Review of C. S. Lewis: A Biography, by A. N. Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. $22.50.

 

Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
Bowling Green State University

(Originally published in 1990; I still feel the same way about this text.)


There is a biography to be written of C. S. Lewis that does justice to his remarkably successful, multiple careers as a Christian apologist, science-fiction and fantasy writer, and literary scholar. Such a book will be sympathetic without being sycophantic, incisive without being sensational, and comprehensive without being copious. It will illuminate his life and times, including his interesting friendships, his composing techniques, and, of course, his personal piety. Above all, it will help explain his enormous impact on contemporary evangelical Christians and it will set in appropriate historical context the important contribution his scholarship makes to literary culture.

 Unfortunately, A. N. Wilson's C. S. Lewis is not such a book, though it might well have been. Carelessly written and furtively focused on certain personality traits and ambiguous relationships and incidents that obscure rather than illuminate Lewis's faith and scholarship, Wilson's volume ultimately reduces Lewis to a bundle of quasi-Freudian complexes. More's the pity, since the prolific Wilson is clearly capable of better, having written well-received scholarly biographies of Tolstoy, Milton, Scott, and Belloc in the past fifteen years, as well as an astonishing number of high-brow novels praised for their sophisticated evocation of historical time and place. As one of Britain's more engaging and penetrating literary journalists, and as a professing Christian, Wilson would seem to have been well suited and situated to write the ideal biography of Lewis. This makes the end result thus doubly disappointing. As one reviewer has noted, the novelist has got the best of the historian in Wilson's latest endeavor.

 To be fair, Wilson evinces a healthy admiration and respect for Lewis, especially for his fiction and his literary criticism. And even in a biography too overtly psychoanalytical and dismissive of Lewis's basic theological conservatism, enough of Lewis's enumerable strengths emerge to reward the Lewisian enthusiast hungry for further evidence of his greatness. But Wilson's biographical instincts go wrong from the start when, in the preface, it is revealed that his prime mission is to rescue Lewis from the putative cult of his evangelical idolaters. It is these folks who, Wilson avers, desire to create a Lewis in their own image, one they can promote as a virginal, Bible-toting, nonsmoking, lemonade-drinking "champion for Christ." In this Wilson betrays a surprising naivete about Lewis's American readership and barely disguises his contempt for the esteem accorded Lewis's apologetics in evangelical circles. (There may indeed be adult readers of Lewis who regard him as both sinless and inerrant, and who therefore need to be disabused of their primitive hagiolatry, but I don't know any.)

 To Wilson, the symbol of this idolatry is Wheaton College's Marion C. Wade Center, a modest library and museum of Lewisiana and other Inklings memorabilia located in suburban Chicago. Wilson caricatures the Wade Center, headquartered in the shadows of the Billy Graham Center for Communication Studies, as a "shrine" built for Lewis worship. Such impressions are hastily formed. According to the Wade Center's Director, Lyle Dorsett, Wilson spent all of three hours at the Center during his "research" trip, breezily ignoring some important transcriptions of interviews with Lewis's family and friends as well as other source materials that might have enriched his bibliography. While denying that he intends to be "iconoclastic," Wilson's centers his narrative on the few "sordid" details of Lewis's life that he can manage to unearth in order to accomplish his therapeutic task of "saving" Lewis from his saintly image.

 Wilson assumes, probably rightly, that the most influential event in Lewis's life was the death of his mother when he was nine and that his subsequent exile and travail in and out of English boarding schools soon thereafter led him to hate, or at least mistrust, his father. From this base, however, Wilson seeks to manufacture a Lewis who spends the rest of his life searching for a replacement for his departed mother and who, in essence, embraces Christianity as a means of eradicating his memory of an ineffectual earthly father. There is nothing in Lewis's own publishing writings or private correspondence that remotely suggests the validity of such an artifice.

