Ladies and the Letters: Lewis and His Female Correspondents

Week Four of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

 Ladies and the Letters: Lewis and His Female Correspondents

Sister Penelope

Photo Courtesy of

I’ve just got back from Ireland & found your 2 letters among the mountain of mail.  I’ve written to Genia [Goelz].  No time for a proper letter to you – I’ve had 9 hours’ letter-writing already! 

– C.S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen 12 September 1952

After C.S. Lewis recorded some short broadcasts for the BBC, a collection that would later be titled Mere Christianity, he would find himself quite an unlikely celebrity.  This new-found fame earned Lewis some attention (to which he was naturally reluctant) and exponentially increased his “fan mail”. It was not uncommon for Lewis to rise two hours earlier than the rest of his household in order to answer his correspondents. In fact, his home The Kilns still has an outside staircase, which Lewis had installed so that he could come and go in the early morning without disturbing others. His correspondence would only multiply with the publication of The Chronicles of Narnia.

C.S. Lewis was nothing if not a diligent, attentive correspondent.  Unlike many prominent authors, Lewis attempted to answer every single letter he received.  The content of these letters ranged from answering basic questions about his fictional works (“What happened to Susan?”) to deep, theological inquiries into Lewis’s perspective. Lewis almost always referred to a correspondent’s previous letter, stating that he was praying for their illness or family situation. This week, we will get a brief glimpse into the correspondence he maintained with several females.

It is significant, I believe, to call these individuals to mind when discussing Lewis’s relationship with women.  If Lewis were misogynistic, as some assert, then he would not have invested an enormous amount of time responding to their letters and replying to their concerns and questions.  His letters to women often reflect a side of Lewis we don’t always detect in his academic writings or even in his fictional works.

Sister Penelope

Sister Penelope CSMV (1890-1977) was the daughter of a clergyman, born 20 March 1890. She was sent in September 1908 to Worchester High School, which was renamed Alice Ottley School in 1914 after its first headmistress. The school was founded by a famous Tractarian Reverend William John Butler.  Sister Penelope enjoyed her time at Alice Ottley, as well as the tutelage under the woman who inspired its namesake. Under Ms. Ottley’s guidance, Sister Penelope “developed a devotion to the blessed Virgin Mary and a love of Greek and Latin” (Walter Hooper in Biographical Appendix, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3).  In 1912, she joined the Convent of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Watage (thus the CSMV). She was later sent to Oxford to study theology under Dr. Kidd, the Warden of Keble College. She wrote several books concerning religious life, including a spiritual autobiography titled Meditation of a Caterpillar, as well as other works such as The Wood for the Trees, God Persists: A Short Survey of World History in the Light of Christian Faith, They Shall be My People, and Hugh of St. Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings. In addition, she penned hundreds of book reviews.

Sister Penelope had recently finished God Persists when she was introduced to Out of the Silent Planet.  She writes to Lewis on 5 August 1939:

It provokes thought in just the directions where I have always wanted to think; and wherever it is most delightfully suggestive one senses the most profound scriptural basis…There are bits – Augray’s views about the different sorts of bodies, the relations of the unfallen creatures with Oyarsa, their social order, their peaceful awareness of the spiritual world – which are more lovely and more satisfying than anything I have met before

Lewis and Sister Penelope maintained a lifelong correspondence and finally met when Lewis spoke to the junior sisters of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in 1942.  One will notice that Lewis dedicates his next installment in the Ransom or Space Trilogy “To some Ladies at Wantage”. Sister Penelope was known for her wit and humor.  Her complete works, Hooper laments, have never been collected and published.

