Letters to an Oxonian Lady: C.S. Lewis’ Relationship with Mary Neylan

In a recent trip to the Wade Center, a literary archive of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings in Wheaton, IL, I read an original C.S. Lewis letter to a young student while he was an Oxford don. In June of 1931—Lewis’ original return letter has the year scratched in later with pencil, probably by the recipient—Lewis received what was most likely a very timid letter. The writer was apologising for her “importunity” in asking for a tutorial spot with Lewis but asserted that she had had it on good authority that he would make himself available to her. Lewis had previously turned the student down for tutorials because his schedule was full and he was saving a spot for one of Hugo Dyson’s student who had transferred from Reading University to Oxford. Dyson was a fellow Inkling, and important to Lewis’ spiritual transformation, so he took his requests quite seriously.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As it turns out, the inquiring student, a young Mary Shelley, was actually, in fact, Dyson’s student. On June 18th Lewis wrote back to her, jovially insisting that it is he who should apologise, for he had no idea that the student request had been a “Dysonian one.” Lewis gave her a schedule of reading and a time to meet and tried to put her mind at ease by insisting that she was really intended to have a spot in his week. “In fact, you were being crowded out by yourself,” he insisted, and the tutorials subsequently began.

Because their meetings would occur in person in his offices at Magdalen College, we have nothing of their academic correspondence except an envelope postmarked Nov 9th, 1932 from Lewis to Mary. But on July 21st, 1933—again, the year is a guess because Lewis was notorious for not properly dating his notes—we have a long letter to Mary. She had done surprisingly poor on her examination and received a Fourth Class Honours degree. It is hard to translate what the value of a Fourth Class degree really was, but it is probably roughly a low “C” grade and meant that she would be ineligible for graduate work. By contrast, Lewis had received not just a First Class Honours degree, but three of them, and I suspect that Mary was aiming for a Third and perhaps hoping for a Second.

Lewis begins his letter to her sensitively:

Dear Miss Shelley,

If you are not, at the moment, too sick of me and all my kind to read further, it may be worth saying that you must not run away with the idea that you are a Fourth Class mind.

He then took some time to explain her results. While she had done well on 19th-century literature, she received quite a poor mark on her Anglo-Saxon paper, which tilted her entire grade downward. Lewis does his best to put the results in context and even takes responsibility for his tutelage:

Why your literature papers were not better I do not understand. I blame myself for not having exhorted more essays from you–but I doubt if that was the whole cause. You were very short and general. But I am quite clear in my own mind that you have not done yourself justice and that your real quality is far beyond the work you did in Schools.

This is cold comfort to you with the world to face!–but at least it is said quite sincerely and not merely for the sake of consoling you.

Try to forgive me both as an examiner and as a tutor. If there should at any time be any way in which I can be of use to you, let me know at once. Till then, good-bye and good luck.

Yours very sincerely
C. S. Lewis

The next letter is not until Mar 8th, 1937, though I suspect there have been others. Mary Shelley is now Mrs. Daniel Neylan, a married school teacher, and Lewis is generally aware of her story. On this occasion, Mary writes to ask for a reading list, since they had enjoyed the same authors as teenagers. He provided her with a decent reading list, but also responded to her compliments on one of his books or articles (probably The Pilgrim’s Regress, his earliest fiction, which she quite enjoyed). His note captures how many writers feel about their work:

What a nice letter! To be read is nice enough: but to have led anyone back to the poets themselves is more what critics dream of than what usually happens.

Much of Lewis’ correspondence was brief. On May 5th, 1937, he sent a quick note to Mr. Daniel Neylan, giving best wishes to Mary, who was ill. And on March 21st, 1939, he congratulates Mary on the birth of their daughter and makes a comment about the first installment of his Ransom trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, responding to her critique of his caricature of the villain, Weston.

With a chance encounter in Oxford at Christmastime, 1939, however, things began to shift both in their relationship and in her spiritual perspective. On New Year’s Eve, Lewis writes to his brother, Warnie, describing their meeting. Mary, it seems, was seeing secular education with entirely different eyes since she had become a parent. She was unsatisfied with the philosophical assumptions that governed her world, “and what with that and the general stress of things, is just beginning to throw out a tentative feeler in the direction of Christianity.”

