Of mice and men and Magdalen

C. S. Lewis’s Oxford by Simon Horobin


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The life of a dedicated Oxford don and literary figure is bound to contain few opportunities for drama, glamour, or adventure. “I enjoy monotony,” C.S. Lewis once admitted to a questioner, and that was surely a fortunate trait, given that he spent 30 years teaching at Oxford, mainly in undergraduate tutorials, before he finally moved to a non-teaching post at Cambridge. 

Yet such is the fascination that many have with the author of the Screwtape Letters (1942), the Narnia Chronicles (1949-54), and the autobiographical Surprised by Joy (1955), that many readers will relish the details of his Oxford life revealed in this sympathetic and atmospheric biography.

C.S. Lewis’s Oxford. Simon Horobin (Bodleian Libraries, £30)

Simon Horobin records that Lewis typically taught 24 hours of tutorials a week, a huge burden over the three Oxford terms, which then as now consisted of eight intense weeks (the standard stint of a teaching fellow in Classics today, which tutors find taxing enough, is eight hours a week). When he was finally appointed to a chair at Cambridge in 1954, Lewis commented in a letter: “29 years of pupils’ essays is enough, bless ’em” and some years later wrote delightedly to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves, “I’ve never been so under-worked since I first went to school.”

It was characteristic of Lewis that he initially rejected the offer of the Cambridge professorship owing to a reluctance to leave his home in Oxford, partly out of loyalty to his “indispensable factotum”, the gardener, cook and driver Fred Paxford (Lewis never learned to drive), whom he employed from 1930 until his death in 1963. Lewis responded to further pressure from Cambridge by saying that he was precluded from moving by his “peculiar domestic setup”, a phrase that masked a concern about the heavy drinking to which his beloved brother Warren (known as Warnie) was prone. 

Having been a fellow boarder with Lewis at Malvern College and subsequently an army officer, Warnie had joined his brother in 1932 in his substantial but messy Oxford home known as The Kilns, which Lewis bought in 1930 following their father’s death. 

The domestic setup was indeed peculiar since, in addition to Warnie, the house was home to Mrs Jane Moore and her daughter Maureen, whose welfare Lewis had undertaken to oversee after Jane’s husband, Paddy Moore, had been killed in action in 1918. 

Lewis’s solicitude for Mrs Moore and Maureen had already prevented him from applying for a prestigious All Souls Fellowship, which he might have been in a position to win after his double first in Greats (that is, Literae Humaniores, the bachelor’s degree in Classics at Oxford). However, the requirement for All Souls fellows to reside in the college would have meant that he could not provide lodging for the women.

The nature of his relationship with Mrs Moore has been a subject of speculation, but Horobin notes the recent publication of an interview with a former acquaintance of Lewis that has tilted the balance in favour of the view that it was sexual. It ended when Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, though he continued to look after the Moores until Jane died in 1960.

Much of Lewis’s years at Oxford will be recognisable to those who know the university today, though modernity has intruded into aspects of Oxford life that were still familiar in the late twentieth century. The sheer level of spartan discomfort, for instance, that university denizens were expected to endure is now mostly a thing of the past.

When elected to his first teaching position at Magdalen in 1925 on the princely salary of £500 a year, Lewis was allocated unheated rooms without a lavatory. He held tutorials in a dressing gown with a heavy cardigan underneath, and students recall him occasionally leaving tutorials to use a chamber pot in the bedroom. 

In winter the bedroom was so cold that he slept wearing two pullovers and trousers over his pyjamas. Mice were regular nocturnal visitors; Lewis wrote with characteristic humour to a correspondent that they would poke their heads out as if to say “Time for you to go to bed. We want to come out and play.” 

Lewis was by his own admission less successful as an administrator than as a scholar. His year as vice-president of Magdalen in 1941 involved sitting on “all college committees, which at that time consisted of the Tutorial Board and its subcommittees, the running of the college’s two schools, as well as meetings dealing with livings (which elected clergy to the college’s 40 livings and administered tithes), grants, refugee scholars, fellowships, sermons, college servants, the library, chapel, choir and the bursary, dealing with the college estates, investments and general finances”. 

Not surprisingly, given his commitments as an author and speaker, Lewis did not enjoy dealing with such minutiae. In the words of a colleague he was a “hopeless failure” in the post. He was required to write an official account of his term, and did so as a five-act drama in blank verse entitled “The Tragi-Comicall Briefe Reigne of Lewis the Bald”. It survives in the college archives, as does a large corpus of his letters and book drafts written in his neatly slanted handwriting (the illustrations in this book are a pleasure to peruse).

“Friendship was key to Lewis’s life,” writes Horobin. “His ideal evening was staying up late in a friend’s college room, ‘talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes’.” Lewis was eventually persuaded by his old friend J.R.R. Tolkien that he would still be able to live at The Kilns if he took the chair. By the time he arrived in Cambridge he was already a literary celebrity (his relationship with other literary stars such as Tolkien, T.S. Eliot and particularly John Betjeman was not entirely happy).

He correctly recognised that a large part of the success of the Narnia books was due to the marvellous illustrations by Pauline Baynes. When she wrote to congratulate him on the award of the Carnegie Medal for The Last Battle, Lewis generously responded saying that it was “our medal”: the pictures were bound to have been a factor. He was similarly generous in his letters to Dorothy Sayers, though the statement that “Lewis’s long friendship with Dorothy L. Sayers contradicts the suggestion that he sought out only members of his own sex” strikes an unduly defensive note. 

Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien, however, was not as wholehearted as he might have wished. The group that formed around the two authors in 1936, eventually dubbed “the Inklings” (the title of the 1978 book by Humphrey Carpenter about the literary circle), meant that the two were long aware of each other’s writings and their different approaches to myth, fantasy, and religious faith. 

Lewis appears to have been more sincerely enthusiastic about Tolkien’s work than vice versa. We learn that Tolkien would have found Lewis’s exclamation Uton herian holbytlas (Old English for “Let us praise hobbits”) to be philologically incorrect (the plural would be holbytlan); and a similar reproach is levelled regarding an episode recorded in the Magdalen betting book between Lewis and C.E. (‘Tom Brown’) Stevens over whether the word eros (love) appears in Homer’s Odyssey. Stevens was wrong in thinking it does; but given the ample opportunities for eros to appear in that epic, Horobin is too harsh in judging that “one might have expected the tutor in Ancient History to have known better”.

The latter part of Lewis’s life — in particular his love for and marriage (Tolkien was not invited) to Joy Davidman, whose death in 1959 left him prostrate with grief — is known to many from the play (1989) and film (1993) Shadowlands.

Inevitably, much is made in such narrations of possible connections with elements of the Narnia stories. Horobin’s final chapter touches on speculation about such matters as the original wardrobe and lamppost that might have inspired Lewis’s imagination. 

A recent film, Freud’s Last Session (2022), even presents a fictional encounter between Lewis and Freud; but Horobin notes that it was Lewis’s “extensive and eclectic reading that stimulated his creativity, so that the university where he studied and taught, with its profusion of well-stocked libraries and bookshops, offered the ideal environment”. Sometimes, it may be said, a lamppost is just a lamppost. 

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