Mary Shelley/ Neyland

Mary Neyland was a student of Lewis’s who maintained a robust correspondence with him over the years. She appreciated his guidance as a tutor, but later depended upon him as a spiritual mentor.  My friend and fellow Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson has written a concise, erudite exposition on the relationship between Lewis and Neyland on his blog A Pilgrim in Narnia.  For more information on Neyland and Lewis, I urge you to read “Letters to an Oxonian Lady: C.S. Lewis’ Relationship with Mary Neyland” –

Ruth Pitter

In a few weeks, we will be discussing Ruth Pitter in greater depth as we explore Hunting the Unicorn and Lewis’s relationship with Ruth. For now, I will provide a brief biography. Ruth Pitter (1898-1992) was the eldest of three children born to schoolteachers. At a young age, Ruth was bribed by her parents to memorize poetry, perhaps a penny or a sixpence depending upon the poem length. Ruth eventually began to write poems.  At age 12, her father introduced her to A.R. Orage (editor of New Age) who began to publish her poems. Her first volume of poetry is entitled First Poems (1920) with the second entitled First and Second Poems (1927). During the First World War, she was employed as a junior temporary clerk at the War Office.  After that, she became a painter. She and another worker Kathleen O’Hara began a business Deane and Forester.  They painted furniture as well as trays and other “gift goods” with flowers.  She continued to publish poetry: Persephone in Hades (1931), A Mad Lady’s Garland (1934), A Trophy of Arms: Poems (1926-35), a Hawthornden Prize winner in 1937, and The Spirit Watches (1939).  A mutual friend, Lord David Cecil, passed Ruth’s poetry on to C.S. Lewis, which he immensely enjoyed.  In fact, Cecil’s letters claim that Lewis “went off to buy your poems” (Letters-Volume 3, 1961). After hearing Lewis’s Mere Christianity talks on the BBC, Ruth converted to Christianity. She continued to publish poetry, The Rude Potato (1941), Poem (1943), The Bridge: Poems 1939-44 (1945), Pitter on Cats (1946), and Urania (1950).  Ruth’s first volume of poems were published as The Ermine: Poems 1942-1952 (1953).  This collection won the William Heinemann Award.  She also won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955.

C.S. Lewis maintained a long friendship with Ruth.  George Sayer even writes that, in 1955, Lewis went to visit Ruth.  After this visit, Lewis remarked that if he had not been a confirmed bachelor, he would have married Ruth Pitter.  Ruth had only met Joy Davidman, Lewis’s future wife, once on a February 1954. Although Lewis had hoped the two women could kindle a friendship, the two never warmed to one another.  Lewis asked if Ruth would write Joy a letter while she was in the hospital (shortly before their marriage), Ruth replied,

I had been taught in youth that a woman’s friendship with a married man must be by grace and favour of his wife, and as Joy recovered and lived on so amazingly, I did from time to time write to her; but there was never any reply, so I decided to be thankful for this correspondence and friendship with so rare a creature as Lewis, and to leave it at that.

(Vol 3 – 1064)

 Katharine Farrer

Katharine Farrer was the wife of philosopher, theologian, and biblical scholar Austin Farrer. Austin Farrer was a friend to C.S. Lewis who achieved a First in Classical Honour Moderations, Literae Humaniores, and Theology at Oxford. Austin was witness to the civil marriage of Lewis and Joy on 23 April 1956, he gave Joy her last rites on her deathbed, and eventually conducted Joy’s funeral. Some of his published works included Finite and Infinite: A Philosophical Essay, The Freedom of the Will, and The Glass of Vision: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse.  He also authored works of Biblical exegesis including St. Matthew and St. Mark and The Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Photo of Austin Farrer courtesy of

Farrer’s wife Katharine, also known as “K” in the letters, was always a warm and inviting presence. She was one of the first friends of Lewis’s to meet Joy Davidman.  Katharine was a writer herself, translating Gabriel Marcel’s Etre to Avoir as Being and Having, writing a novel titled At Odds with Morning, in addition to three detective novels she discusses with Lewis in her correspondence: The Missing Link, Cretan Counterfeit, and Gownman’s Gallows. It was Katharine who felt the sudden urge to call Joy Davidman on 18 October 1956.  At that very moment, Joy tripped over the telephone wire.  When she fell, the bone in her leg (which was later discovered to be eaten up with cancer) snapped. Joy could hear Katharine on the phone but could not respond. Katharine and Austin took Joy to the hospital. where her cancer was discovered by doctors.

