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C. S. Lewis: A Biography
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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2001
There is great, though, as it turns out, pointless, irony in the fact that the litterateur A. N. Wilson penned this life of a famous Christian apologist while he was in the process of giving up his own Christian faith. One might anticipate from such a juxtaposition some unusual insight into Lewis' (in this case unsuccessful) methods of argumentation. Alas, nothing of the sort occurs. This is simply another Lewis biography, following the familiar outline laid down by Lewis' own "Surprised by Joy" and adding very little, save for catty psychological guesswork, that has not appeared in earlier productions of the prolific Lewis "industry".
The book's great sensation is the assertion that the young Lewis, at around age 20, had an affair with Mrs. Jane Moore, the woman whom he "adopted" as a mother figure for the rest of his life. The theory, borrowed without acknowledgement from the eccentric American Lewis scholar Kathryn Lindskoog (whom Wilson repays with unfair derision), lacks both plausibility and evidence. Lewis had lost his mother at a young age and had chafed under his father's well-meant but wrong-headed tutelage. Mrs. Moore's son, for a while Lewis' closest friend, had died in the Great War. That the two should have formed a substitute family is not at all surprising. Wilson offers no grounds for supposing that the relationship was sexual. Instead, he offers "evidence" of this sort: Lewis' diaries use the Greek letter delta (our "D") as shorthand for Mrs. Moore. Of the many Greek words and names beginning with that letter, he singles out "Diotimia", from whom the Socrates of Plato's "Symposium" is supposed to have learned his theories about eros. That is just a wild guess, evidently made without knowledge of the fact that delta is the first letter of the Greek transliteration of "Jane". (Our "j" sound is not native to the Greek language but can be represented by the diphthong delta-zeta.)
Wilson's major weakness as a biographer is... his incurious, intellectually lazy approach to a field already tilled by many predecessors. A life that looked at Lewis from a different angle, that, for instance, probed his pre-Christian philosophical opinions and asked to what extent they truly changed as a result of his conversion or that placed his apologetics next to the works (Wells, Huxley, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin et al.) against which he was reacting or that gave adequate attention to his professional literary interests, could have been a fresh and vivid portrait. One that accepts prior interpretations with a few unflattering twists is not.
There is no point in writing a biography simply in order to say what has been said before - not even if one says it with slightly more elegance and now and then taxes the subject for his failure to anticipate politically correct points of view. As a compendium of bare facts, sprinkled with factoids, Wilson's book is acceptable, but it is hard to imagine a reason for anybody to seek it out.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2013
CS Lewis and John Betjeman
When I picked up A.N. Wilson’s highly readable C.S. Lewis – A Biography I thought Lewis might get a little rough treatment. That’s because I’d already seen how Wilson dealt with him in his biography of John Betjeman.

It’s true that Lewis and Betjeman couldn’t stand each other, but it wasn’t entirely Lewis’s fault. Lewis, a young man, had become a Tutor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford. Betjeman was one of his very first students.

To Betjeman Lewis seemed overly serious, unimaginative and hard. To Lewis Betjeman appeared affected, unintelligent and lazy, regularly failing to hand in essays on time. In fact, on one occasion Lewis was pleasantly surprised by Betjeman submitting a decent essay and looked forward to the tutorial. He later wrote in his diary, ‘I soon discovered [the essay] to be a pure fake, for he knew nothing about the work when we began to talk. I wish I could get rid of the idle prig.’[i]

He did eventually, and possibly unnecessarily. Betjeman never forgave him and, in letters written years later, referred to Lewis as ‘my old enemy’.

So I expected Wilson to write a fairly tough biography. Warning: Bubble bursting activity ahead.

Lewis in a nut shell
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898 and died on November 22, 1963. Although incredibly bright, he hated school, and was moved from place to place until his father finally agreed to have him privately tutored. After gaining a triple first at Oxford he became Tutor of English Literature and Language at Magdalen, Oxford, a position he held for nearly 30 years. Shockingly, he was never made Professor until he was invited by Cambridge University to take the Chair of Medieval English Literature where he served until retirement.

His literary ambition was to be a poet, but he is best known for ‘The Narnia Chronicles’ a series of children’s books. Through the influence of friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others he moved from atheism to theism and finally to Christianity. He wrote some of the most influential Christian books of the 20th Century and was the central member of an influential literary circle called ‘The Inklings’.

