A Normal Day in C.S. Lewis’ Life as a Student

Though the halls of Oxford are not yet filled for Michaelmas term, University students and faculty are back to work here in North America. No doubt, students are already concerned about how much they can accomplish. As they hustle between classes, jobs, volunteering, and time with friends and family, the hours for doing actual classwork seem to shrink. Almost anyone at the end of the first month of college or university will be certain that they cannot possibly accomplish everything this term. Little do they know, most professors feel the same.

Radcliffe_Camera_3_(5647667236)Has it always been this way? My mother went back to university when I was in elementary school, so I remember the late nights and piles of books and papers. But when I read figures of history, they tend to speak of their time at “uni” in such glowing terms.

Turning to the figure of my own study, what was university time like for C.S. Lewis? As a student at Oxford, Lewis wouldn’t have had the normal experience students at redbrick schools in the UK or North American universities. The rituals and supports for an Oxford scholar are complex, so that dining at high table in college is not the same as getting the meal plan at the cafeteria. But he also had servants to help him do his work, giving the scholars time and space to do their work. Moreover, most of the work that Lewis and his colleagues would do was independent. Voluntary lectures were the support to mandatory one-on-one or two-on-one tutorials–the opposite of what many would experience today. The work in Oxford was also at a higher level, so Lewis’ first degrees were in many ways already at graduate level.

So there are are key differences in the way that an Oxford scholar in the 1920s and, say, a student at Penn State, McGill, or the University of Chester would approach school. What, then, did C.S. Lewis’ academic day look like?

cs lewis all my road before mePerhaps it is an odd fascination, but I do love reading people’s diaries. Dead people of course. I don’t really want the inner thoughts of real people in my every day life. It would be absolutely horrifying. Or at least awkward.

Diaries and letters of dead people, though, these two different explorations of the self, can give one a sense of the writer in ways that can adjust the picture of the man or woman in the mind of the reader. In the study of history, the are invaluable, and Lewis’ letters have formed a key part of my research, helping me slowly collate all the important information, quotes, and significant moments of Lewis’ life.

While all those are lovely details are essential to my overall project, there is something beautiful about the mundane.Though a prolific letter-writer, Lewis only kept a journal through his last years as a student and his first years teaching. So I thought I would pick Lewis’ entry as a student at the beginning of fall term in 1923.

While much of the diary is pretty boring, there is an interesting entry on Oct 21st, 1923. You can find a pretty good example of boring and mispelled entry a year earlier, Oct 21st, 1922:

Saturday 21 October: Up rather late and started Vergil with Maureen after breakfast, going on till eleven o’clock. Then I set to on my O.E. [Old English] Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. Sweet is certainly an infuriating author…

D* was much more cheerful than she has been for some time and for an hour or so we were quite merry. After tea I went to the drawing room and continued the Tales. Then supper: D’s work, which has all my maledictions, had her worried again by that time, or perhaps it was depression. A delightfully small wash up, thanks to the absence of Mrs Hankin and other visitors. Afterwards I got as far as the end of the Reeve’s Tale, which is pretty poor: but the Miller’s capital.

cs lewis all my road before me diaryA domestic day: slept in, read Vergil (i.e., Virgil) with breakfast, homework, a chat, tea, reading Chaucer, dinner and dishes before bedtime reading–really a typical day for C.S. Lewis when he is in his mid-20s (except he usually has also has a cold and is worried about money). The more synchronic date, in 1923, is less quotidien. Oct 21, 1923 is the record of one of Lewis’ walks with his good friend Cecil Harwood–he loved hiking through English towns and countrysides–which he calls “a luminous dream.” His delight is such that he begins the process of tucking it into his permanent memory. The entry is also interesting because he doesn’t finish. He breaks off mid-sentence, leaving us to imagine the rest of the walk on our own.

Sunday 21 October: Began reading Butler’s Erewhon in bed this morning. After breakfast wh. we had v. late, we set out for a walk. We took the Metropolitan to Richmond, in the streets of which we were held up by rain for ten minutes. How delightful all expeditions are with people who don’t mind rain! We then went into Richmond Park. I was quite unprepared for it. There was hardly anyone to be seen. In a few minutes we were in an absolutely deserted open rolling country full of bracken, standing pools and all kinds of woods and groves under a splendid grey autumn sky. We had as good a walk as ever I have had, coming down at about 2 o’clock into Kingston on Thames. Here we were overtaken by sharp rain and finding all the hotels shut were reduced to a very hasty lunch for ten pence each in “a low eating house”—a phrase I never really understood before.