Austin Farrer  often lectured abroad and Katharine accompanied him.  In 1966, they travelled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana through the swamp.  The host did not know that Katharine wrote detective novels and was taken aback when she exclaimed, “What a lovely place to hide a body!”

Mary Willis Shelburne – “The American Lady”

Mary was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895.  When Mary was three, the family moved to Richmond, where Mary was educated at Chatham Episcopal Institute and later Westhampton College. On 30 June 1920, she married William Boyer in Tazewell County, Virginia.  Her first husband unfortunately passed away, and Mary married Jacob Shelburne in Richmond in 1933.  After nine years of marriage, Jacob sadly passed away, leaving Mary twice widowed.

Mary was an established poet, occupying a position on the board of the Poetry Society of Virginia as well as being a member of the Poetry Society of America.  She was published in Poet Lore, the New York Times, and the Saturday Evening Post.  She won the Barrow Poetry Prize of the Georgia Poetry Society in 1952.  The follow poem appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1947

Love is like water; it may run

Smooth as silver under the sun;

Dance to the music of the wind,

free as breath, and unconfined,

Sing its song in liquid, cool

Polished depth of a woodland pool

Surge with wild emotion, caught

in tumult that a storm has wrought;

hold in hidden caves of wonder

Passion swift and hot as thunder,

or sweep the debris all away

and love again another day.

After the death of her second husband, Mary moved to Washington D.C. in 1946 to work as an executive assistant to the Canon Precentor of Washington Cathedral. Continually haunted by the possibility of poverty, Mary worried for most of her life about meeting her financial obligations.  In her correspondence with Lewis, she discusses her fiscal woes. Lewis, at first, could not contribute any money due to national restrictions. However, thanks to Lewis’s friend and attorney Owen Barfield, Lewis was able to assist Mary financially through his American publisher.  Hooper remarks that these payments continued after Lewis’s death. She died in 1975. Their correspondence has its own volume: Letters to an American Lady.

From his letter to Mary Shelburne dated 28 June 1963:

Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking.  I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter. 

Dorothy Sayer

 Photo courtesy of

Perhaps Lewis’s most well-known female correspondent was mystery novelist, translator, and theologian Dorothy Sayers. Sayers was the child of a clergyman who studied at Oxford and later penned the entertaining detective Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Sayers was one of the first women to receive her B.A. degree from Oxford in 1920 (before then, women could attend classes at Oxford, but were not awarded a degree). Dorothy also wrote religious plays such as The Zeal of Thy House and The Man Born to be King.  After receiving a “glowing review” from Inkling Charles Williams on her mystery novel The Nine Taylors, she began a correspondence with Williams until his death in 1945.  She began one with C.S. Lewis shortly after. Aside from the fame she won with her Lord Wimsey novels and religious plays (which Lewis cites as a significant “contemporary” work), Sayer also translated Dante, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri  the Florentine, Cantica II: Purgatory.  Although Sayer maintained a firm friendship with several members, she was never fully adopted into the Inklings because she was female.  The Inklings still operated on traditional beliefs, preferring male company to female company.  More will be explained on this in a later post.

There are several others, Mary Van Deusen, Vera Mathews Gebbert, Genia Goelz, Rhona Bodle, and of course, Joy Davidman, who wrote faithfully to Lewis over the years.  He was always a congenial, caring correspondent.  For further information, I implore you to read The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volumes 1-3.  They are also available as e-versions.

Next week, we will discuss a woman who “locked horns” with Lewis over the issue of naturalism at the Socratic Club and WON the debate, causing Lewis to complete revisions on one of his much-loved works.  Her name was Elizabeth Anscombe.

