23 January 2016

CS Lewis' secret lives and loves

I was not a CS Lewis fan myself, but The Chronicles of Narnia series, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) was one of my sons’ favourite literature, bar none. So I ensured I watched the BBC 4’s programme called Narnia's Lost Poet: the Secret Lives and Loves of CS Lewis. It was narrated by Lewis’ biographer, AN Wilson. The theme was the three important women in Jack’s life, and the impact of their deaths.

From April-September 1917, CS Lewis (aka Jack 1898–1963) was a student at University College Oxford. He was described at the time as intel­lect­ually precocious, socially unskilled and emotionally stunt­ed. Presumably this had been caused by grevious loss #1 in his life; his beloved mother Flora died when Jack was only 9. And because he had been bundled off to boarding school, to mourn alone.

Late in the history of WWI, Jack enlisted in the British army and started officer’s training. His roommate was fellow Irishman Paddy Moore (1898-1918). These two young men promised to look after each other’s parent, if one of them was killed in the trenches. Paddy’s mother Janie Moore was a divorcee who had left Ireland to live in Bristol; Jack’s father had never remarried.

The two brothers, CS Lewis and Major Warren Lewis
Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis 

Jack was commissioned an officer in the 3rd Battalion, and joined the front line in the Battle of the Somme. Soon after, he was wounded and hospitalised in France, before being sent back home filled with shrapnel and depression. Paddy Moore was killed at the end of the war and buried in France.

Why didn't Jack’s own father, solicitor Albert Lewis, ever visit his wounded son in hospital? Mrs Moore, on the other hand, visited Jack in his boring hospital ward frequently.

What was the relationship like between CS Lewis (an injured 19 year old student and soldier) and his friend’s mother, Janie King Moore (40+)? They certainly wrote to each other every day, especially when Jack was in France. In time, Lewis took care of Mrs Moore, as promised. He always intro­duced her as his mother, appropriate in one sense since his own mother had died when he was a child, and his father was remote. I have no doubt that young Jack developed a close sexual and emotional bond with Mrs Moore.

In 1930 Lewis left the bachelor isolation of his university rooms at Magdalen College Oxford and moved into The Kilns nearby. Here he was surrounded by his family - his brother Warren Lewis, Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen Moore. They all happily shared in the rental (and later the purchase) costs of the house, and willingly participated in its upkeep.

Maureen and her mother, Janie Moore (top)
family life in The Kilns, near Oxford (bottom)

But Jack’s brother Warren wrote harshly about the relationship in Brothers and Friends. In his introduction to The Letters of C. S. Lewis, he said: "She . . . interfered constantly with his work, and imposed upon him a heavy burden of minor domestic tasks… Over-worked he certainly was; not only by the burden of routine work as tutor and lecturer, not only by the domestic tasks laid on him by Mrs. Moore ‘He is as good as an extra maid in the house’ she told visitors. Warren continued in his diary: "What between back work and domestic service at The Kilns, he gets very little time for original work." His beloved brother was living like a slave, a prisoner in Mrs Moore’s game plan.

So was Mrs Moore a mature woman who mothered the injured and depressed young soldier, grieving together over their loss of Paddy? Or did she cunningly exploit Jack’s lack of social skills and his emotional shallow­ness? It seems both. Janie Moore taught Jack what having a family home meant, and she was considered to be a gracious hostess. At the same time, she treated Jack abominably and had little consid­er­ation for his intellectual work, interrupting his studies and wasting his time on minor household chores. In the end, the basis of his loyalty and love for Mrs Moore was to fulfil the vow he made to Paddy Moore before the poor soul died in WW1.

Many reviewers reported that Lewis obviously found Mrs Moore to be something less than enchanted, that she appeared in thinly veiled guise in several books as quite tedious and overbearing. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters 1942, may have contained a big clue. The book outlined the various techniques that the Evil One easily used to steal victims from what the demon Screwtape called The Enemy. One of the clients of the younger devil, Wormwood, might have been an eld­erly lady but she was an absolute terror to hostesses and servants. Whatever was offered to her was never to her very modest taste. No-one ever satisfied her. She always had reasons to be discontented.

In either case, when Mrs Moore died in 1951, Jack suffered grievous loss #2.

