C.S. Lewis’ Accidental Autobiography

CS Lewis and his Father Albert LewisLewis tried a number of times to write his spiritual autobiography. When in 1930 he had come to a philosophical belief in God, but was not yet a Christian, he gave a start to the story. It has finally been published, incomplete as it is, by Andrew Lazo in the 2013 volume of VII.

Three years later Lewis is a Christian, and is vacationing at a friend’s house. Knowing the story is still rattling around inside of him, he finds a little corner and begins to map out his conversion narrative like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Two weeks later he had a complete book, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) Lewis never thought this obscure little book quite did what he wanted his conversion story to do. It is an odd, rich, difficult little book, so it never does reach a popular audience.

The Problem of PainIn his introduction to The Problem of Pain (1939), Lewis’ little book on spiritual theology and popular apologetics, Lewis tells a bit of his conversion story. Perhaps this was for Lewis a tug back to a still untold story. But his increasing fame and success in WWII swept him away from his own story to other stories, and his spiritual autobiography remained unwritten.

We do have, however, an accidental autobiography. Alan Jacobs tells the story well in his book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (2005). Asked by his American publisher for a brief sketch of his life for one of his book jackets, this is what Lewis sent in a letter:

I was a younger son, and we lost my mother when I was a child. That meant very long days alone when my father was at work and my brother at boarding school. Alone in a big house full of books. I suppose that fixed a literary bent. I drew a lot, but soon began to write more. My first stories were mostly about mice (influence of Beatrix Potter), but mice usually in armor killing gigantic cats (influence of fairy stories). That is, I wrote the books I should have liked to read if only I could have got them. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself: no rot about “self-expression.” I loathed school. Being an infantry soldier in the last war would have been nicer if one had known one was going to survive. I was wounded—by an English shell. (Hence the greetings of an aunt who said, with obvious relief, “Oh, so that’s why you were wounded in the back!”) I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. An almost purely philosophical conversion. I didn’t want to. I’m not the religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed to be the opposite I had to give in. My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs—or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter (The Narnian xvi-xvii).

alan jacobs narnianIt is an unusually terse outline. Jacobs is probably right when he said:

The sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and general bluntness of tone—all uncharacteristic of Lewis’s public writings—suggest that he dashed this off without editing it, perhaps without even thinking about it too seriously. Lewis undoubtedly expected the people at Macmillan to recognize this as a rough pile of facts from which they were at liberty to construct a more formal narrative (The Narnian xvii).

That may have been what Lewis expected, but it is not what happened. Whether because of the authority of Lewis’ signature, or lack of care in the office, or because of the faint humour in the stark sketch, MacMillan published it!*

Still, Lewis’ accidental autobiography does not lack much in outline form. A decade later Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1954), finally filling this narrative gap, even if the subtitle leaves open possibilities for the future. Not only does the letter to MacMillan show the contours of the later memoir, Jacobs notes that it has in it “the basic narrative shape of his experience” (xvii).

Sometimes the story even tells itself when we are not paying attention.

*Alan Jacobs (in my ePub), does not tell which book MacMillan adorned with this sketch. Neither does Chad Walsh in his C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptcs (2008). If you know the answer to this riddle, please let us all know.

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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19 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Accidental Autobiography

  1. L.A. Smith says:

    Love this! Great information, thanks so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great posting! I am so glad that you are allowing the complexity of Lewis’s personality to emerge in your work. There are those who want to create a saint with all the rough edges smoothed off. This is impossible. I have been pondering Hieronymus Bosch’s “Temptation of St Anthony” of late. I used to think it was weird but now I am coming to understand that Bosch had a profound insight into the struggles of the soul on its pilgrimage to wholeness and in particular a great soul that brings healing to others (Paul’s great insight “Death is at work in us, but life in you.”) My regard for Lewis grows as I become more aware of his struggles.


    • Well, Bosch takes a lifetime to contemplate, doesn’t he? I wish I could see an adequately large version in real life.
      I am doing a Lewis Biographers series this fall or next spring. As I read through these biographies, I am sensitive to that smoothing over.
      We all have rough edges, don’t we? Certainly an intelligent, creative person will heighten those inconsistencies. Add Lewis’ unusual setting–living with his brother, some housekeepers, and his adopted mother/former lover, and you see the point.
      There is a lot of “cute” in writers on Lewis. Some of it, I agree, is cute. A man who lived in mental poverty yet died quite rich, for example.
      But what I really like are the little surprises, and the things shared in letters that were meant to be temporary or private.
      So thanks for the note. I’m back in my chronological reading project, so hoping for more of this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would like to see that too. There is so much detail in Bosch that is easily missed. Of one thing I am sure & that is that Bosch’s St Anthony is ultimately healed and that the torment forms a part of his healing. That, by the way, is a source of hope for me too. Lewis’s inconsistency is also a source of hope; not as in some sense, “letting me off the hook” but as encouragement from a brother on the journey telling me not to give up but to keep on struggling.


  3. Ted,

    Enjoy the fun bits about this writer’s reason for writing and ignore his identity, if you wish.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Yes, thank you for this (which seems to me artlessly artful and conceivably in part specifically with an American ‘audience’ in mind – though what Lewis’s immediately reaction to the breadth given that ‘audience’ would be interesting to hear)!

    I was just struck how chapter 9 of The Great Divorce was (if I am not mistaken) the first public appearance of a particular fragment of autobiography, not so long thereafter varied at the end of the “Preface” to the MacDonald Anthology (1946).

    Speaking of that, do you know Mary Neylan’s little memoir, “My Friendship with C.S. Lewis”, including the first publication of some of his letters, in the Lewis Special Issue of The Chesterton Review, vol. 16, nos. 3-4, August-November 1991, pp. 405-11? Curiously, she does not say why it was that book he dedicated to her – do we know that, from elsewhere, or how this attention to MacDonald fits with that in the novel? (By the way, the letter of 2 Oct. 1941 briefly answers an apparent request from her on how best to get started reading Dante.)


    • I do know the “Friendship” memoir. I had my library find it for me a while back.
      Why the dedication? I don’t know exactly. MacDonald was one of the first author Lewis recommended when he realized she was thinking about Christianity. Lewis became her daughter’s godfather in spring 1942 and attended the baptism.
      Here’s what Lewis actually wrote to Neylan in 1945:
      “By the bye I’ve finished a selec tion from Geo. Macdonald (365 extracts) which will
      c ome out about Xmas: wd. you (or not) c are to have it dedicated to you? I feel it is rather yours by right as you got more out of him than anyone else to whom I introduced his books. Just let me know”


  5. Bill says:

    My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs—or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes.

    That seems to me to be a fine way to spend happy hours (less the pipes).


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  10. timpeterlucas says:

    I love visiting this site and reading new and interesting things about Lewis. Thank you.
    Additionally, you may already have found out (I am aware this posting is approaching three years old) but a brief search and skim-reads brought up a result in the book “A Philosophical Walking Tour With C.S. Lewis” (page 14) where Walter Hooper is quoteed as saying that Lewis wrote the end part (old clothes, pubs, laughter) ‘on the dust jacket of the original American edition of Perelandra.’ If the ending is there then I can only assume the beginning is. Sadly my searches only bring up the front cover of the American edition or the inside of the UK First Edition. If anybody owns the American First Edition (or at least early prints) of Perelandra then we can confirm if it is there or not for sure.


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