Furlough and Fascination: Mrs. Moore

Week Three of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Furlough and Fascination: Mrs. Moore


“I must admit fate has played strange with me since last winter.  I feel that I have definitely got into a new epoch of life and one feels extraordinarily helpless over it…As for the older days of real walks far away in the hills…Perhaps you don’t believe that I want all that again, because other things more important have come in: but after all there is room for other things besides love in a man’s life”

–          Letter to Arthur Greeves 28 October 1917

In the winter of 1916, C.S. Lewis went to sit for his scholarship examination at Oxford. Lewis dreamed of becoming of scholar, but the reality was World War I was at hand, and many of Lewis’s acquaintances from his school days were now training to become soldiers. Despite the increasingly ominous political climate in England, Lewis continued to pursue his academic aspirations.  Having trained with his tutor Mr. Kirkpatrick, Lewis initially approached Oxford with great confidence.  The next morning after his arrival, Lewis and other young men braved the snow to take exams in the Hall of Oriel.  The boys all wrote “in greatcoats and mufflers and wearing at least our left-hand gloves” (SJB 185). Lewis’s confidence soon wilted and he “had the impression that I was doing badly”.  He later arrived home and told his father that he “almost certainly failed”.  However, Lewis had miscalculated, for just a few weeks later, he found — to his great surprise and joy– that he had been elected to University.

In the summer of 1917, Lewis entered the University Officer’s Training Corps “as my most promising route into the army”.  Although he failed the mathematical portion of Responsions, he states that a “benevolent decree exempted ex-servicemen from taking it”.  As odd as it seems, Lewis must credit his acceptance into Oxford (and his subsequent 29-year career afterward as a tutor and don) on this “benevolent decree”.   Due to his repeated failures in mathematics, Lewis could not have entered Oxford otherwise.  Lewis had only spent a few weeks at Oxford when his “papers came through” and he was enlisted into the army.  He was drafted into a Cadet Battalion at Keble College. While at Keble, Lewis roomed with another young Irishman named Edward Francis Courtney “Paddy” Moore.

C.S. Lewis (left) with Paddy Moore (right)

Paddy’s mother, Janie Moore, was a 45-year-old “divorcee” (divorce was only granted in rare circumstances) who remained happily separated from her husband Courtenay Edward Moore, a civil engineer in Ireland she later referred to as “The Beast”.  Although she and her daughter Maureen lived in Bristol, they moved to Oxford after Paddy was assigned to Keble.

Not long after they had kindled a friendship, Paddy invited Lewis home to meet his mother.  Thus began a strange and controversial relationship.  Walter Hooper writes in They Stand Together that, “Lewis seems to have taken a great liking to Mrs. Moore from the first and even, as this and subsequent letters show, to have been youthfully infatuated with her” (199). In a letter to his father which described his visit, Lewis states, “Moore, my room mate, comes from Clifton and is a very decent sort of man: his mother, an Irish lady, is staying up here and I have met her once or twice”.  Then, the following week, Lewis exclaims to his father: “I like her immensely and thoroughly enjoyed myself” (Letters of C.S. Lewis 64). Mrs. Moore, like Lewis’s mother Flora, was the daughter of an Irish clergyman.  To the young Lewis, she seemed a suitable replacement, perhaps an echo of the mother he had lost years earlier. Alas, Lewis became almost a second son to Mrs. Moore, electing to spend the majority of his September 1917 furlough (three of the four weeks) with the Moores.  During that time, Lewis came down with a feverish cold and Mrs. Moore “nursed him back to health” (All My Road Before Me 2). Lewis spent the final week with his father in Belfast before being gazetted into the 3rd Somerset Light Infantry.  It is believed that Lewis admitted to his boyhood friend and lifelong correspondent Arthur Greeves the extent of his affection for Mrs. Moore during this final week of furlough.  However, in a letter dated 29 October 1917, Lewis regrettably writes: “Since coming back & meeting a certain person I have begun to realize that it was not at all the right thing for me to tell you so much as I did.  I must therefore try to undo my actions as far as possible by asking you to try & forget my various statements & not refer to the subject. Of course I have perfect trust in you, mon vieux, but still I have no business to go discussing those sort of things with you.  So in the future that topic must be taboo between us” (They Stand Together 200).  Lewis still mentioned Mrs. Moore in his letters, claiming to Arthur in December 1917 that he and Mrs. Moore “are the two people who matter most to me in the world” (They Stand Together 204).