After lunch we walked into Hampton Court Park. This was at first less beautiful than the other: then gradually we came to the end of a very long sheet of water with huge trees in autumn colouring on each side and Wren’s “back” of Hampton Court just visible at the end. At the same moment the sun broke out: the grass (very level) and the dead leaves on it, the trees, the swans, and one little stag that did not run away, took on glorious colours. We were alone: the silence was intense. It was all just like one of those luminous dreams I have so seldom dreamed. We walked up the whole length of the water to the fine old ironwork gates—still not a soul about and into the Palace gardens. This approach will be a great memory to me…

cs lewis all my road before me diary 1920sAnd that’s it. The diary ends here, and actually ends Lewis’ diary-writing until the new year–resolutions work sometimes.  Since we have very few letters in this period, I thought it might be helpful to post a “note” Lewis added after the Oct 21st entry, perhaps at the end of 1923 or before writing on New Years Day 1924. This note shows essential friendships, Lewis’ early view of animals, his poetry (Dymer, published 1925), his reading list, and the power of his Oxford bachelor perspective in this his atheistic period.

NOTE: My last diary, after fluttering for some time on a broken wing, came to an end on 21 October 1923 when I was with Harwood at his flat in Pimlico. On that Sunday evening he read and condemned in no measured terms the two new cantos of “Dymer” (VI and VII) which I had brought to show him. After discussion I largely agreed with him and decided to cut them out: in spite of the work I had put into them I felt surprisingly little disappointment at giving them up. I suppose that in the expulsion of anything bad from the mental system there is always pleasure.

Sometime after my visit to Harwood I cycled to Long Crendon to spend a night at Barfield’s cottage there, thus meeting his wife and mother in law for the first time. His wife is plain, and undistinguished in manner—which I take for a good sign in a marriage so unequal in age. She is very quiet, a little shy, I think: “homely” both in the good and the bad sense of the word. I like her, and I think I should like her more, the more I saw of her. His mother in law, Mrs Dewey [Douie], is a “character part”: a very caustic old Scotch lady.

Barfield has, if anything, improved by marriage. I enjoyed my little stay greatly. We talked a great deal, about [Rudolph] Steiner, the Douglas Scheme, and the changes we had gone through even in the short time we had known each other.

He made one excellent remark. “I am not bored,” he said. “I still have always a waiting list of things to do, even if it’s only walking to the bottom of the garden to see how a bud is coming on.” He saw me as far as Stanton St John on the way back. While I was with him I saw several of his new poems, some of which are very fine. He approved of “Dymer” V and tolerated my new version of VI.

I saw little of Jenkin this term. D began to be very poorly about this time and started a course of medicines for indigestion at the advice of Dr McCay. The latter was often here doctoring Maureen’s mysteriously damaged ankle: he soon proved himself a fool, promising her that it would be all right next week and changing his promises often.

Harwood came down for a very jolly week end, during which we played Boy’s Names, walked, talked and laughed, keeping entirely free from shop. D and Maureen both like him very much, and indeed, in many ways, he is an ideal companion. It was during this stay that he met Jenkin again and they became friends—Jenkin having been rather repelled by his manner when they met before.

Later on Barfield came to stay for one night. He and I talked till three o’clock: one of the most satisfying conversations I have ever had. Although the subject of his marriage was naturally never mentioned, a lot was understood and we each saw that the other felt the same way about women and the home life and the unimportance of all the things that are advertised in common literature. He agreed that, as I said, “either women or men are mad”: he said we could see the woman’s point of view absolutely at times—as if we had never had any other—and this was a sort of relief.

He has completely lost his materialism and “the night sky is no longer horrible”. I read to him in my diary the description of the talk I had with him in Wadham gardens when he was still in pessimism, and we enjoyed it. Although he agreed with several Bergsonianisms of mine (specially that “the materiality is the intelligibility”) he has not read Bergson. He was surprised that I shared most of his views on the nature of thought.

