Religion | A new C.S. Lewis letter and the stresses of fame
by Stephanie L. Derrick
Posted 12/01/18, 10:59 am
May 1946 found C.S. Lewis tired of answering what had become a ceaseless stream of letters—mostly from Americans, the majority from women, and often about theology. A previously unpublished letter held at the British Library illustrates the commitment Lewis showed in private to serving those who taxed his time, energy, and, often, his nerves.
The cost of putting fellow Christians’ needs before his own—imperfect as his efforts sometimes were—was real for Lewis, who preferred to spend spare hours reading, writing, and spending time with close friends. However, fortunately for us, Lewis’ correspondence likely contributed to the creation of some of the author’s most long-lived and loved fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia.
While he is best known today for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Ulster author first became famous during the height of the Second World War when he delivered a series of popular broadcasts for the BBC explaining the core tenets of Christianity. Around the same time, Lewis also published a best-selling epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters. As one contemporary explained, he used the form of the letter to creative effect, warning against the corruption of the soul with a measure of intimacy:
The letters are addressed by an elderly fiend who has attained the rank of under-secretary in the nether world to a young nephew who has recently joined the service, and contain advice on how to corrupt and lead astray human souls. Into this brilliantly original form Mr. Lewis has packed an extraordinary wealth of spiritual wisdom and counsel, and shows astonishing skill in piercing the armour of our complacency.1
Together, the BBC broadcasts and The Screwtape Letters put Lewis on the map of the Everyman and brought his voice into millions of homes. From the 1940s his name became increasingly associated with reasoned defenses of Christianity.
But this turn of events was not at all what Lewis had planned. Middle-aged Lewis had a robust career as a literary historian. His days were filled with tutoring, writing, preparing lectures, and socializing with like-minded colleagues, as a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was drawn into this unanticipated, brighter spotlight of fame little by little. An invitation to preach came two months after Britain declared war on Germany, which led to an invitation to write a book aimed at Christian readers, which in turn led to the BBC broadcasts, and then to speaking at the Royal Air Force bases … and the invitations kept coming. He turned down many but continued to lend his talents to worthy causes.
“As for retiring into ‘private life,’” Lewis once remarked, “while feeling very strongly the evil of publicity, I don’t see how one can. God is my witness, I don’t look for engagements.”2 The war, together with this sense of duty, made C.S. Lewis a household name and inflicted on the scholar a daily barrage of unwelcome mail.
“Oh the mails,” Lewis once complained to a friend, “every bore in two continents seems to think I like getting letters.”3 And, yet, he answered every one. Why he did not do what most of us would have done, and at least be selective in what he responded to, is accounted for by Lewis’ belief that he had a moral obligation to all individuals that asked him for help.
“Every human being,” he wrote, “still more every Christian, has an absolute claim on me for any service I can render them without neglecting other duties.”4
People, however apparently insignificant, were the most important thing one encountered in ones’ daily life. To an epistler who envied the bookish life Lewis lived, he replied, “Never forget this: souls are immortal, and your children & grandchildren will still be alive when my books have, like the Galaxy and Nature herself, passed away.”5
Lewis also felt something more than duty, at least at times, toward the many people who came to him for help. Explaining himself to a (probably incredulous) friend, he wrote “my correspondence involves a great number of theological letters already which can’t be neglected because they are answers to people in great need of help & often in great misery.”6
That being said, so many acts of charity undertaken out of a sense of duty over many years are bound to wear on a person, and Lewis, who never claimed to be a saint, was no exception. He could be a little grumpy and a little curt as he churned out his replies from his desk in Oxford. It probably didn’t help that people came seemingly out of nowhere to ask him, for example, whether he wanted to join The Society for the Prevention of Progress (in this case the “nowhere” was Walnut Creek, Calif.) or to ask odd favors.7 On one occasion, he wrote to the poet Ruth Pitter:
You know what awful things Americans ask one to do? I have a letter from a lady in dear old Kentucky asking me to look into the London Directory for the address of FERNANDO MARRAINE who lives at Harrow on the Hill and is described as a ‘professor’ of mathematics. This is accompanied by butter (praise) and jam (parcel) so I feel I cannot neglect it: nor can I get to London.8
Absurdity now came in regular doses, delivered directly to his door. Still, Lewis obliged. He could not have imagined it then, but his dutiful answering of his daily mail—whatever came and from whomever it came—gives us insight into the famous author’s approach to what most of us also face: onerous tasks inflicted upon us by people we would rather ignore. Lewis was far from perfect in this regard, but his example is still worth considering. Take, for example, the following letter to a group of “ladies” we know little about, published here for the first time:
Who told you that Christians must not go to the theatre, dance, play cards, drink, or smoke? The “World,” you will remember, is mentioned along with the flesh and the devil. The Flesh means sexual vice (but not marriage), drunkenness (but not drinking) enslavement to indulgent habits (but not [illegible], not smoking just as much) and over-eating (but not enjoying one’s meals). The Devil means occultism and magic in all their various forms (spiritualism, astrology, future-telling, avoiding 13, not walking under ladders). The World means worldly ends and ambition (inordinate interest in one’s career, love of money, snobbery, desire to be in the right set, desire for popularity). Of course any of the innocent pleasures may have to be given up in a particular xtreme: e.g. cards must go if you can’t play without becoming totally absorbed in it and drink must go if you can’t drink without taking too much. But a list of general prohibitions such as you suggest is not in the spirit of Christianity at all: it is more like the old Jewish law, from which, as St. Paul says, we are ‘set free’. The test of an innocent pleasure is whether you can with a clean mind give God thanks for it—as I certainly can for a glass of beer on a hot day but can not for being drunk: can be contended without it. It is not the pleasure but the enslavement to an act is bad. I don’t myself know of a particular actor who has been converted—how shd. I—just as I don’t happen to know of a particular postman who has. But I don’t think that means that I must’ve lost the letter. You write again if I haven’t been clear: meanwhile, all good wishes. Yours sincerely,
One may notice that there is little suggestion of warmth in Lewis’ reply. There is no greeting; rather, Lewis launches into his didactic spiel and closes rather abruptly. One might wonder how much Lewis’ rather terse, almost dictatorial, tone has to do with the fact that he is addressing a group of women. Though we have no evidence of as much in this letter, the question would not be misguided. Lewis’ male chauvinism—even by the standards of male, British intellectual culture in the 1940s—was commented on by some who knew him, including Owen Barfield and E.R. Eddison.9 Lewis referred to female students as “she-students” and to a women’s college as a “she-college.”10 Furthermore, there are hints that he particularly resented women for writing to him, saying once “It isn’t chiefly men I am kept in touch with by my huge mail: it is women. The female, happy or unhappy, agreeing or disagreeing, is by nature a much more epistolary animal than the male.”11 So perhaps the fact that Lewis was addressing women is one reason for his shortness.
However, there is more going on here than that. We do not know who these women were or what they had said to him, but we can be sure that they had touched on a few of Lewis’ pet peeves.
First, it appears they parroted some tired, theologically unsound notions about Christian behavior—i.e., good Christians don’t drink, smoke, or otherwise enjoy themselves—and if Lewis had intolerance for anything it was the touting of unexamined tenets. This was partly a matter of personality—Lewis once described himself as “by temperament, an extreme anarchist”—but it was also an effect of his training in logic and philosophy. And he was particularly irked by the addition of perfunctory requirements to the Christian faith, once saying, for example, “How little I approve of compulsion in religion may be gauged from a recent letter of mine to the Spectator protesting against the intolerable tyranny of compulsory church parades for the Home Guard.”12 Lewis hated to see the joy of hope and faith—or of everyday living, for that matter—diminished by dogmas that were shaped more by social convention than sound religion.
