SWEETLY POISONOUS IN A WELCOME WAY
Reflections on a Definitive Biography
A. N. Wilson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (1990)
by Arend Smilde
with a postscript, 2009
’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill.
–– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
Among all the many books that have been written about C. S. Lewis since the first one appeared in 1949, none perhaps is a greater pleasure to read than the biography written by A. N. Wilson, published in 1990. At the same time there are some solid grounds for calling it a bad book and, what is more, for drawing attention to its badness. This badness is indeed not just noteworthy but fascinating. Unless the book will be simply forgotten, its badness is very likely to become, in the long run, its most interesting and memorable feature.
When the book first came out, the author was in his fortieth year of age and had written biographies of Hilaire Belloc, John Milton, Walter Scott and Leo Tolstoy in addition to eleven novels and a great deal of journalism. The work on Tolstoy had won him an award for the best biography of 1988. His book on Lewis appeared less than two years later and received very much attention. It was highly praised by most of those reviewers who seemed to have no particular familiarity with the subject. One of them considered this biography by Wilson “his best yet”; another called it “the definitive biography”, which words were soon quoted on the front cover of the paperback edition. Meanwhile the book was condemned by most of those who were, or who at least seemed to be, familiar with the subject. Their verdicts did not greatly vary, although their choice of illustrative examples did. A couple of these examples of what is wrong with the book were silently replaced by an appropriate number of harmless lines in the paperback edition.1 In this latter type of reviews, Wilson was generally thought to have practiced a striking combination of writing well and what Pope called “judging ill”.
The immediate problem facing us here is thus slightly different from the one raised by Pope – which is only logical while we are dealing with a single author. There is little point in asking whether A. N. Wilson’s judgement is worse than his writing style: he clearly writes brilliantly while his judgement soon betrays him as a mere publicity intellectual. The question here is whether good writing may or may not compensate for bad judgement. And there is a further problem, which happens to be well stated by Wilson himself. While discussing a book which he reckons to be perhaps Lewis’s best, he observes: 2
Of course, what makes the book unboring is what makes it, in the judgement of bores, unreliable.
Or in other words, the further question is whether what we call good writing may in fact have some vital roots in bad judgement. Wilson’s own remarkable combination of superior writing and inferior judgement as embodied in this book has never, I think, received the close attention it deserves. One obvious reason for such attention is that it could help to dispel some false notions about C. S. Lewis. What is probably more important in the long run is that a close study of this book is likely to increase our general understanding of the workings of intellectual fraud.
This biography takes the form of an inquiry into the origins of the C. S. Lewis cult. In the Preface as well as in the final chapter it is pointed out that Lewis readers tend to be people of conservative religious persuasions. They have societies and periodicals (and now websites too, of course) and their admiration for their favourite writer can sometimes be seen to shade into sheer veneration. Lewis has become something closely resembling a saint to many of his readers – whose “religious temperament” (p. 304) is evidenced by their breaking up into various denominations and their lack of interest in reality. Thus an Anglo-Catholic Lewis can now be distinguished from an American Protestant one, with perpetual virginity and teetotalism as their respective virtues. Some years ago, Wilson tells us, American Lewisites mounted a smear campaign against one prominent devotee of the Anglo-Catholic type of Lewis cult, Walter Hooper, who was accused of tampering with Lewis manuscripts. The unfairness and ferocity of the accusations are to Wilson sure signs of the extraordinary attachment these people feel toward their own image of Lewis – and of their hatred of anything that might do damage to it.
The truth about Lewis is not to be found, thinks Wilson, through some cheap iconoclasm. For the truth is not just that Lewis was not a saint (Wilson assumes a readership that has no difficulty believing this), but that he is being revered. A biographer of C. S. Lewis therefore ought to consider not only Lewis the man, but “the Lewis phenomenon” (xii). The question, then, is not so much whether Lewis was really a less perfect man than his readers often imagine. We should rather ask what it is that makes these readers lose touch with reality.
And Wilson provides the answer. When Lewis was nine years old, in 1908, his mother died. Immediately after that he was sent from his native Ireland to an extremely bad boarding school in England. This cruel end of a very happy early childhood was to play tricks on him throughout the rest of his life. Young Jack Lewis did not get over the loss of his mother but “bottled [it] up within himself” (xi), so that a large part of his emotional development was arrested. His life and works are full of all manner of signs that he was continually, if unconsciously, longing to get back to the days of his early boyhood and pick up the broken thread. Thus his companion in life for more than thirty years was a woman who could have been his mother. After she had died he soon fell for the charms of a woman who, like his mother fifty years before, suffered from cancer and had two sons. In 1960 she also died; and now at last the time had come for him to live through his grief – he wrote A Grief Observed, an astonishing and uniquely believable testimony to his moment of truth.
His scholarly works meanwhile were full of his “schoolboyish” (173) and infectious enthusiasm for the literature of the past; his general attitude as a literary man was that of conscious anti-modernism or – what seems to be much the same to Wilson – wilful immaturity.
As a Christian apologist, Lewis wrote books like The Problem of Pain, gave broadcast talks during the Second World War, and acted as president of the Oxford Socratic Club, where Christians and atheists debated, ideally, in a purely rational way. What Lewis shows in all his pursuits of this kind is not so much a secret longing for his childhood as, rather, a “hardening” process (161) of his thoughts and manners. He disliked introspection, was blind to the warped state of his own emotional life, and had a fond fancy for capturing God in words. Inevitably, he was to pay for this – which happened early in 1948 as he was defeated during a “Socratic” debate. He then broke, as it were, into writing fairy tales and so at last found his true vocation. Lewis had a “capacity to project images of himself into prose” (xvii), i.e. images revealing his inner life. One image that makes a lasting impression on many readers of these fairy tales, the “Chronicles of Narnia”, is that of a fantasy world which continually reveals itself to be higher and deeper and more beautiful as you go “farther up and farther in”. Now this image, Wilson believes, is a sublimation of Lewis’s longing for the lost paradise of his early days. The strength of that longing is the strength of these books (228).
A “softening” process (234) had in fact begun, with Lewis more and more indulging in introspection. Not that this is very clearly shown by his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, published in 1955. He there denied the existence, for example, of any connections between the death of his father (whom he had mostly disliked or even hated) and his conversion to Christianity around 1930. He described this conversion as an isolated and almost purely intellectual process. However, he stopped writing apologetics after 1948, the year he started writing (or got going with) his Narnia tales. And after the death of his wife in 1960, while making up at last for his emotional retardation, he realized that every image of God is an idol, and God himself the great iconoclast.
“The Lewis phenomenon”, then, may be concluded from Wilson’s book to be the result, not of a saint’s life and works, but of the life of a man who with many ups and downs came to understand that the ultimate questions are best approached through the imagination. “It is the Lewis who plumbed the irrational depths of childhood and religion who speaks to the present generation” (x). He did so with such force and eloquence that many a reader’s imagination, fired by Lewis’s, naturally turned it upon Lewis. He became a chief object, or victim, of these readers’ idolatrous imaginations. – “Like the story of Narnia itself, the story of C. S. Lewis would appear to be one ‘which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before’” (309).
As will be shown by many examples in what follows, Wilson’s image of Lewis is at least as fantastic as any Lewis devotee’s image. To be sure, his imagination works in a different way. Wilson would never ascribe to Lewis improbable feats of ascetism and saintliness. He rather invents details or episodes which will throw doubt on Lewis’s sincerity and chastity. Thus we are told that Lewis was once caught “in a compromising position” with his future wife by her son, long before there was any question of their marrying (256). Wilson refers this story to an “oral memory” of this son, Douglas Gresham. But neither in Mr Gresham’s own memory nor in the source mentioned have there been found any traces of this incident.3
Wilson’s fantasies can also take shapes of a rather less commonplace kind – as when he tells us that Walter Hooper believes in the Perpetual Virginity of C. S. Lewis (xvi). I could hardly believe this about Hooper; but I thought Wilson might know him personally. Hooper’s telephone number was as easy to find as any other, so I called him with the slightly absurd question if it was true that he, etc. He of course said no.4 Apparently the idolatrous imagination of Lewis’s admirers is, at least partly, a product of Wilson’s imagination. The “compromising” incident between Lewis and his future wife has on inspection proved to compromise only Wilson: the Hooper story again suggests that wild ideas about Lewis may not only be studied by Wilson but in Wilson. The question is then no longer how this idea about perpetual virginity can enter anyone’s head: for it has perhaps entered only Wilson’s. The question is whether his imagination has not been fired more violently than any Lewis reader’s imagination.
Two examples of untruthfulness, however shocking we may find them, are in themselves insufficient ground to dismiss a celebrated biographer as a mere gossip or a fraud. What is more, Wilson might have been practising a kind of biography which is legitimate in its own way but which I have not yet learnt to appreciate. There is, however, no end to the number of cases where he is demonstrably ignoring facts which are easy to establish and undoubtedly relevant. I have made a selection of these which I now present in a more or less thematic survey.
Let us begin by considering Lewis’s unconscious longing for his early childhood. This longing is mentioned in various places throughout the book, either to explain events or to have its existence proved by them. Both functions are operative in the episode where Lewis, at the age of seventeen, discovers a writer who was to become one of his favourites. As Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, he had long been a great lover of fantasy stories when he first came to read George MacDonald. He had also learnt to face the fact that his imagination had nothing to do with reality: to leave imaginary worlds for the real one was invariably a disenchanting experience. MacDonald was the first writer whose fantasies did not leave him in the cold but, on the contrary, would cast a “bright shadow” over the real world. “For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. (...) It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side.” He concluded this passage by saying that on that night his “imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised” (SbJ 145-146).5 It will have occurred to many readers of Surprised by Joy that Lewis was here discovering a writer with a talent much like his own.
What occurred to Wilson is this. Referring to a source that is only identified as “Holbrook”, he notes that George MacDonald’s early years had been much like Lewis’s, and that MacDonald’s oeuvre “has been described as ‘a life-time effort of mourning’ the traumatic losses of his boyhood, above all the death of his mother” (46). And: “MacDonald was the first person who touched Lewis sufficiently to let him see what he needed [viz. to let out grief for his mother]. It is no surprise that, upon reading Phantastes, Lewis heard a sound like the voice of his mother” (47).
