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C. S. Lewis: A Biography
by A. N. Wilson
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
334 pages, $22.50 (hardcover)
reviewed by Wayne Martindale
I confess. I was convinced I wouldn’t like Wilson’s book before I ever read it.
His preface appeared in the New York Times Book Review. In it, he accused various persons or camps in Lewis studies of creating portraits of Lewis after their own image. Wheaton College and the Wade Center (which is acknowledged to be the best collection of Lewis material in the world) were caricatured as places far removed from the real world, hence with an unreal view of Lewis. The Wade Center, Wilson suggests, is a shrine for the hero worship of a plaster-sainted Lewis, not a place which fosters serious scholarship. The implication in all this debunking is clear: Wilson will explode all of the rival myths and give us the real Lewis, which everyone else seems to have missed. In addition, before I got to the book itself, I read several reviews, some with enough ammunition to explode some of Wilson’s claims as a scholar and biographer—he has published about a dozen books, including an award-winning biography of Tolstoy.
To my surprise, almost dismay, I liked the book. It has considerable faults, to be sure, and more on that later. But first I want to give Wilson his due. He (at least in part) won me over. How? First, he did what Samuel Johnson says all good writers must do: write in such a way that the reader wants to read to the end. Like Lewis himself, Wilson is a skilled storyteller. He blends suspense and engaging characterization around centers of conflict, all with interesting detail and a readable style. Even here, the transitions are sometimes poor and the vocabulary occasionally pretentious, but it held me.
Second, his interpretation of Lewis as a character builds around a clearly articulated center. Despite the irony in Lewis’s hatred of Freudian criticism, Wilson’s portrait of Lewis as a man searching for the love and support of the mother who died when he was nine and of a man unwittingly taking on the “police court” style of his solicitor father, often has the ring of truth.
Third, the book maintains, along with its persistent psychological focus, a central interest in relationships. Wilson shows us Lewis in company, making his way through a world of real people, interesting people. The portraits of Tolkien and the literate friends of the Lewis circle known as the Inklings are especially engaging.
Fourth, Wilson brings to the task a wonderful knowledge of England, Oxford, and literature. There is no substitute for insider’s knowledge, especially in the highly stratified society of mid-century England and the unique subculture of Oxford University. Wilson is especially good in his assessment of Lewis’s contribution to the field of literary criticism as with Lewis’s volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, his Preface to Paradise Lost, and others—Lewis has ten titles in this genre. Lewis’s vast range of reading, his gift for clarity and capturing the reader’s interest are all given their just due in this group of books.
Finally, Wilson’s iconoclasm serves a useful purpose. He will not allow an idolatrous view of Lewis or Warnie (Lewis’s brother) or Joy (Lewis’s wife) to emerge. To some, Lewis is as good as sainted, and Wilson does give us Lewis, as one reviewer says, “warts and all.”
So, I changed my mind; after reading a borrowed copy to withhold my financial support from the enterprise, I have decided to buy it after all. But there are problems, and big ones. Enough problems that I worry about those people who buy Wilson’s book and know little else of Lewis.
Wilson’s is the most relentlessly and recklessly interpretive of all the biographies on Lewis. If this is often a source of its appeal, it is also a predictable source of controversy and, too often, gross speculation. Take Wilson’s Freudian approach. It works well enough attempting to dig to the bottom of Lewis’s mysterious relationship with Mrs. Janie “Minto” Moore, the mother of an army buddy, Paddy Moore, who was killed in the First World War. Lewis made an agreement with Paddy Moore that if Lewis were killed, Paddy would care for Lewis’s father. If Paddy were killed, Lewis would care for Paddy’s mother. There is a touch of nobility and a promise kept in all of this which Wilson passes by. Yet, given the fact of Lewis’s being thrown in with Mrs. Moore, there is nothing far-fetched about Lewis needing and seeking a mother substitute. It certainly seems clear that Lewis in some sense felt a need for the relationship.
Further, Lewis’s phenomenal patience in coming at Minto’s every beck to help with domestic chores regardless of what he was working on is also explained well enough in psychological terms. In this regard, Wilson says: “There are some men who pay prostitutes not for overtly sexual favours, but for humiliation of the most humdrum kind. Such people, caught in a strange web of masochism, find their emotional fulfillment not in acts of love but in being made to scrub kitchen floors or scour out pans. ‘He was as good as an extra maid,’ said Minto.” (p. 128) I can accept the idea of psychological need, but not the company it keeps here: prostitutes, masochists—is this the right association?
