C.S. Lewis’ Normal and Not-So-Normal Life as a Student

As the cobblestone streets and hallowed halls of Oxford are beginning to fill for Michaelmas term, University students and faculty have been back to work here in North America. As I have a busy semester of teaching, I had a number of “first days.” No doubt, students are already concerned about how much they can actually accomplish as the work begins to pile up. 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 her desk filled with books and papers. Almost everyone I know remembers university this way, but when I read about historical figures, 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 of students at redbrick schools in the UK or at 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. Oxford is not merely a place of learning–in a sense, it isn’t really a university in the way non-Oxbridge universities think of as an institution of learning. Oxford is more like a city of idea spaces, and navigating that takes some getting used to.

But Lewis also had servants to help him do his work, giving the scholars time and space to do the most important things to them. 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 outside of Oxford or Cambridge and a handful of universities based on that model. The work in Oxford was also at a higher level, so Lewis’ first degrees were in many ways already at graduate level–certainly when we consider where education is today.

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 everyday life. Though the voyeuristic instinct most researchers have might kick in when thinking about a friend’s diary, actually reading it would run the spectrum from awkward to horrifying.

Diaries and letters of dead people, though, are two different explorations of the self that give us a unique 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, they 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. Lewis’ letters, collected by Walter Hooper, set the pace for my reading of all of Lewis’ works, and helped me discover Lewis’ thinking patterns outside of formal teaching and writing.

While all those are lovely details are essential to my overall project, beyond this 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 of 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. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author…

D [Mrs. Moore] 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 [Canterbury] 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 quotidian. 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 next year–New Year’s resolutions work sometimes, and Lewis began again strongly on Jan 1st, 1924.  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 [D’s daughter] 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–something that would have led to Lewis’ expulsion from Oxford–but gradually she became just another member of the extended Lewis household. A.N. Wilson sets this up nicely, exaggerating 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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13 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Normal and Not-So-Normal Life as a Student

  1. Quite fascinating reading about the rather normal and at times very mundane life of Lewis. Thanks for the look-in!

    I never believed the Lewis and Mrs. Moore rumours. Does anyone have one shred of evidence? Everything I’ve read has been based on pure speculation, such as “Jack was in the hospital and we know that everyone in a hospital is poor and vulernable, and she was worldly and domineering and of course she must have seduced him.” Too many suppositions. I’ve always thought this claim rather unfair and uncharitable to Lewis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy, Cleo. I wish I wrote “possible” instead of “likely,” but it isn’t based on any rumours (as far as I know–were there rumours? I doubt it, or he would have been expelled from Oxford). My framework is this: Why would an anti-theistic and atheistic young man who is experimenting with sexual expression set up his household in this way? That’s all. It isn’t uncharitable–why would this have been unethical from his perspective? If he was in love, it was love. And he wasn’t afraid of sex, as his letters and his biographer/student/friend George Sayer says. Moreover, Lewis acted honorably and with Christian ethics through to her death.
      It is important to emphasize that, as you say, it really is suppositional. History is that.
      But a question: do I need to know? do I need to talk about it? Maybe not. I’m honestly not that obsessed with it. as some biographers have been. It is simply part of the story. Mrs. Moore is one of the absolute critical facts of Lewis’ life.


  2. loritischler says:

    Thanks, a period of his life not often addressed.
    (But I still take issue w the school of male assumption that says he and Joy were lovers.)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I think I belong to the school of male non-assumption… I don’t grant the “It is likely”, though the expressed glimpses of the sexual morality and interests of the “I Broaden My Mind” Lewis through the years to his ‘reversion’ (if we may call it that) probably invite a more systematic consideration than I’ve given them.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    That “started Vergil with Maureen after breakfast” is interesting. She was 16, then: was this helping her with school work, or to prepare for an exam, or just for fun?


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I can’t remember ever knowing anything about playing “Boy’s Names” (though my capacity for oblivion is alarming) – might it produce things like ‘Eustace Scrubb’?


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