In fact, discovering MacDonald was to Lewis an experience of utter bliss: “...all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy6 were disarmed”, he wrote (SbJ 145). Wilson regards this joy as a manifestation of grief. I have difficulty sharing this view, but one thing it does explain: it explains why Wilson drops the nurse. While Lewis mentioned “my mother and my nurse” and obviously meant something like “utterly familiar voices” (choosing females perhaps because we suppose sirens to be female), Wilson understands him to mean “my mother” simply – with no nurse coming between Wilson and his idea that this mother symbolizes all that is most interesting about Lewis. Meanwhile everything Lewis here said about MacDonald is left out. The mere occurrence of the word “mother” seems to have started off Wilson’s speculations and to have prevented him from making any obvious sense of this passage.6a
Such and similar aberrations away from the obvious occur whenever the childhood trauma comes up in this story of C. S. Lewis. In the spring of 1957, more than forty years after the MacDonald experience, Lewis was writing a letter to Bill Gresham, the former husband of his wife Joy Davidman. Joy was dying, and her two sons did not want to go back to their father. This was the message Lewis was to convey. Wilson quotes the entire letter, which to him “reveals how deeply the knowledge of Joy’s imminent death revived in Lewis all the traumas and horrors of August 1908, not least among them an irrational dread of his father.” It is certainly true, and indeed only natural, that Lewis as the boys’ spokesman was reminded of his own predicament at the time when his mother died: he told Bill so much in the letter. The point is that Wilson never fails to use a reference to Lewis’s mother as a springboard for speculations about his subliminal self. “The odd impertinence of the letter”, he says, “makes sense if we think that Lewis was subconsciously identifying Bill with the P’daytabird [i.e. his own father, nicknamed ‘the Potato-bird’]” (268). Now Lewis was indeed writing in no uncertain terms to Bill. But if he was identifying Bill with his own father, he did so quite frankly and consciously – very far from subconsciously. It would seem to be at least debatable to what extent he was being impertinent. We don’t know Bill, nor do we know what Bill himself thought of the letter. We do know that the letter had (“in the event”, says Wilson for no specified reason) exactly the desired effect. Bill agreed not to press for custody of the boys; so that they remained in the custody of Lewis. Whatever identifications may have occurred to him either consciously or subconsciously, and however great his general sense of responsibility and fidelity to commitments was – it is surely a bit wild to think it was from largely or essentially private motives that Lewis wrote this letter or tried to keep this custody. It is unthinkable that he would have indulged the impertinence perceived by Wilson if such had been against the wishes of Joy and her sons or of either of these parties. In other words, he wrote, of course, entirely on their behalf. There is therefore very little point in Wilson’s speculations. But they do deflect our attention from the possibility – a real one, I should say – that Lewis was here in fact acting quite judiciously, straightforwardly and effectively. Such a possibility is indeed one which Wilson usually fails to explore.
What he does explore may appear from his account of the years immediately after the First World War. Lewis had been in the trenches as an infantry officer and had been wounded. During his convalescence in England he had not been visited by his father, who lived in Belfast. The son had found, however, a sort of second mother in Mrs Moore, the mother of a soldier friend who had been killed. The ties between Lewis and Mrs Moore soon developed into their living together permanently. His father was kept ignorant of this as long as possible, while he continued to support his son financially year after year. Their relationship during these years was extremely bad.
These two relationships are thought by Wilson to have been of vast significance for the whole of Lewis’s subsequent life. Their significance in the early 1920s was (if I understand Wilson correctly) that Lewis put up with needless penury and domestic tyranny since he would not admit or accept his father’s generosity, and that he had wrong ideas about his own professional future. He had, Wilson says, a “distorted” view of his circumstances, and this distortion “matters intensely” (75).
In spite of this strong language, we get no clear examples of these distortions resulting either from or into anything, nor indeed of their existence to any remarkable degree. One passage apparently intended as an example is where the story reaches the summer vacation of 1919. Lewis was supposed to go to his father in Belfast but he very much preferred to remain with Mrs Moore in Oxford. “He felt torn”, Wilson writes. “He both did, and did not, want to admit to himself that the childhood days at Little Lea [i.e. his parental home] had come to an end. In the event the vacation was a compromise, with Jack [i.e. Lewis] moving to and fro between his two homes, trying in each to pretend that the other did not exist” (67). What we see in a nutshell here is Wilson’s knack of suddenly turning from a biographer into a novelist, and the way he leaves the account of facts for a medley of clownish images. Lewis was not moving to and fro but simply went to Ireland for a few weeks and then back to Oxford; nor did he pretend in each of his two homes that the other did not exist.
Likewise, at the end of chapter 3 we read that in 1908 during the weeks leading up to the death of Lewis’s mother “the survivors all hurt one another in an irremediable way” (italics mine). But at least two-thirds of them – Jack and his brother – were in fact doing the very reverse of hurting each other, while none of the three did so in an irremediable way.
This technique is used a little less elegantly as we reach the point where Lewis, in 1922, is turned down as an applicant for a job in the University of Reading. Wilson apparently means to give the reader a vivid idea of the way Lewis found himself henpecked by Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen. The job, Wilson says, “was actually offered to Lewis, but he withdrew when he discovered that it would necessitate living in Reading” – Maureen having just found a suitable school in Oxford. “It would have been a ‘thousand pities’ to change Maureen’s school for a year. (...) The schoolgirl’s needs dictated the student’s prospects” (74). However, in Lewis’s diary for 2 July 1922 we read that Mrs Moore “was so anxious not to influence me that I could not be quite sure what her wishes were”. And on 3 July: “A letter arrived (...) to say that the Reading job has been given to someone with a name like Mabbot”.7
On the next page, Wilson tells us that domestic chores were an “obsession” to Mrs Moore. “She was persistent in trying to do unnecessary tasks, thereby forcing Jack, out of guilt, to do them himself.” Thus one day Jack, on coming home, found her busy polishing an upstairs wardrobe. As “he tried to concentrate on his work, he heard ‘an awful crash’ and rushed up to see what had happened. Mrs Moore had somehow or other managed to pull down the wardrobe on top of her.” The “awful crash” is taken from the diary for 20 June 1923, where Lewis wrote as follows: “Had hardly left [her] when I heard an awful crash and rushed back thoroughly frightened and half believing that the wardrobe had fallen on [her]. I found however that it was only she herself who had fallen...” As for the idea that Mrs Moore’s hard work made Jack feel guilty: he was that day doing things like reading old tombstones in a nearby graveyard, in fact frittering away his day and doing no work at all; yet he does not seem to have experienced any guilt or obligation. He made “attempts to get her to stop polishing and rest on her laurels”.
But let us come back to Lewis’s circumstances and his distorted view of them. It will be recalled that Wilson thinks this view “matters intensely”; it does so in that Lewis was eagerly looking for a job, since a job would mean that he would no longer be dependent on his father and would be able to live a more comfortable life with the Moores; but he didn’t know what he could do best. It was quite long before he definitely dropped the idea of becoming a great poet, and then for a short time thought that philosophy was his vocation. Now all this, except the age of Mrs Moore, was of course so entirely normal for a man of his age that there seems to be very little need for special explanations from “relationships”. Any further ways in which Lewis’s views or circumstances or relationships mattered are even harder to see. He happened to find one of the few ideal jobs for him, a job he should and would have taken in any circumstances; until that moment his views had never been distorted to the extent that he actually stopped using his father’s financial support. As we compare the ascertainable course of events with Wilson’s story, this story proves to be an almost unbroken series of rhapsodies on themes only partly borrowed from that course of events. Their tenor meanwhile is very monotonous. It is all about how confused, tormented and pathetic were the various actors in the story.
True, there are cases of sloppiness that seem to have no point – details that have no possibilities in the way of tendentiousness. Sloppiness, however, is rampant at every level: and the border between sloppiness and fabrication seems wholly unguarded. When Lewis applied for the job in Reading, one of the men he met there was Eric R. Dodds, the classicist. Dodds had left University College and Oxford at the time when Lewis arrived there, towards the end of the war. On page 74 Wilson quotes Lewis’s diary at 17 June 1922, where we read that he had never seen Dodds since their first meeting in 1917. Yet on page 63 Wilson tells us that Dodds “was Lewis’s exact contemporary at Univ.” This minor mistake, strange as it is, can be explained from the fact that the Reading college where Dodds worked from 1919 onwards happened to be also called University College. The erroneous idea of Lewis and Dodds being fellow students, however, must somehow have fired Wilson’s imagination: for he goes on to tell us that “they differed radically over the Irish question (...) but they liked each other and were stimulated by each other’s company”. And before the end of the paragraph, we are told that Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield was “being set on the course which was to lead him to embrace theosophy”. Infinitely subtle though the phrasing is, Barfield’s choice was in fact anthroposophy.
In this way Wilson goes on and on. Sometimes he goes too far also in the sense of forgetting some minimum demands of propriety. One day in 1955 a friend of Lewis’s, George Sayer, visited Oxford for a day together with his wife Moira. It was the period when Joy Gresham was becoming a more and more regular visitor in the Lewis household; she and Lewis were to get married in 1956. Wilson says that one of the things Lewis did not understand in those days was the fact that Joy was making herself unpopular with his friends. Sayer’s wife went to Lewis’s house to spend the afternoon with a book, and here she met Mrs Gresham, who started abusing her as if she were an intruder:
[Joy] was carrying a pile of Jack’s laundry. Moira Sayer politely pointed out that she was a friend of Jack’s and that she had, in fact, met Mrs Gresham once before. “Her mind was quick and muscular as a leopard,” Lewis wrote admiringly of his inamorata. “It scented the first whiff of cant or slush, then sprang.” Not everyone found this approach to conversation markedly congenial. (256)
Now let us see what exactly Wilson is doing here. First, he is again quoting from a source (like “Holbrook” before) which he never mentions in full: “Sayer” – which of course is George Sayer’s 1988 biography of C. S. Lewis – and gives a wrong page reference. Second, he is quoting Lewis from an entirely unspecified source, which however is A Grief Observed, written shortly after Joy’s death five years later. To say the very least, this is a precarious piece of biographical composition. The urge to be entertaining in his chosen way is obviously stronger in Wilson than any interest he may have in his subject and indeed than any sense of decency he may have. For, thirdly, he leaves out from his source, Sayer’s book, details that make hay of his whole representation. When George Sayer was to meet Joy for the first time, Lewis had written to warn him that “she’s a queer fish and I’m not at all sure that she’s either yours or Moira’s cup of tea (she is at any rate not a bore).” And after the incident, according to Sayer, “Jack was quite miserable when, later on in the afternoon, [Moira] conveyed a softened version of what had happened”. Let us finally note that what was “some laundry” in Sayer’s book has developed into “a pile of Jack’s laundry” in Wilson’s.8
Matters of more interest do not escape this treatment. Lewis’s conversion to the Christian faith is a prime example of a development which Wilson assumes was not understood at all by Lewis himself yet is understood almost completely by Wilson. The two chief things to be understood are (1) that Lewis’s emerging belief in God was closely related to the death of his father; and (2) that his intellectual concerns at the time were really an entirely peripheral feature of his religious development.
Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s own account of how he “passed from Atheism to Christianity” (SbJ 7). Wilson regards the book as a smokescreen. Lewis mentions his relationship with Mrs Moore only implicitly, referring to it as an episode which he is not free to tell and of which he doubts if it has much to do with his story. And he says similar things about his father’s death in 1929. We have already seen that Wilson, on the contrary, thinks these two relationships of vast significance. He indeed considers the religious conversion around 1930 to be one of their major offshoots. But Wilson is a born entertainer. He will never say anything that makes you yawn. Accordingly he does not say, “Lewis had an Oedipus complex. His God was a projection of his dead father, whom he had hated.” However, if we set ourselves to finding some specification of the connections between the father’s death and the son’s conversion, what we find is only this; or rather, an assumption that this view is really too obvious to be fully stated. Mrs Moore’s role seems to be that she made it necessary for Lewis to “compartmentalize” his life (108). This inevitably ended in a crisis of the emotions. This crisis, helped by the impact of his father’s death, took the form of a religious conversion.
The smokescreen of Surprised by Joy as seen by Wilson is, more specifically, a screen of rational argument. Lewis was, we are told, deceiving both his readers and himself as he presented his own conversion as a matter largely of “paper logic”9 (106); and the deception was all the sillier for the fact that Lewis was not a very clear thinker. The latter point is made through the usual chaos of misrepresentations, which it would take me too far afield to disentangle here. What I would like to point out is that much of this unmasking activity with regard to Lewis’s religion depends on Wilson’s producing the mask in question.
Retracing this procedure calls for some closer attention than simply going along with it. Surprised by Joy is a book which towards the end almost becomes a list of successive moments of illumination. Each of these “Moves” is interpreted by Lewis as the intensification, suppression, corruption or refinement – in brief, as a stage in the progress – of an old and indefinable longing, whose object in the end proves to be God. For the purposes of this book, Lewis calls this longing “Joy”.10 He assumes that most readers will not easily recognize the sensation, yet he hopes some will do so. It is especially the later stages of “Joy” that he represents as the results of philosophical progress. These stages are as often as not marked by very subjective experiences, many of which he received from his reading. Thus in the penultimate chapter he mentions, respectively, the impact of his reading Euripides’s Hippolytus and Samuel Alexander’s book Space, Time and Deity.
Reading Hippolytus, he tells us, gave him the first “Joy” in many years – years during which he had come to see this “Joy” as a thing of the past. It now came back with great intensity: “There was nothing whatever to do about it” (SbJ 174). Alexander’s book, read in the same period, served to clarify to him the position of “Joy” among his conscious thoughts. He suddenly saw the need to distinguish an experience from the thing experienced. Suffering heat or cold is not itself heat or cold; to be touched by beauty is not the same as beauty; a longing is not the thing longed for. And “Joy” was a longing. So he further realized that this sense of longing had so enthralled him – he had so much longed to feel this longing – that the thing originally longed for had quite escaped his attention. Surely that was how his “search for Joy” had been “hitherto perplexed”. Lewis decided henceforth to pay less attention to his own inner self. Alexander had taught him a lesson in anti-subjectivism. Its first application by Lewis was, according to Surprised by Joy (176), that he “did not yet ask, Who is the desired? only What is it? But this brought me already into the region of awe”.
The next stage (or “Move”) in his development as he described it was his “linking up this new éclaircissement about Joy with my idealistic philosophy” (SbJ 177). His changeover from philosophical realism to this idealistic philosophy had happened somewhat earlier, as described in the previous chapter.
Wilson’s version of all this is as follows. Reading Alexander’s book, he says, was “something which focused [Lewis’s] intellectual uncertainties at this time” (107). He mentions the distinction Lewis learnt to make between an experience and the thing experienced, and then seems to equate this discovery with his changeover to idealism or even to theism. At any rate there does not seem to be another possible reason why Wilson should go on as follows:
It was a linchpin of Lewis’s theism that thought itself was a metaphysical act; (...) But of course, had Alexander’s argument and Lewis’s interpretation of it been irrefutable, had it been the kind of thing which compelled religious certainty, then all the philosophers in Oxford would have fallen to their knees when they had finished reading it. They did not do so. The fact that Lewis did is not a sign that he was illogical, merely that he was caught up in a spiritual drama which involved more than “paper logic”. (107–108)
The spiritual drama is illustrated on the following pages with the way in which Hippolytus affected Lewis. The illustrative power of this is enhanced by a Wilsonian remark that “it is probably fanciful to cast Mrs Moore as Phaedra, or the P’daytabird as Theseus” (110).
Now if we picture the process described by Lewis in Surprised by Joy as a ladder,11 we may picture Wilson as someone snapping off a random handful of rungs, working them into a rickety little stepladder of his own making, and then observing that Lewis ought never to have suggested that such a thing could serve any serious purpose. Or to go back to the “unmasking” image: if Lewis seems to be hiding his true face behind a mask, Wilson is hiding this mask behind yet another mask which is only a clumsy caricature of the one below.
Or to put it concretely – Lewis never suggested that he became a philosophical idealist as a result of reading or “interpreting” Alexander (which, if he had, he would probably not have tried to describe as a logical step). He said he read Alexander when he was an idealist already. If there is something improbably neat or even slick in his story at this point, we get no truer idea of what was happening by being told that Lewis’s “intellectual uncertainties were being focussed”. This remark may be true in its own vague way, but there is really no more point in it than this very vagueness. Its effect is to keep you from paying much more serious attention to Lewis’s own account. It also keeps you unaware that Wilson never properly criticizes or analyzes or even refutes that account, but simply substitutes some laughably naive and very un-Lewis-like train of thought, apparently trusting his readers to ascribe it to Lewis. It should be noted that we are actually supposed here to imagine that Lewis fell to his knees for the idealist’s Absolute Spirit, or perhaps for Alexander’s book. If anywhere, it is here much more interesting to follow Lewis’s account than Wilson’s. As an idealist, and having reached “the region of awe”, Lewis was still believing in what was to become one of his theological pet aversions – a “tame god”. And as far as I know, when he did fall to his knees he never supposed that his own immediate reasons to do so would be easily understandable for many other people.
I do agree with Wilson that Surprised by Joy, for all its fine qualities, is yet unsatisfying. For example, there seems to be little point in the pages Lewis devoted to the details of his childhood fantasies, Animal Land and Boxen, at the end of chapter 5. He says he includes them “only because to omit it would have been to misrepresent this period of my life.” If that were really his method, he ought to have followed it throughout the book. There are clearly gaps in the story as he tells it; one of Lewis’s own friends famously threatened to write a sequel under the title Suppressed by Jack. His friends may well have thought that he had been all too prudish about the realia of his early Oxford years. But what Wilson thinks he was prudish about is a spiritual drama, hidden behind a screen of shaky logic. This is a wrong suggestion and can therefore hardly help us filling gaps. Lewis’s book is most certainly the story of a spiritual drama; and anyway what a writer suppresses is never to be found out through slapdash reading of what he does publish. Lewis compared his philosophical insights to the dry bones “in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel’s”:12 “A Philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its gravecloths, and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer” (SbJ 181). This, it seems to me, is nothing if not a spiritual drama. I see no screen of logic surrounding it. Wilson is a Don Quixote; his windmill is the mind of Lewis.13
When Wilson speaks of a “spiritual drama” he possibly means a psychological drama. If this is the case, it could explain why he does not take Surprised by Joy seriously. He may find it difficult to see a spiritual drama where no psychological drama is highlighted – indeed he may be unwilling to make a distinction between the two – whereas the whole point of Lewis’s story is that he first began to suspect, and then became convinced, that he had to seek salvation outside of himself and, surprisingly, then found it. Lewis deflected our attention away from the psychodrama (in which he may well have been caught up) apparently because his own attention was deflected from it. What he tried to explain was that one of the chief facts of his life was in a sense not a fact about himself: and that this was the whole point of its being a chief fact. Wilson does not appear either to believe or to be interested in the possibility of such a thing. Perhaps he does not believe in the existence of any other type of drama than psychodrama. This is of course everyone’s own affair and one need not be a less competent biographer for that. You may perhaps write an excellent life of Hitler while being yourself a Zionist. On the other hand, it might be hard to write a life of Mozart when you don’t have an ear for his music. Wilson is blind to what was – whatever he or we may think of it – the chief fact in Lewis’s life. I am therefore inclined to compare him to a Mozart biographer who is tone deaf.
In any case, he distorts both the details and the tenor of Surprised by Joy. This does not say much for his insights and interpretations, whether or not Surprised by Joy itself is any good. You don’t remedy misrepresentation by misrepresenting it. Wilson’s allegations that Lewis was being untruthful, for that matter, are not very convincing. For example, one of his reasons to think of a father complex is that Lewis would not do so. The reason why he wouldn’t is, says Wilson, that he feared for a Freudian explanation for his belief in God (111). And that was why he “repressed” the impact of his father’s death while he was writing his autobiography. It is all very much like what Mary Midgley charitably called “Freud at his least helpful”.14 In this way surely anything can be ascribed to anyone. You might, for instance, maintain that Lewis’s experiences in the trench war in 1917–1918 haunted him all his life, on the ground that he hardly ever mentioned them. And then you could go on to hunt for explanations why he was repressing the truth. Once you have decided on that course, there are few things in the world that may still keep you from finding an explanation. Indeed while you are being hailed as “an uncannily sensitive biographer”15 it may be generally difficult to keep up much discipline over your ideas. Wilson’s grounds for his view of Lewis are often introduced by phrases like “it is probably fanciful...” (110), as quoted before, or like the following ones:
– It would be far too glib to suggest that... (128)
– We hardly need to dwell on... (228)
– He was frightened that hostile readers of his theological work would be able to say that... (111)
– There is absolutely no way of knowing whether... (241; followed by an egregious piece of vilification)
or the striking phrase “Some (...) have implied to me that...” (170), or again, quite simply, “It has been said that...” (118) – all of these followed by mental leaps for which Wilson apparently will not take full responsibility, yet for which he gives no alternatives. Almost all of these ideas offer explanations and suggest backgrounds that would not have pleased any of the people involved. In fact I find myself giving a fairly precise definition of what is popularly called gossip.