It was shortly before this that I read Flecker’s Hassan. It made a great impression on me and I believe it is really a great work. Carritt (whom I met at the Martlets shortly after) thinks that its dwelling on physical pain puts it as much outside literature as is pornography in another: that it works on the nervous system rather than the imagination. I find this hard to answer: but I am almost sure he is wrong. At that same meeting of the Martlets Sadler read an excellent paper on Day, the author of Sandford and Merton.

Soon after this I had to leave—at an unusually early date in order to conform with W’s [his brother, Warren’s] time of leave [from the military]. The usual wretchedness of going away was increased by D’s state of health: and to crown all, Maureen had to be sent to Bristol during my absence to have her foot properly seen to by Rob. Poor D, who was thus left alone had a dreadful time, and admits now that she was at times afraid it was going to be a gastric ulcer. Thank heavens she seems better now. My three weeks in Ireland, tho’ improved by W’s presence, were as usual three weeks too long. I had a good deal of toothache.

On the return journey W and I stopped for a night in town. For the first time since we were children we visited the Zoo with great gusto: but the cages are too small, and it is cruel—specially for animals like foxes, wolves, dingoes and jackals. We also went to see a musical comedy called Katherine, wh. was very bad. We had meant to go to Hassan, but after reading it W decided that it would be too harrowing for his feelings.

While I was in Ireland I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Masefield’s Daffodil Fields, J. Stephen’s new book Deirdre and Henry James’ Roderick Hudson.

*Of course, the hint of “D” above lets us know Lewis’ school life was both normal and abnormal. “D” is Mrs. Moore, the mother of Lewis’ war friend, Paddy Moore, to whom he had given the promise to take care of his mother should he die. Paddy Moore went missing in WWI and was never found, and Lewis moved in with Mrs. Moore and her daughter, Maureen. It is likely Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers about this time, but gradually she became just another member of the extended Lewis household. A.N. Wilson sets this up nicely, exagerrating slightly in the style of his biography writing:

Lewis appeared to be enjoying an archetypal undergraduate career in ancient and beautiful surroundings. But in fact his routines were completely different from those of his fellow-collegians. True, he rose at six-thirty, bathed, attended chapel (which was still compulsory for undergraduates) and had his breakfast in hall. Then he went to lectures and libraries and tutorials, and had lunch (bread, cheese and beer) brought over to his room by a college servant. But at 1 p.m. without fail, he got on his bicyle and pedalled over Magdalen Bridge, up Headington Hill and into the dingy little suburban toroughfare near the mental hospital. There at Number 28 Warneford Road, in the house of a lady of High Church persuasion by the name of Featherstone, Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen had taken up their abode. ‘They are installed in our “own hired house” (like St. Paul only not daily preaching and teaching). The owner of the house has not yet cleared out and we pay a little less than the whole for her still having a room’ (A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, 64, quoting a letter to Arthur Greeves).

See C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Harvest, 1991), 123-124, 276-279. See also volume 1 of the Collected Letters and any of the biographies to get a further sense of the time.

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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32 Responses to A Normal Day in C.S. Lewis’ Life as a Student

  1. danaames says:

    Any idea why he gave Mrs Moore the initial D?


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I don’t know enough about living in or out of college in the early 1920s, but Lewis’s time spent with the Moores was presumably unusual (as, in a different way, was Robert Graves’s living on Boar’s Hill, a little earlier: see the revised ed. of Goodbye to All That). Evelyn Waugh was ‘up’ from 1922 through 1924, so presumably the Oxford part of Brideshead Revisited is indebted to that period. (He even wrote a novel about Oxford immediately after being ‘up’, but destroyed it, though he then wrote and published an Oxford story, “The Balance” – which I have not yet read.)

    “Almost anyone at the end of the first month of college or university will be certain that they cannot possibly accomplish everything this term. Little do they know, most professors feel the same.” This made me think of a wonderful book by a younger contemporary of Lewis’s at Oxford (for awhile), The Art of Teaching (1950), by Gilbert Highet, which I was glad to have read when I was first teaching: he is interesting about both the professors who do, and those who somehow always fail to, get through the course work planned.

