The Absence of Presence: C.S. Lewis’ Strained Relationship with his Father

I have written another blog on the death of C.S. Lewis’ mother and the haunting role it played in his life. Quite apart from the absence of his mother, her dead led to an unexpected consequence: a strain in his relationship with his father. I thought it would be enlightening to quote some parts of Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, where he talks about his father. The reader will have to decide whether Lewis is speaking with a hint of humour in causal reflection—which I suppose—or with a bitter recollection of his lost relationships in his own old age. I’ve left a part of chapter 8, “Release,” as it is written, with a very few explanatory notes.

All began, as I have said, with the fact that our father was out of the house from nine in the morning till six at night. From the very first we built up for ourselves a life that excluded him. He on his part demanded a confidence even more boundless, perhaps, than a father usually, or wisely, demands.

One instance of this, early in my life, had far-reaching effects. Once when I was at Oldie’s [boarding school] and had just begun to try to live as a Christian I wrote out a set of rules for myself and put them in my pocket. On the first day of the holidays, noticing that my pockets bulged with all sorts of papers and that my coat was being pulled out of all shape, he plucked out the whole pile of rubbish and began to go through it. Boylike, I would have died rather than let him see my list of good resolutions. I managed to keep them out of his reach and get them into the fire. I do not see that either of us was to blame; but never from that moment until the hour of his death did I enter his house without first going through my own pockets and removing anything that I wished to keep private.

A habit of concealment was thus bred before I had anything guilty to conceal. By now I had plenty. And even what I had no wish to hide I could not tell. To have told him what Wyvern or even Chartres was really like would have been risky (he might write to the Headmaster) and intolerably embarrassing. It would also have been impossible; and here I must touch on one of his strangest characteristics.

My father—but these words, at the head of a paragraph, will carry the reader’s mind inevitably to Tristram Shandy. On second thoughts I am content that they should. It is only in a Shandean spirit [i.e., farcical] that my matter can be approached. I have to describe something as odd and whimsical as ever entered the brain of Sterne; and if I could, I would gladly lead you to the same affection for my father as you have for Tristram’s.

And now for the thing itself.

You will have grasped that my father was no fool. He had even a streak of genius in him. At the same time he had—when seated in his own arm chair after a heavy midday dinner on an August afternoon with all the windows shut—more power of confusing an issue or taking up a fact wrongly than any man I have ever known. As a result it was impossible to drive into his head any of the realities of our school life, after which (nevertheless) he repeatedly enquired. The first and simplest barrier to communication was that, having earnestly asked, he did not “stay for an answer” or forgot it the moment it was uttered. Some facts must have been asked for and told him, on a moderate computation, once a week, and were received by him each time as perfect novelties.

But this was the simplest barrier. Far more often he retained something, but something very unlike what you had said. His mind so bubbled over with humour, sentiment, and indignation that, long before he had understood or even listened to your words, some accidental hint had set his imagination to work, he had produced his own version of the facts, and believed that he was getting it from you. As he invariably got proper names wrong (no name seemed to him less probable than another) his textus receptus was often almost unrecognizable.

Tell him that a boy called Churchwood had caught a field mouse and kept it as a pet, and a year, or ten years later, he would ask you,

 “Did you ever hear what became of poor Chickweed who was so afraid of the rats?”

For his own version, once adopted, was indelible, and attempts to correct it only produced an incredulous

“Hm! Well, that’s not the story you used to tell.”

Sometimes, indeed, he took in the facts you had stated; but truth fared none the better for that. What are facts without interpretation? It was axiomatic to my father (in theory) that nothing was said or done from an obvious motive. Hence he who in his real life was the most honourable and impulsive of men. and the easiest victim that any knave or imposter could hope to meet became a positive Machiavel when he knitted his brows and applied to the behavior of people he had never seen the spectral and labyrinthine operation which he called “reading between the lines.” Once embarked upon that, he might make his landfall anywhere in the wide world: and always with unshakable conviction.

“I see it all”—”I understand it perfectly”—”It’s as plain as a pikestaff,”

he would say; and then, as we soon learned, he would believe till his dying day in some deadly quarrel, some slight, some secret sorrow or some immensely complex machination, which was not only improbable but impossible. Dissent on our part was attributed, with kindly laughter, to our innocence, gullibility, and general ignorance of life. And besides all these confusions, there were the sheer non sequiturs when the ground seemed to open at one’s feet.

“Did Shakespeare spell his name with an e at the end?” asked my brother.

“I believe,” said I—but my father interrupted:

“I very much doubt if he used the Italian calligraphy at all.”

A certain church in Belfast has both a Greek inscription over the door and a curious tower.

“That church is a great landmark,” said I, “I can pick it out from all sorts of places—even from the top of Cave Hill.”

“Such nonsense,” said my father, “how could you make out Greek letters three or four miles away?”

One conversation, held several years later, may be recorded as a specimen of these continual cross-purposes. My brother had been speaking of a reunion dinner for the officers of the Nth Division which he had lately attended.

“I suppose your friend Collins was there,” said my father.

