A. N. Wilson Errata
Like the delightful cottage that Hansel and Gretel found in the woods, novelist A.N. Wilson's biography of C. S. Lewis looks wonderful and is easy to feast upon. Most readers start nibbling, then start gobbling, and exclaim that it's delicious. I feel like a little bird that chirps a warning to forest travelers. C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams would all have loathed this book, and rightly so.
The good news is that Wilson is dramatic, entertaining, and nimble-witted; a writer who lightly tosses words and ideas into the air for the fun of seeing what he can do to please the public while skewering anyone handy. The bad news is that when illusion is more fun than reality, Wilson chooses illusion. He claims to be smashing two images of Lewis, but in fact he is smashing three. And he sets up a brand new Lewis image of his own, one that makes him look very clever at Lewis's expense.
First, Wilson attacks a Roman Catholic myth about C. S. Lewis's perpetual virginity. But the existence of that Catholic myth is itself a Wilson myth based upon a Walter Hooper myth. Hooper's insistence upon Lewis's celibacy has never been accepted by such Roman Catholic Lewis authorities as George Sayer, Dom Bede Griffiths, and Sheldon Vanauken. Even Father John Randolph Willis, in Pleasures Forevermore: The Theology of C. S. Lewis from Loyola University Press, accepts Lewis's account of his marriage in A Grief Observed. But Wilson slays his first strawman with a flourish and makes Roman Catholics look silly.
Second, Wilson attacks the Protestant myth that C. S. Lewis didn't smoke and drink. That purported Protestant belief is another Hooper creation, and Wilson professes to believe in it. Paradoxically, he has to admit that abstemious Protestants admit that Lewis smoked and drank (Lewis's tankard and pipes are on display in the Wade Center), but he concludes that in doing so they fail to take the matter seriously enough. "Evidence is only of peripheral interest when the idolatrous imagination gets to work." Unlike the irritatingly tolerant Protestants, Wilson takes smoking and drinking so seriously that he claims against all evidence that Lewis disliked nonsmokers: "Lewis was impatient with puritanism and disliked non-smokers or teetotallers." (Lewis's good friends Roger Lancelyn Green and George Sayer were both nonsmokers, and Lewis tried hard to quit but couldn't.) But Wilson slays his second strawman with a flourish and makes Protestants look silly.
Third, Wilson attacks C. S. Lewis's own portrayal of himself as a reasonably heathy-minded Christian. Wilson reduces Lewis's evangelizing Christianity to a crippled way of coping with life. He claims that Lewis's account of his boyhood frustration with prayer can't be true. Then in one of the most amazing passages in his book (on page 162), Wilson claims to have been considering for twenty years a June 1938 letter from Lewis to Owen Barfield that shows how warped Lewis's thinking was when he began defending Christianity. At that time, Wilson says, Lewis turned against innocent pleasures such as feeling the wind in your hair, walking with bare feet on the grass, and swimming in the rain: Lewis decided these activities were Nazi or would lead to homosexuality. Thus "one must also view with ambivalence his excursion into the realm of religious apologetics." Wilson slays his third strawman with a flourish, and makes C. S. Lewis look silly.
But as anyone can see by reading the passage in Letters, Lewis was reporting an idiocy that he overheard from two undergraduates, and he was horrified by it. "Think it over: it gets worse the longer you look at it," he urged Barfield. Wilson now attributes the students' notion to Lewis himself, thus impugning Lewis's common sense and his Christian apologetics.
Fourth, while rejecting the two insubstantial Hooper myths and C. S. Lewis's substantial account of his religious pilgrimage, A.N. Wilson substitutes his own ideological Freudian view of C. S. Lewis. Thus the real C. S. Lewis, he claims, was not a perpetual virgin, not a nonsmoker and nondrinker, and not the genuine Christian believer he wanted to be. He was instead a terrified Oedipal neurotic and a closet misanthrope. The Narnian wardrobe is a symbol of Flora Lewis's private parts. Surely it is disingenuous for a biographer to psychoanalyze an author this way without telling readers what that author wrote about such psychoanalyzing. Wilson doesn't even mention Lewis's trenchant essay "Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism" and what Lewis says in it. I call that cheating.