The next letter to Mary from Lewis is quite lengthy, written on Mar 26, 1940. We can discern what many of her philosophical and spiritual questions are by Lewis’ reply, but there are some interesting things in her own (unpublished) letter from Holy Week, 1940. In her own hand, she speaks of her psychological struggles. She was seeing a psychoanalyst, whose “was very painful but cleansing like a surgeon’s knife.” We can reverse manufacture this much from Lewis’ return letter, but there is a personal touch to her thought process on the edge of conversion we do not see in Lewis’ response:

Also if I implied at Christmas that psychoanalysis was the only thing [that helped me] I was not honest. Your translation of Boethius & your books have meant as much more , and as I have been drawing secret refreshment from these Sources all along I feel it is time I came out into the open & remembered another lesson that I learned at the same time which was that I couldn’t have it both ways. I should very much like to think how that is only your personality or your personal angle on literary criticism that I like so much but the suspicion has been growing on me that it is based on something else which I can’t avoid indefinitely avoid. And I should like to add here with some heat that I regard your books as just so much propaganda.

Mary had been a fan of Pilgrim’s Regress and had read it several times. But once she understood the full impact of Lewis’ worldview—and how his writing is “so much propaganda,” she comments:

I have just reread the Pilgrim’s Regress & felt as if I had never understood it before.

Sister Penelope

It doesn’t appear that Lewis was offended by the accusation—or was it simply a realization?—of propaganda. The word, I believe, was less negative before news of Hitler’s propaganda ministry came to light in the aftermath of WWII. Moreover, in a Summer 1939 letter to a spiritual and literary confederate, Sister Penelope, Lewis admitted that he was attempting to smuggle theology in through literature, so the accusation is probably appropriate. Her letter, in any case, began a lengthy conversation in 1940 that Lewis took quite seriously—in one case, noting to his brother with some annoyance that he was forced to write a second letter when he realized he had misunderstood one of her questions.

Just after his Mar 26th letter, he wrote to Warnie:

This week I received a letter from my former pupil Mrs Neylan (the Dartington Hall mistress) who is trembling on the verge of Christianity-admits that the issue ‘can no longer be avoided’-and asks what to read and (more difficult still) who to see. I felt almost overwhelmed by the responsibility of my reply….

A couple of weeks later, on Apr 16th, he wrote to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths:

A woman, an ex-pupil of mine called Mary Neylan, seems in her last letter to be hovering on the brink of conversion to Christianity-a proper subject for your prayers.

According to a Jan 4th, 1941 letter, the result of the letter writing was her conversion. They continue to correspond, with Lewis consistently offering advice in the form of spiritual direction and encouragement in her marriage, as well as little pieces of news. At one point, she presumably apologizes for taking his time. Lewis rebukes her:

You may put out of your head any idea of ‘not having a claim’ on any help I can give. Every human being, still more every Christian, has an absolute claim on me for any service I can render them without neglecting other duties.

C.S. Lewis Sketch by Mary Neylon from the Edwin Brown Collection

As I’ve read through the correspondence, I am uncertain about Mary Neylan’s psychological condition. It is common today to speak of depression and counseling, but the 1940s were a different context altogether. Reading Lewis’ responses, including an unpublished letter of June 21st, 1941 and her conversion letters, it is likely she struggled in mental illness—a “trough” Lewis calls it at one point—which may have led also to some marriage struggles. Lewis ultimately refers her to a spiritual director he can meet in person, a Father Adams, I believe, but he did not leave off his counsel to her, continuing to send her notes about his writing and advice about her spiritual journey.

When it seems like the burden of carrying Mary’s spiritual direction shifts to her priest, Lewis is more open about his own life. He admits his own “troughs” (Jan 20th, 1942)¸ and talks of his books, particularly on the production of Narnia and the Ransom books. While writing Perelandra, he comments to Mary:

 Ransom is having a grand time on Venus at present.

Ransom, and I suspect Lewis as well, is completely unaware that things are going to go bad on Venus (Perelandra). In their letters, they speak of Dickens and Thackeray and things they are reading. Mary is especially influenced by George MacDonald, and Lewis offers to dedicate his anthology to her, who “got more out of him than anyone else to whom I introduced his books” (May 20th, 1945)—which he sent to her with a note on her new baby (Apr 1st, 1946).

It seems as the letter-writing continued the relationship deepened into one of equals instead of mentor-mentee. Frequently, he asks for prayer, and Lewis is invited into the Neylan family by accepting an invitation to be the godfather of the eldest daughter, Sarah. He attends Sarah’s christening and takes the time to write a number of letters to his goddaughter (you can see them in Letters to Children). A couple of times, though, Lewis shares deeply about his feelings:

I also have become much acquainted with grief now through the death of my great friend Charles Williams, my friend of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic. The odd thing is that his death has made my faith ten times stronger than it was a week ago. And I find all that talk about ‘feeling he is closer to us than before’ isn’t just talk. It’s just what it does feel like–I can’t put it into words. One seems at moments to be living in a new world. Lots, lots of pain but not a particle of depression or resentment (May 20th, 1945; see also Jan 4th, 1952).