B. Collins? Oh no. He wasn’t in the Nth, you know.

F. (After a pause.) Did these fellows not like Collins then?

B. I don’t quite understand. What fellows?

F. The Johnnies that got up the dinner.

B. Oh no, not at all. It was nothing to do with liking or not liking. You see, it was a purely Divisional affair. There’d be no question of asking anyone who hadn’t been in the Nth.

F. (After a long pause.) Hm! WelL I’m sure poor Collins was very much hurt.

There are situations in which the very genius of Filial Piety would find it difficult not to let some sign of impatience escape him.

I would not commit the sin of Ham. Nor would I, as historian, reduce a complex character to a false simplicity. The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humourist, even on occasion, a wit….

The hours my father spent at home were thus hours of perplexity for us boys. After an evening of the sort of conversation I have been describing one felt as if one’s head were spinning like a top. His presence put an end to all our innocent as well as to all our forbidden occupations. It is a hard thing—nay, a wicked thing—when a man is felt to be an intruder in his own house.

And yet, as Johnson said, “Sensation is sensation.” I am sure it was not his fault, I believe much of it was ours; what is certain is that I increasingly found it oppressive to be with him. One of his most amiable qualities helped to make it so. I have said before that he “conned no state”; except during his Philippics he treated us as equals. The theory was that we lived together more like three brothers than like a father and two sons. That, I say, was the theory. But of course it was not and could not be so; indeed ought not to have been so. That relation cannot really exist between schoolboys and a middle-aged man of overwhelming personality and of habits utterly unlike theirs. And the pretense that it does ends by putting a curious strain on the juniors. Chesterton has laid his finger on the weak point of all such factitious equality: “If a boy’s aunts are his pals, will it not soon follow that a boy needs no pals but his aunts?”

That was not of course the (question for us; we wanted no pals. But we did want liberty, if only liberty to walk about the house. And my father’s theory that we were three boys together actually me that while he was at home we were as closely bound to his presence as if the three of us had been chained together; and all our habits were frustrated.

Thus if my father came home unexpectedly at midday having allowed himself an extra half-holiday, he might if it were summer find us with chairs and books in the garden. An austere parent of the formal school would have gone in to his own adult occupations. Not so my father. Sitting in the garden? An excellent idea. But would not all three of us be better on the summer seat? Thither after he had assumed one of his “light overcoats,” we would go. (I do not know how many overcoats he had; I am still wearing two of them.) After sitting for a few minutes, thus clad, on a shadeless seat where the noonday sun was blistering the paint, he not unnaturally began to perspire.

“I don’t know what you two think,” he would say, “but I’m finding this almost  too hot. What about moving indoors?”

That meant an adjournment to the study, where even the smallest chink of open window was rather grudgingly allowed. I say “allowed,” but there was no question of authority. In theory, everything was decided by the general Will.

“Liberty Hall, boys, Liberty Hall,” as he delighted to quote. “What time would you like lunch?”

But we knew only too well that the meal which would otherwise have been at one had already been shifted, in obedience to his lifelong preference, to two or even two-thirty; and that the cold meats which we liked had already been withdrawn in favor of the only food our father ever voluntarily ate—hot butcher’s meat, boiled, stewed or roast . . . and this to be eaten in mid-afternoon in a dining room that faced south. For the whole of the rest of the day, whether sitting or walking, we were inseparable; and the speech (you see that it could hardly be called conversation) the speech with its cross purposes with its tone (inevitably) always set by him continued intermittently till bedtime.

I should be worse than a dog if I blamed my lonely father for thus desiring the friendship of his sons; or even if the miserable return I made him did not to this day lay heavy on my conscience…. I could not “be myself” while he was at home. God forgive me, I thought Monday morning, when he went back to his work, the brightest jewel in the week.

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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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10 Responses to The Absence of Presence: C.S. Lewis’ Strained Relationship with his Father

  1. robstroud says:

    No bitterness here. A sad, even mournful, confession of a relationship that wasn’t what it should have been. Lewis’ candid description offers consolation to those others among us whose relationships with our own parents were not what they ought to have been.

    Like

  2. jubilare says:

    pretty heartbreaking, really, though I do hear a tone of humor in it.

    Like

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  4. Jessica says:

    In his Collected Letters (volume 3, page 445), Lewis said his greatest regret was his attitude toward his father: “I treated my own father abominably and no sin in my whole life now seems to be so serious” (3:445). Quoted in “The Passions of C.S. Lewis as Seen in His Collected Letters” hisscribedownloads.blogspot.com/2010/05/passions-of-cs-lewis-as-seen-in-his.html

    Jack and Warnie privately called their father “pudaita”–perhaps a disparaging reference to his couch potato-like status and pontificating after big mid-day meals on hot August afternoons.

    Jessica Renshaw
    hiddeninjesus.wordpress.com

    Like

    • This is brilliant, Jessica. He does seem to reject his treatment of his dad. I’m reading through his early letters, and he was a pretty arrogant teen and college student anyway.
      I don’t know the nickname for certain, but it is something about Potatoe Birds.

      Like

  5. hello very cool post man!

    Like

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