A strong proclivity for gossip is indeed unmistakable. I have mentioned the case of Douglas Gresham’s alleged catching his mother in the act of adultery. One other example is a very short fragment in chapter 8. We are reading here about some sleepless weeks early in 1923, when the presence of a mentally ill brother of Mrs Moore dominated the domestic scene. “Almost the only moments of true repose which [Lewis] enjoyed were when he was able to slip into Mrs Moore’s bed after she had ‘just vacated it’ for the afternoon” (82). The words just vacated it are taken from Lewis’s diary; that is why they are put in quotation marks. But no source is quoted. The result is that the inverted commas make for a banal piece of ambiguity, whose banality proves to be all the worse when you read the quotation in its original context. I regard this manoeuvre as one application of what I propose to call the Amadeus Formula. As in the celebrated film Amadeus, about Mozart, so in this biography of C. S. Lewis we see how a life story is flavoured with (1) the very simplest of piquancies and (2) a widely recognized type of profundity: the revelation of a father complex.
Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy, says Wilson, after a publisher had asked him to explain how he passed from scepticism to religious belief. “Minds more subtle than Lewis’s would probably have shrunk from the attempt. And those who have made similar attempts at self-chronicling have hedged their story about with provisos” (105-106). But elsewhere (251): “Surprised by Joy was a book which he had been toying with for years” – which suggests a certain subtleness of mind after all. I know nothing of this unidentified publisher as an instigator of the book. But it is certain that Lewis, a quick writer normally, was very long in writing it. In a letter of September 1948 he wrote, “I am at present busy with my autobiography”;16 and in March 1949, “I hope some day to write an autobiography which will tell what I know (=the experience) of my conversion. But the real event, as known to God, will differ from this as much as the total event ‘decaying tooth’ differs from the pain.”17 His first attempts dated from about 1930. The book was finished in 1955. By “provisos” Wilson probably means: reservations about the possibility of perfect truthfulness in something as difficult as spiritual autobiography. There does not seem to be much reason to reproach Lewis for having no reservations. That reproach is simply plucked out of the air. It is one of many cases where the success of Wilson’s book depends on the reader’s ignorance.
But not on ignorance only. His implicit observation that Lewis’s mind was not quite subtle enough for spiritual autobiography is really worse than just poorly founded. It implies that Wilson considers himself capable of assessing and comparing the subtlety of other people’s minds – and indeed, that he considers his readers capable of this. This flattering assumption may win over even not-so-ignorant readers to any view it invites them to share. Wilson’s is indeed an inviting sort of cocksureness. He talks to us about Lewis much in the way a nursery school teacher may talk to a mother about her child. Take this sentence:
Like many (most?) religious people, Lewis was profoundly afraid of death. (293)
– a sentence which, incidentally, is a marvel of concentrated silliness. Or again, when Wilson in the Preface mentions his own visit to the house where Lewis lived as a boy:
I realized that what Lewis was seeking with such painful earnestness all his life was not to be found in this house. (xii)
– which realization is quite a confused one if only because no one has ever suggested that Lewis was seeking anything in that house at all. Let us also note that the idea of a lifelong and painfully earnest quest had not been mentioned until this very passage. The quest idea and the idea about the house are introduced not as facts, but as things which Lewis was wrong about. There is no better illustration of Wilson’s habit of thought than this seminal piece of confusion. He knows better, even before he knows anything at all.
Such and similar compounds of nonsense, confusion and instinctive condescension pervade the book: and they could well be the very reason why it has largely supplanted other Lewis biographies. I am not now thinking of its obvious appeal to readers with some preconceived spite against Lewis, for I don’t think they make a large part of Wilson’s readership for this book. What I mean is that those who have a high regard for Lewis may find themselves adopting Wilson’s views because it seems the surest way to avoid being such a pathetic thing as a Lewis devotee. That, at least, was my own initial response.18
Pride goes before (and goes on after) tremendous falls like the following one. On page 161 Wilson quotes from a letter of Lewis an observation which, he thinks, shows a characteristically hidebound attitude. I will not go into this matter for I am confident that every reader of these lines will immediately see that Wilson misinterprets them. The mistake in itself is forgivable – like most mistakes in themselves – but is made into a serious one by two circumstances. One is that this supposed example of hideboundness is not a mere aside, but serves to give Wilson a leg up to his discussion of Lewis’s achievement as a Christian apologist. The other circumstance is that Wilson says he has been thinking over this letter, “on and off”, for twenty-two years.
This is perhaps a convenient point for a short break in my diatribe. For although there is much to be said against this biography of C. S. Lewis, although Wilson does not know how to combine the art of entertainment with the art of biography so that both survive, yet in some respects it remains a good book. It can be read by those who know nothing about Lewis, and what is more, I know some of such readers to have gone on to read his books. Half-way through my first reading of Wilson’s book I was myself thrilled with it and already started recommending it. The sheer skill with which the story is built up, every single sentence and paragraph whetting your appetite for the next, is in itself a delight. The tone of mockery may in places be exactly right, as at the point where Lewis flies to Greece: “...Yet here he was, signing up for a holiday with his wife like any other twentieth-century human being” (279); and strong language may of course be appropriate to the situation described, as I think it is in: “The hellish responsibility of looking after an alcoholic brother and a furiously senile old woman...” (223). There are also a number of what I consider to be very fine remarks about Lewis’s works; for example, that he “was to spend nearly all his literary energies imagining what the world would look like if seen from heaven” (133), or that Lewis was “extremely good at describing the actual territory in which the moral life, for most of us, is thrashed out” (177), or again, that he “was by temperament in danger of turning into a caricature backwoodsman” (197). The pages on The Abolition of Man are excellent, and infinitely superior to the parallel passage in George Sayer’s biography.
Such episodes are, however, too rare to save the whole. Indeed their chief function for me is to suggest that the author must know to what extent he is bungling most of his job. This is further suggested by the fact that some gossipy passages were silently removed in the second edition19 – perhaps because of threated libel suits? The large photograph of a cross-armed Wilson in that same edition does not indicate any general doubts about the quality of his work on Lewis. In this way, alas, my overall verdict becomes even less favourable: which explains, and may excuse, my admittedly one-sided approach.
Wilson’s theories about Lewis’s life – the father complex; the latent longing for his childhood days and dislike of adulthood; rational thought as a repression mechanism – are perhaps worth putting forward, although I tend to designate them, with a locution of Wilson’s, as “ideas which may be better aired in talk” (173), the volatile yet smelly lubricants of human conversation. Let us now, however, turn to Wilson’s discussions of the books written by Lewis. Here, too, the theories as well as the gossipy disposition have free play. But inevitably we have advanced a good deal now into the realm of falsification. Wilson’s discussions of the various books can all be compared with the books themselves.
Among the theories that are brought to bear on Lewis’s work, the one about his dislike of adulthood has especially remarkable results. Surprised by Joy is characterized as “really a glorious sort of comic novel.” The unflattering portrait of Lewis’s father is considered by Wilson to be one of the most important things in the book. The chapter in question “is one of the funniest things written in English in the twentieth century” (252). What might be the reason that Wilson drops into such language? My impression is that he is simply forgetting himself in his zeal to discredit Surprised by Joy as a source of information. All the same, he is certainly right to point out that this chapter is very funny at the expense of Albert Lewis.20
But what about Wilson’s observations on The Great Divorce? This book “shows Lewis at his very best; it is something approaching a masterpiece” (202). There are, I believe, more Lewis readers who are of this opinion; I for one am not. As in more of his books, Lewis’s personal likes and dislikes are here served up a little too raw to my taste. Still I believe there may be good reasons to call it a great book. Wilson’s reason is that “the side of his genius which, from early childhood, enjoyed ‘collecting’ the infuriating absurdities of the grown-ups (...) here comes into its own” (202). With a little good will we may indeed recognize this knack for creating malicious caricatures as an aspect of Lewis’s character as a writer. And we owe a debt to Wilson for this contribution towards a fuller understanding of Lewis. Meanwhile, he makes the value of The Great Divorce almost entirely dependent on this one aspect; and this, I submit, can only point towards his own love for malicious caricatures. The characters in this book are invariably adults; but to draw attention to this fact is quite pointless. There is no more point in it than in saying that the book is written in English, or that it is printed in black letters on white paper. Lewis was not writing about adults and adulthood as such. Of course Wilson is free to think that Lewis did so implicitly. But he makes no attempt to make this idea plausible – and disregards most of the things which are explicit enough and which would seem to deserve some discussion here. His praise for The Great Divorce is really one more example of Wilson drawing our attention away from the subject we thought he was treating (life and works of C. S. Lewis) and towards mere flights of fancy. He does indeed recognize in this little book “some of the finest religious writing in the whole Lewis oeuvre”, but does not develop this observation at all (201).
Lewis’s daily work was to speak and write about old literature. Wilson is full of praise for his achievement in this field. His scholarly publications, Wilson emphasizes, stand out for their exceptional readability and freshness. Wilson has read nearly everything written in English by or about Milton, and he says “there are not many better books than Lewis’s” (172). I have little to add to this because A Preface to Paradise Lost is nearly all I have ever read about Milton. Wilson’s judgement does not greatly surprise me, however. I have studied history and have not so far come across any writer who is Lewis’s equal in making thoughts and feelings which have become wholly “historical” nonetheless understandable and even plausible.21
The other side of the coin is that one may well wonder if Lewis understood thoughts and feelings that are wholly modern. I, for one, think we need not be very pessimistic about this – if only because he apparently was familiar enough with the moderns to serve them as an excellent expositor of the ancients. He knew on which points an old text was apt to be misunderstood by modern readers – or indeed “apt to repel” them, as he said in the first sentence of his first book of literary history.
Wilson thinks Lewis’s lack of modern sentiment a real shortcoming. He talks of “a strange lack of development in Lewis’s reading tastes” (78) and regards the fact that he “knew next to nothing” about James Joyce as a case of “breezy refusal to follow what was going on outside his own imaginative world and his own range of old-fashioned reading tastes” (214).