While this grief grew out of friendship that Lewis pursued, the great grief in his life came suddenly, erupting into his life in the form of a woman, Joy Davidman, who captured his middle-aged heart. He writes tentatively on Nov 14th, 1956:

I wish you and Dan wd. pray hard for a lady called Joy Gresham and me–I am likely v. shortly to be both a bridegroom and a widower, for she has cancer. You needn’t mention this till the marriage (wh. will be at a hospital bedside if it occurs) is announced. I’ll tell you the whole story someday. Love to Sarah. I’m not much in the way of visiting anyone at present

Jack Lewis

While addressing some unknown offense that he committed against Mary, Lewis wrote on May 30th, 1960 a note that signals the shift of his life:

the cancer from which my wife so miraculously rallied 3 years ago has come back

Even for those who don’t know his story, what is about to happen next is hauntingly evident. Six weeks later, Joy died, and C.S. Lewis fell into a deep period of mourning, captured in his intensely personal A Grief Observed. We have the envelope, but that is all, of the note of condolences she sent.

I can only guess what she might have said to Lewis in his deepest trough, but Mary fondly remembered her relationship with the man who introduced her to Christ. Ultimately, she wrote her story, “My Friendship with C. S. Lewis,” in The Chesterton Review (Autumn 1991), but I find their letter-writing most revealing in what they reveal about Lewis the apologist. In truth, he was Lewis the spiritual director, the ham-fisted correspondent with a pastor’s heart and a gift for literary friendship that emerges from these letters.

Except for the unpublished letters, which are my own transcriptions, all the quotations come from Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949. New York: HarperSanFransisco, 2004 and Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963. New York: HarperSanFransisco, 2008.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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31 Responses to Letters to an Oxonian Lady: C.S. Lewis’ Relationship with Mary Neylan

  1. Thank you for writing this all up. It explains a lot RE: the other Lewisian threads you’ve been tracing — the closeness of his relationship to Mary. I’m also very impressed at how much you managed to track down, trace, connect, and transcribe in such a short time.


    • It was a lot of work, and I half wonder if I should do something more with it than just a blog. I have more things the Hooper collection doesn’t cover. But the story is worth telling, here at least.


  2. robstroud says:

    Thank you for sharing this. As for doing “more” with it… there is always the so-called “From Blog to Book” path. I’m sure you’ve given that some consideration in the past. I would think this sort of chapter would be ideal for a project like that.


    • Thanks Rob. This stuff may all land somewhere. There is a lot of mediocre work on Lewis and I’d like to do really good work, so we’ll see.


      • robstroud says:

        The object of the study is so fascinating (Lewis) that even mediocre work sells! Because of that, we’ll never see the end of it.


        • Perhaps, but the movies spur it on. I’d like to publish, but I want it to be excellent. This is my first original discovery blog, but another couple of years I might have a good collection.
          Your work is consistently good. Are you going to collect it and pitch it?


  3. In reading Paul Brazier’s forthcoming book “The Work of Christ Revealed,” I learned that CSL worked out his famous “trilemma” in, among other places, his letters to Mary Neylan. These are among some of his earliest references to what was to become his most famous piece of apologetics.


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  10. mach says:

    When you call Lewis ham-fisted, you’re speaking literally right? I can’t believe you mean it metaphorically.


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  15. Anthony says:

    I love your site, just an edit though; The picture you have of Hugo Dyson is in fact Tolkien


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  17. dog. I mean BD. We have all the Mary Neylan letters at Taylor. Did you look at them while you were here? I mean, all the letters from CSL to Mary. Many more than Hooper publishes. Also, the daugher, Sarah, was her and spoke about their relationship in 2004. She was CSL’s god-daughter. Her essay can be found, with bad bibliographic notes (by Harry Poe, one assumes) in a collection Poe published which has “Remembered” or “Remembering” in the title. I have all the great pics of Mary though on a CD (she left them with us). Would you like to publish an article in SEVEN or somewhere on this topic. Let me help you.


    • Joe, I had no idea you had the letters! Has Joel Heck been in contact with you for the upcoming supplement volume(s) to the CSL Letters?
      I wish I had taken the time to read through them. I did read Sarah’s piece in the Poe book, which someone gave me. I should probably get a PhD, but I would love an extensive profile of the Neylan letters.


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