Just before they were assigned, Maureen overheard Paddy and Lewis make an oral pact; if either Paddy or Lewis dies in battle, the other would care for his surviving parent.  This was a promise that both men enthusiastically made, but assumed would be unnecessary.

In November, Lewis’s regiment was headed to the front lines of the war after a 48-hour leave.  Because the trips to and from Ireland would consume the entire 48 hours, Lewis went to Mrs. Moore’s in Bristol and sent an urgent telegram to his father: “Have arrived Bristol on 48 hours leave. Report Southampton Saturday. Can you come Bristol.  If so meet at Station. Reply Mrs. Moore’s address…Jack”. Unfortunately, Albert could not understand the telegram.  By the time Lewis sent a second telegram to his father expressing clarification, the time was nearly expired.  Albert did not come to Bristol and the youngest Lewis was sent to France to fight on the front lines.  As time progressed, Lewis kept close contact with Mrs. Moore, and he was well-acquainted with her worry and distress when Paddy was reported missing in the spring of 1918.  In a letter to his father, Lewis writes, “My friend Mrs. Moore is in great trouble – Paddy has been missing for over a month and is almost certainly dead.  Of all my own particular set at Keble he has been the first to go, and it is pathetic to remember that he at least was always certain that he would come through” (Letters of C.S. Lewis 79).

Lewis with Mrs. Moore

Photo courtesy of

On 15 April 1918, Lewis was wounded at the Battle of Arras at Mount Bernenchon.  He was transferred to Endsleigh Palace Hospital in London on 25 May.  All the while, he was begging his father to visit him, but Albert refused to interrupt his daily work ritual.  He considered his routine quite a sacred thing; Warnie Lewis states that he had “an almost pathological hatred of taking any step which involved a break in the dull routine of his daily existence” (Letters to C.S. Lewis 30).  Albert would not visit his son, much to Lewis’s dismay and disappointment.  In one poignant letter, the young Lewis pleads with his father,

I know I have often been far from what I should in my relations to you, and have undervalued an affection and a generosity which …an experience of ‘other people’s parents’ has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall be better in the future.  Come and see me.  I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it…this week Mrs. Moore has been up on a visit to her sister who works at the War Office, and we have seen a good deal of each other.  I think it some comfort to her to be with someone who was a friend of Paddy’s and is a link with the Oxford days: she has certainly been a very, very good friend to me (84).

 In June, Lewis was transferred to a hospital near Bristol, to enjoy Mrs. Moore’s companionship as he convalesced. Months passed, and Lewis’s father was still notably absent.  That fall, it was confirmed that Paddy was indeed deceased.  Mrs. Moore had lost her son, Lewis had ostensibly lost his father.  What was there to do but to cling to each other?  When their mother passed away, Lewis and his brother Warnie relied upon one another.  Now Mrs. Moore was reaching for her “second son” to comfort her, a young man just a few days younger than her own beloved Paddy.  After Paddy’s death, the bond between Lewis and Moore was strengthened and solidified. When Lewis was moved to Hampshire in October, Mrs. Moore went with him. Lewis was transferred to a hospital in Eastbourne for the final weeks of his recovery; Mrs. Moore rented an apartment near the camp.