The hero of this book is A.N Wilson, who quickly and easily sees through everything, and who winks at his readers because they are now in on the joke also. In this droll style of writing the joke is never stated clearly; but it is based on the assumption that everyone except the author and his reader is patently absurd. Thus Wilson's show of deference to C. S. Lewis comes across as remarkably generous, an enlightened and refined young man's patient, understanding tribute to a popular but coarse, befuddled, blundering, and self-deluded eccentric of his grandfather's era. It is in that spirit that Wilson alleges that once a year Lewis forced all his embarrassed (male) students to get thoroughly drunk and tell dirty jokes with him. He even recounts what the obnoxiously drunk Lewis allegedly said to one of his drunken students at a urinal fifty years ago, without explaining how he could know such details it if it were true.
Wilson is titillating to read, and he displays such self-assured flash and dazzle that few readers and reviewers stop to ask, "Wait a minute -- who is this young man to set himself up as the condescending but gentle judge of C. S. Lewis? He certainly doesn't seem to have read and digested most of Lewis's writing, and many of his facts are wrong." Wilson resorts to simplistic dismissal of Lewis's apologetics and inaccurate summaries of complex philosophical issues. He presumes to call Mrs. Moore 'Minto,' and refers to Albert Lewis by his sons' secret, slightly mocking nickname, "the P'daytabird." These liberties give readers the impression that Wilson is an insider.
His most glaring error of all is an error of omission. Although Wilson is a famous novelist and and was once literary editor of The Spectator, he seems not to have read or even read about Lewis's masterpiece, the profound novel that was Lewis's favorite work and is most highly acclaimed by serious critics: Till We Have Faces. Although Wilson spends pages on some of Lewis's other books, he says nothing about this one except that it exists and was dedicated to Joy Davidman.
In his list of periodicals about Lewis, Wilson includes the Portland Chronicle, which expired in 1984, but skips others that are active. When he describes the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, he invites readers to chuckle with amused disdain. He pretends that he did significant research there; but in fact he visited for less than three hours, and most of what he says about it is wrong. Like the comic novelist that he is, Wilson poses as a kindly but amused authority on this obviously bizarre and silly place.
Wilson's ideas are sometimes borrowed from other people's books without acknowledgment. His errors, misrepresentations, omissions and fabrications range from subtle to obvious. These are scattered throughout the book, as the following examples illustrate.
(xiii) The Marion E. Wade Center on the upper floor of the college library is devoted to the memorabilia of various Christian writers: George MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren. (Wilson leaves out G.K. Chesterton and Owen Barfield, but wrongly includes T.S. Eliot.)
(xiii) ...here the faithful may see Muggeridge's portable typewriter kept, like the body of Lenin, in a glass case. (Muggeridge's typewriter is not at the Wade Center.)
(xiv) As Lyle W. Dorsett ... concedes, Lindskoog has gone too far in her assaults on Hooper's good name. (Lyle Dorsett denies having said this.)
(xvi) Lewis idolatry, like Christianity itself, has resorted to some ugly tactics as it breaks itself into [Protestant and Roman Catholic] factions. (I have not yet seen this purported Lewis idolatry, much less any sign of the bitter Protestant-Catholic feud with which Wilson spices his introduction.)
(1) More than most men, [Lewis] was the product of his upbringing and ancestry. (It is logically impossible for Lewis to be more a product of environment and inheritance than most men.)
(3) In 1894, Thomas Hamilton at length consented to give his daughter's hand in marriage to a solicitor in the Belfast police courts called Albert Lewis. (It was Flora who kept Albert waiting, not her father.)
(10) ...the very fact that the doctrine of hell was believed in by decent, amiable people, who enjoyed their beer and their whiskey, made it harder, not easier, for [Lewis's] imagination to absorb. (Lewis didn't say anything about the decency and amiability of beer and whiskey drinkers or their belief in hell and how this made it harder for his imagination to absorb.)
(25) He made Capron into a monster. It may very well be the case that the man was a monster, but since we may only view him through the creative lens of the Lewis brothers' memory, there is no knowing what he was like in other people's minds. (But Capron was sued by the parent of one of his pupils, and eventually certified insane and locked up. Surely that tells us what others thought of him!)
(29) The passages, for example, where he describes his longing to abandon Christianity because of an over-scrupulous terror that he was not sufficiently concentrating on his prayers, while they may be true in general, are far too specifically recalled to be plausible. The details are too sharp. (Wilson does not give any reason for disbelieving accounts that are detailed and specific.)