A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis – the best bad biography I’ve read!
It’s a speedy, engaging, infuriating read. Wilson is rightly peeved by attempts to ‘canonize’ Lewis. ‘There are those readers who are so uplifted by the sublimity of Lewis at his best as a writer that they assume that he was himself a sublime being, devoid of blemishes.’ (p.292)

Even though that is an exaggeration one can understand Wilson’s desire to describe the man accurately. But bringing him back down to earth and burying him are two different things.

After reading Wilson I also read an earlier biography of Lewis, to get a little balance. Wilson refers to (and draws heavily from) Green and Hooper’s biography from the early 70s. Undeniably less well written, I didn’t, however, find it gushing with hero-worship. Surprised by Joy although frustrating for different reasons, is also essential reading. At the moment these three are a good all round introduction to Lewis.

Why is ANW’s biography of Lewis ‘bad’?

Where to begin? First of all, it must be said that A.N. Wilson has had a change of heart about Christianity itself, and has moved from atheism to the Christian Faith since writing about Lewis. This does, in some degree, temper our response to what appears to be one of ANW’s aims in the biography: to discredit the Christian Faith itself.

It spoils both the biography and the judgement of the biographer, persistently disrupting one’s enjoyment of the book, like an irritating fly.

From the cover endorsements to ANW’s clunky misunderstanding of ‘A Grief Observed’ (i.e. Lewis’s most authentic, mature expression of belief was doubt) the reader feels the quiet celebratory thrill that here at last is the book that humbles Lewis and his faith. With a silent nod and smile, we can breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate Wilson and go back to our skepticism unscathed: Lewis has been put in his place.

My copy is the Harper Perennial 2005 edition (which I understand includes some revisions based on reader’s reactions to the first edition of 1990). Before this, I don’t recall ever seeing the cover of a biography which says more about the biographer than the subject.

‘Wilson’s biography is probably the best imaginable…he is a brilliant biographer.’ Anthony Burgess (front cover).

‘The more biography Wilson writes, the better he gets – this life of CS Lewis is his best yet. It’s a vivacious and compassionate book. Wilson’s range of interests makes him an ideal match for the subject.’ Andrew Motion

‘It seems fitting that AN Wilson should have written the definitive biography of Lewis, and it is a superb job.’ John Bayley

The fact that the cover endorsements are primarily about Wilson’s literary skill, rather than Lewis’s, should be a clue: Bubble bursting ahead!

But enough of covers. These are the questions we are forced to consider by the master bubble burster:

Does Wilson actually respect CS Lewis as a person? We suspect not.

Did he understand the nature of religious conversion and its implications given his negative view of Lewis’s attempts at Christian apologetics?

He exposes the jealousies and nastiness of CSL’s peers but is ANW himself entirely free from such nastiness given that he essentially supports their criticisms?

Why the persistent schoolboy name-calling, likening CSL to a lowly ‘police court solicitor’ (a disrespectful mocking of CSL’s father’s occupation)? Yet, even schoolboys have an opportunity to respond. ANW’s name-calling takes place after Lewis’s death, making it all the more cowardly.

While there may be some debate about the nature of CSL’s relationship to Mrs. Moore in the early days, are we to believe that CS Lewis cherished being both a domestic and sexual masochist? You needn’t be a Freudian scholar to have a few chuckles at some of Wilson’s psychoanalytical observations.

The bigger question is if ANW is so repelled by Lewis’s Christianity and by Lewis as a personality, then why on earth write a biography of him, if not to bury him once and for all? May we ask for a proper revision?

The overall feel the reader has is of a gossipy attempt to cut the puffed up Lewis down. And, unfortunately, it makes Wilson appear mean-spirited.

In an attempt at balance, Wilson writes, ‘Insufferably annoying as he may have been in life, there was also something glorious about him.’[ii] Seriously? What kind of writing is this now? ‘Glorious’?

But, having aired some of the weaknesses of ANW’s book, there are also many points of real interest. As I said, the book is a page-turner.

