Clive Staples Lewis was born on 29th November 1898, in Belfast, Ireland (Northern Ireland today), the younger of two sons. His parents, Albert and Flora were Ulster Protestants and attended church regularly.
When he was three years old Lewis announced to his family that his name was ‘Jack,’ and Jack he was to family and friends for the rest of his life.
Jack and his brother ‘Warnie’ (Warren) were close friends. Although they had different interests, they would spend long hours drawing and writing together.
Reflecting on his childhood, Lewis describes himself as “a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”
Lewis was born into a bookish family. Both his parents were keen readers and had amassed a large family library. There were all kinds of books, and the boys were given unlimited access.
The children’s lives changed after the death of their mother in August 1908. Jack said that “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life”. The ‘old security’ had gone. He and Warnie became more reliant on each other, but their relationship with their father became increasingly distant.
In 1917, Lewis received a scholarship to University College, Oxford, and commenced his studies. His life as an undergraduate was put on hold when he voluntarily enlisted in the British army. On November 17, 1917, he went to France as an officer in the 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. He reached the front line in the Somme Valley in France on his 19th birthday. On April 15, 1918, Lewis was wounded on Mount Berenchon during the Battle of Arras.
Following his discharge from the army in December 1918, Lewis resumed his studies, taking up residence in University College. He was obliged to live on campus for three terms and, according to Warnie, Jack was miserably poor.
As a young man, Lewis made a promise to his friend, Paddy Moore, to care for Moore’s mother if he died. When news filtered through that Paddy had been killed in action, Lewis planned to deliver on his promise.
Lewis’s ‘new family’, Mrs Moore and daughter Maureen, followed him to Oxford. Due to their limited means, they were forced to rent. Between 1917 and 1930 they lived in nine different houses, some of which were ‘vile’.
On more than one occasion Mrs Moore encouraged Jack to write a diary. He made his first entry in 1922. The diaries span five years and give a rare glimpse into his private life. They chronicle his friendships, his likes and dislikes, his country walks, his books, his endless household and domestic chores, and his academic studies.
Lewis lived a disciplined life. His daily routine included time for work, walking, meals, tea, and socialising.
Let us look more closely at three of his activities – walking, writing, and washing dishes.
Lewis found pleasure in walking. He preferred solitary walks, appreciating the opportunity to break free and to breathe in the landscape.
“After tea I walked on Shotover (a hill 4.8km east of Oxford). À boisterous day with fierce showers and bright sunshine. I stayed sometime looking out over the plain to the Chilterns and watching the clouds. For some reason I was specially struck today by the enormous scale of the cloud landscape, especially from a hill.”
Lewis immersed himself in the beauty of nature. On occasions, he would be overcome, if ever so fleetingly, with a feeling of ‘joy’. Later, he came to understand the experiences as ‘moments of grace’ that cannot be planned or preserved but create a sense of longing.
“After tea I walked through Iffley, crossed the lock, and went along the meadows. Became wonderfully happy for a short time. A boisterous windy day: the river full of brisk waves and everything of an unusual brightness.”
“A beautiful misty warm morning, the mist all transparent and luminous with concealed sunshine, wood pigeons making a noise in the grove, and a heavy dew. It suggested autumn and gave me a sudden whiff of what I used to call ‘the real joy’.”
Although he preferred to walk alone, Lewis was willing to concede that walking with the right kind of companion could be pleasant. He says,
“The only friend to walk with is one … who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.”
Arthur Greeves was a life-long friend. His family home was opposite the Lewis’s residence in Belfast. While studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London Arthur took time off to visit Lewis in Oxford and stayed for several weeks. Lewis writes,
“It was a perfect, pearly grey morning, cool and dewy, with a promise of much heat to come, and the strangest touch of autumn in the air, unseasonable but delightful …
Arthur and I left at I.30 and proceeded – after some hesitation to the first gap on Shotover, where he settled down to paint. It was all delightful. I had Shelley with me and read some of the best parts.”
Lewis was regarded as one of the most influential writers of his day. He wrote many kinds of books – from children’s literature to apologetics, from science fiction to literary criticism. Of the more than thirty books he wrote, the Chronicles of Narnia, a classic of children’s literature, has sold more than a 100 million copies worldwide.
Although a gifted writer, Lewis’s original passion was poetry. While an undergraduate at Oxford University, Lewis paid to have his poems typed up before submitting them to be published. Like most budding writers Lewis had to contend with having his work rejected.
“After lunch I copied out the poem beginning “The last star of the night” meaning with it to try the Mercury again, and to send the Mercury’s refusals to the English Review. I accordingly walked into Oxford: a beautiful warm day.
Left the poem at the typists and sent off the two others: looking in a copy of the English Review for its address, I was disgusted by the poetry in it – all in the worst modern tradition – and half thought of not sending mine. But I decided I need not be nice, as I shall almost certainly be rejected anyway.”
In 1922 Lewis was working on Dymer, a long mythological poem, a tale with a moral about fantasy and self-deception. Some days Lewis felt inspired while on other occasions he struggled.
“I tried very hard to write something today, but it was like drawing blood from a stone.”
“After lunch I worked at Dymer and made some progress: but it will need more guts soon than I can at present put into it…”
Lewis often shared his writing with friends, inviting their feedback. He gave the Dymer to Owen Barfield, an undergraduate at Oxford. Barfield felt that ‘it was by streets the best thing Lewis had done’ but wondered whether he could keep it up.
Alfred Kenneth Hamilton-Jenkin was also at University College. He came from a family closely connected with the mines and miners of Cornwall since the eighteenth century. His comments were less favourable. Lewis writes,
“Jenkin returned Dymer which I had lent him on Saturday: he was much less pleased with it than either Baker or Barfield. He says he cannot quite stomach the slang etc., and he has a constitutional inability to like psychological soliloquy.”
In 1926, Lewis submitted Dymer for publication. It was favourably reviewed but had limited success.
(3) Washing Dishes:
Despite having a busy academic schedule, Lewis was committed to helping with the mundane aspects of domestic life. Some people have argued that Mrs Moore was controlling, demanding Lewis do his bit. But the diaries tell a different story. They reveal a household that functioned smoothly, that valued industry, and was welcoming. The ‘arrangement’ was not something Lewis’s father could ever understand or accept.
There were also frequent visitors. They came looking for help or guidance, or encouragement, or recreation, or good company, or a place to rest. Lewis and Mrs Moore supported each other, managing the complexity of their life. Mrs Moore did not always enjoy good health, so Lewis’s actions reflect his care and concern. Lewis was a generous person. He offered his help if he thought it could improve the situation. So, we find him helping in the garden, cutting up fruit for preserving or jam making, and washing the dishes. Lewis was frequently washing dishes and there is no evidence to suggest he resented having to do it. He writes,
“Got up shortly before seven, cleaned the grate, lit the fire, made tea, “did” the drawing room, made toast, bathed, shaved, breakfasted, washed up, put the new piece of ham on to boil, and was out by half past ten…”
C. S. Lewis died at 5.30 p.m. at The Kilns (his home), one week before his 65th birthday on Friday, 22nd November 1963, the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.