life of CS Lewis is his best yet. It’s a vivacious and compassionate book. Wilson’s range of interests makes him an ideal match for the subject.’ Andrew Motion
‘It seems fitting that AN Wilson should have written the definitive biography of Lewis, and it is a superb job.’ John Bayley
The fact that the cover endorsements are primarily about Wilson’s literary skill, rather than Lewis’s, should be a clue: this is a take-down!
But enough of covers. It’s an odd thing to be forced to ask yourself a series of distracting questions as you move through the book: Does the biographer respect the subject?
Did he understand the nature of religious conversion and its implications? Does he understand the role and limitations of Christian apologetics?
He exposes the jealousies and nastiness of CSL’s peers but is ANW himself entirely free from such nastiness given that he appears to support their criticisms?
Why the persistent schoolboy name-calling, likening CSL to a low-class ‘police court solicitor’ (a disrespectful mocking of CSL’s father’s occupation)? Yet, even schoolboys have an opportunity to respond. Lewis has no ability to respond.
While there may be some debate about the nature of CSL’s relationship to Mrs. Moore in the early days, are we to believe that CS Lewis cherished being both a domestic and sexual masochist? You needn’t be a Freudian scholar to have a few chuckles at some of Wilson’s psychoanalytical observations.
The bigger question is if Wilson is so repelled by Lewis’s Christianity and by Lewis as a personality, then why on earth write a biography of him? May we ask for a proper revision?
What we have here is a gossipy attempt to cut the puffed-up Lewis down. Positively tabloid my good man! It just makes Wilson appear pompous and mean-spirited.
In an attempt at balance, Wilson writes, ‘Insufferably annoying as he may have been in life, there was also something glorious about him.’[ii] Seriously? Glorious?
Lewis’s Reluctant Conversion
It may have struck you as odd that Lewis is usually quoted as describing his conversion negatively. He says that in 1929 he ‘gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’[iii]
But actually, as both ANW and Green/Hooper helpfully point out, this was an intellectual assent to theism, not his decision to follow Jesus Christ which came about two years later. Wilson adds that Lewis, at the time, was emphasizing his unwillingness to accept any high sounding ‘divine call’ which might undermine him.
He still considered himself a ‘prodigal’ looking for any opportunity to escape the inevitable. Green/Hooper write of Lewis’s 1929 experience, ‘This conversion was, however, to theism pure and simple, and not to Christianity. He knew nothing about the incarnation at this stage.’[iv]
Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson
Although in his autobiography Surprised by Joy Lewis only touches on the events surrounding his Christian conversion Green/Hooper describe it in some detail:
‘Lewis was still thinking about myth and resurrection when, on Saturday evening (19 September 1931), he invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dine with him at Magdalen. Probably none of them had any idea what a momentous impact this night’s conversation would have to Lewis…In Lewis’s rooms they talked about Christianity till 3.00am when Tolkien left to go home. After seeing him through the little postern door that opens on to Magdalen Bridge, Lewis and Dyson continued the discussion for another hour, walking up and down the cloister of New Buildings…On Monday, 28 September, Lewis and Warren [his brother] took a picnic lunch to Whipsnade Zoo…But something happened to Lewis on the way to Whipsnade for, as he says in Surprised by Joy: ‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did…It was…like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.’
A few days later (1 October) Lewis wound up a long letter to Arthur Greeves with the news: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ…My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.’[v]
Lewis on ‘Low Church’ and ‘High Church’
Lewis was not a so-called ‘high church’ Anglican. In fact, he was forthright on this point. ‘I’m not…what you call high. To me the real distinction is not high and low, but between religion with a real supernaturalism and Salvationism on the one hand, and all watered down modernist versions on the other.’[vi]
Lewis on Adam as an Historical Figure
On one evening, fellow academic Helen Gardner was dining with Lewis and a number of others at Lewis’s home. Wilson writes:
‘Conversation at the table turned on the interesting question of whom, after death, those present should most look forward to meeting. One person suggested he would like to meet Shakespeare; another said St. Paul.
