- C. S. Lewis: A Biography, and: The C. S. Lewis Hoax, and: Letters to Lalage: The Letters of Charles Williams to Lois Lang-Sims
C. S. Lewis' popularity has grown at a time when the attainment of success and fame has become increasingly synonymous with the surrender of privacy. Did Lewis sleep with his landlady during his early Oxford days? Did he consummate his 1957 marriage to Joy Davidman? A reader's appreciation for such works as Out of the Silent Planet and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is not likely to be hugely enhanced by rummaging behind doors that Lewis himself preferred to keep carefully closed. Still, on and on it goes; no doubt Lewis' life—like that of so many literary "celebrities"—will continue to be ransacked, perceived as fair game by authors and film makers with bills to pay and axes to grind.
In C. S. Lewis: A Biography, A. N. Wilson does not hesitate to speculate on a variety of intimate matters relating to Lewis' life; he writes of certain "sadomasochistic" proclivities; he argues that, yes, Lewis did sometimes share bed as well as board with his landlady, the "demanding" Mrs. Moore. (The "burden of proof," Wilson writes, "is on those who believe that Lewis and Mrs Moore were not lovers—probably from the summer of 1918 onwards.") Again, one has to wonder about the propriety and the usefulness of such inquiries. But one must also concede that Wilson—a widely praised English novelist—is not a hack. The lively but judicious tone he sustains throughout this thoroughly researched work suggests that Wilson's interest in such matters is sparked not by prurient curiosity, but derives in part from his desire to correct the image—kept especially vivid in evangelical circles—that Lewis was quite free of the more fleshly drives and desires that can dog and distract lesser mortals. The Lewis whom Wilson portrays would surely not have been at ease in what used to be called the Bible Belt: he seems to have spent as much time in pubs as in attending church services and never hid his relish for good tobacco and strong drink. We "do Lewis no honour to make him into a plaster saint," Wilson writes. "And he deserves our honour."
Wilson looks insightfully into Lewis' often complex relationship with his father and his brother; he writes perceptively of the "uncontrollable nostalgia for childhood" one finds surfacing frequently in Lewis's work. He rightly praises Lewis' wide range of reading and his own consistent readability; he points to the "schoolboyish sense of wonder and enjoyment" that helps make Lewis "such a refreshing literary historian," as his Preface to "Paradise Lost" amply reveals. But what helps make Wilson's biography refreshing is his willingness to discuss certain argumentative and stylistic shortcomings in Lewis' writings, including his poetry, where—in the particularly dreadful Dymer, for example—one finds "stanza after stanza in which the verse is deadened by flat language, repeated clumsy enjambements and sheer technical incompetence."
The rise of Lewis' popularity unquestionably owes much to the efforts of Walter Hooper, whom Wilson describes as "one of nature's devotees." Hooper has lectured and written widely on Lewis, and has prepared various editions of Lewis' work. In Wilson's words, Hooper "had hero-worshipped C. S. Lewis for many years" before arriving in Oxford in 1963, the year of Lewis' death. Hooper [End Page 618] thus knew the living Lewis for only a few months—a fact which, as Kathryn Lindskoog notes in The C. S. Lewis Hoax, has been often overlooked by those involved in the Lewis industry.
Lindskoog is willing to concede that Hooper is "a talented raconteur who radiates humility and cheer." Beyond that, she has few generous things to say. Hooper, she suggests, has not only exaggerated the nature of his relationship...