Leatherhead and Literary Coincidence, with C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells

I encountered the town of Leatherhead first in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897). It is one of a dozen or so English place names that meant nothing to me as a young reader. As an adult, armed with an atlas–and now in a world filled with nerds nice enough to make maps like the one below–I can trace the movements of the narrator as he survives against all odds in the collapse of his civilization.

As distant as I was to the real places that Wells enjoins with his alien invasion, any close reader of The War of the Worlds will feel the inch-by-inch journey of the refugees on the road. Curiosity at the landing of the Martians is slain by bloodshed, and then the reality sinks in: England, the seat of the greatest civilization on the planet, a nation of such ingenuity and culture and military might that it has retained its domination over the world for centuries, is reduced to ash and clay in the casual rural genocide.

What I didn’t know about The War of the Worlds was that it was working a science fiction angle into the form of an invasion tale that caught on in the late 19th century after George Tomkyns Chesney’s, The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871). While this evocative little book isn’t terribly well written, it seems to have struck at the heart of England’s (and later Europe and America’s) fear of being caught as a superpower in complacency. The Battle of Dorking describes the inch-by-inch defeat of England by an unnamed Germanic country, beginning with the utter destruction of the fleet to the hillside showdown in Surrey. In “On Stories,” Lewis critiqued The War of the Worlds for getting lost in the minutiae of the escape from the Martians in Surrey, and certainly the Dorking tale could have benefited from Lewis’ advice.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that in Chesney the ground zero of The Other Power’s invasion is Dorking, Surrey, while in Wells the Martian invasion begins across the hills in Woking, Surrey. And in each of the invasion tales the characters interact with Leatherhead. There is little doubt that Wells is centring in on Surrey to evoke Chesney’s story, but Wells’ message undercuts Chesney’s ideology at the core. While both Chesney and Wells wrote with morals in mind, Wells’ skill and imaginative scope have meant that his early experiments in “scientific romance” are with us still today.

Thinking of this Leatherhead link, I couldn’t help but remember that epic moment in C.S. Lewis’ life story:

I and one porter had the long, timbered platform of Leatherhead station to ourselves. It was getting just dark enough for the smoke of an engine to glow red on the underside with the reflection of the furnace. The hills beyond the Dorking Valley were of a blue so intense as to be nearly violet and the sky was green with frost. My ears tingled with the cold. The glorious week end of reading was before me. Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—”Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.” That evening I began to read my new book (Surprised by Joy XI).

It was there at Leatherhead in Surrey that Lewis tracks the beginning of his spiritual defeat: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” (SBJ XII). When it comes to his atheism being overcome by God, Lewis talks about “traps everywhere,” “fine nets and stratagems,” and being “annihilated” or “assailed” by his unscrupulous opponent, only being given a momentary “retreat” and the occasional “defence.” “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side” (SBJ XIV). Lewis uses other images for God in his conversion story–angler, hunter, chess master, storyteller–but the military imagery is resonant. “God closed in on me,” Lewis says, using a metaphor that works for most of his pictures of God in the memoir.

“In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in,” Lewis says (SBJ XIV); “I have come to give myself up” Pilgrim John says in The Pilgrim’s Regress (IX.4). As we think of the religious terms of death and surrender in Lewis’ memoir, we must remember their rootedness in everyday life: surrender is, after all, a military metaphor.

And as think of the central role of Leatherhead and Surrey in The War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking, I cannot help but think of Surprised by Joy as an invasion tale in the pattern of Chesney and Wells. Slowly, inch by inch, the Enemy finds his way into the heart of the empire, breaking down defences and revealing the invaded land’s heart to the world. As England’s defences were destroyed in Chesney’s Euro-invasion and Wells’ attack from outer space, so every barrier of resistance is lost in Lewis’ battle against the call of God.

Now, you must at this moment object: Brenton, are you suggesting that Lewis didn’t find Phantastes at Leatherhead station? Is Lewis bending his narrative into place to match a theme in cultural memory?

No, I don’t think that’s how it works. These kinds of literary echoes are far more complex and intuitive.

Lewis really did connect Leatherhead and the area to an important part of his life. Here is a 1929 letter to his best friend, just a year or so before his conversion to theism.

