C. S. Lewis | Critical Essay by Ann Bonsor

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of C. S. Lewis.
This section contains 2,509 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Ann Bonsor

SOURCE: "'One Huge and Complex Episode': The Diary of C. S. Lewis," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 260, No. 1514, March, 1992, pp. 145-9.

In the following essay, Bonsor discusses Lewis's personal life and relationships as revealed in All My Road Before Me.

'If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary' wrote C. S. Lewis in 1955. This is an interesting and not altogether unexpected statement when one considers Lewis's complicated and secretive personality, and although it is true that the 'huge and complex episode' he refers to in his autobiography Surprised by Joy almost certainly concerns his relationship with Mrs. Moore, one might say the phrase describes as well as any other the extraordinary contradictions and complexities of C. S. Lewis's whole life—itself a huge and complex episode indeed.

C. S. Lewis's Diary for the years 1922–1927 has now been ably and compendiously edited by Walter Hooper and entitled All My Road Before Me. In it we are given information we would certainly not otherwise have had of Lewis's attitudes, prejudices and opinions on a variety of subjects and about a considerable number of people. Above all we discover what at the time almost no one, not even his closest friends were aware of, how those years were, one might say obsessively, concerned with Mrs. Janie Moore, a woman 27 years older than 'Jack' Lewis, who was himself a mere nine years older than Maureen, Mrs. Moore's only daughter. Mrs. Moore was the mother of a close friend and fellow officer of Lewis's who was killed in the First World War. Lewis remained faithful to his promise to look after Mrs. Moore, who had separated from her husband in Ireland. It was Maureen who completed that curious little household which has so puzzled and fascinated Lewis's many biographers, admirers and critics. Some years ago Maureen, now Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs, said to me whilst discussing the impact made upon the young Jack Lewis by the death of his mother when he was only nine years old: 'And that was where my mother came in'.

Referred to as she is in Lewis's Diary as 'D', Mrs. Moore most probably should be regarded primarily as a mother-figure, but what a mother-figure the young intellectually aggressive, yet emotionally naive C. S. Lewis met when he was only 18 years old!

It was Lewis's nature to be critical in the view he took of people, of men, and especially of women. He was intolerant and dismissive of anybody and almost everybody with whom he came in contact. His attitude to and relationship with his own father is ambivalent to say the least; love/hate is the psychological cliché that has been used to describe it; and this even though Albert Lewis seems from Jack's own descriptions of his dealings with his father, to have been generous and conciliatory in his efforts to remain on terms with a son who can only have appeared to him as wayward, secretive and difficult, even if academically brilliant.

How then can we account for the infinite patience, understanding and sympathy that Lewis so consistently demonstrated in almost everything that he wrote between the age of 23 and 28 about Mrs. Janie Moore?

She appears at the best to have been not very intelligent. She seems to have had distinctly hypochondriacal tendencies. She was also a convinced workaholic and a bossy and difficult woman. Mrs. Moore must have been exceedingly awkward to live with—and yet Lewis not only lived with her, but from the age of 23 he supported her, cherished her, and hardly ever did more than evince the mildest exasperation or displeasure at her autocratic treatment of him. (It must be remembered, of course, that the diary was written, partly at least, at her instigation, and that she had access to it. Often the two of them read the latest entries together.)

For us to read C. S. Lewis's Diary from a domestic point of view is to be regaled with a catalogue of his chores. These ranged from scraping turnips to putting up curtains, laying linoleum, going to the shops, mowing the grass, doing endless washing-up, and very, very often indeed, ministering to 'D', suffering from one of her headaches, migraines, fits of indigestion or colds in the head. Through these years and in spite of distractions which included acting as father rather than brother to Maureen, interviewing her music teachers, watching school plays and taking her to concerts, Lewis was also occupied in getting a First in Greats in 1923 and a First in English in 1924. He was as well exceedingly active in various university debating clubs and societies, and immersed in the writing of Dymer—an epic poem of which one reader to whom it was sent remarked: 'The metrical level is good, the vocabulary is large, but Poetry—not a line'. Dymer was, in fact published in 1926, and maybe the best that can be said for it is that very little has ever been said. Lewis is not a poet, hard though he worked to become one; although it is fair to remark that he did write a handful of pleasant and sometimes moving verses—"The Apologist's Evening Prayer" being one that must rank high by any rating:

     From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
     From all the victories that I seemed to score;
     From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
     At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
     From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
     Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
 
     Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
     Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
     From all my thoughts, even my thoughts of Thee,
     O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
     Lord of the narrow gate and needle's eye,
     Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

'Trumpery' is not a word that springs to mind when considering C. S. Lewis: scholar, man-of-letters, Christian-apologist and creator of Narnia and it is interesting to read in his Diary not only of his strong personal antipathies and prejudices but also of his intellectual and literary judgements as these developed during those five to six incredibly formative years between 1922 and 1927.

C. S. Lewis read prodigiously throughout his whole life and in his Diary he records what he is reading and how it strikes him. 'Gusto' is a word that has been used about his attitude to almost everything and it was with gusto that Lewis read omnivorously, dealt with his pupils at Magdalen, and at University College before that, and argued with his colleagues and his friends; 'argued to win' as it has also been remarked; and in groups such as the Martlets, the Coalbitars, and above all in his own creation, the Inklings, argument, discussion and critical evaluation continued as a driving force throughout his life.

C. S. Lewis was combative in his twenties and remained combative in his fifties and sixties. By temperament and by training he relished what, referring to his treatment of pupils in tutorials, Professor John Wain has called 'The Socratic approach in Spades'—and no undergraduate who was taught by Lewis or attended his lectures could possibly have regarded him as other than brusque, scholarly, direct and straight-forward. Of him one might have supposed 'le style, c'est l'homme même', and in many aspects it was; but not in all. For Lewis was secretive to the point of being, in his private life, downright deceitful; and whilst 'economy with the truth' has become in these days a phrase somewhat overworked, Jack Lewis in his Diary and in his life was frequently more (or is it less?) than economic. He often abandoned truth entirely for falsehood.

This is especially the case in his dealings with his father, and it is not surprising that Albert Lewis, and Jack's elder brother, Warnie, worried about the relationship with Mrs. Moore, Albert finding the situation in Oxford, or what he knew of it 'uncomfortable', and Warnie calling it 'freakish'.

I am not sure how much is to be gained by attempting to add to the discussion about Mrs. Moore's and Jack's sexual relationship, if indeed there was one. Probability must be that for some years, at least, it was not for nothing that Maureen was packed off to church on Sunday mornings and was not accompanied by her mother. What is perhaps more interesting than this however, is the sheer dependence revealed by Jack in his need for and total acceptance of a situation which would have been intolerable for most people; a dependence upon Janie Moore that presumably gave him a stability he might not otherwise have known, but for which he paid a heavy price. For some years at least Jack Lewis seems to have needed the emotional support of a woman 27 years older than he. For many more years a more mature C. S. Lewis had the still greater responsibility of a domineering and demanding woman who depended in her physical and mental decrepitude upon him. He did indeed look after her stoically and constantly until she died at the age of 78, and it may or may not be relevant that for approximately 25 of their 31-year relationship Lewis was a Christian. No one who reads his Diary or has read Surprised by Joy need be surprised if his conversion in 1929 brought about certain changes of attitude and behaviour to many aspects of C. S. Lewis's life, changes which Janie Moore herself may not have appreciated.

The diarist in Lewis has long been supplanted and the poet and perhaps mystic has found his place. In the latest of his many services to Lewis scholarship, Walter Hooper has shown us the daily life and frustrations of the young Lewis who would develop into one of the great Christian writers of our time.