(52) "Also, unknown at this time to either of his sons, he [Albert Lewis] had started to drink very heavily." (That may be, but Ruth Hamilton Parker denied Wilson's claim about her uncle's alcoholism when she heard him on a television interview.)
(56) Before they had been separated and sent off to different regiments, Paddy and Jack had made a pact: in the event of one or the other's death, the survivor would 'look after' the bereft parent of the one who had been killed. (Wilson fails to mention the massive evidence against this 1978 story and the fact that its only source was Walter Hooper and Mrs. Moore's daughter, the two people motivated to justify Lewis's secret life with Mrs. Moore. After Hooper admitted in 1991 that the relationship was probably sexual, the tale of the two-way promise served little practical purpose.)
(72) If one wants to know what [Mrs. Moore] meant to the young Lewis one should read....the vision in The Great Divorce of a Great Lady surrounded by a procession of angels, children and animals. (The bitterly atheistic Mrs. Moore was never a heavenly figure to Lewis.)
(78) His fascination with what he deemed to be Christian literature provided him with a good excuse for taking no apparent cognizance of the fact that a profound change had taken place, during his generation, in the human consciousness, and in Western art and literature. (Isn't Wilson's "profound change" the very change that Lewis railed against in his inaugural address at Cambridge and in The Abolition of Man?)
(79) In latter days, he made rather a "thing" of preferring children's books to grown-up literature. (Simply not true. He loved grown-up books to his death.)
(92) Minto ... began to develop a series of psychosomatic conditions which strengthened the ties binding him to her side. ...rheumatism... (Wilson offers no evidence that her arthritic disease was psychosomatic.)
(93) After years of living with Lewis she still knew but did not know that "a man" could regard reading as the main business of the day and everything else as an interruption. (What does Wilson mean by "a man," and how does he know what Mrs. Moore "knew but did not know"?)
(95) I suspect that Mrs. Moore's sense of humour contributed much to the genuine streak of misanthropy in Lewis's nature. (Lewis was no misanthrope. And if he had been, how could Mrs. Moore's alleged sense of humor have contributed?)
(110) Lewis continued, throughout his life, to be obsessed not only by his father, but also by the possibility that his life could be interpreted in a purely Freudian way. (There is no evidence that Lewis was obsessed by his father or Freudianism.)
(111) He was frightened that hostile readers of his theological work would be able to say that his religion could be "explained" in terms of the Oedipus complex (or perhaps the Hippolytus complex)... So much did he dread that his own was a case of "redemption by parricide" that he emphasized his unwillingness with which he accepted the divine call with language which is exaggerated and almost course. (Wilson not only fails to support this bizarre claim, but on page 110 he also makes the incongruous suggestion that perhaps Mrs. Moore was a Phaedra, Lewis's father was a Theseus, and Lewis, crossing the channel to Ireland, was Hippolytus.)
(128) It would be far too glib to suggest that he consciously made the second change, to adopt Christianity, merely to give himself an excuse to abandon sexual relations with Mrs. Moore, whatever the nature of those relations had been. (Wilson repeatedly uses this backhand device, saying that he won't say something in order to say it. For example, on page 306 he says of J.B. Phillips, "It would be churlish to point out ... periodic bouts of lunacy; churlish because irrelevant." Thus Wilson is in fact suggesting to his readers that Lewis's conversion was initially a dishonest maneuver. If Wilson hadn't meant to suggest that, he would not have done so.)
(139) ... by a strange series of chances, the Lewis Papers now reside in an air-conditioned cavern in the suburbs of Chicago (Warren typed them, owned them, and chose to donate them to the Lewis collection in Illinois when Clyde Kilby asked him to do so. How is that a strange series of chances? Since when is a basement a cavern, and why would any Illinois library lack air-conditioning?)
(141) It is true that [Mrs. Moore] was not academic; this was part of her charm for Lewis. (Lewis was charmed by intellectual women.)
(177) ...Screwtape , it has to be admitted, is a cruel book... (It is?!) (183) It is no wonder that Perelandra is an artistic failure. (Lewis and many critics have judged it an artistic success.)
(201) Perhaps none of Lewis's portraits is more cruel than that of the figure of Dante himself, who ... is represented as a dwarf leading the other part of himself, the Tragedian, round on a chain ... (The person like Dante in The Great Divorce is Lewis, the narrator. George MacDonald is his Virgil. In contrast, the dwarf shows what Dante might have been like if he had been an idolator on his way to hell.)
