January 16, 2015

Pitter on Narnia

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

One of Lewis’s female friends (and yes, he did have some!) was the poet Ruth Pitter.  Largely unknown today, Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.  She and Lewis met on occasion and exchanged a number of letters.  I expect that she found it rather tiresome, after Lewis’s death, to have quoted to her and to be asked about what Lewis allegedly said to his friend Hugo Dyson: “I am not a man for marriage; but if I were, I would ask R.P.”

She writes about one meeting with Lewis and his brother, Major “Warnie” Lewis.  Pitter had asked if she “might query him about the first of his children’s books,” and Lewis consented.  She reports that the conversation went like this (Ruth Pitter, “Poet to Poet,” in In Search of C. S. Lewis, ed. Stephen Schofield, 113):

PITTER: In the land of Narnia, the witch makes it always winter and never Christmas?

LEWIS: Yes.

PITTER: Does she allow any foreign trade?

LEWIS: She does not.

PITTER: Am I allowed to postulate on the lines of Santa Claus with the tea tray?

LEWIS: You are not.

PITTER: Then where did all the materials for the good dinner the beavers gave came from?

LEWIS: The beavers caught fish through holes in the ice.

PITTER: Yes, the potatoes to go with them, the flour and sugar and oranges and milk for the children?

LEWIS: I must refer you to a further study of the text.

MAJOR LEWIS: Nonsense, Jack!  You’re stumped.  And you know it.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (0)

C. S. Lewis’s Full Household

Category: History :: Permalink

When you think of C. S. Lewis, do you think of a somewhat crusty bachelor who would, of course, have little experience of women, let alone of children, least of all of female children?  If your image of Lewis comes from the movie Shadowlands, you might be forgiven for thinking that Lewis had no friends.  There isn’t a Coghill, a Williams, a Tolkien, a Barfield, or even a Warnie hanging out with Lewis in that film.  He’s a loner until the Joy Davidman character appears.

Even in his life, Lewis had something of a reputation as a misogynist, it seems.  In a really rather awful interview with Stephen Schofield, who actually eggs him on, Malcolm Muggeridge proposes that there is some mystery about Lewis, something to do “with his attitude toward women and sex,” and Schofield responds by saying that he was told that “whenever a woman came on the College grounds, Lewis would run as fast as his legs would take him to his room and lock the door” (Schofield, ed., In Search of C. S. Lewis, 128).  Sheldon Vanauken responded to this interview when it was first published and calls this a “rather silly story,” refuting it by pointing to Lewis’s female students (Schofield 164-165), but, while including Vanauken’s response, Schofield still seems to have thought highly enough of the original interview to publish it unedited, thereby perpetuating the legend of Lewis’s dislike of women.

If you read Lewis’s letters, however, you get a very different picture.  Though Lewis did spend weeknights at the College, his weekends were spent at his house, The Kilns.  And what a crowded house that must have been.  For most of his life, Lewis lived with an older woman, the mother of one of Lewis’s army friends who died in World War I.  Lewis regarded her as a sort of surrogate mother and called her his mother in his letters.  He also cared for her teenaged daughter, providing for her education out of his own salary.  His brother Warnie also lived in that house.  And during the war, when children and young people were evacuated from London, several of them stayed at the Kilns.

While I disapprove of Schofield’s interview with Muggeridge, I most heartily approve of his including material from a couple of these girls.  Patricia Heidelberger describes living at Lewis’s house with another evacuee, Marie Jose Bosc.  She says that they were “extremely lively, noisy and giggly.  He never reproached us” (53).  Lewis helped them with their homework, encouraged Patricia to go to Oxford.  She says, he “coached me in Latin, and even taught me a little Greek” (54).  And then he provided financial assistance to both girls to help Patricia with her university dues and Marie with the costs of her nurses training.

June Flewett (better known as Jill Freud) also lived for about two years at Lewis’s house.  She says that Lewis loaned her books. “He told me to go to Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, anytime, and buy any book I wanted on his account” (57).  She writes:

Lewis was the first person who made me believe that I was an intelligent human being and the whole of the time I was there he built up my confidence in myself and in my ability to think and understand.  He never put me down.  He never made me feel foolish, no matter how small my contribution towards any conversation might be (57).

She recalls Lewis’s attempts to help the houseboy:

For some months we had a young man living at the Kilns.  He worked as a houseboy and general helper.  He was probably introduced by the Social Services Department, and he was what we would now call educationally subnormal.  He had the mentality of a child of eight.  Every evening Jack Lewis taught him to read.  Lewis made drawings and letter cards for him; he went through the alphabet with him and tried to teach him small words, and so on.  I don’t think he had a great deal of success because the young man found it hard to retain anything.  But for more than two months Jack Lewis went through the alphabet with him every evening (57-58).

Misogynist?  Freud quotes the poem Lewis wrote in her copy of The Screwtape Letters (59):

Beauty and brains and virtue never dwell
Together in one place, the critics say.
Yet we have known a case
You must not ask her name
But seek it ‘twixt July and May.

As for female students, Rosamond Cowan, who was one of the first two women students Lewis had, writes,

At first we were a bit frightened as he had a reputation of being a “man’s man.”  We rather thought he would be a bit down on women.  Actually he was delightful.  He told me I reminded him of a Shakespearean heroine — a compliment I’ve always cherished. He certainly treated me like one (62).

At the beginning of chapter 14 of Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, he credits a Miss Muriel Bentley for the thoughts he develops in that chapter.  Who was she?  A Milton scholar?  No, says Schofield.  “She was nothing of the sort.  She was a student, aged twenty-one, of Somerville College” (74), which means she didn’t study under Lewis or write anything for him, nor had she even published an essay on Paradise Lost.  “All he had from me,” she says, “were examination papers” (74).  That’s all — and yet Lewis gave her credit for an insight that opened his eyes to something he might otherwise not have noticed.

Far from the loner-Lewis stuck in a lot of people’s imaginations, then, the real Lewis had a full household — brother, surrogate mother (often and increasingly sick), and a bunch of young women, to say nothing of a houseboy — all of whom he tried to help in various ways.  Far from being a woman-hater, the real Lewis, who may indeed have preferred the company of men to that of women, gave himself courteously in service to a great number of women in his household and in his classes and, as a glance at his letters reveals, in his correspondence.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:40 pm | Discuss (1)