Lewis, Maureen, and Mrs. Moore

Photo courtesy of

 At the conclusion of the war, Lewis resumed his studies in Oxford.  Despite his negligence during the war, Albert Lewis generously funded his son’s continuing studies as Lewis matriculated through three different programs (Lewis achieved a First in Honour Moderations, Greats, and English).  Lewis now considered Mrs. Moore and Maureen his “family”.  Unbeknownst to Albert, they had moved with Lewis to Oxford.  Lewis was, most likely, helping Mrs. Moore meet her financial obligations. The money she received from her “ex-husband” was clearly not sufficient.  Lewis mentions in a letter to Arthur Greeves that “we pay a little less than the whole for her still having a room” (emphasis added).  Note Lewis’s use of the plural pronoun– “we”.  After his three required terms of living at University College, Lewis was allowed to obtain other lodgings.  Lewis then moved in with the Moores, but they all suffered under the continual threat of poverty.  Before they collectively purchased The Kilns in 1930, the trio moved nine times.  Walter Hooper illuminates that the achievements of Lewis’s “Firsts” at Oxford were obtained all while juggling domestic responsibilities in the home as well as moving his belongings to several different locations.

Albert, over time, had become suspicious of Mrs. Moore.  Even when Lewis was in Belfast during leaves and furloughs, Mrs. Moore wrote nearly every day in care of Lewis’s friend Arthur Greeves.  Why couldn’t these letters be delivered to Little Lea?

Albert Lewis

Photo courtesy of

Were Lewis and Mrs. Moore concerned that Albert would discover their “relationship”?  Albert questioned the nature of their attachment.  It was discovered that the young Lewis –still a professed atheist at this point — was deceiving his father about his whereabouts as well as the people in his company. Albert discussed this strange and unnatural arrangement with his older son Warnie.  Warnie replied on 10 May 1920:

The Mrs. Moore business is certainly a mystery but I think perhaps you are making too much of it.  Have you any idea of the footing on which he is with her?  Is she an intellectual?  It seems to me preposterous that there can be anything in it.  But the whole thing irritates me by its freakishness.

Albert replied,

I confess I do not know what to do or say about Jack’s affair.  It worries and depresses me greatly.  All I know about the lady is that she is old enough to be his mother – that she is separated from her husband and that she is in poor circumstances.  I also know that Jacks has frequently drawn cheques in her favour running up to ₤10 – for what I don’t know.  If Jacks were not an impetuous, kind hearted creature who could be cajoled by any woman who has been through the mill, I should not be so uneasy.  Then there is the husband whom I have been told is a scoundrel – but the absent are always to blame – some where in the background, who some of these days might try a little amiable black mailing. But outside all these considerations that may be the outcome of a suspicious, police court mind, there is a distraction from work and the folly of the daily letters. Altogether I am uncomfortable.

 Mrs. Moore, Maureen, and Lewis purchased The Kilns in 1930.  Lewis and Moore’s relationship seemed to shift after Lewis’s conversion; He often referred to her as “Mother” in his correspondence. He continued to dote on her, the “surrogate mother” although it was well-documented that Warnie (who moved into The Kilns after retirement) didn’t prefer her company. Mrs. Moore remained at The Kilns until she developed dementia, a ravenous disease which altered Moore’s otherwise amiable personality. Lewis took on an increasing number of the household chores and nursing responsibilities as her illness progressed, while still producing an impressive amount of published works, both scholarly and imaginative. Once the dementia reached advanced stages, Mrs. Moore was transferred to a retirement facility.  Lewis visited Mrs. Moore every day until her death in 1951.

**Reader’s Note: Lewis often refers to Mrs. Moore as “Minto” (pet name – we are unsure if it’s origin). In All My Road Before Me, editor Walter Hooper uses “D” for the Greek letter Delta.

So how do we define the relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore?

Many biographers, including most recently Alister McGrath, tackle this issue.  Some claim that a sexual relationship between Lewis and Moore is sensationalized, a exaggerated product of mere speculation.  There has not been, to date, any definitive evidence that Lewis and Moore had a passionate affair.  George Sayer, a friend of Lewis for nearly thirty years, originally posited that he was unsure, quoting Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield who suggested that the chance was “fifty fifty”.  However, in the 1997 edition of his well-received biography Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, Sayer admits:

I have had to alter my opinion of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. In chapter eight of this book I wrote that I was uncertain about whether they were lovers. Now after conversations with Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Maureen, and a consideration of the way in which their bedrooms were arranged at The Kilns, I am quite certain that they were.

