May 07, 2004

A.N. Wilson on C.S. Lewis

Posted by Ed

In this week's Times Literary Supplement, A.N. Wilson reviews a new volume of the collected letters of C.S. Lewis. Here are some excerpts from Wilson's review:

For by reading the letters entire, we receive a piquant sense of how things have changed, not merely in academic life but in the Western world generally. One of Lewis’s most valuable contributions as a critic is to save readers from that crass error of taste, judging the past by the ephemeral values of the present. At his best, he persuades us not to be clumsy tourists who fail to learn the language, but patient listeners to the lost words, and lost world view, of the Middle Ages. Lewis’s generation was the last in which the sexes lived separate lives in England, in which men, with their heavy macs, their love of bars, mixed grills, heavy smoking and what he calls bawdy would, however much they liked their wives or girlfriends, prefer to spend much of their time segregated, in the work place, in clubs (working mens or gentlemen’s, it came to the same thing), even in churches. (In High Churches such as Lewis came to like, men and women sat on opposite sides of the aisle, even until the 1950s.) Nevertheless, even by the standards of his age, Lewis was surely quite extraordinarily male, pungently, bullishly and bullyingly so. Writing to Warnie about rereading Jane Eyre, a book which the notes helpfully remind us was written by Charlotte Brontë, Lewis says, “part of the interest lies in seeing in the most (apparently) preposterous male characters how quite ordinary people look through the eyes of a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-like governessy type. It opens vistas – how you or I look to Maureen’s friend ‘Fuller’ or how we looked to Smudge . . .” .


The other bugbear, apart from women, is modernism, whether in literature, art or theology. Only four years after his full-scale conversion to Christianity, Lewis finds no place in his heart for his fellow Anglican T. S. Eliot (whom the faithful Walter makes into Elliot on page 94). Eliot’s work is seen as “a very great evil”, and The Waste Land is dismissed as “pornography”. The paranoia does not stop there. Many of us see the arrival of T. S. Eliot in England, to study the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, as a boon to English literature. For Lewis, it seems more like the infiltration of some modernistic fifth column.

"Eliot stole upon us, a foreigner and a neutral, while we were at war – obtained, I have my wonders how, a job in the Bank of England – and became (am I wrong) the advance guard of the invasion since carried out by his natural friends and allies, the Steins and Pounds and hoc genus omne, the Parisian riff-raff of denationalised Irishmen and Americans who have perhaps given Western Europe her death wound."


It would be churlish not to record that these letters also contain passages which remind us of that C. S. Lewis whose criticism is so infectious, reflecting as it does such combined powers of intelligence, observation and ear. (See his letters describing the virtues of Coventry Patmore, Dante, Charles Williams or P. G. Wodehouse.) We should also be prepared to take his own advice – “Memo: to read all collections of letters in the light of the fact that a letter writer tends to pick out what is piquant, or unusual. He may tell no lies: but his life is never as odd, either for good or ill, as it sounds in the letters”.

If you're a Lewis fan, the review is worth reading in full.

Posted by Ed at May 7, 2004 10:32 AM

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