At issue here are the two ambiguous and rather inexplicable relationships Lewis develops with the two women in his life: Mrs. Janie Moore and Joy Davidman. Wilson encourages the reader to believe the worst about Lewis's relationship with Moore, the mother of a soldier Lewis befriended in his WWI service and with whom he made a mutual pact to take care of their respective loved ones should either perish in the war. The young Moore did, in fact, die in the war and Lewis faithfully fulfilled his compact. While other Lewis biographers have alluded to Lewis's unusual devotion to Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen, they have usually given Lewis the benefit of the doubt regarding its nature and source. Wilson, however, prefers to place the burden of proof on those who say the relationship with Moore was asexual.

Later, in his account of Lewis's late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, Wilson again posits, with meagre evidence, that an illicit relationship was in existence before the civil ceremony that made them legally wed. His preoccupation with shocking the readers whom he assumes have a too Puritanical view of Lewis's private life becomes intrusive and exhausting early on, spoiling what would otherwise be an informed chronological account of Lewis's personal life.

What is truly disheartening here is that the generous, self-effacing, populist Lewis who gave so tirelessly of his time and money to the needy and to the spiritually wayward is seldom allowed to step into the foreground. By all accounts, Lewis, despite his quirks, was an exemplary and devoted church-goer, an indefatigueable correspondent, and a man devoted to a fault to his students and even casual friends. (What other books might Lewis have written had he not been committed to personally responding to the literally hundreds of letters from transatlantic truth-seekers, aspiring writers, and sheer adulators he received month by month over the twenty years before his death in 1963?) Whatever else Lewis was, he was a man of faith willing to pay the price for his public confession that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh.

Deplored and despised by colleagues jealous of his scholarly prowess and shamed by his open association with popular literature and "mere" Christianity, Lewis was denied a professorship at Oxford at the peak of his literary scholarship. I believe Wilson is patently wrong when he implies that contemporary evangelicals have seized upon Lewis as their model chiefly because of his apparent orthodoxy. As Christopher Derrick, a former pupil and longtime friend of Lewis, has judiciously observed, Lewis was a man willing to "challenge the entrenched priesthood of the intelligentsia." In short, one finds in Lewis an uncommonly courageous and articulate skeptic of the modern era, one forthrightly opposed to the "chronological snobbery" of our times that assumes truth is a function of the calendar and that the latest word is the most accurate one. Such a man will stand tall in any age among people who value tradition; but Wilson is manifestly uneasy with the combative and stolid Lewis who willingly goes against the grain of the "assured results" of modern science and liberal Biblical scholarship.

 Wilson is at his best when he is content to describe and evaluate Lewis's literary criticism, citing for special praise Lewis's influential scholarly books on allegory, Milton's epic poetry, 16th-century English literature, and his little-read but important theoretical work, An Experiment in Criticism. There is no little irony in this, since Wilson clearly reveres a scholarly standard and stance in these works that he himself fails to embrace in writing about Lewis. Using techniques and working with premises that Lewis specifically opposed and satirized in his literary criticism, Wilson self-consciously commits what Lewis called "the personal heresy," which, simply put, is the tendency to equate the interpretation of texts with the recreation of their author's psychological history.

 Still, one should not underestimate the difficulty of writing a faithful book about a man who lives so vibrantly in the hearts and minds of a generation who know him only by his printed words. Owen Barfield has said of Lewis that "somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything." Those who try to read through the entire Lewis corpus confess that they receive an education in history, philology, sociology, philosophy, and theology so extensive and exhilarating that others seem thin and frivolous in comparison. While Lewis caricatured himself as a dinosaur, the last of the Old Western Men, many see him as a forerunner of what may still be the triumph of men of Biblical faith in an age which derides the pursuit of truth and righteousness.

 Wilson's book nevertheless will sadly bring attention to Lewis for all the wrong reasons and fails to address the real interests of Christian readers who ask not for the "plastic saint" that Wilson so incessantly campaigns against but for a sincere and accurate account of the man whose solid faith has meant so much to them personally. In Schweitzer-like fashion, Wilson has attempted to give them the "Jack of history" to displace their "Lewis of faith." Such a quest yields that modern paradox: a text that has all the facts but can't speak the truth about them. The definitive work about Lewis is yet to be written.

 

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