Even Walter Hooper admits this in his introduction to All My Road Before Me:

The notion of sexual intimacy between the two must be regarded as likely.  The sensual young atheist lives with a not unattractive woman, still in early middle age, who is not only available to him but very likely possessed of an agenda of her own: the young man is, as his father points out, fundamentally good-natured and easily manipulated, and the woman – in that society, at that time – would surely benefit from the presence of a man in the household. This combination of motive, means, and opportunity invites, though it does not demand, the conclusion that Janie King Moore and C.S. Lewis were lovers.

How long did the affair last?  We do not and cannot know.  As mentioned earlier, Lewis considered the subject “taboo”, even with close friends. It was Lewis’s private life, and thus was his own business. However, some argue that Lewis, as spokesman for the Christian faith, must live a transparent life.   Lewis writes to Bernard Acworth on 4 October, 1951: “When a man has become a popular Apologist he must watch his step. Everyone is on the lookout for things that might discredit him”.  After Lewis’s conversion, did he amend his relationship with Mrs. Moore?  Most biographers believe that he did. For many, it is unsettling to consider Lewis in an Oedipal relationship with a married woman.  However, Lewis’s new faith baptized his heart, mind, and body.  There was a holistic change; and Lewis perhaps perceived himself now as a protector and provider for his adopted “family”.  He was an individual steeped in honesty and integrity (despite the earlier episodes of lying to his father which he regretted later in life).  That is where the fascination and curiosity must surrender to the mystery. We don’t know the depth of his involvement with Mrs. Moore, but we do know that he had an undimishing loyalty and respect for her.  If they had a sexual relationship, it is clear that it evolved from Eros to Phileo.  What began with passion had settled into genuine fondness. We also know that Lewis’s inspiring works originate from a place of spiritual maturity, wisdom, and obedience – a much different place than that of a twenty-something, “priggish” aspiring scholar.

In the end, Lewis stayed true to the pact he entered with Paddy long ago.  He took great care of Mrs. Moore.  Reciprocally, she taught him generosity and hospitality. There is no doubt that Lewis and Moore shared an enduring affection for one another, an affection that survived war, grief, disappointment, poverty, and lasting illness.  Walter Hooper said it best, as he continues in his introduction from All My Road Before Me:

Thus it is unwise to overinterpret.  The nature of their intimacy, its duration, and the circumstances under which it ended are largely unknown to us.  What is known is the day-to-day devotion shown by C.S. Lewis to Mrs. Moore until her death, after a long mental and physical decline, at the age of 78. Life is more richly textured – or as Lewis would put it, ‘thicker’ – than we expect it to be.  None of us is either this or that; rather we and all the ‘ordinary’ people we meet and know are many things at once, full of shading and nuance.  This story may have begun in self-indulgence, cynicism and sin, but it ended as an enduring exemplum of Christian charity – and of Divine Economy (All My Road Before Me 9).

Next week, we will take a brief look Lewis’s female correspondents, including a nun, widows, and aspiring poets!!


Works Utilized in this Post

Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis

All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927, Edited by Walter Hooper

They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Edited by Walter Hooper

The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 – Edited by Walter Hooper

Letters of C.S. Lewis – Edited by Walter Hooper

Jack: The Life of C.S. Lewis – George Sayer

Light in the Darkness (?): Miss Cowie, the Matron

Week Two of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Image of Cherbourg House courtesy of

Miss G.E. Cowie, matron at Cherbourg House

“Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder” (Surprised by Joy 60)

In September of 1908, Lewis was still secretly mourning the loss of his mother who had, a month prior, succumbed to cancer.  Lewis’s father Albert, disoriented from grief, sent his two young sons to continue their education at Wynyard School (what Lewis refers to as “Belsen” in Surprised by Joy).  Walter Hooper admits that this was “a terrible introduction to England” for the boys.  Now, not only was Lewis divorced from his dear home of Little Lea, he was removed entirely from his native Ireland.  Perhaps Albert assumed that distance would mend the boys’ broken hearts.

