If this were a drinking party instead of a book, A.N. Wilson‘s C.S. Lewis: A Biography would be a five-star story. Humorous, light in tone, deftly written, the life of C.S. Lewis told here is engaging, moving, and poignant. Unfortunately, this was not a night around the dinner table, picking and eating and drinking and talking about this Oxford don that our new friend Wilson had met one time. It is a book that purports to be a biography but has the unfortunate condition of not being terribly accurate.
You can see a list of errata by Kathryn Lindskoog here. The list is as telling about C.S. Lewis studies as it is about Wilson’s work. Many Lewis fans will have rejected the book because it has damning or lurid things in it, and because it drifts toward the Freudian, psychoanalytic view of history. I don’t reject it out of hand for these reasons provided there can be sufficient evidence that the author can bring us truthfully into the history of the moment.
Wilson’s smoking jacket old boys club approach to biographical approach to storytelling, though, left me with no confidence whatsoever that I could either trust his account where biographers differ, or that I could test his hypothesis. The errata is part of it. Even when you take out the protectionistic and interpretive bits, there are simply dozens of errors. As Arend Smilde coyly noted in his much more complete review of the book,
“Wilson might have been practising a kind of biography which is legitimate in its own way but which I have not yet learnt to appreciate” (see here).
I will surmise what that technique is below, but we should watch as Smilde goes on to list pages of errors that we can divide into rough categories: 1) error of fact due to sloppiness; 2) error of interpretation due to uncareful weighing of evidence; 3) concerns or errors due to the fact that Wilson’s evidence is based on hearsay, gossip, or private conversations not open to historical testing; and 4) places where Wilson just simply seems bent against a sensible or evidence-based interpretation.
These categories are a bit puzzling to me as I have read Wilson’s biographies on St. Paul and Tolstoy. I enjoyed Tolstoy, though I know almost nothing about the figure. I have done a masters degree on Paul, however, and that book made me angry at times. As scholars we make biographical and historical choices based on the best of our reading, and hopefully keep checking our biases. Wilson’s bio of Paul simply slalomed through, grabbing the best interpretation from scholars to suit his purposes. It was a frustrating read, but what makes his bio of Lewis so different is that the Paul bio was pretty well researched for a popular biographer’s work. This Lewis biography was not well researched, leaving out the most important biography of the generation: Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer, Lewis’ student and friend. This makes me wonder if Wilson’s Lewis book is a bit of a gap in his must stronger (though still controversial) work.
I won’t repeat the errors in the text–not simply because others have done that with startling attention to detail, but also because I just really enjoyed reading this book. To be fair, this was my “jammed between the seats of the car to read while I’m waiting for things book” book. It is a special category of book, made up of a soft-cover text that can hold a pencil, about 300-350 pages so it sits nicely between the seats, one that I can both hold the story together in my head and one I don’t mind taking 2 or 3 years to read. Because I read it in such small segments, and because my expectations were low, I never got really angry at any one point. It was an entertaining read that filled time in the dentist’s office or the garage or while waiting for the traffic behind the water main break to flow again.
It is not, however, the first or last biography of C.S. Lewis anyone should read. That is, of course, if you are thinking of history. Wilson himself admits as much to the reader after more than 300 pages that
C. S. Lewis has become a mythological figure, and it has therefore seemed legitimate to some to retell his story without too much regard for empirical evidence, just as poets have told and retold the tales of Greek or Norse mythology (306).
And that’s it, right there. This is a four-star or five-star mythology, but a pretty poor biography. I love mythology, but I think A.N. Wilson is being unjust to readers who buy his book and has got the work of an amateur mythographer where they expected the work of a professional biographer.
To honour the late-night story feeling of the book, though, I think sharing a few points worth pondering when we are feeling speculative could be fun (or infuriating):
“Most of Lewis’s important experiences were, in fact, literary ones” (44, is this true? Perhaps not, but a great quote).
“How much is the bookish man distinguishable from his imagined self, the self he projects into the books he reads?” (45, note, Wilson uses “project” a lot this good, at least a half-dozen times to pose this question, unfortunately not doing the historical work to answer it; at least as many times Wilson suggests Lewis is obssessed with one thing or another).
“It has become customary for those who write about Lewis to speak of his fondness for Mrs Moore and the domestic routines in which she involved him as a tyranny which he endured with a martyr’s patience. Almost any domestic routine which involves more than one person can be viewed in this light; and it is unquestionable that Mrs Moore was a demanding companion whose desire for Lewis to be involved in the smallest detail of her life did not diminish with the years. But though she may have given him more than he bargained for, it would be unfair to her memory to deny that she was providing something which he very much needed and wanted” (72, there really is a villainization of Mrs. Moore in some circles, largely because of Warren Lewis’ feelings about her).