Whether Lewis understood the modern world is not a question that admits of a conclusive answer. Any answer is bound to answer your taste (both for modernity and for Lewis) rather than the question. What I am concerned with is the way Wilson links up Lewis’s reading life with the rest of his life. Predictably, the connection is found to lie in the childhood trauma. Lewis’s longing for his childhood days is made to explain both his love for children’s books and what Wilson calls his “rooted conservatism” (79). The things explained are, again, made to suit the explanation rather than the reverse. For one thing, Wilson clearly exaggerates the importance of Lewis’s taste for children’s literature in comparison with his other literary loves and likings. “On one level,” says Wilson, “it is quite a good joke (...) in the decade of Sartre’s La Nausée and (...) Joyce’s Ulysses, to be whooping with delight at the reprint of Adventures of Tom Pippin by Roland Zuiz [sic]” (161). We are referred for this to a letter of March 1937, where Lewis wrote to a friend that he had “half thought of getting” this book by Roland Quiz, but had not bought it because this friend might already have it. No trace of any whooping here. Wilson frequently suggests that Lewis not only liked children’s literature, but actually preferred it to all or most other literature. Furthermore, he uses terms like “narrow”, “old-fashioned”, “conservative” and the like to characterize Lewis’s literary tastes. Such terms are hardly apposite – as may appear, in fact, from Wilson’s observations elsewhere: “His aesthetic tastes remained much the same – that is to say broad” (292), and: “There he marks himself out (...) as a pioneer of modern taste” (145). But perhaps we should not press this contradiction. More noteworthy to my mind is the fact that Wilson seems to think that, now that we live in modern times, to be modern is a sign of maturity: that something must be seriously wrong if you are not, like other people, modern: that not being modern is a form of childishness. As if nothing more interesting could be said about possible reasons to remain unfascinated by James Joyce.
The saddest thing about these parts of the biography is that Wilson ignores what Lewis himself said about his love for children’s literature. Lewis’s observations on this point22 were quite plausible; they should at least have been taken notice of in a book that is so much focused on his relation to childhood. Wilson does not quote or even suggest the existence of these observations. Instead he talks of Lewis’s “attitudes and poses”, his teasing non-conformity, his habit of “rejoicing in the limitations of his sympathy” (161). We, Wilson’s readers, are apparently supposed to enjoy the view offered us of psychological backgrounds that Lewis did not see, and not to bother any further with foregrounds which might make nonsense of these backgrounds.
And the same thing happens to what Lewis said about his own lack of modernity. His Cambridge inaugural lecture of 1954 is treated by Wilson as little more than “indicative of the way that he was developing at this time” (246). As Lewis is quoted from a letter to some American children: “I am tall, fat, bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired and wear glasses for reading,” Wilson comments: “It was a juvenile version of his Cambridge inaugural lecture” (250). This is certainly to add to Lewis’s own humour. But it is not to convey the point of the lecture; or in so far as it is, this point is one that Lewis was making in one form or another at almost every stage of his public career. As he gave a concluding summary of the inaugural lecture Lewis called this point his “settled conviction”. He had given his view of the ways in which the modern world is fundamentally different from all other and previous worlds. He added that he himself belonged to an older world. The same view of the modern world underlies The Abolition of Man, written in 1943 – yet “in this book”, Wilson says (rightly I think), “he deserves to command his widest audience”. It is “an important book” (197). But then what about the Cambridge lecture?
The fact is that Lewis in this biography is routinely hidden from our view as soon as he threatens to say true things about himself: and this is what he happened to do as he was inaugurated in Cambridge, but not in The Abolition of Man. We will find curtains of psycho-speculation let down by Wilson wherever Lewis explains his own relation to pre-modern times, or his love for children’s literature, or so many other things that Wilson wants to explain.
Lewis’s works of Christian apologetics and popular theology – The Problem of Pain (1940), three little volumes of radio talks (1942–1944), and Miracles (1947) – come off rather badly in Wilson’s account of them. It is even suggested that Lewis himself might have deplored the lasting popularity of these works since “he came to feel that their method and manner were spurious” (215). In his defence of traditional tenets of the Christian faith, says Wilson, he indulged in a superficial, rhetorical and aggressive kind of argument – much like the ways of his father as a police-court solicitor. The moment of Lewis’s repentance from this – after a “Socratic” debate about Miracles – is in Wilson’s story a dramatic climax. The climax is further developed into the high point of Lewis’s writing career: the Narnia tales (to which we will come back presently). There could be some truth in this representation; and some of Wilson’s objections to particular points that Lewis made are probably justified. More generally, it may well be true that Lewis knew too little of contemporary philosophy to achieve all that he tried to achieve. However, truth in Wilson’s book often gives way to exaggeration. The exaggeration most easily found out is the suggestion that Lewis, had he lived, might have hated the lasting popularity of this part of his oeuvre. He made new editions both of the radio talks, which were collected in Mere Christianity (1952), and of Miracles (1960). The latter’s revisions and the former’s preface do not give evidence of any repentance either from his manner in the 1940s or to what he was or did after 1950.
Another exaggeration is the claim that Lewis was making religious faith dependent on the intellect, and that the very attempt to do so must be seen, in him, as a sign of warped emotions. With regard to The Problem of Pain Wilson allows that Lewis wrote “with the best of intentions” and that “in the context of the time, there was a sort of heroism in this” (166–167). But apart from this context, these intentions, and its excellent readability, the sad truth about this book is, for Wilson, that it presents the Christian faith in a totally different way from the way it had once presented itself to Lewis. In the book, Lewis was “trying to define, or speaking as if it were possible to define, ‘precisely what He [i.e. Jesus Christ] meant’ by saying who He was.” This was, in Wilson’s view, “a sort of profanity”. It was all the less pardonable since Lewis had been led to [the faith] by his experience of the numinous, and by the exercise of his imagination.
Above all, he had been led to it by the discovery that story, myth, could not only carry truth, but also be truth. Surely (...) the story of Christ was much more important than any doctrine which a fallible or fallen human mind could extract from it? (166)
Now here is an excellent summary of Surprised by Joy, followed by a no less excellent summary of what we might call Lewis’s religious epistemology. The extraordinary thing about it is that Wilson somehow contrives to believe these insights to be his own, and embezzles, as it were, the fact that they appear implicitly or explicitly on page after page in Lewis’s work. It is true that in the apologetic books Lewis does not pay much explicit attention to the experiences that had led him to the faith. If the idea to do so ever occurred to him, he probably dropped it as “too highbrow”, anyhow as a bad idea. Nobody would have been interested. Yet now that we know something about these experiences, it is easy to see that he did work a lot of them into his books and talks. Their profanity, on the other hand, does not seem to have struck very many of his readers and listeners.
It surely takes some wilful misunderstanding to see a significant contrast between Lewis’s apologetics and the rest of his work. His own view of the relation between the apologetic books and the Narnia tales can be found in a letter of 1953 to a young reader: “Of course you’re right about the Narnian books being better than the tracts; at least, in the way a picture is better than a map.”23 Just now I opened Mere Christianity at random and very soon came across this:
Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger – according to the way you react to it.24
– which sentence could, without many changes, find a place in almost any book by Lewis: best of all in a Narnia book. I for one have never doubted that the charm of the Narnia tales is only superficially different from the charm of most of the other books. And it is certain that the broadcast talks of the years 1941–1944 were found extremely edifying by a large and varied audience. Bertrand Russell received a letter from an atheist who was in spiritual distress as a result of hearing them.25 The talks achieved their end to an unforeseen degree. Wilson represents the apologetic episode of Lewis’s career as a deplorable series of faux pas. Such a picture fits well into the psycho-drama conceived and directed by Wilson, but has few connections with any reality outside it.
The drama reaches a climax, and perhaps so does Wilson’s unreliability, in his treatment of the “Chronicles of Narnia”. The origination of this series of seven children’s books is explained directly and unambiguously from the intellectual defeat which Lewis suffered as a defender of the Christian faith early in 1948. This defeat – in a debate with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe – is represented as Lewis’s painful road toward an important perception. He came to see that the deepest truths about God and man are not to be reached through the exercise of the rational mind but through the imagination; and so he went on to give free rein to his own rich imagination. His subconscious was quick to find its ideal form of expression in the children’s tale. “It is not whimsical to say that Narnia is the inside of Lewis’s mind” (221).
Here is another good example of an idea which may be better aired in talk. It is perhaps a clever idea but hardly more than that. There is not the least indication, let alone evidence, that it corresponds to the reality. The question why Lewis wrote these books, in the sense in which it is here answered, is really unanswerable. At least I do not know of any facts pointing to a clear answer. What Wilson presents as evidence for his idea will on a closer view mostly be found to be no evidence at all. What it does show is this biographer’s lack of due interest in what he is writing about.
First he describes the impact of the defeat on Lewis (213):
He found this debate emotionally depleting. He told George Sayer that “his argument for the existence of God had been demolished”.
The words in quotation marks are to be found in Sayer’s book about Lewis. On the page in question (not the one Wilson states) we read that Lewis was “unhappy” about the debate until months after the event. His reason for this unhappiness was, in Sayer’s words, that he felt that
in the minds of simple people, the disproof of an argument for the existence of God tended to be seen as a disproof of the existence of God.26
– a slightly different reason from the one Wilson suggests. This inaccuracy might not in itself be of great moment, but it is of course a characteristic one. Lewis was thinking about simple people and about God rather than, as Wilson suggests, about himself, and rather than “his argument”. Wilson has further decided that what made Lewis feel so miserable was not just the defeat but the fact that his opponent had been an adult. “He felt that he was arguing so coherently for the existence of that Other World because he had been there himself. And now here was a grown-up who was not convinced by his explanations of those inner adventures” (214). It is true that he had never been defeated like this by a child. The horror of it all, Wilson thinks, was all the worse to Lewis because his opponent was a woman.
In order to trim all these wild ideas back into a truer view of the matter, it may indeed not be enough to go back to George Sayer’s account. Elizabeth Anscombe has written that
the meeting of the Socratic club at which I read my paper has been described by several of [Lewis’s] friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. (...) My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought were accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends – who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject matter – as an interesting example of the phenomenon called “projection”.27
Reading the Narnia tales is to Wilson like reading the mind of Lewis. His discussion of them is largely a matter of pointing out two sources for these stories: first, Lewis’s childhood experiences and nostalgia for his early years; second, his defeat as a defender of Christianity and undying itch for metaphysical certainties. The longest quotation is a passage from The Silver Chair, where Puddleglum maintains against the Queen (or Witch) of Underland, and against an increasing appearance of the contrary, that Underland (where he then is) is not the whole of the world. This passage, Wilson says, “is a nursery nightmare version of Lewis’s debate with Miss Anscombe” (226). He suggests connections between the life and the works of Lewis none of which can be either proved or disproved. In one case, to be sure, he seems to score half a point. Susan’s fate in The Last Battle does suggest, as Wilson says, that “growing up” is an “unforgivable sin” (228). However, Susan’s idea of growing up is clearly intended to be seen as a wrong idea – in fact, as childishness.