    The likelihood or unlikelihood that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers about this time, is one of those great points of discussion. (The distinctly different domesticities of Lewis (whatever exactly his were) and the married Barfield, and their explicit attention to at least the latter, is something I don’t recall having read about, before, and which invites more thinking about.)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      By the way, I don’t know how distantly related to reality it is in any and all details, but I enjoyed the Oxford life of Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940), starring Arthur Askey.


    • I haven’t read any of those books, and as always, David, you have threatened to make my bedside reading pile topple over.
      Barfield biographies do talk about the tensions of life at home, and how ultimately Barfield sacrifices life as a scholar and artist and works on law before reemerging later. I don’t know if that was a tension when he was doing his degree (which became Poetic Diction).


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It took me decades of meaning to read Goodbye to All That, before I did, and I’m very glad I did (the late, revised version), and I would have been glad if I’d read it sooner (and now I want to read the first version, and compare them…!). I started watching the 1981 Granada Television Brideshead, and missed an episode, and caught up by reading the book – and went on with the book, and don’t think I saw all the rest of the series till much later. And I still haven’t really started to catch up with Barfield… I

        t is interesting to try to build up a picture of Oxford life, in fiction and diaries, letters, memoirs, histories – I’m glad to have caught up with John Garth on Tolkien in Oxford, for a recent instance – and yesterday got a glimpse of Oxford in the 1880s, from Elizabeth Goudge writing about her father”s time there in her 1974 autobiography: for example, “They dined in Hall at candlelit tables, fatherly Scouts looked after their health and morals with all possible solicitude, old ladies in black bonnets called ‘bedders’ came in to make their beds and clean their rooms”, and, “He read Honour Mods and Greats and went down in a blaze of glory with a Double First; due he said to a diet of Bath Oliver biscuits and Cooper’s Oxford marmalade. In the last frantic weeks of revision there was no time to dine in Hall. Dr Oliver and Mr Cooper alone sustained him.” (But what must his solicitous Scout have thought? ‘Poor young gentleman…’)

        That lovely “‘I am not bored,’ he said. ‘I still have always a waiting list of things to do'” seems appropriate when thinking of books beckoning and not yet read…

        (My bedside table is direly Grand Canyonish…)


        • I sort of feel the same way about building up a history second hand. It never occurred to me until now I could simply read a history of Oxford University! You speak of “a blaze of glory with a Double First”–Lewis got a Triple First, and I still don’t know how common that is.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Me neither (though I bet somebody’s got some stats somewhere – maybe in a history of Oxford University I don’t know about, yet: crazily enough, none come to mind, though I expect there must be many – and college histories, to boot).

            Someday soon, I should treat myself to nibbling away at the near nine hours of the ever-delightful Andy Minter (curiously pseudonymously anagrammatized as ‘Termin Dyan’) reading (for LibriVox.org) Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, or, An Oxford Love Story, published in the year Tolkien came up, 1911!

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I have argued in an essay published in _Mythlore_ that Lewis called Mrs. Moore “D” (actually “delta,” the Greek letter) because he had called her Despoina earlier, in at least one of the poems addressed to that name in _Spirits in Bondage_. If you’re interested, “From Despoina to Delta” (except that I used the Greek letter), _Mythlore_ 30:3-4/117-118 (Spring-Summer 2012): 27-53. I’m wrong in that essay about the dates of some letters dealing with the publication of _Spirits in Bondage_, but they have nothing to do with the basic argument.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks! Apparently there’s something a least dubious about the copyright situation, for Project Gutenberg has Spirits in Bondage transcribed online – and, so, searchable: with “Despoina” turning up five times, all in Part I, once in VII. Apology and four times in VIII. Ode For New Year’s Day (where the first use is in apposition to “Thou, my own beloved”!). The first Greek dictionary I checked notes the use of ‘despoina’ in Pindar, Aeschylus’s Persians, and Sophocles’s Ajax in senses including ‘lady/woman of the house’, ‘wife’, ‘queen’, and ‘goddess’. (Now, to bide my time in patience till I’m somewhere that has a copy of Mythlore 30:3-4/117-118 (Spring-Summer 2012)…)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joe R. Christopher says:

        _Spirits in Bondage_ was published without a copyright notice, and the assumption for a goodly while was that it was not copyrighted. I’ve noticed that a “recent” version is published with a copyright notice by the estate–I’m thinking of the 1984 version with an introduction and notes by Walter Hooper; the notice does not say Hooper’s contributions are copyrighted but, after a general notice, this specific statement: “All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means … without permission in writing from the publisher.” Perhaps the estate has recaptured the copyright, or perhaps it is just trying to frighten off would-be publishers–I don’t know.