It’s also worth noting that Lewis resolutely held that contradicting or disagreeing with someone, in and of itself, should not be confused with the harboring of bad feelings. An argument should be followed wherever it led, for the sake of seeking truth. Lewis would thus often speak his mind freely and forcibly, assuming that whomever he debated would not confuse a well-laid-out argument as having anything to do with emotions Lewis may or may not have had toward his parrying partner. But this purist ideal was just that: an ideal.
Lewis’ own colleagues, steeped in the same tradition of debate as he was, sometimes failed the litmus test. Lewis once wrote, “I had occasion to differ strongly from Parker at a committee this week, and, do you know, he came and said he was sorry he had had to disagree with me. That he should think this necessary shows the misconception but that he should do it is a great sign of Grace.”13 Far removed as most modern readers are from such a model of intellectual discourse, it bears keeping in mind that the tone of the above letter probably reflects a bit of this philosophy.
Given all of this—the tiresomeness of writing letters, especially those that required the correcting of strangers’ muddled thinking—it is striking that Lewis took as much pain as he did writing to these “ladies.” He might have flippantly dismissed their claims and pointed them to a book, for example. Instead, he made the effort to discuss a Christians’ response to drinking, smoking, and the like in the context of other temptations, as he thought it was laid out in the Bible, presumably in order that they, too, might not be encumbered by poor teaching. Lewis not only answered all his letters, he often did so with an earnest engagement of the matters put before him.
A little over a year after writing this letter, Lewis appeared on the cover of Time magazine and became a bona fide celebrity in America. The uptick in his correspondence became an even greater burden on his time and morale. He wrote to a friend, “As you will have noticed I’ve been having great luck with my books lately, and it wd. be affectation to pretend I hadn’t got much pleasure out of it: but the catch is it increases the amount of letters one has to write almost beyond endurance.”14
His brother helped him cope with the mail, and he somehow managed to stay receptive to the people who wrote to him: some became dear friends and one relationship evolved into romantic love. But the daily chore of answering people who demanded to know why he was an Anglican and not Catholic or what he had meant when he said that animals might have a place in heaven, drained away some of the joy he had found in writing about Christianity. To one correspondent he said:
I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one’s own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it.15
As I argue in The Fame of C.S. Lewis, Lewis’ dogged commitment to answering his correspondents’ ceaseless flow of letters likely contributed to the creation of some of the most beloved children’s books of our time. He wrote the Chronicles of Narnia rapidly between the summer of 1948 and the spring of 1951, completing the series in 1954.16 Creating the worlds of Prince Caspian, Aslan, Lucy and the rest was an escape for the author as much as it was for their readers, the casting of a new enchanting spell on a faith that, in the writing of so many letters, also at times felt in need of new life.
Letter by C.S. Lewis copyright © C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. Reprinted by permission.
1. J.H. Oldham, The Christian Newsletter no. 131, April 29, 1942.
2. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II: Books, Broadcasts and the War, 1931–1949 ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 532.
3. Ibid, 1014.
4. Ibid, 482.
5. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy, 1950–1963, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 733.
6. Collected Letters, Vol. II, 109.
7. Ibid, 613.
8. Collected Letters, Vol. III, 796–7.
9. Barfield said in a meeting of The New York C.S. Lewis Society that Lewis could properly be called a misogynist on at least the “theoretical level,” though decidedly not so in his personal relations with individual women. (CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, 3, no. 7 (May 1972): 2. On Eddison see Collected Letters, Vol. II, 546.
10. Collected Letters, Vol. II, 313 and 340, respectively.
11. Collected Letters, Vol. III, 195.
12. Collected Letters, Vol. II, 606.
13. Ibid, 362.
14. Ibid, 549.
15. Collected Letters, Vol. III, 762.
16. Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013), 266.
Stephanie L. Derrick
Stephanie is the author of The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America, published by Oxford University Press.