“The feeling abroad was that English was not really a man’s subject – more suitable for girls. It was too nebulous in its intellectual range. Criticism as a pseudo-science had scarcely begun and when it did so, in other universities, it was not welcomed at Oxford. English Literature was studied there, in Lewis’s time as an undergraduate, from a relentlessly philological and historical point of view” (76, so reading is a girls game, words a boys one).
“Tolkien was by temperament a very different man from Lewis. He could be touchy and irritable; Lewis could be brash and tactless. There was a touch of elfish melancholy, as well as of delicacy, in Tolkien which would never respond to the broader outlines of Lewis’s essentially sunny disposition. Lewis would not have guessed that Tolkien’s Lay would remain unfinished. It must have seemed clear to him at once that Tolkien was a man of literary genius, and this fact only brought home to him his own sense of failure as a writer. ‘From the age of sixteen onwards, I had one single ambition, from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment; and I recognise myself as having unmistakeably failed in it.’9 He knew that as yet the appropriate style eluded him. He knew neither what to write nor how to write it. In Tolkien, by huge contrast, he met a man whose style had been with him from the beginning” (119).
“Like many sexually naive people, Lewis supposed that if he eliminated the consciously erotic elements of his sexuality from the surface of life, he would be able to dispel the habits and characteristics of which these particular tastes were a mere symptom. Perhaps if he had worried less about them, and taken a less self-reproachful line, the outlines of his personality would have softened with the years. Perhaps, too, if they had known about his ‘tastes’, his friends would have been less puzzled by two of his most mysterious personality traits: his delight in verbal bullying, of students or intellectual opponents, and his apparently cheerful domestic enslavement to Mrs Moore” (129).
“The Discarded Image is a book which was written by a man with an unusual sensitivity to the differences between past and present. The men and women of the past saw the same physical universe that we did, but their way of seeing it was quite different; their way of describing it in written form more different still. This does not mean that the old books can provide us with no concrete evidence from the past, but it does mean that old books must be read with delicacy; with a sense that if we go blundering into them, assuming that they mean what we mean by words like sky, earth, history or nature we shall get everything wrong. If we read the book in their way – whether we are reading Dante, or Chaucer, or Isadore of Seville – we will get something from it. The more we soak up their way of looking at things, their method of understanding, the more we shall get. Read it in our way and we shall merely be, as Lewis says in the preface to The Discarded Image, like ‘travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its “quaintness” and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards mean to the natives’.15 As an apologist, he seems totally blind to the fact that the New Testament is just such a collection of old books, which require, if we are to understand them aright, patience and a willingness to listen to scholars who have meditated for a long time on the nature of the (often quite puzzling and contradictory) material which they contain” (164).
“Lewis never lost his schoolboyish sense of wonder and enjoyment. It is what makes him such a refreshing literary historian” (173).
“To the comedy of such pen-portraits (and Screwtape, it has to be admitted, is a cruel book), is added moral wisdom and a developing religious vision. Lewis is extremely good at describing the actual territory in which the moral life, for most of us, is thrashed out, and the extent to which we enable ourselves to be deluded about ourselves and other people” (177).
“It is not whimsical to say that Narnia is the inside of Lewis’s mind, peopled with a rich enjoyment of old books and old stories and the beauties of nature, but always threatened by a terrible sense of loss, of love’s frailty” (221).
“The Experiment [in Criticism] ends with one of the finest paragraphs in the whole Lewis œuvre” (289).
“a taste for Lewis is, in large part, a taste for reading about him. Though it was denied him to become a great poet, he shares with ‘the last Romantics’ a vivid awareness of his own consciousness, a sense that the chief end of writing is to communicate sensation and experience” (290).
Lewis “himself as a writer is so constantly accessible and interesting because he is unashamed of the story-telling element in all literary modes” (291).
“Physical extinction was a perpetual nightmare to him and, whatever his theological convictions and hopes, he was unable, before his wife’s death, to reconcile himself to the transition which death must inevitably entail” (293, I would love to see evidence of that).
“The disputes between scholars and the guardians of C. S. Lewis’s memory are unedifying, but they reflect something much more than a learned debate or a purely mercenary desire to lay hands on valuable manuscripts. Indeed, despite the claims of cynics, mere would appear to have been very little element of avarice in these wrangles. What was emerging was a profound divergence of imaginative views of rival mythologies” about C.S. Lewis (303-4).