Lewis’s Reluctant Conversion
It may have struck you as odd that Lewis is usually quoted as describing his conversion negatively. He says that in 1929 he ‘gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’[iii]

But actually, as both ANW and Green/Hooper helpfully point out, this was an intellectual assent to theism, not his decision to follow Jesus Christ which came about two years later. Wilson adds that Lewis, at the time, was emphasizing his unwillingness to accept any high sounding ‘divine call’ which might undermine him.

He still considered himself a ‘prodigal’ looking for any opportunity to escape the inevitable. Green/Hooper write of Lewis’s 1929 experience, ‘This conversion was, however, to theism pure and simple, and not to Christianity. He knew nothing about the incarnation at this stage.’[iv]

Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson
Green/Hooper describe the events surrounding Lewis’s conversion to Christianity in some detail as Lewis only touches on it in Surprised by Joy:

‘Lewis was still thinking about myth and resurrection when, on Saturday evening (19 September 1931), he invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dine with him at Magdalen. Probably none of them had any idea what a momentous impact this night’s conversation would have to Lewis…

In Lewis’s rooms they talked about Christianity till 3.00am when Tolkien left to go home. After seeing him through the little postern door that opens on to Magdalen Bridge, Lewis and Dyson continued the discussion for another hour, walking up and down the cloister of New Buildings…

On Monday, 28 September, Lewis and Warren [his brother] took a picnic lunch to Whipsnade Zoo…

But something happened to Lewis on the way to Whipsnade for, as he says in Surprised by Joy: ‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did…It was…like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.’

A few days later (1 October) Lewis wound up a long letter to Arthur Greeves with the news: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ…My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.’[v]

Lewis on ‘Low Church’ and ‘High Church’
Lewis was not so-called a ‘high church’ Anglican. In fact, he was a little outspoken on this point. ‘I’m not…what you call high. To me the real distinction is not high and low, but between religion with a real supernaturalism and Salvationism on the one hand, and all watered down modernist versions on the other.’[vi]

Lewis on Adam as an Historical Figure
On one evening, fellow academic Helen Gardner was dining with Lewis and a number of others at Lewis’s home. Wilson writes:

‘Conversation at the table turned on the interesting question of whom, after death, those present should most look forward to meeting. One person suggested he would like to meet Shakespeare; another said St. Paul.

‘But you, Jack,’ said the friends (or, as Helen Gardner felt, the disciples), ‘who would be your choice?’

‘Oh I have no difficulty in deciding,’ said Lewis. ‘I want to meet Adam.’ He went on to explain why, very much in the terms outlined in A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, where he wrote:

‘Adam was, from the first, a man in knowledge as well as in stature. He alone of all men ‘had been in Eden, in the garden of God.’…He had ‘breathed the aether and was accustomed to converse with God ‘face to face’.

Be that as it may, Adam is not likely, if she has anything to do with it, to converse with Helen Gardner. She ventured to say so. Even, she told Lewis, if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man’, he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.

A stony silence fell on the dinner table. Then Lewis said gruffly, ‘I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.’’[vii]

The inclusion of this incident may be intended to make Lewis appear either misogynistic, self-serving, rude, a fundamentalist or all of the above. It is interesting, though, that Lewis did consider Adam as a real historical figure.

C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot
There are numerous other small points of interest like this one. Lewis’s resistance to modern poetry alienated him from the emerging generation of poets. His own relative failure as a poet, especially as a narrative poet, even after publishing two books of poetry, was a source of sadness to him.

Some may, however, sympathise with Lewis when considering the work of fellow Christian poet, T.S. Eliot. Lewis wrote:

‘For twenty years I’ve stared my level best

To see if evening – any evening – would suggest

A patient etherized upon a table;

In vain. I simply wasn’t able.’[viii]

Wilson also describes such fascinating moments as when CSL and Tolkien decide they’ve had enough of the popular novels being published and made a commitment to each other that they will write ‘better’ books: ‘I’m afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves!’ What a result!

C.S. Lewis – never Professor of English at Oxford
Is it not strange that Lewis never became a Professor at Oxford? Wilson asserts the reason:

‘It could be said that Lewis was exiled, in some sense, for his refusal to toe the line. It was not his failure to be a good graduate supervisor which cost him the Oxford chair, it was Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.’[ix]

In 1954, however, Cambridge established a new ‘Chair’ of English and Lewis was invited, and accepted the position: Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. His lectures were sensationally popular.