Perhaps the worst of Wilson’s Freudianism is when he explains Lewis’s image of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as follows:
The penetration between the worlds began with his parents’ marriage, and this is made clear at the end of the series, even if one rejects any Freudian explanation for its beginning. That is to say, 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 [maybe because Wilson is the tempter], to see in this tale of a world which is reached through a dark hole surrounded by fur coats any unconscious image of the passage through which Lewis first entered the world from his mother’s body. (p. 228)
Why make the suggestion if you don’t want the idea in peoples’ minds? This is the kind of reductionism Lewis objected to in his essay “Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism”: “If it is true that all our enjoyment of the images, without remainder, can be explained in terms of infantile sexuality, then, I confess, our literary judgements are in ruins. But I do not believe it is true.” (p. 293) The main problem is that every motive tends to be seen in baser psycho-sexual terms and with an insufficient recognition of spiritual forces, never mind acts of the conscious will.
A related problem is Wilson’s failure to fairly and fully examine the positive side of Lewis’s personality and character. Lewis’s generosity, kindness, sense of calling, and Christian commitment all get a mention, but they also get short shrift. Nor does Wilson deal significantly with Lewis’s devotional and prayer life. One of the reasons Lewis liked trains so much was the opportunity it presented for uninterrupted periods of extended prayer. Nor does Wilson develop Lewis the evangelist. Lewis says, “all my books are evangelistic,” and so they are. There is enough even in Lewis’s Oxford History of English Literature volume, which Wilson praises so highly, to show the reader the way to salvation in Christ. Add to this Lewis’s numerous lectures, broadcasts, and more than a decade in the Socratic Club, a debating society with an explicitly evangelistic purpose. Wilson seems to be uncomfortable with the main thrust of Lewis’s life.
Wilson’s treatment of genres other than literary history is often thin and often suspect. He finds almost nothing but fault with the books for which Lewis is chiefly remembered and widely read. Wilson introduces Lewis’s apologetic works, like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, as follows: “If this misgiving about Lewis is at all fair (the sense of a carapace hardening upon him), then one must also view with ambivalence his excursion into the realm of religious apologetics.” (p. 162) Since Lewis came to Christ by an imaginative route, Wilson maintains, it was a mistake for Lewis to defend the faith on the basis of reason. But, of course, Wilson’s premise doesn’t square with the evidence of the letters and books Lewis wrote. It also ignores Lewis’s entire educational history from his rigorously logical training with his tutor Kirkpatrick to his study and teaching in philosophy, never mind Lewis’s own account of the logical side in his autobiography.
What about other genres? As for The Screwtape Letters, Wilson maintains that “it has to be admitted” that it is “a cruel book.” (p. 177) I should have said myself that it is a delightfully insightful book, full of good humor and ultimate good will. In fact, Wilson often finds something in Lewis’s writing to be somehow bestial: Lewis’s writing is sometimes described as “brutal”; The Great Divorce is “full of human vignettes which are cruelly amusing” (p. 200) and within it “perhaps none of Lewis’s portraits is more cruel than that of the figure of Dante” (as the tragedian—p. 201), the belligerent man who “only wants his rights” is among “the most savagely misanthropic portraits Lewis ever drew,” yet Wilson concludes, in a confusion of language I don’t understand, that “The Great Divorce shows Lewis at his very best; it is something approaching a masterpiece.” (p. 202)
Wilson’s shallow treatment of the fiction is even more disappointing, since Wilson is a literary man. Regarding Perelandra, I can agree with the insight that an Eve who keeps from falling only because Ransom intervenes doesn’t adequately present a victory for an unfallen race. But you have to go outside the bounds of the book to get that idea. It doesn’t mean that book is an “artistic failure.” (p. 183) Of Till We Have Faces, what many agree (along with Lewis himself) is his best artistic achievement, Wilson makes scarcely a mention.
The treatment of the Narnian Chronicles is similarly scant regarding literary analysis, but worse yet is the judgment that “they were a sort of sluicing of the system which, together with his regular confessions and communions, represented a conversion every bit as deep as the conversion to a belief in the supernatural and the divinity of Jesus Christ.” (p. 233) Could a man who said that the conversion of one soul was more important than all the books of criticism in the world agree? Surely nothing in Lewis’s life had the importance of his conversion to Christ. Indeed, his whole career as a writer was inspired by his conversion at age thirty-three; before that, Lewis wrote nothing for which he would be remembered.