This picture of the inside of Lewis’s mind is (1) incomplete and (2) not unique to the Narnia books. To start with the latter point: A scene very much like the one between Puddleglum and the Queen of Underland can be found in a book from the period when Lewis was scoring his greatest triumphs, supposed or real, as a Christian apologist – in chapter XV.4 of That Hideous Strength (1945). A complete survey of all such parallels in the works of Lewis would probably spoil rather than increase our reading pleasure (parallels are not intended for surveys, I think); but it would show that his characteristic ideas and images are strewn quite evenly all over his works.
There is, however, at least one very important idea or image that is absent from this sketch of Lewis’s inner self. In 1988 an American schoolboy, having read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and apparently not aware that Lewis had been dead for twenty-five years, wrote a letter to tell him
I thought that the lion played a great part in your story and made it interesting...28
The part played by the lion, Aslan, seems to have escaped Wilson’s notice. In the chapter on Narnia, Aslan is only mentioned in passing on two occasions (220, 229). Of all the innumerable cases of sloppiness in Wilson’s book, this one is perhaps the least pardonable. For if there is any single point at which Lewis’s life and work converge, it is the point where, having already started on his first Narnia book, Lewis found this great lion bursting in on his imaginary world. Describing Narnia while leaving out Aslan is about as useful as making a passport photo of a person wearing sunglasses.
A parallel can be drawn, I think, between Wilson’s treatment of the Narnia books and that of Surprised by Joy. In the latter book he ignored the spiritual drama by trying to reduce it to psycho-drama. Lewis explained that “Joy” turned out to have its origin outside himself and that this surprised him. Wilson fails or refuses to understand this, yet pretends to understand everything perfectly. His gaze is fixed on “the inside of the mind of Lewis”. It therefore misses all that has its origin outside. And that, perhaps, is how he contrives to ignore Aslan. The American schoolboy in his ignorance may have understood Lewis better, I suspect, than this biographer laureate. To avoid this suspicion, Wilson should at least have explained why the first of the Narnia tales was not called The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Yet it is debatable whether the biography has here actually reached its nadir. Wilson’s lack of interest in Lewis is perhaps still more blatant at a point where it is hardly noticeable. Lewis’s favourite among his own novels was Till we have Faces. For a biographer it would be wise to treat a fact like this in the way Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein did. Mozart once wrote in a letter that he considered a particular composition as the best thing he had ever written. Einstein: “Now there must have been some grounds for such an opinion” – and then these grounds are pointed out (and found to be good).29 What does Wilson say about Till we have Faces? Nothing. The book is briefly mentioned on two occasions in connection with what he thinks is an increasing introspectiveness in Lewis, and that is all.
The last Wilsonian critique I will discuss here is the one on A Grief Observed – the collection of diary notes which Lewis wrote after the death of his wife in 1960. Wilson plays it off against the other books. “This was the real thing”, he writes (285), as Lewis seems finally to admit that nothing much can be said about God and about metaphysics generally. In the books he wrote twenty years before, Lewis had been assuming that very much indeed could be said about God. The first milestone on his road to truth and wisdom was Narnia, the second and last was A Grief Observed – in Wilson’s story.
This line of development has its undeniable merits as a narrative device. And there is surely a unique force to the way Lewis here expressed his heightened awareness that no human language, hoewever brilliant, can solve for us the practical problem of pain, or can convey more than a caricature of God or of anything. But this awareness is really never absent in his books. It is present at least from The Problem of Pain’s preface onwards. A biographical scheme in which it is absent all the time and does not break through until the end cannot be the result of attentive reading. Wilson’s view of A Grief Observed might be a case of what Lewis in a different context called “that pernicious criticism which tries to recommend one excellence by depreciating another”.30 Certainly it is one more case of Wilson slanting the facts to fit his chosen scheme.
The wonderful readability of this biography and its occasional fine observations cannot redeem it. Sloppiness, cocksureness and sheer gossip: these are its three main factors. Without these, indeed without any single one of these, Wilson would have been unable to complete his job as biographer of C. S. Lewis. I will pass the three factors under separate final review, using a brief phrase (in my italics) from a passage already quoted:
She [Mrs Moore] was persistent in trying to do unnecessary tasks, thereby forcing Jack, out of guilt, to do them himself. (75)
Usually, the easy way to detect Wilson’s sloppiness is simply to compare his account with the sources. In this case, in checking the relevant passage in Lewis’s diary, we found that there was no question of Lewis feeling any guilt about Mrs Moore’s hard work even though, for his part, he was idling away his day. He tried to stop her. But there is more sloppiness to the passage. On a syntactically strict view of this sentence, it would seem to be Mrs Moore who felt guilty, rather than Jack. Not that this will be any reader’s view. Yet now that we know this guilt thing to be a fabrication, the wobbly syntax gains significance. It can now be seen as a symptom of a larger carelessness, and indeed tastelessness. For as we conclude that the “out of guilt” phrase is an atmospheric element somewhat hastily added, we soon discover that it is just one more item in a jumble of cheap ornaments – obsession, compulsion, guilt, and what not – from the modern novelist’s junk room. Any real pondering over the correct position of this short phrase within the sentence would lead to its being not shifted but cut out. But then the whole sentence would soon follow. And that would be the beginning of the end for the whole book. As Dr Johnson said of journalism as a profession, contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary.31 It is a book for readers who will spend as little time and genuine attention on the subject as Wilson apparently did: a book for the reviewing establishment (“the definitive biography” – John Bailey, Guardian; “full of compassion and insight” – Michael Holroyd; “his best yet” – Andrew Motion, Observer; and so on and so forth) and for all those who follow their lead. Above all, it is a book for booksellers. The Show of Art without the Power.
Comparisons can be made not only with what the sources tell us, but with other biographies. Wilson’s cocksureness – second factor – becomes painfully clear when you compare his Lewis biography, for example, with Bernard Crick’s biography of George Orwell. In his introduction, Crick explains his own misgivings about “much of the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark of the English tradition of biography”:
It may be pleasant to read, but readers should realize that often they are being led by the nose, or that the biographer is fooling himself by an affable pretence of being able to enter into another person’s mind (...) and this all done so elegantly that neither contradictions nor gaps in the evidence are apparent to any but scholarly eyes carefully reading the footnotes or cynically noting their lack. None of us can enter into another person’s mind; to believe so is fiction.
Some form of character sketch is unavoidable and indeed imperative, says Crick, but this had best be done by offering “rival contemporary characterizations” and in any case
without abandoning the evidence and the chronicle of events for the seductive short-cuts and pseudo-certainties even of “empathy”, still less of literary psychoanalysis.32
The result of Crick’s method – of his “stress on externality” – amazed me. His is a very fat and sometimes indigestible book; but those who read on will get impressions of George Orwell that are very much like impressions that you get from acquaintance with living people. That is, you will be left with memories of a number of images, scenes and utterances that have struck you for personal, perhaps unexplainable reasons. In Wilson’s book an Explanation reigns supreme, bending and twisting nearly everything to an alleged need to be explained – by It. This Explanation is a psychological fantasy. Even supposing that this particular fantasy corresponded to some important reality and supposing the illustrations were recognizably drawn from life – to know a man through such a book would still be very different from knowing him in real life. This book does not attempt an approximation of real-life acquaintance at all. Rather it is like a ritual quite thoughtlessly performed on writers whose books have reached certain sales figures. This is the Biographication of C. S. Lewis. When I want to get to know someone, I usually attend as well as I can to what that person thinks fit to let me know, and do not normally try to bypass him or her and delve into his or her early youth, or into any other matters which I will anyhow never learn much about. Who, in fact, has ever been looking forward to these stale and rambling speculations about the unconscious inner life of C. S. Lewis? It is astonishing that this kind of thing should be widely hailed as the last word in critical subtlety. One of the keener reviewers, the Dutch literary critic Kees Fens, wrote at the end of his piece on this book, “It would be better for a writer not to have had any childhood, at least not a happy or an unhappy one. And certainly no untimely deceased mother.”33 The pointlessness, the silliness and the cocksureness of a phrase like this “out of guilt” becomes almost impressive if you try to give it a place in the Orwell biography. It will find no place there. “An honest biographer must be more dull than he could be,” says Crick, promising not to indulge in “seductive short-cuts and pseudo-certainties”. And: The more a subject has been treated in unreliably entertaining biographies, the fatter and duller an honest one has to be. And surely this is why Crick’s first chapter is particularly long and tedious: it is about Orwell’s early years.
Truth often has to deal in dull negations, unlike the glittering results of intuition and characterology.34
Writers like Wilson can produce more nonsense in ten words than can be dismissed in dozens of pages of dull negation. “Bread of deceit is sweet to a man,” as the Book of Proverbs says, “but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.”
Obviously, Crick’s method is not the only acceptable one. Fantasy is a legitimate pursuit in itself; and the psychologizing approach cannot be simply equated with cocksureness.35 But then readers must not be fooled about what they are in for. Wilson has told us at the end of his Preface that he would
try to be realistic, not only because reality is more interesting than fantasy, but also because we do Lewis no honour to make him into a plaster saint. And he deserves our honour.
He cannot be said to have failed in his attempt to be realistic: he has made no such attempt at all.