We arrived back from Sussex to day and travelled within a couple of miles of Bookham, all up the Dorking valley which I know so well. It very nearly made me weep, I got such a rich poignant whiff of memory from the old days–Phantastes, Bleheris, Dymer, Papillon, T. Edens Osborne all jumbled up. But as you know, one has the secret of these memories now and knows how to extract the spiritual sweet without falling into mere desire and regret (c. 22 Apr 1929 letter to Arthur Greeves).

Lewis has a whole series of moments like this in 1929 to 1931, each renewed encounter with a book or place or friend setting up the conversion narrative that we have in Surprised by Joy. I am not suggesting that Lewis was bending the narrative; it is more likely that the idea of telling his conversion story as a (softened) invasion tale emerged naturally from his own life of reading. The Leatherhead-Surrey connection is coincidental on one level, but is the kind of literary link that Lewis makes consistently in his life.

It is similar with H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds is clearly patterned after The Battle of Dorking, both in genre (invasion narrative) and in the act of subtly parodying Chesney’s message. But Wells really actually lived in Woking, ground zero of the Martian landing. Like Lewis, Wells had spent his days hiking the Surrey hills, and once wrote to a friend about a new story he was publishing “in which I completely wreck and sack Woking–killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways” (see Phil Klass’ piece here).

There is in H.G. Well’s work both the real-life connection and the echo that shapes the tale. Coincidence? Perhaps, but this is the kind of coincidence that is central to writers that are so intertextually rich, and provides another background for reading C.S. Lewis’ famous conversion story in Surprised by Joy.

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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11 Responses to Leatherhead and Literary Coincidence, with C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells

  1. This struck me as original and well-written. I wouldn’t have thought to compare the works you cited.


  2. dalejamesnelson says:

    “T. Edens Osborne” might have been proprietor of a Belfast store where one could buy books and records. I found “Osborne, Thomas Edens, Depot for Phonographs, Gramaphones [sic], Musical Instruments (Mechanical), 39 Donegall Street. Head Officer and Cycle Warehouse, Overland House, 1 Donegall Street; Workshops and Stores, 28 North Street” here:


    I would like to read a well-informed, illustrated article someday about “Stores in the Life of C. S. Lewis,” including ones from which he was accustomed to order books. (And his father was a great one for buying books too, I gather; where did Albert get books?)

    Here’s Lewis on the shop:


    Dale Nelson


  3. Brenton, as someone familiar with H.G. Wells, I recommend “The Retroactive Time Machine” by Ted Reynolds. This is the sequel to the “The Time Machine” which H.G. Wells would have written–or did he? Has Wells returned in his own time machine to inhabit the mind of Ted Reynolds? This book put several kinks I may never recover from in my understanding of linear timelines and made me appreciate the benefits of Eloi communication methods.

    Delightful. Insightful. Love the whimsy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is fascinating – thank you! (It leaves me wondering just how little eye – and/or memory – for detail I have, myself, though…)

    Somehow, it springs to mind to contrast the atmospheric vividness of Francis Thompson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’ (1893) with the (as it turns out, strategic) geographical detail of Surprised by Joy. And to want to consider the circumstantially opportune martial imagery of the talks eventually collected in Mere Christianity in the context not only of That Hideous Strength but of the earlier Ransom novels (and what of The Screwtape Letters?). And bring in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1900 in The Strand, 1901 as book) – and look up again what-all Lewis says about it. For, those first men are (if I recall correctly) experienced by the Selenites as a sort of invaders (though that is not the end of a complex story). As are not only Weston and Devine in Malacandra but as Thulcandra’s bent Archon was very drastically in its past. And, for that matter, as Uncle Andrew rather aspires to be and Jadis more drastically becomes, in The Magician’s Nephew. Contrasting with such invasions, incursion into occupied territory to deliver from usurpation – in how many ways, in how many of Lewis’s works?


    • Well, we each see different things as we read. We both saw the Hound of Heaven (though it was probably pointed out to me), but this is why we “read out loud.” See, I think you are on to the key thing: What does Lewis invert in his parodies of Wells’ work? It is the “human hero” reality of interplanetary fiction. 1st Men in Moon is a bit more complex, and War of Worlds we get stomped (if it wasn’t for evolution, we’d be hooped). Lewis turns the “might is right” upside down, upsetting the entire European colonial project.
      Perhaps Uncle Andrew is a caricature of that? Jadis certainly is.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Arthurian Literature and the Old Everyman’s Library, by Dale Nelson | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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