The Completion of C. S, Lewis
From War to Joy (1945-1963)
By Harry Lee Poe
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I never tire of reading of the life and work of Clive Stapes Lewis. This is because, partly, he had such a significant impact on my life as a person, a student, a believer, and a writer. Many people share this testimony with me. I never tire, also, because his life is full of surprises, as he himself declared with the title of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. A disproportionate number of these surprises occur in the final third of his life, that period covered in volume three of Dr. Poe’s comprehensive biography of the great Oxford scholar and author.
Volume one traced the childhood and youth of the man everyone called Jack, from his birth in 1898 through his service in the British army during World War 1. Volume 2 describes his journey as a student at Oxford University, his life as a tutor and lecturer at the same school, his conversion to Christian faith, and his emergence as both a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature and an apologist for the Christian faith. Now comes volume 3, which opens up in dramatic fashion the series of defeats, dysfunctions, and deaths that marked the last third of his life.
Not once, not twice, but three times Lewis was turned down for a full professorship at Oxford University. Poe describes his persistent desire to hold the chair of poetry, but it was never to be. Lewis had to settle, if we can use such a pejorative word for a unanimous election to a distinguished teaching position at Cambridge University, for his 1954 move down the road to the equally famous institution. This series of defeats is rarely mentioned in the letters and papers of C. S. Lewis. Poe treats it well, telling the truth but not emphasizing it too much.
What Poe describes in some detail are the series of distressing life situations that accompanied Lewis throughout his career. Among these are his laborious, thirty-year care for the live-in guest, the unbelieving and uncouth women (Janie “Mento” Moore) who lived with him in his home, called the Kilns. How Lewis managed to coach a generation (or two) of Christians on the virtues and vices of life while surviving the emotional and financial trauma of this household situation is surely one of the hidden wonders of his remarkable life. Only occasionally in his letters does Lewis speak to this persistent pressure on every aspect of his life. Poe opens up the evidence and opens also the eyes of all those who know Lewis only through his series of successes.
But there were other stresses on the spirit of the great scholar, such as his own health, described so well in this biography. Lewis had a slew of what we now know are bad habits: incessant smoking, excessive drinking (both alcohol and caffeine), and overeating. Not even his love for long walks (thirty miles!) could overcome the debilitating effects of this lifestyle. Plus, he lived just before the age of pharmaceuticals, as Poe points out, when now common drugs would have successfully treated his chronic conditions: enlarged prostate. heart arrhythmia, and sleep apnea. Not even miracle drugs would have addressed his other health challenge: an unhealthy diet, which produced what we now call obesity.
Other difficulties developed when he met the women he married, Joy Davidman Gresham. She had a husband, from whom she was separated, who was unable to financially support their two sons; he eventually committed suicide. The two boys (David and Douglas) became wards of Mr. Lewis and were supported by his generosity. (Douglas still lives, but David died in a European psychiatric hospital, years after converting to orthodox Judaism.)
In this volume, Poe does not amplify the impact of the deaths of those around Lewis, but he could have: his mother when he was ten, his father while they were alienated, his colleague Charles Williams at the height of his career, his wife Joy just three years after their marriage, and others who preceded Jack Lewis in death. His brother did not die before Jack, but he suffered throughout their life together from chronic alcoholism, requiring regular and lengthy hospitalization.
Yes, Poe describes in this book the continued writing of Lewis through all of this: his famous Surprised by Joy, the Chronicles of Narnia, the volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, and the endless books of essays, including the powerful A Grief Observed. But it is the personal drama behind all the public success that so fascinates me, especially because it so seldom seeps into the published material that brought Lewis so much fame and fortune.
Poe relies heavily upon two sources, the three-volumes of published letters of C. S. Lewis (which I think are the best of Lewis) and his own vast network of personal connections with the people and places in the Lewis universe. I honor it all, and give thanks for Poe and his scholarship and hard work. I recommend these three volumes without reservation. Like Lewis, I will read them again, and in this way declare they are worthy of praise.