A similar criticism applies to the third factor, gossip. The malicious caricature as a literary form deserves its place under the sun, for all I care. I would not like the idea of a taboo on it. We would therefore perhaps be wise to judge Wilson’s book by another standard than Crick’s example. A more suitable standard would seem to be, for example, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. I happened to read that book shortly after the Lewis biography, and was struck by the likeness of the two works. Strachey’s prose, too, is brilliant. And his scathing portrayals of Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning and the others make you really believe – for a while – that these people stood out for their bad qualities rather than for anything else. Histories of English literature tend to tell us that Strachey had many imitators but that none of these were his equal in his own field. Wilson can, I think, be reasonably regarded as a late case of Strachey-imitation. Viewed this way, his fantasies about guilt feelings, repressions, obsessions, irremediable injuries, traumas, horrors and people moving to and fro fall more or less into place. But the great difference between Wilson and Strachey is, of course, the size of this Lewis biography and the corresponding pretence of solid work. The book has over 300 pages and as many footnotes, as well as illustrations, “Acknowledgements”, a “Select Bibliography”, and an index; in brief, it looks completely genuine. Meanwhile Strachey’s idea of good biography was that
the method of enormous and elaborate accretion which produced the Life of Johnson [and, we may add, Crick’s George Orwell] is excellent, no doubt; but, failing that, let us have no half-measures; let us have the pure essentials – a vivid image, on a page or two, without explanations, transitions, commentaries, or padding.36
Wilson makes it appear as if his Life of Lewis is based on much preparatory work and careful study. Thus in a footnote on page 176 he reproaches another biographer of Lewis for “a strange assertion (among many other inaccuracies)”. And still another biographer’s account of the chronology of the Narnia stories has been diagnosed by Wilson to be “slightly confused” (219). Lytton Strachey would never write such things. Wilson ought to have refrained from it. Unless the sham is deliberate, his book is Strachey’s “half-measure”.37 The clownish figures, the boozers and buffoons, the skirt-chasers, scatterbrains and sundry neurotics appearing in his book are good enough as second-rate satire, but it is wrong for Wilson to suggest that he is interested in what he is satirizing. His view of Lewis perhaps deserves a moment’s attention. But not for longer than a page or two.
What then, it might be finally asked, is the good of spending so many more pages on it?
Wolfgang Hildesheimer in his biography of Mozart observed that “surely, where anecdote is spreading, truth becomes hard to find.” Even more relevant to my present purpose is what he says about “that view which [Mozart’s] sister Nannerl phrased in seemingly perennial words: that he remained, except in his music, a child all his life.” This view, says Hildesheimer, was not so much perceptive as simply nice to repeat.38 The same would seem to be true of Wilson’s idea that Lewis remained a child all his life.39 A strong indication of this is the review, already referred to, which my compatriot Kees Fens wrote about this book. Fens is a doyen of Dutch literary criticism and was distinguished by the Netherlands Society for English Studies for his articles on English literature in the daily newspaper de Volkskrant. His review is in a way unique. I don’t think Kees Fens is a Lewis specialist and he leaves us in no doubt that he dislikes Lewis. Unlike other established reviewers, however, he had no difficulty seeing through the hollowness of the way Wilson went about this biography. All the more telling is the fact that Fens accepts his view of Lewis. “The naïvety which I suspected in Lewis seems undeniable,” he writes, having just shown us why it is deniable if you are to go by Wilson.40
Again, Norman F. Cantor in his book on twentieth-century medievalists notes that Wilson’s biography of Lewis is “more hostile” than its predecessors. He appears to be unimpressed by Wilson’s unctuous introductory words about the need for realism and about Lewis deserving our honour. All the same, the only detail which Cantor directly borrows from any of the four available biographies is that
there is a coterie of fanatical Lewis disciples among English Anglo-Catholics, who hold frequent cult meetings at Oxford. According to A. N. Wilson, this group dogmatically insists that Lewis never lost his virginity.41
Cantor clearly wants to keep his distance from Wilson. He probably finds it as hard to believe Wilson as I found it. But the pleasure of repeating (and embroidering) a detail like this seems to override all other considerations. The Perpetual Virginity idea and many more of Wilson’s ideas may have a future before them that is well described by what Hildesheimer said about the idea of Mozart’s being a child all his life:
The contention haunts the entire literature, condescendingly amiable and in a welcome way sweetly poisonous, and will be dogging him forever.
It may be doubted whether Wilson’s will prove to be the definitive biography of C. S. Lewis. If it does, it will be definitive in the way that such sweet poison is. I have been trying to provide, for this and for any similar book, a definitive antidote – so that we may stop calling this kind of writing “controversial” and start calling it fraud. If that sounds ambitious, the attempt may at least have given new force to Pope’s next two lines about writing ill and judging ill: But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence / To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
An earlier version of this essay, in Dutch, was published in Bloknoot No. 8 (May 1994) under the title ‘Het raadsel der leesbaarheid’. The above English text was last revised on 9 November 2004.
1. I am referring in this essay to A. N. Wilson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Collins, London 1990) and to the paperback edition (HarperCollins / Flamingo, London 1991), i.e. to the British editions; I have seen no American ones. The latest American paperback edition was published by Norton, New York, in 2002. Comparing the British first (hardcover) and second (paperback) editions I found the following two differences:
(a) Page 203, ll. 4–6 of the first edition has: “It was Minto who finally decided that June, the intensity of whose feelings for Jack was now obvious, should go.” – This was replaced by: “It was June’s father who finally said that she must go.”
(b) Page 256, last paragraph until the end on the next page in the first edition has: “According to an oral memory of Joy’s son Douglas, 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 Old High Street and found it occupied by Jack and Joy in a compromising position. This memory, which transpired during a conversation between Douglas Gresham and Lyle W. Dorsett, is not repeated in either of the books which the two men have written about the Lewis marriage, and it is not clear whether the omission is because Gresham distrusts the memory (he was eight years old at the time) or because it was considered indelicate to imply that the union between Lewis and his future wife was consummated, as would appear to have been the case, before they were married.” – This was replaced in the second edition by: “Just as in the early stages of his involvement with Minto, Lewis positively revelled in a situation where others might have regarded him as a victim who was being exploited. There is an emotional paradox here which his friends, very understandably, were slow to perceive. Knowing how important their friendship was to Lewis, and indeed how self-conscious he was in his celebrations of it, they found it doubly puzzling and wounding that he should have selected as his consort a woman whom they found so intensely unappealing. They did not realize that, for Lewis, this represented a large part of Joy’s charm. He needed a love which threatened to upset or even to destroy the very fabric of his life. His love for Minto challenged the two great facts of his situation in 1919: his family and his academic career. Now that he was on his own once more, secure in his career and settled in his friendships, it was as if he needed to take some step which would alienate and destroy the things and the people that made him happy.”
These two examples, against the background of all that has not been changed but reprinted as an allegedly definitive biography, seem sufficient proof of both the author’s and the publisher’s bad faith. I have therefore decided I could spend my time better than compiling a full list of discrepancies between the first and second editions.
2. o.c., 242, about Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). I am borrowing the term “publicity intellectual” from Saul Bellow’s essay “Culture Now” (1971), reprinted in The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose, third edition (1973).
3. Douglas Gresham, “Worth Words Perhaps?”, Chesterton Review Vol. XVIII No. 3/4 (August 1991), 372–277. This is one of the two (or more?) passages that were changed in the second edition – see my Note 1. See also Lyle Dorsett’s review, “Another Biography of C. S. Lewis” (in its published form not in my possession). Dorsett was director of the Wade Center in Wheaton at the time when Wilson visited it. Wilson spent, says Dorsett, less than three hours there.
4. It was not until later that I read Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons (1971): “Lewis lost his virginity while a pupil at Cherbourg House...” (20). Still later I found that Hooper was one of two people at whose suggestion Wilson wrote this book and that Wilson is “very grateful to them both for the trust which this invitation implied” (C. S. Lewis, 311).
5. Fount paperback edition.
6. Joy here has a very special meaning, to which I will come back later.
6a. With respect both to this and to the following paragraph, it is worth looking further into the case of Macdonald and study his relationship, not to his dead mother, but to his father. The contrast with Lewis could not be greater. See, for example, this passage from Macdonald’s sermon “Abba, Father!” (available online):
There may be among my readers – alas for such! – to whom the word Father brings no cheer, no dawn, in whose heart it rouses no tremble of even a vanished emotion. It is hardly likely to be their fault. For though as children we seldom love up to the mark of reason; though we often offend; and although the conduct of some children is inexplicable to the parent who loves them; yet, if the parent has been but ordinarily kind, even the son who has grown up a worthless man, will now and then feel, in his better moments, some dim reflex of childship, some faintly pleasant, some slightly sorrowful remembrance of the father around whose neck his arms had sometimes clung. In my own childhood and boyhood my father was the refuge from all the ills of life, even sharp pain itself. Therefore I say to son or daughter who has no pleasure in the name Father, “You must interpret the word by all that you have missed in life. Every time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind, a covert from the tempest, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, that was a time when a father might have been a father indeed. Happy you are yet, if you have found man or woman such a refuge; so far have you known a shadow of the perfect, seen the back of the only man, the perfect Son of the perfect Father. All that human tenderness can give or desire in the nearness and readiness of love, all and infinitely more must be true of the perfect Father – of the maker of fatherhood, the Father of all the fathers of the earth, specially the Father of those who have specially shown a father-heart.”
7. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922–1927, ed. W. Hooper (Collins, London 1991).
8. George Sayer, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times (London, Macmillan 1988), 220–221 (cap. 19). Between Sayer’s “some laundry” and Wilson’s “a pile of Jack’s laundry” the missing link is provided by Lyle Dorsett in his biography of Joy Davidman, where she is carrying “Jack’s laundry” (Joy and C. S. Lewis, HarperCollins, London 1994, 118; originally published as And God Came In, Macmillan, New York 1983).
9. A term which Wilson borrows from John Henry Newman
10. Wilson aptly remarks that Lewis “was impishly choosing [a] title [i.e. Surprised by Joy] which by then was charged for him with double meaning” (252).
11. The book’s last words are a quote from Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection.
12. This, incidentally, is almost the only reference to the Bible in all Surprised by Joy.
13. For a good discussion of Surprised by Joy (preceded by a section about Bede Griffths and followed by one about Newman) see A. O. J. Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography in 19th & 20th Century England (Yale U.P., 1984), 203–209: “The key to Lewis’s story is well stated by himself: ‘I have been a converted pagan living among apostate Puritans’”; “The stock distinction between feeling and thinking people is not applicable to him”; “I pass lightly over his encounter with idealist metaphysics, about which I am not competent to speak”; “...his conversion to Christianity ... clearly occured at a level where this most articulate of men could not translate it into discursive thought”; “The real interest of his book lies in the gradual convergence of two streams of thought supposed to be flowing far apart towards different oceans – joy and thought.”
14. Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (new edition, Routledge, London 1995), 10.
15. Dust jacket of the first edition of Wilson’s C. S. Lewis.
16. Bodleian Library, MS Facs c. 47, fol. 148.
17. Bodleian Library, MS Eng. lett. 220/4, fol. 76; the parenthetical gloss is Lewis’s. In the same letter experience is defined as “that part or result of any event which is presented to consciousness”.
