Review: C.S. Lewis – A Life, Alister McGrath

C.S. Lewis is a deservedly beloved writer, responsible not only for The Chronicles of Narnia but also for some of the most accessible pieces of Christian writing in the English language.  While he seems to have believed that his books would be forgotten within a few years of his death, his profile is remains as high as ever, his books selling more now than they ever did while he was alive.  In this biography, Alister McGrath sets out to examine how and why CS Lewis (or ‘Jack’ as he was to friends and family) became ‘a cultural and literary landmark’.  

Despite covering the span of Lewis’ life, one gets the impression that McGrath is less concerned with the man himself, but rather his works.  As a fellow-professor and himself an outspoken Christian, McGrath is open about feeling a kinship with Lewis, whom he obviously holds in high esteem.  While I could respect his departure point that as a biographer with no personal connection with his subject (a direct contrast with several of Lewis’ previous biographers), he wished to engage with Lewis on an academic level, it does leave certain areas of the biography rather hazy.

In honesty, I had picked up most of my previous knowledge of Lewis’ life from a Radio 4 radio play about fifteen years ago and of course, the movie Shadowlands.  Much of McGrath’s biography was new material to me.  While I knew that he had hated his time in English boarding schools, I had not been aware of Lewis’ fractious relationship with his father, his brother Warnie’s alcoholism, Lewis’ professional isolation within Oxford or indeed his unconventional relationship with Mrs Moore.  McGrath’s description of Lewis’ interest in flagellation also came as something of a surprise.

Much of the criticism of CS Lewis – A Life seems to be focused upon McGrath’s focus on literary analysis of Lewis’ writing rather than the process by which he wrote in the first place.  As a someone who was a literature student, I actually appreciated this as I have read very little critical material on Lewis and also – unsurprisingly for a book blogger – I actually find literary analysis really good fun.  As the biography wore on however, I did notice McGrath’s personal agenda leaning in, particularly when it came to religious matters.

The ‘big scoop’ within CS Lewis – A Life is that CS Lewis’ religious conversion seems to have taken place around a year later than Lewis himself had claimed.  Close analysis of Lewis’ letters from the time reveal that it was early summer 1930 rather than early summer 1929.  While it is good to have this corrected, it is such a minor point that it hardly seems worth the amount of time which McGrath devotes to it.  However, this is part of the general pattern of the book, whereby McGrath’s focus is on establishing Lewis as an influential Christian thinker rather than looking in close detail at his character.  For me, CS Lewis – A Life revealed Lewis as a far more complex and more flawed individual than I had ever previously been aware.  However, I felt that this was something which I discovered almost in spite of McGrath rather than thanks to him.  He relates Lewis’ snobbery about the past but never challenges it, nor does he ever provide any alternative commentary on Lewis’ often rose-tinted view of Christianity.  McGrath seems to have a reverence for Lewis as a theologian which hampers him from offering a balanced evaluation.

This is particularly pointed when it comes to McGrath’s coverage of Lewis’ personal life.  Scholars have long been reticent over the precise nature of the relationship between Mrs Moore and Lewis.  Twenty or so years older than Lewis, Mrs Moore was the mother of his close friend who had died in World War One.  They lived together for many years.  Many have preferred to view the arrangement as part of a wartime promise made between Lewis and his friend to look after the other’s loved ones in the event that either of them were killed, thus Mrs Moore becomes a surrogate ‘mother’ figure.  McGrath does acknowledge that the two were more likely to have been lovers but I could sense his discomfort and he never really really explains the relationship, despite it being surely among the most significant in Lewis’ life.  In ignoring her daily presence in Lewis’ life for thirty years, it is hard to see how you can ever attempt to understand the man himself.

Where the real struggle comes in however is in McGrath’s approach to Lewis’ subsequent relationship and marriage to Joy Davidman.  Like many male biographers, he seems to have had difficulty imagining that a woman he personally finds unappealing could have inspired admiration in a figure who he respects.  While I would never suggest that Shadowlands can be taken as fact, dismissing Lewis’ feelings for Davidman as superficial and emphasising her unpleasant qualities seems unfair, particularly given how few citations are offered by McGrath in support of his claims.  A Grief Observed would not have been written had Lewis not sincerely cared for his wife.

Reading CS Lewis – A Life made me remember some of the difficulties I used to find when mixing in exclusively Christian circles.  With no room in an unquestioning faith for doubt, details on a topic which are unhelpful are simply scrubbed out.  In this instance, CS Lewis’ significance within Christian evangelism is so strong that details which do not fit into the accepted narrative feel downplayed.  This feels unfortunate not only because it leads to frustrating gaps in the biography but also because it undermines the character it seeks to protect.  Lewis seems to have been far more awkward than I had ever realised.  His long-term professional struggles seem to have been largely caused by his difficult personality.  Even when he was finally offered the post as Chair in Cambridge, he repeatedly declined until Tolkien manhandled him into accepting it.  However, he was also the man who cared for Mrs Moore through her dementia, who supported his wayward alcoholic brother and who did his best to support his stepsons after the death of their mother.

The striking constant in Lewis’ life seems to have been how emotionally demanding the key people in his life truly were.  At one point, Warnie protested at the stress his brother was under during Mrs Moore’s illness, leading to arrangements being made for Lewis to take a month’s holiday to Ireland.  At the last minute however, Warnie went on a binge so extreme that he had to be hospitalised for alcohol poisoning and the whole trip had to be cancelled, leaving Lewis to battle on.  With all the duties of nurse and his academic responsibilities behind, I am astounded that Lewis was able to keep writing.  I cannot help but feel for him though that he had so little reciprocal support from those he loved.

McGrath’s biography of Lewis was an enjoyable and informative read, particularly for someone such as myself who has read little about the man previously.  I feel that Lewis’ undoubted talents as a writer have come under threat in our increasingly secular world.  It worries me to hear The Chronicles of Narnia sneered at as mere Christian propaganda.  With this in mind, I appreciated McGrath’s championship of Lewis as a true genius, but I hope that future biographies will be able to grapple further with the fact that like many genii, Lewis’ life was complicated and the narrative of his life far from simple.

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C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister E. McGrath
Published by Hodder & Stoughton on April 1st 2013
Pages: 448
ISBN: 1444745557

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