        • Copyright in the UK and the colonies is certainly less rigorous than the U.S. Still, Spirits in Bondage has passed the U.S. 90 years, and Dymer this year. That’s why it’s on Gutenberg-Librivox.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thanks to both of you – copyright law bewilders me! (I have a vague idea new editions can secure copyright for things about those editions – a text as edited, even, as laid-out and typeset; I don’t know what distinctions there can be between authors and the works published during their lifetimes.)

            Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Joe. Now that you mention it, I think I remember that piece, but I hadn’t coded it in my brain. I have to think about Despoina.


  4. wanderwolf says:

    I had to laugh… reading the diary of someone alive and (gasp) whom we know would be very awkward.
    I enjoyed reading about Lewis’s student years. I love seeing the lives of great people at their time of life when it’s parallel to mine. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Lauren Craig says:

    The diaries of dead people are fascinating. I had to read this book called “Love Letters to the Dead” in my adolescent lit class in which the main character’s diary was letters to dead people. I didn’t end up liking the book, but I loved the concept.


  6. L.A. Smith says:

    I love this little picture of a slice of Lewis’ life. How different the lives of students are today! How much of these deep discussions that Lewis seemingly frequently had still go on today between undergrads or graduate students? Or is everyone scrolling through Facebook and Twittering out t their 140 characters? I know that you can’t go back again, and shouldn’t idealize the past for surely there is so much good that comes out of our modern lifestyles as well as the bad…but some days I am hard-pressed to articulate what exactly that might be. And I also wonder what it would have been like to meet Lewis in those days. Would he have seemed arrogant and full of himself? Did he have that sense of humour that I sense about him in his later years? I wonder if I would have liked him much as a 23 year old? I love his line, “He has completely lost his materialism and ‘the night sky is no longer horrible.'” What an interesting observation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Good questions! He’s pretty critical somewhere about his younger self in the context of rereading his early letter to Arthur Greeves – but I can also imagine he might have been largely enjoyable to meet, or (over)hear at those ages, too.

      Interesting indeed! It made me wonder if it had anything to do with Pascal’s famously saying, “Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie – The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (As copied from Pensées Quotes at goodreads.) But what Barfield found horrible might well have been something quite different. The sestet of George Meredith’s sonnet, ‘Lucifer in Starlight’, comes to mind, too – but may also have nothing to do with Barfield’s materialist experience:

      Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
      With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
      He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
      Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
      Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
      The army of unalterable law.

      Liked by 1 person

    • These are great questions. David’s right that he later saw himself as priggish in his younger days. I also read another poem about Lewis that he was a bit of a kingmaker in a group when he was younger, so that certain felt excluded and others included. I suspect that was enhanced by his restlessness in the 20s.
      Most any campus has the great conversations if you can find them. I think the drop in intensity of conversation is tied to the managerialization of the university–the white collar class are not all intellectuals, and the campus moved from an intellectual space to a white collar job prep space. Bound to happen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “Most any campus has the great conversations if you can find them.” An encouraging thought – that sounds likely to be true. I got the impression in my brief visit back a year ago that that is certainly still the case at Oxford (not least where the thriving Lewis Society is concerned).


        • I love Oxford and found great conversations there, but I was also hanging out at libraries and postgraduate students. The churches certainly had far more intellectual conversations than anything nearby here.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Interesting – I suppose that happens more easily where there’s such a high concentration of certain sorts of ‘inquiring minds’ (I remember chatting with Michael Nazir-Ali and his family, in the next pew, about the interesting combination of the emerging chief baddies in Narnia having such ‘Eastern’ cultural (etc.) characteristics, certainly from The Horse and His Boy on, with Aslan having a Turkish name from the beginning).

            Liked by 1 person

      • L.A. Smith says:

        Yes. Certainly what is expected in terms of subjects studied by undergrads now is quite different. I hadn’t thought of it in the way you described it, but I see what you mean. More “job preparation” than the exploration of great ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

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