18. The Church Times reviewer wrote that Wilson has “rescu[ed] Lewis from his mythologizers”. Leon Edel, too, spoke of a rescue (see review excerpts in the second edition).
19. Cf. Note 1.
20. But perhaps the very best thing Lewis wrote in this vein is to be found in a letter to his brother, 21 December 1929, about his uncles Dick and Bill on the day of his father’s funeral (Letters, revised edition, London, Collins 1988).
21. We probably have a valuable comment on Wilson’s treatment of Lewis the medievalist in Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (William Morrow and Co., New York 1991): “Wilson also attempts a critical evaluation of Lewis’s work as a medievalist, which shows both what a quick study Wilson is and how little he knows about the Middle Ages and the modern interpretation of it” (430).
22. To be found chiefly in the collection Of This and Other Worlds, ed. W. Hooper (Collins, London 1984), now included in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories, ed. Lesley Walmsley (HarperCollins, London 2000).
23. 18 December 1953. Letters to Children (Collins, London 1985), 36.
24. Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, London 1952), cap. I.5.
25. Letter printed in Dear Bertrand Russell (1969) and mentioned in C. S. Lewis: An Annotated Checklist of Writings about him and his Works, ed. J. R. Christopher and J. K. Ostling (Kent State University Press 1972), 145.
26. Sayer, o.c., 186 (cap. 16).
27. Quoted by Richard Purtill from her introduction to a reprint of this paper in her Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (1981). R. L. Purtill, “Did C. S. Lewis lose his faith?” in A Christian for All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis, ed. A. Walker and J. Patrick (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1990), 51. See also Walter Hooper, “Oxford’s Bonny Fighter” in C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, ed. James T. Como (new edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego etc. 1992), 137–185 and especially 161 ff.
28. Bodleian Library, MS Eng. lett. c. 853 fol. 26. The boy’s name is illegible.
29. Alfred Einstein on K. 452, in Mozart: His Character, His Work (Panther Books, St Albans 1971), 277.
30. The Allegory of Love (Oxford University Press, 1936), 306 (cap. VII.2).
31. The Idler, No. 30, 11 November 1758.
32. Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Secker & Warburg, London 1980), Introduction (Penguin ed.: pp. 29–30).
33. “De goudmijn van de biograaf”, de Volkskrant, 14 May 1990 (my translation).
34. Crick, o.c., pp. 33–34.
35. The possibility of a heavily Freudian approach going together with genuine repect for a writer and every word he wrote is proved by W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. (“With touching historical naïveté, our minds leap to sex – in biographies if not in sober histories – at the mere mention of anything connected with either ‘secrecy’ or ‘guilt’ in any human being from the ancient Greeks to the end of the eighteenth century” – Samuel Johnson, Harcourt Brace, New York and London 1975, p. 385.)
36. Michael Holroyd and Paul Levy (ed.), The Shorter Strachey (1980), Introduction.
37. “Deliberate sham” is a serious insinuation. I am happy to be able to mention yet another possibility, based on Wilson’s own testimony in The London Daily Telegraph of 14 November 1998 (quoted by Richard James in an internet article called “Lewis in the Dock”). Wilson there tells us that writing Lewis’s biography “turned me into a very definite non-believer”. Remembering Wilson’s astonishing feats of muddle-headedness, I find it difficult to think that this has been a one-way process. Wilson’s confession must be supplemented by a frank suspicion that it has also been the other way round – that Wilson’s maturing unbelief has turned him into a very definite charlatan, at least where his work on Lewis is concerned. For if we rule out conscious swindle, the alternative supposition must be that the muddle-headedness has been authentic, which in view of its enormity is harder to believe. Compassion might therefore be more in place here than suspicions of wilful fraud. All the same, the case of A. N. Wilson and C. S. Lewis may serve to warn future cultured despisers of religion, of Lewis, or of both, for this very real danger of making a fool of oneself. As one of the knowledgeable sort of reviewers wrote: “Some kind friend should perhaps have warned him to handle Lewis with greater caution or not al all” (Christopher Derrick in New Oxford Review, May 1990). I confine these considerations to a footnote because my subject is Biography, not Wilson. It might still have been worth my while to read Wilson’s next biography, the one on Jesus (1994), if only to find out whether the life of Jesus is likewise found to explain “the Jesus phenomenon”, i.e. Christianity. The cover illustration – Jesus clasping pierced hands before his eyes as if in horror at seeing that phenomenon – suggests a different approach.
38. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart (1977; Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main 1980), 351, 285; or pp. 341 and 275 in the English paperback edition (Dent, London, 1985, translated by Marion Faber). I am giving my own translations.
39. Lewis recorded in his diary the moment when this very idea about Mozart reached him through a friend; his reply, that he “thought nothing could be more delightful”, is in Wilson’s view “disarmingly revealing” (81).
40. See above, Note 33.
41. Cantor, o.c., 213, 219.
42. Hildesheimer, o.c., 285: “Die Behauptung geistert herablassend-freundlich und auf willkommene Weise sanft-giftig durch die gesamte Literatur und wird ewig an ihm haften bleiben.” (English translation mine; the published translation is to be found on page 275 of the Dent edition).
In an article titled “Why I believe again” in the New Statesman of 2 April 2009, A. N. Wilson has publicized his slow, but now definite, reconversion to Christianity. A more popular article to the same effect appeared in the Daily Mail of 11 April.
Implicitly but unmistakably, much of Wilson’s past career is here discredited. Significant parts or aspects of his output in the past two decades must now be viewed as a product of his very swift conversion to atheism in the late 1980s – which he describes in retrospect as “a bit of middle-aged madness”. The swiftness alone, Wilson explains, should have warned him that he, “by nature a doubting Thomas”, was on a wrong track. As he confesses, the “creed that religion can be despatched in a few brisk arguments and then laughed off kept me going for some years.”
Reviewing one’s own life in this way must be a painful experience. What is worse, for the rest of us and possibly for Wilson, is that he has kept countless readers going that way. Certainly he has done so in his biography of C. S. Lewis. The continuing effect of his prose was recently exemplified in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as it published a revised article on Lewis in 2008. The reviser’s chief inspiration has evidently been Wilson’s biography. And sure enough, at the end of the article his book is mentioned as one of the two “most serious studies” – with an obsolete German book of 1974 as the other.
No reflections on this awkward situation are offered by Wilson. Instead, the photo published with the New Statesman article shows him as clinging, in a curiously literal sense, to the ways he professes to be abandoning. He is holding a book whose front jacket is partly in view. It appears to be a book on jesus. On closer inspection, it turns out to be Wilson’s own biography of Jesus, which was published two years after the one on Lewis. I have that book in front of me now. On the jacket’s backside, snippets are quoted from the praise lavished by many reviewers on the Lewis book of 1990. The embarrassing nature of this praise (“he cuts through all the pious cackle to the heart of the matter” etc.) must now be evident for Wilson. I have never seen fit to spend time on his Jesus book; but I am quite sure that it represents Wilson’s old creed in full flower. His posing with that book is a mystery. Perhaps it is best explained as an unfortunate idea. At any rate it is only posing.
There are some real grounds, however, for serious doubt about the public meaning of Wilson’s personal turnaround. Five years ago, when the return to Christianity must have been well under way, he wrote a TLS review (6 May 2004) of Lewis’s Collected Letters, volume 2. The Wilson who wrote that review was, to put it briefly, still quite indistinguishable from the one who had written the Lewis biography fifteen years earlier. What is more, the recent New Statesman piece about his own reconversion features the same old semi-novelistic allurements to gossip which we have found to be so perverse in the C. S. Lewis biography. It is now aimed at the atheists. The account of a conversation with prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens simply can’t be trusted to tell us anything about Christopher Hitchens.
Again, some time after announcing his reconversion Wilson wrote another TLS review (17 July 2009), discussing a volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters: and here is yet another a piece of sardonic sneering, apparently based on wide and solid reading. I am not in a position to judge any comments on Isaiah Berlin. But the editors of the Berlin letters, Henry Hardy and Jennifer Homes of Wolfson College, Oxford, soon wrote a telling reply (TLS, 29 July 2009). It is eerily reminiscent of how the Lewis biography was received in 1990 by anyone at all familiar with the subject:
Sir, – It would be inappropriate (though tempting) for us, as the editors of the second volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, to take issue with the bizarre and petulant judgements in A. N. Wilson’s review. But so many of the points he makes are based on factual errors that some correction is needed. To begin with comparatively trivial examples [etc.]. (..) More significant is Wilson’s accusation that Berlin’s thought did not develop over time. [etc.] (...) The accusation of bad editing on our part comes ill from one who misquotes and garbles so often (we spare readers the details); and we are unmoved by his specific examples. [...] Berlin was no saint, certainly, but he deserves (as do your readers) a more thoughtful, balanced assessment than he was given in your pages on this occasion.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s volte-face of April 2009 does inspire some hope not only for him, but for the public which he has in some ways been serving so badly for many years. In the New Statesman article, the perpetual mocking mode has found a new victim not only in the atheists but, at last, in Wilson’s very own self. He appears really candid about his own intellectual snobbery and how it got him on the path of unconvinced and unconvincing atheism. Interestingly for readers of his book on C. S. Lewis, we are told that at some early point in his atheist career Wilson was “almost yelling that reading Mere Christianity made me a non-believer”. Nobody should be surprised, in fact, to find Wilson one day yelling out his admiration and gratefulness for Mere Christianity. For now, he urges us to “read Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct.” This is surely one of C. S. Lewis’s key ideas, conveyed forcefully in Mere Christianity from the very first lines onwards. That book may still not be to Wilson’s taste; but then there is The Abolition of Man, which he already recognized as “an important book” back in his early atheist days. Also, Lewis has much to say about snobbery as a major force pushing people in regrettable directions.
No more Damascus-like conversions for Wilson, however. He is very clear about that. And indeed there would seem to be a long way to go if only for his all-round credibility to improve. What would help is a long, dull, exhaustive and, for God’s sake, accurate book in which he offers detailed recantations of the sweetly-poisonous nonsense he has been publishing to gratify modern mainstream secularism. Or would that be going too far in the way of reconversion? The photo published with Wilson’s confession is not just mysterious. It is also uncannily like a picture in one of the Children’s Bibles I was brought up with. It is a picture of the Pharisee thanking God that he was not as other men are. The perfect snob. Next to it was a picture of the publican who would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven.
Postscript written in May 2009, revised and expanded in September 2009, slightly revised August 2015