I want to introduce readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia to a remarkable guest post by Prof. Dale Nelson. Dale has written for us before (see here and here and here), but he attempts something unique in this guest post. Drawing on his years of experience as a columnist writing on the books from C.S. Lewis’ bookshelf, he here takes us for a walk through a used bookstore, pulling down volumes that Lewis read or owned and sharing their stories–often from books we have never even heard of. I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
Henry Noel got the New York C. S. Lewis Society started with a 1969 notice placed in National Review. Five years later, he published “Some Little-Known Books in Lewis’s Background” in the Society’s Bulletin. Beginning in 2001, I wrote four sequels to that article, each one talking about half a dozen or so books that Lewis had read or, at least, owned. Current editor Bob Trexler suggested that, rather than an occasional omnium-gatherum, a frequent column, dealing with one book at a time, would be good, and suggested the series title: Jack and the Bookshelf. I’ve written 37 JBS columns, and expect to write many more.
I’ve tracked down books mentioned in Lewis’s letters and published diary, in people’s reminiscences of Lewis, and in Margaret Anne Rogers’s 1969 paper C. S. Lewis: A Living Library. But let’s imagine this scenario instead: We’re poking around the boxes set up outside an old London bookseller’s store, and we find…
Here’s a story of passionate love – written by a nine-year-old girl, and printed just as it was written, with erratic spelling and punctuation.
Oh Bernard she sighed fervently I certainly love you madly you are to me like a Heathen god she cried looking at his manly form and handsome flashing face I will indeed marry you. [He insists on having the ceremony next week, and she protests this is “so sudden.’]
No no cried Bernard and taking the bull by the horns he kissed her violently on her dainty face [etc.].
Borrow, George. Lavengro. 1851
This lively, episodic, outdoorsy purported autobiography, and its sequel The Romany Rye, were very popular in their day. The restless narrator tramps the British countryside, meeting, for example, a man who claims to sell pit bulls to the Pope, a poor old fruit-seller stationed on a London bridge who is always cheered by reading about “the blessed woman” – namely Moll Flanders in Defoe’s novel, a rationalist, bullying publisher, and wandering gypsies. There’s Isopel Berners, a tall, fine-looking vagrant girl, who relishes a pugilistic fight between Borrow and “the Flaming Tinman.” Charlotte Brontë said: “In George Borrow’s works I found a wild fascination, a vivid graphic power of description, a fresh originality, an athletic simplicity, which give them a stamp of their own.”
In The Norse Myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland calls Dufferin’s book one of the two best 19th-century accounts of Iceland. (The other is that of the fantasist and socialist William Morris.) Dufferin’s chapter-headings include “I become the Proprietor of twenty-six horses,” “A German Gnat-Catcher,” “The Mystical Mountains,” “The Fire Deluge of 1783,” “Constant Struggle with the Ice,” “The Bear-saga,” etc. Dufferin’s book was an entry in the old Everyman’s Library series that meant so much to Lewis.
Hamilton’s critique of contemporary verse, in the three essays comprising The Tell-Tale Article, becomes quite searching, but it begins with what seems just a curiosity, the relatively high frequency, compared to earlier English poetry, of the word “the” in modernist poetry: “The vanished power of the usual reign,” “The infirm glory of the positive hour,” “The simple act of the confused will,” “The boiling tears among the hothouse plants, / The rigid promise fractured in the garden, / And the long aunts,” etc. Eventually Hamilton nicely parodies this style with a line of his own: “the superior wink of the shared secret.”
These poets, Hamilton says, point
“to their most unusual ideas and comparisons as though implying that the intelligent reader will recognise them as familiar.”
Lewis appreciated Hamilton’s censure of the poets’ “publicized privacy – like ‘bloods’ talking esoterically in very loud voices in order to be overheard by admiring new boys” (letter to Hamilton, 14 August 1949).
“It is, I suggest, the failure of the sense of man’s greatness, both from the religious and humanistic point of view, which more than anything else has weakened English poetry, of whatever school, for the last fifty years.”
In the seventeenth century, the secret of travel to the moon was discovered and three human couples went there. Their ancestors have survived but not thriven. Now never-specified “terribly hostile” conditions make it imperative that they come to the earth; but they no longer possess the secret of space travel.
They beam at-first-puzzling messages to earth using, as is only eventually realized, the “universal” shorthand devised by Bishop Wilkins! (We may be glad that the novel’s title is Menace from the Moon instead of Shorthand from Space.) They threaten earth with destruction from heat-ray projections unless papers their ancestors left behind are retrieved and their contents beamed back to them by the “super-cinematograph” that they falsely assume earth-dwellers must, like themselves, possess. The people of earth don’t have the technology by which to communicate with the moon people; and doom seems assured.
Paul Fussell regarded the 1920s-1930s as the Golden Age of British literary travel books. Lewis relished this book (diary, 4 June 1924; see page 327 of All My Road Before Me).
“It is extraordinary to read the mixture of Rider Haggard and Algernon Blackwood and know that it is true. The story of the Black Monk [near the prison island of Sakhalin] at first struck me as a capital theme for a poem – but really there is nothing left for the poet to do.”
The monk is an old but vigorous Orthodox ascetic who lives with two disfigured lepers. When storms arise at sea, they try to rescue people in danger of drowning. Years before, the monk had known Tolstoy and Soloviev, and had been, he confessed, a great sinner. When Ossendowski returns to the monk’s cabin later, he finds that he has died, with a request that the photograph of a bride be buried with him.
This is Mrs. Sandeman’s account of Christmas 1906 at her family’s great Cheshire country house of Lyme Park (called Vyne Park in the book). The house had recently been given to the National Trust, and the book’s epilogue, dated 1946, conveyed Mrs. Sandeman’s reconciliation to the vanishing of ways of life the house had represented. She felt fortunate in being able to remember “a gentler world — a world before total wars and atom bombs and horror camps and miserable starving slaves,” but accepted the inevitable loss “of all earthly things; whether it was a world civilisation or a human being, or a house.” Lewis responded sympathetically:
“it isn’t only Houses: the very earth is being destroyed, the shapes of the hills disappear, the rabbits are gassed.”
Yonge, Charlotte Mary. The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations. 1856
In a 1953 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis recommended a number of Yonge’s Victorian family chronicles. This one deals with the eleven May children, ranging from Richard, who, at the beginning, has failed his Oxford exams, to infant Gertrude Margaret, also called Daisy. Mrs. May was killed in a carriage accident soon after Daisy was born. In “Membership,” Lewis said regretfully,
“If a really good home, such as … any of Charlotte M. Yonge’s families, existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it.”
I look forward to reading its sequel, The Trial.
It is easier all the time to follow Lewis’s advice, of balancing one’s reading diet — all too likely to be devoted to recent books — with older books, including well-known classics but also books that have almost dropped out of sight. Many of the old books he read are available now at archive.org or Project Gutenberg, or in inexpensive used copies from places such as abebooks.com.
Be sure to check out Nelson’s upcoming J. R. R. Tolkien: Studies in Reception, which will be published by Nodens Books this year.