C.S. Lewis: A Biography
by A.N. Wilson
Norton, 334 pp., $22.50
It has been suggested that if our civilization were to fall to pieces, leaving only fragments of our literary culture, archaeologists would have to conclude that there may have been two Bertrand Russells, one the brilliant author of Principia Mathematica, the lectures on logical atomism, and other logical and philosophical works, and one a popular writer on sexuality, education, politics, and so on. It seems at first one might have a similar fantasy about C.S. Lewis. There is the most learned, the most incisive historical critic of medieval and Renaissance literature of his generation, the author of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ The Discarded Image; then there is the author of Out of the Silent Planet and its (inferior) sequels and of the allegorical fantasies set in the mythical kingdom of Narnia; and then we have the popular theologian who had and has, among evangelicals, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, a high and still persisting reputation. Miracles, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, all were popular when they appeared, and most have kept their popularity and continue to sell. Of this Lewis there is a shrine and an archive at Wheaton College in Illinois.
It wouldn’t really be plausible, though, to think there were two or more C.S. Lewises. The author of all the works is manifestly the same man, with the same quicksilver mind, the same cargo of curious learning, the same obsessions and prejudices. Everything—critical works, fantasies, theological books and tracts—is, as it were, fingerprinted by Lewis. A trivial but telling example: Lewis was a great smoker—sixty cigarettes a day between pipes, A.N. Wilson tells us—and a deep drinker, and he despised total abstainers and nonsmokers. In one of the Narnia stories (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) there is a wretched boy of morally feeble character whose parents are teetotalers and nonsmokers, pacifists, despisers of fairy stories, and Lewis seems to suggest that it isn’t surprising they should have nurtured the priggish Eustace.
To the complexities of Lewis the writer we must add the complexities of the rest of the life. Brought up an Ulster Protestant, he came to reject the black and rancorous ethos associated with the faith and ended as a High Church Anglican who frequented the altar and the confessional. But his spiritual development, as Wilson recounts it, isn’t straightforward, either before or after his conversion, first to theism and then to Christianity, in the Twenties and Thirties. The two women in his life were already married to other men. His relationship with Janie Moore, the companion of his life from his undergraduate days into his fifties, may or may not have been physically sexual; Wilson thinks, reasonably, that it was, at least in the early years. The relationship began when Lewis was eighteen and Janie Moore forty-five.
The relationship with the American Joy Davidman, a lively, foul-mouthed, Jewish convert to Christianity, was certainly sexual …