‘But you, Jack,’ said the friends (or, as Helen Gardner felt, the disciples), ‘who would be your choice?’
‘Oh I have no difficulty in deciding,’ said Lewis. ‘I want to meet Adam.’ He went on to explain why, very much in the terms outlined in A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, where he wrote: ‘Adam was, from the first, a man in knowledge as well as in stature. He alone of all men ‘had been in Eden, in the garden of God.’…He had ‘breathed the aether and was accustomed to converse with God ‘face to face’.
Be that as it may, Adam is not likely, if she has anything to do with it, to converse with Helen Gardner. She ventured to say so. Even, she told Lewis, if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man’, he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.
A stony silence fell on the dinner table. Then Lewis said gruffly, ‘I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.’’[vii]
The inclusion of this incident may be intended to make Lewis appear either misogynistic, self-serving, rude, a fundamentalist or all of the above. The point, though, is that Lewis did consider Adam to be a real historical figure.
C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R Tolkein
There are numerous other small points of interest like this one. Lewis’s resistance to modern poetry alienated him from the emerging generation of poets. His own relative failure as a poet, especially as a narrative poet, even after publishing two books of poetry, was a source of sadness to him. And indeed, for those of us who have actually put in the hours to read every published poem by Lewis, we concur that he wasn’t a success (although there are a few brilliant pieces).
Some may, however, sympathise with him when considering the work of the modernists’ leading light T.S. Eliot. Lewis wrote:
‘For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.’[viii]
Wilson also describes such fascinating moments as when CSL and Tolkien decide they’ve had enough of the popular novels being published and made a commitment to each other that they will write ‘better’ books: ‘I’m afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves!’ What a result!
C.S. Lewis – never Professor of English at Oxford
Is it not strange that Lewis never became a Professor at Oxford?
Wilson gives us the reason:
‘It could be said that Lewis was exiled, in some sense, for his refusal to toe the line. It was not his failure to be a good graduate supervisor which cost him the Oxford chair, it was Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.’[ix]
In 1954, however, Cambridge established a new ‘Chair’ of English and Lewis was invited, and accepted the position: Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. His lectures were sensationally popular.
Towards the end of Wilson’s book, apart from a somewhat rushed feel, there is an attempt to undermine other biographers and historians of Lewis. Hooper is dismissed as unreliable. Wheaton College is snubbed with characteristic upper-class English pomposity: It’s not a real University is it, after all? Once again, we hear the persistent drone undermining Lewis’s Christianity: it’s that pesky fly again.
There is much to enjoy in Wilson’s biography but so much that is disappointing. In a book so littered with uncharitable moments, perhaps Wilson’s final paragraph gives a typical example: ‘Those who knew Lewis in the days of his flesh might suppose that he would chiefly be remembered as a vigorously intelligent university teacher and critic who also wrote some children’s stories.’
So that’s it then! Lewis, phenomenally popular during his own lifetime and an inspiration to thousands of Christian intellectuals, is triumphantly minimised and dismissed: not a Professor, not a best-selling author, just a ‘university teacher who wrote children’s stories’.
It’s time for a better CS Lewis Biography
To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death in 2013, when he was honoured in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, Alister McGrath released a new biography of Lewis. For a review in Christianity Today check here. Readers of that biography may still feel we need something more like Wilson in style and more like Hooper in appreciation. But that’s another story.
© 2013/2019 Lex Loizides / Church History Review
[i] John Betjeman, Letters Volume One (London: Miverva, 1995), p.17
[ii] A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis A Biography (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 252
[iii] ibid, p.110 (from ‘Surprised by Joy’)
[iv] Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis A Biography (Glasgow: Fount/Collins, 1979), p. 103
[v] ibid. p.116
[vi] ANW, p.174
[vii] ibid, p.210
[viii] ibid, p. 263
[ix] ibid, p. 246