The problem, again, is that Wilson’s interest is so insistently psychological. He is determined to make the facts fit his own thesis. The turning point in Lewis’s decision to shift from apologetics to fiction was a supposed bashing in debate Lewis received from G. E. M. Anscombe. According to Wilson, Lewis was so devastated by being beaten by a woman that he couldn’t continue to write apologetics. This is ludicrous. The sticking point of the debate was mainly over a single word, and Anscombe herself had no such feeling of victory. Besides that, the woman Lewis came to marry was a person who had a photographic memory and gave no quarter in debate. Wilson has only to refer to the interview with her son Douglas Gresham available in the Wade Center, which he claims to have read, to capture this aspect of the relationship. Further, the last article Lewis prepared for publication before his death was an apologetic piece, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’.” Ironically, the iconoclast becomes the new image maker. Wilson gives us a baser and less worthy Lewis of his own fabrication.
For a scholar of Wilson’s abilities and reputation, it is a very great shame that the book should have so many errors. Some are minor: Warnie (Lewis’s brother) was not age forty-one when recalled to military service in 1939 since he was born in 1895 (p. 169); Wheaton College does not collect material on T. S. Eliot; it wasn’t her father, but Flora Hamilton (Lewis’s mother) herself who delayed her wedding to Albert Lewis; and so on for about fifteen such errors of record.
But other errors are more serious: how can Wilson blame Hooper for giving the impression that he knew Lewis better than he did and that he was with him longer than was the case—when Wilson implies that he spent significant time researching in the Wade Center while he was there for only three hours one afternoon? There are approximately fifty oral interviews with personal friends, relatives, and acquaintances of Lewis in the Wade Center archives, assiduously gathered by Lyle Dorsett over a period of several years. Nor did he use the recently available diaries and letters of Warnie Lewis; nor the letters of Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis; nor the over 2,000 books from Lewis’s personal library, many of them copiously annotated in his own hand. These resources were not available when George Sayer did the research for his 1988 biography. Here was Wilson’s chance to incorporate genuinely fresh material, but he declined to use it though it was freely available and, in fact, offered to him at the beginning of his project. Is it honest scholarship, never mind serious scholarship, to slight the largest and richest repository of material on one’s subject?
This very fact of his slovenly scholarship leads to Wilson’s gravest error, a statement which does incalculable damage to Lewis’s reputation. Wilson makes reference to one of the previously mentioned oral interviews with Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, as though he had studied it. Wilson says of Lewis and his future wife: “According to an oral memory of Joy’s son Douglas . . . the two of them were already lovers in 1955. Douglas on one occasion came into his mother’s bedroom at 10 Old High Street and found it occupied by Jack and Joy in a compromising position. This memory . . . transpired during a conversation between Douglas Gresham and Lyle W. Dorsett.” (p. 256–57) But this simply is not the case. I have read every word of the transcript, and there is no such mention. Wilson is dead wrong. This is culpable fabrication. In fact, Joy was writing to her friend Bel Kaufman that she and Lewis were walking through the heather hand in hand and that was all that was likely to come of their relationship. What can be said about this kind of character assassination when an examination of Lewis’s character is, after all, the supposed strength of the book?
Similarly, in speaking of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore, supposing it to have been sexual, Wilson says, incredibly, “While nothing will ever be proved on either side, the burden of proof is on those who believe that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were not lovers.” (p. 58) This in a land where the accused is assumed innocent until proven guilty? Nor does Wilson make the crucial observation at this point that such an event, had it taken place, would have been well before his conversion to Christianity.
For all of the above reasons, Wilson’s biography is a skewed view of Lewis. Wilson nowhere questions the sincerity of Lewis’s Christianity outright, and, as a self-confessed Christian, finds much in Lewis’s life and work to admire. Nevertheless, much of substance in Lewis goes unnoticed or is denigrated. Much is good in Wilson’s biography: his wit, easy style, analysis, and general learning. But too much is either unbalanced or recklessly and inexplicably sensational.
Yes, I will buy the book, despite its most unusual mixture of careful and careless scholarship. But my advice to those who have yet to read a biography of Lewis is unequivocal. To begin with, read an enormous amount of Lewis. This includes the letters, of which five volumes are now in print. Almost anything Lewis wrote repays reading more than any biography on him, however good. Then read a more reliable biography, like George Sayer’s Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times, which is by far the most balanced and free of error both in fact and in interpretation. Sayer knew Lewis personally (Wilson did not) over a long period of time and brings considerable talents as a scholar and critic to the task. It also has the advantage of superior treatments of the literary works. Interestingly, Wilson doesn’t even include this volume in his bibliography. Necessarily more limited but by far the most delightful (even enchanting) account is Douglas Gresham’s Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis. It is one of the most elegantly written books I know.
So go ahead and buy Wilson’s book, but buy it last.
Gresham, Douglas. Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1988.
Lewis, C .S. “Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism” in Selected Literary Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
Wilson, A. N. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Wayne Martindale is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College and co-editor of The Quotable Lewis.