CS Lewis in his Oxford rooms

CS Lewis with his closest literary friend, JJ Tolkien

CS Lewis with his wife, Joy Davidman

Only when Jack’s letters were published decades after his death (in 2007) could we dismiss the myth of a scholarly bachelor idyll. "Strictly between ourselves I have lived most of it (that is now over) in a house which was hardly ever at peace for 24 hours, amidst senseless wranglings, lyings, back bitings, follies and scares. I never went home without a feeling of terror as to what appalling situation might have developed in my absence. Only now that it is over do I begin to realise quite how bad it was." His brother Warren's chronic drunkenness was another of Jack’s troubles. As were thirty years of the exhausting tutorial grind at Oxford that regularly burned 14 hours a day.

There had been very close male friendships in Jack’s life eg his beloved brother Warren/Warnie, Arthur Greeves, JRR Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Charles Williams, Robert Havard, Owen Barfield and Weville Coghill. But few female intimates. Then after Jane Moore’s death, Lewis met Joy Davidman in 1952. She was a Jewish American writer who had converted to Christianity and moved to the UK. Brother Warren said their attraction was at first clearly intellectual, filled with humour and a sense of fun. They entered into a civil marriage in 1956 and found great happiness together, but Davidman soon fell ill with bone cancer and died in 1960. Intolerable loss #3.

A Grief Observed was the book that Lewis wrote during the wretched period after his wife died. Davidman and Lewis’ love-filled relationship was also documented in the film Shadowlands, written by William Nicholson in 1993. 


Parnassus said...

It is too bad that Lewis did not have a happier personal life, but the things discussed in this book seem rather pedestrian, and not too illuminating of Lewis' gifts. Perhaps this onerous home life drove him to develop the imaginary worlds he created.

Anonymous said...

CS Lewis was a keen defender of the Christian faith. Religion influenced his books more than his strange relationhip with one woman and the heartbreaking loss of two other women. "Mere Christianity" was clearly religious and "The Screwtape Letters" was fantasy with a theological base.


Andrew said...

I have no thoughts to offer beyond how much I enjoy my twice weekly education class, full of brutal truth? and questioning of orthodoxy.

Hels said...


BBC 4’s programme "Narnia's Lost Poet: the Secret Lives and Loves of CS Lewis" was not at all pedestrian. The Lewis biographer, AN Wilson, was excellent. If anyone was pedestrian it was me, writing up this post.

Get hold of the BBC programme, if you can, and drop me a note after seeing it. I was very moved by the story.

Hels said...


Quite right... Christianity, once he re-found it, certainly did influence his books more than his strange relationship with one woman and the heartbreaking losses of his mother and his wife. Literature experts always call him a Christian apologist.

I focused on Lewis' few very close female friendships because a] they were heartbreaking and b] they were mostly unknown in analyses I read.

Hels said...


blogging is amazing... we keep finding material we don't know, never learned in high school and are not likely to read in ordinary books/magazines. Sexually interesting? Definitely! Brutal? Never!

Mandy Southgate said...

This is really intriguing. I knew nothing about his personal life except about his friendship with Tolkien and that he went to Magdalen College (which I visited in 2008). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of my favourite stories ever (I say 'stories' because I fell in love with the BBC dramatisation and recent film before I read the book).

Hels said...


I am not surprised that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of your favourite stories from your younger years. Some books stick with us for decades and pop into our brains at the strangest times. Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery that I adored at 12-13. Little Women is an American novel by Louisa May Alcott that I loved in my early teens.

JahTeh said...

These days doctors would say that Lewis was suffering 'survivor's guilt' and that drew him to his friend's mother but she must have been quite the manipulator to keep him under the thumb all those years.

I never liked the Narnia books and I didn't like the films, it was the children actually killing people that I hated. We didn't have the money to buy books but there was a penny library and the pennies went on The Famous Five and Biggles which suited my imagination more than Narnia.

Hels said...


We must be of the same generation :) I also read every Blyton Secret Seven and Famous Five book that was ever written! The brother closest to me in age read EVERY WE Johns book about Biggles. We were both warmly encouraged in literacy, but I suspect a gender gap was at work.

Jim said...

Great post

Hels said...


Were you a fan of Lewis' books, when you were a school boy?