Wilson also suggests that modern admirers of Lewis would be shocked to discover that he smoked (and even drank)!

Towards the end of Wilson’s book, apart from a somewhat rushed feel, there is an attempt to undermine other biographers and historians of Lewis. Hooper is cut down, unreliable. Wheaton is dismissed with characteristic English pomposity. It’s not a real University is it, after all?

Once again, we feel the determined drag to undermine Lewis’s Christianity. That pesky fly!

There is much to enjoy in Wilson’s biography but so much that is, frankly, disappointing.

In a book so littered with uncharitable moments, Wilson’s final paragraph, one in which he judiciously shields himself, states, ‘Those who knew Lewis in the days of his flesh might suppose that he would chiefly be remembered as a vigourously intelligent university teacher and critic who also wrote some children’s stories.’ (p.309)

So that’s it then! Lewis, phenomenally popular during his own lifetime and an inspiration to thousands of Christian intellectuals, is finally reduced even below the Professorship he received at Cambridge. He was a ‘university teacher who wrote children’s stories’.

It’s time for a new CS Lewis Biography
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death in 2013, when he will be honoured in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, Alister McGrath will be releasing a new biography of Lewis. We still lack a definitive one. Let’s hope Alister’s does some justice to Lewis and gives us a scholarly and balanced appraisal of a creative genius who continues to thrill our hearts and exercise our minds.

For more detailed reviews visit The Church History Blog

[i] John Betjeman, Letters Volume One (London: Miverva, 1995), p.17

[ii] A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis A Biography (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 252

[iii] ibid, p.110 (from ‘Surprised by Joy’)

[iv] Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis A Biography (Glasgow: Fount/Collins, 1979), p. 103

[v] ibid. p.116

[vi] ANW, p.174

[vii] ibid, p.210

[viii] ibid, p. 263

[ix] ibid, p. 246
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 March 2015
This is a thoroughly engaging, well researched and balanced biography. The author explores Lewis's relationships particularly well - his father, mother, Mrs Moore (mother substitute / sometime lover-take your pick) and colleagues such as Tolkien are worked over in detail but minus too much inclination to pointless speculation or lurid imaginings.

We get a real feel for Lewis -the essential goodness amid his often all too obvious failings. Wilson brings him alive in all his complexity- not an easy man to know and certainly not forthcoming about his private life. He could be irascible and not always very tolerant of colleagues or students. However, there is to consider his warmth, his faith, good works and stoicism in the face of tragedy.

If I were to be critical of this biography I would have liked Wilson to balance his analysis of the great man's time at Oxford and Cambridge with much more on why his name is still resonant today, namely the `Narnia' books.

Taken as a whole this is a wonderful book. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 28 July 2014
This biography is to be treated with caution. I lost interest (or assurance) by p.26 when Wilson suggests that CSL was taught English by McNeill at Campbell College. This is a gross insult to his actual English teacher, Lewis Alden, who received praise for his teaching from four (including CSL) eminent university professors. McNeill, whom Wilson mentions, taught Mathematics - and had been dead three years before CSL arrived at Campbell!!!
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on 9 February 2014
This would be a five star review. AN Wilson brings C.S Lewis back down to earth when so many are desperate to see him as a saintly celibate figure and gives a compelling account of the man. We see what made CSL great - Wilson is particularly strong as a literary critic - and we see what made him flawed.

As a read it rattles along and yes Wilson can be prissy and repetitive, you will read the phrase 'police-court solicitor' a lot but he is also good at conveying a sense of time and place moving effortlessly from university to The Kilns.

Unfortunately the kindle conversion is poor and full of mistakes. Sentences end abruptly or simply don't make sense - "he had he to for he" - there are countless spelling errors and names are frequently wrong. In the most glaring example one man is called by the right surname twice and thereafter is written as 'Dr Aslan'. Sadly the errors are so bad that sometimes they make nonsense of the prose. There's a section on CSL's thoughts about the Chinese 'Too' which is baffling until after several pages it becomes 'Tao'. And so on and so on.

There is much to enjoy in this book but buy the paper version, which also has pictures, not the very poor kindle one.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 6 January 2007
This book deserves two stars for its excellent sections which concern CS Lewis as a literary critic.