(211) The confrontation with Elizabeth Anscombe ... drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children's stories. (There is no evidence to support this theory.)
(225) There can be little doubt that the energy and passion of the Narnia stories spring from the intensely unhappy and depleted state through which he had been passing. (In June 1951 Lewis remarked to Sister Penelope that things were marvelously well.)
(226) The moment when the Witch "in a loud terrible voice" traps the children underground and tries to persuade them that there is no world above the ground as they supposed, is a nusery nightmare version of Lewis's debate with Miss Anscombe. (This is a factual misreading of the storyline of Silver Chair as well as a cavalier interpretation.)
(236) ... Mrs. Joy Gresham of Westchester, New York... (Joy was from Duchess County, not Westchester.)
(237) Devastated by the discovery of yet another of her husband's infidelities six months after Douglas was born, Joy had a religious experience. (As she and Lyle Dorsett have told the story, she was devastated because her husband called to say his mind was cracking, not because of his infidelities.)
(238) The death of Minto in January 1951 had provided necessary emotional punctuation in Lewis's life, an opportunity to start again from childhood. (There was no "necessary emotional punctuation," and he did not regress to childhood in 1951.)
(252) [Surprised by Joy] is really a glorious sort of comic novel. (An interesting assessment of Christian spiritual autobiography from the viewpoint an unbelieving comic novelist.)
(256) According to an oral memory of Joy's son Douglas, transcribed in the Marion E. Wade collection at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two of them were already lovers in 1955. Douglas on one occasion came into his mother's bedroom at 10 Old High Street and found it occupied by Jack and Joy in a compromising position. (According to Lyle Dorsett, Douglas Gresham never told this story at Wheaton and it is definitely not in the Wade collection.)
(264) In The Times the next day [22 March 1957], Jack's oldest friends read with astonishment an announcement of which they had been given absolutely no warning: "A marriage has taken place between Professor C. S. Lewis ..." (This announcement was in The Times 24 December 1956.)
(295) On 15 June 1963, Lewis had a heart attack and was taken into the Ackland Nursing Home. [The heart attack was on 15 July 1963.]
(296) Thus passed the month of August and some of September. Then Hooper went back to the United States, intending to return as Lewis's full-time secretary after Christmas. (Hooper left before the end of August and was invited to return later for only a brief visit.)
(306) A good example of this was the brilliant television play Shadowlands by Bill Nicholson, subsequently written up by Brian Sibley as a book... (Brian Sibley reportedly wrote the play and book long before Bill Nicholson rewrote the play from scratch.)
(311) Most surviving Lewis manuscripts, however, both of his literary productions and of his letters, are preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.... (According to the Wade Center, more letters are preserved there than at the Bodleian.)
(325) Wilson leaves George Sayer's biography Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times, the best one to date, out of his "Select Bibliography."
In conclusion, A.N. Wilson is a highly skilled professional writer of the gymnastic type (cartwheels, tightropes, and trapezes), and we can be grateful when any long, serious-looking book with intellectual pretentions turns out to be as twinkling and energetic as a tabloid. But we shouldn't assume too quickly that Wilson really understands C. S. Lewis or that we really understand A.N. Wilson. He said in Publisher's Weekly (15 May 1987) that his novels could be called cruel, that his frequent appearance in British gossip columns is probably a distraction to his British readers, and that he doesn't know what he believes. "I mean, I don't know from month to month or year to year." On page 236 of C. S. Lewis he remarks breezily, "In books it does not really matter where fantasy ends and reality begins..."
I suspect that Wilson is highly amused by his antics, and his old friends at the Spectator seem to think so too. On 10 February 1990 they joshed him in a column about the new poison-pen Lewis biography by "Ann Wilson." "Ever the busy bee, Ann has been diligent in grubbing around in the mud... Such prurience in a biographer is to be roundly condemned." The column went on to reveal that the next Lewis biography will reveal his affair with Marilyn Monroe and his secret life as a part-time cabaret artiste in London's risque Pussy Galore Club (where along with a couple of other friends, Charles Williams played keyboards and Professor Tolkien played double-bass and kazoo). One of their songs was:
"Oh, we think things
'Cos we're the Ink-lings
And we're always wink-ing
Yes, we're the I-N-K-L-I-N-G-S