If C. S. Lewis did change in certain fundamentals as his life progressed many of his earlier interests and pleasures never altered. As we discover in the Diary he always loved walking, and walked considerable distances most days, whether during term or vacation, and whether in and around Oxford or further afield. He had a deep feeling for nature and a sense of natural beauty, though this, one gathers, did not result in later years in his acquiring much of an aesthetic appreciation indoors or at home. He had, when young, to be careful with money. As he grew older he continued to be just as careful. It was reported many years later that when paper began to peel from the walls at 'The Kilns', his house in Headington, the offending strips were torn off but not replaced! Parsimony ruled, according to, amongst others, the late Fred Paxford, the gardener and handyman who worked for Lewis from the early 1930s until the latters death in 1963. To offset this miserliness it must be added that Lewis was immensely generous with the royalties from his books, and contributed lavishly to charities of many sorts.

'The things I assert most vigourously are those that I resisted long and accepted late.' C. S. Lewis made this revealing comment about himself in Surprised by Joy, and it is interesting, as we study the older Lewis in relation to the younger man who wrote the Diary, to see just how true that statement is. It is certain that Lewis did nothing by halves. He lived with intensity; he worked with a single-minded concentration, he admired whole-heartedly and disliked with ferocity. Of those aspects of life for which he had no time he was ruthlessly dismissive. In his later years he read no newspapers, listened to no radio, had probably not heard of television. If there was to be a war someone he was sure would tell him about it! How can we admire, and perhaps we do not, such insulated self-sufficiency?

Joy Gresham, nee Davidman, certainly did, and her entry into Lewis's life and to The Kilns during the early 1950s was catalystic, if not, from some points of view, catastrophic. The story of her relationship with Jack has in it something of legend and perhaps something of farce and has been much speculated about and sometimes over-romanticized (e.g. Bill Nicholson's play Shadowlands). Not many of those who were allowed to meet Joy seem to have liked her; some of Lewis's closest friends scarcely knew of her existence until the two of them had married. Once again Lewis had more or less secretly acquired dependants, a wife and two stepsons—and once again Warnie, the loyal and devoted but alcoholic brother was forced into third place in a house which he had hitherto shared with Jack.

History throughout C. S. Lewis's life, if not repeating itself, does seem to achieve a certain regularity of pattern, and this pattern starts to emerge during his earliest years at Oxford. That his relationship with Mrs. Moore gave him stability we cannot doubt, and that his marriage to Joy Davidman was a source of enrichment and fulfilment is also not in question. The courage with which Joy herself, and Jack, faced and endured her long and dreadful illness, and the fortitude Lewis managed to acquire after Joy's death and also during his own painful and protracted physical decline,—all this impresses and indeed moves us.

How then are we to sum up this remarkable man's remarkable life and his no less remarkable literary achievement? C. S. Lewis it must be emphasized has been a force to be reckoned with since The Allegory of Love was published in 1936, the Preface to Paradise Lost in 1941 and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century in 1954, as well as the countless other essays, articles and reviews on an immensely wide range of subjects.

Outside academic circles I suppose Lewis is better known for his popular and religious writings such as The Screwtape Letters, and for his Christian-orientated science-fiction novels, Perelandra and the others. For more people still it will be the Narnia books beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that have helped to make him not only famous but also a cult-figure in the USA. One could add to this list and mention later and specifically religious works such as Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, The Four Loves, and A Grief Observed amongst many others, but there is no need. The point that has to be stressed is that C. S. Lewis, against a background of more or less complicated domestic circumstances, remained constant throughout his life to his quest for Joy—a spiritual Joy that he mentions frequently in his early Diary, that he defines in Surprised by Joy and many of his other writings, and that was for him 'the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing'. Joy in the sense of mystery, of splendour and of glory,—a Christian Joy, after C. S. Lewis's conversion, which he described as 'brightness, splendour, luminosity', when he told his listeners, in an address given in The University Church in Oxford as early as 1941: 'We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star.'

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This section contains 2,509 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Ann Bonsor
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