Aside from this it is a nasty book, which runs-down Lewis both directly and insidiously: AN Wilson has since acknowledged that he thoroughly-disliked what he discovered of Lewis, and presumably found writing this book an unpleasant chore. It shows.

There is a good critique at: [...]

George Sayers's biography 'Jack' is much better - 4 stars.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 18 December 2008
Not having met Lewis I'll never know which author is more right w/o studying all C.S.Lewis' writings, which I don't see myself doing but what A.N. Wilson sure seems to have done. He obviously spent much time looking into Lewis and presented such a biography that I didn't want to put the book down. When I did put the book down I couldn't wait to get back as if I would be returning to some warm, cozy personal meeting with a wonderful friend. There were some sides of Lewis that were presented that I was surprised by but which made Lewis more human and more endearing. I want to read more of Lewis and I want to read more by Wilson.
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on 24 December 2013
Very readable, and often insightful, like everything that Wilson does. But (also like everything he does) gets a good many facts wrong. Enjoy, but beware!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 29 May 2013
It has been almost fifty years since C. S. Lewis's untimely death, but interest in the great Christian writer keeps on growing and growing. Readers looking for lives of CSL now face an embarras de richesses. One of the earliest, and not the least revealing, was the memoir included in CSL's brother's selection of his letters (The Letters of C S Lewis). This was soon joined by a full length account jointly compiled by CSL's pupil and friend, the children's writer Roger Lancelyn Green and CSL's secretarial assistant Walter Hooper (C. S. Lewis: A Biography). The schoolmaster George Sayer, another pupil of CSL's who grew into a dear friend, contributed the engagingly intimate Jack A Life Of C S Lewis. CSL's devoted stepson Douglas Gresham, a producer of the Narnia movies, wrote much about his stepfather in his autobiography Lenten Lands, and then supplemented this with a graceful little account of CSL's life aimed at younger readers in Jack's Life: The Life Story of CS Lewis. The first biographer of J. R. R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, painted a wonderful portrait of the Tolkien-Lewis circle in The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Their Friends, while Brian Sibley explored CSL's relationship with his wife in Shadowlands: The True Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. Douglas Gilbert and CSL's friend Clyde Kilby even produced a pictorial life of CSL, C.S. Lewis: Images of His World. Most recently, the theologian Alister McGrath has given us an analytical biography focused on CSL's writing, C. S. Lewis: a Life: The Story of the Man Who Created Narnia. And then - phew! - there's this 1990 biography by A. N. Wilson.

I own and cherish all the books that I've mentioned, but I think that for someone enquiring into CSL's inspiring life for the first time, Wilson's tome is probably the one to pop into your basket. Admittedly, Wilson never knew CSL in the considerable flesh, but that was pretty much his only handicap. By the time that he undertook his book, he'd already written well received biographies of Hilaire Belloc, John Milton, Walter Scott and Leo Tolstoy, so he'd really mastered his craft: what's more, he'd also come out with a string of successful novels, so that among the talents he brought to CSL were a good creative writer's insights into character, skill in shaping narrative and sheer literary virtuosity. Whether he's setting a scene, relishing a funny story or probing CSL on his psychoanalytical couch, Wilson's book is always immensely entertaining. It could even be argued that his personal distance from CSL is an advantage, in that it preserves him from loyally glossing over his subject's weaknesses. Wilson's CSL comes before us with all his self-confessed follies, vices and absurdities vividly delineated, and no less lovable or heroic for that. CSL once wrote that the sound of laughter was one of the things he loved most: there's surely no book about CSL richer in comedy than Wilson's.

The first edition of Wilson's biography is a handsome, 24 centimetre high hardback of 334 pages. Seven pages of source notes supplement a four page bibliography and a conscientious nine page index. Sixteen well chosen monochrome illustrations are supplied on good, old-fashioned photographic plates. The text looks gratifyingly elegant, and is printed on paper that hasn't begun to discolour even after almost a quarter of a century. The young CSL was more than a bit of a bibliophile: I think he'd have shared my regret that few books published nowadays are half as well made as this one.
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on 17 January 2015
CS Lewis is an interesting and complicated man. AN Wilson writes so beautifully even if it is a bit heavy on the acamedic stuff for me.
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