Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Chesterton is Chesterton, no matter what he writes: but Lewis morphs. Narnia is quite different from Mere Christianity, and the Space Trilogy and The Pilgrims' Regress are each its own creature, written for specific audiences and I suspect it might be difficult to imagine the author of Narnia as the author of a book as brutal as Till We Have Faces. I also love Lewis's literary works, although I have not finished English Literature in the Sixteeth Century, Excluding Drama (but maybe I'll read it next). Last time I checked, I think I had about three books to read before I could say I'd read the entire Lewis canon, but I'm sure there's a few more pieces of unpublished work they've dug up since then. And I used to have read every published book about Lewis, but as his fame has spread, I'm afraid I'm far behind in my Lewis studies.
That being said, I'm familiar enough with the life and work of C.S. Lewis to be a fairly good judge of biographies about him, and this old one, which I just finished reading, was excellent. I found it in a stack of someone's giveaway books, and picked it up because, you know, Lewis. But it's taken me several years to actually read it. And even though it was published in 1986, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life was worth reading: after a while, I enjoyed it so much that I made myself stop before I'd read more than a year's worth at a time, so I could savor the experience. That's high praise of any book, and particularly a book about Lewis. Even though the title is awkward: Lewisians know C.S. Lewis hated the name "Clive" and insisted on being known as "Jack," the book is much, much better than its title and dated cover might lead you to guess.
I'm intrigued in the storytelling techniques that biographers use, and I admired Griffith's structure of using years instead of chapters, and instead of using a strong narrative voice, letting the subject and those who met him speak for themselves. For instance, one chapter might begin with a snippet from a New Year's letter Lewis wrote to a friend, and then next section would be a recollection from Tolkien's diary about a meeting he had with Lewis in their favorite pub. There were copious and interesting quotes from the near-thousands of letters Lewis wrote to people all over the world over the course of his life, as well as recollections from others who knew or met Lewis, such as T.S. Eliot and his fellow professors at Oxford. This fascinating collection must have been quite a task to amass, but it has the overall effect of letting the subject and his contemporaries present the man, while the narrator recedes into the background.
I appreciated that, since the last biographies I happened across of Lewis took adamant sides in the various controversies surrounding Jack Lewis's life. Some hate his Protestant Christianity (Humphrey Carpenter): others find him lacking as a person (A.N. Wilson). Others (usually those who knew Lewis such as George Sayer) have a bone to pick with other biographies. And then there's the controversies, a lot of inside baseball. Most prominent is the Warnie Lewis vs. Walter Hooper spat, which sometimes transmorgifies into a Protestant vs. Catholic spat.
The short version: Lewis's older brother and close companion Warner Lewis struggled with alcoholism, leading to Jack needing to hire a private secretary--Hooper--the last year of his life. After Jack's death, the two apparently quarreled, leading to a fight over the unpublished papers and memorabilia Jack left behind, and a regrettable subsequent muddle over his legacy. Hooper allegedly found Warnie Lewis trashing a huge cache of Jack's papers and took (stole? rescued? depends on who you read) them from the burn pile, later publishing them in various collections. Warnie responded by donating nearly everything else to a Protestant college in America, Wheaton College, which today houses the Marion E. Wade Collection, containing much material about Lewis and his fellow "Inklings." That Walter Hooper later converted to Roman Catholicism and has opined that Lewis himself might have been close to conversion embittered the already personal controversy. I won't go into the nastiness, and I'm grateful that Griffith sidesteps it.
Griffith also manages to be fair and sympathetic to both the controversial women in Lewis's life: Minto and Joy. Paddy Moore's mother, "Minto," was an older woman whom Lewis adopted as his own mother shortly after Minto's son, a friend of Lewis's, was killed in WWI (Jack Lewis had lost his own mother while still a child and missed her terribly). Jack supported both her and her daughter Maureen, even when Minto grew old and crochety and unpleasant. Warnie Lewis and Minto came to hate one another: Jack Lewis managed to love them both. Biographers tend to believe either Warnie's version or Jack's version of Minto's character. Griffith does an admirable job balancing the two and graciously omits the scurrilous speculation of later biographers who are unduly influenced by Warnie.
And then there's Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, the American poet exiled in England and dying of cancer, who began as a charity case and ended up marrying Jack Lewis, bringing him incredible happiness the final years of his life. Warnie liked Joy, so she gets a fair shake in most biographies. But some biographers suspect she seduced Lewis with her pushy American ways. (I personally find her endearing and funny: among her last words were, "Don't get me a posh coffin. Posh coffins are all rot." and "I am at peace with God.") No one can help but be moved by their late-in-life love story, which will I think, stand the test of time, and the canonization efforts of bad movies like Shadowlands. However, some Catholic admirers of Lewis suggest that it was her influence that stopped Lewis from converting to Catholicism. I find this unconvincing, and Griffiths gives evidence to the contrary: he reports that the Bishop of Oxford told Lewis that he could not marry Joy in the Anglican church because she had been previously married, and the Anglican Church was not permitting second marriages at that time (the 1950s). Lewis pleaded that Joy's previous marriage was to a man who was already married, so wouldn't that make her previous marriage invalid anyhow? Bishop replied that while the Roman Church might give him an annulment on those grounds, Canterbury would not. Griffith also cites Lewis's growing distress with Anglican theological dissent: in one case, Lewis even told an Anglican priest that if the Anglican Church ceases to believe in the miraculous, he would be forced to leave, and become a Roman Catholic.
I admit that the controversy of whether Lewis might have become Roman Catholic doesn't interest me as much as might be supposed. It doesn't affect my love for him as a writer, and although I sympathize with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien's frustration that Lewis didn't convert while alive (apparently Lewis was a very prejudiced Northern Irish Protestant--talk about baggage!), I find many reasons to value Lewis despite his non-conversion to my own church. Mere Christianity is one of the most important books I've ever read, outside of the Bible, and That Hideous Strength remains my favorite fictional work ever. Plus I share Lewis's periodic experiences of mysterious phenomenon which he called "Joy" which still unsettles and enriches my life, and his autobiography Surprised by Joy, affected me deeply. When an author is able to help you make sense of a highly personal spiritual experience, you never cease to value them. Lewis connected the dots for me, and I will always be grateful.
So even though I did not read this biography until now, I highly recommend it, especially in the light of more polemical and personal biographies that have been published since that time. It's a most enjoyable read, and an excellent first biography for those who know the author's works but not the person of the author. Sometimes Lewis as a person will frustrate you, sometimes he will shock you, but in the end, his suffering and his abiding love for Christ and belief in Him overcome all the rest.
Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life: Harper & Row, 1986.