If that was Albert’s intention, it did little to diminish the grief of either son, particularly young Clive (“Jack”).  Wynyard, an instructional vessel steered by the tyrannous schoolmaster Reverend Robert Capron (affectionately called “Oldie” or “Oldy” by the students), was a poor choice.  In a letter written just days after the boys’ arrival, Warnie pleads with his father to remove them: “You have never refused me anything Papy and I know you won’t refuse me this – that I may leave Wynyard.  Jack wants to too” (Hooper 7). Albert chose Wynyard because its tuition was more affordable than other prominent schools, including Rhyl in Wales.  Albert wanted his boys to acquire the advantage of a public school education, one that would hopefully lead to acceptance at the prestigious universities of Cambridge or Oxford.  However, Wynyard would not suffice.  In addition to being adrift on the  “shoreless ocean of arithmetic” (pragmatic courses with little instruction in the arts), Lewis and the other boys were exposed to Oldie’s consistent fits of rage.  Walter Hooper, in C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, writes that Oldie was facing legal action with the High Court on charges of brutality. In Surprised by Joy (SBJ), Lewis devotes several pages to Oldie, describing at length his intolerable, ineffective leadership.  He recalls Oldie’s severe punishment for seemingly frivolous crimes, of violently beating his cane across students’ desks while screaming, “Think.  Think.  THINK!”  Lewis writes in SBJ:

“In another way too Oldie’s school presently repeated my home experience. Oldie’s wife died; and in term time. He reacted to bereavement by becoming more violent that before; so much so that Wee Wee [Capron’s son] made a kind of apology for him to the boys. You will remember that I had already learned to fear and hate emotion; here was a fresh reason to do so” (33)

Both brothers begged to be released from Oldie’s oppressive grasp. In May 1909, Warnie moved to Malvern College. His little brother somehow survived Wynyard until 1910, when the High Court began pursuing charges against Oldie.  Shortly thereafter, the school collapsed. Eventually Oldie was declared insane (Jack described Oldie as “eccentric” in his first letter home – how perceptive the young Lewis was!). The youngest Lewis spent a semester at Campbell College in Belfast.  In January 1911, the Lewis boys returned to England, both now enrolled at Malvern.  C.S. Lewis attended school at the nearby Cherbourg House.  Here he was introduced to instructors such as Harry Wakelyn Smith (“Smewgy”), who played a significant role in fostering Lewis’s enduring affection for poetry.

It was also at Cherbourg House that Lewis met Miss Cowie (“Miss C” in SBJ).  She was the matron of the school, a compassionate and diligent lady who embraced the young Lewis as a surrogate son.  Miss Cowie paid extra attention to the “orphan” Lewis, as he mentions in SBJ:

“…I must begin with dear Miss C., the Matron.  No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health.  She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known.  We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.  Now it so happened that miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were even rarer then than now.  She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy [Lewis’s friend and attorney Owen Barfield also practiced Theosophy], Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition.  Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.  I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men…But the result of Miss C.’s conversation did not stop there.  Little by little, unconsciously, unintentionally, she loosened the whole framework, blunted all the sharp edges of my belief.  The vagueness, the merely speculative character, of all this Occultism began to spread – yes, and to spread deliciously – the stern truths of the creed The whole thing became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) ‘altering ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel’.’” (59-60)

 Miss Cowie introduced Lewis to a world of spiritual ambiguities, of enigmatic philosophies, and offered the young boy relief from his nagging conscience. She showed biased affection for him.  George Sayer mentions that Cowie “mothered” Lewis to what the administrators considered a disturbing degree. Sayer also revealed that Cowie’s dismissal originated from the long, nurturing embraces she had with Lewis, as well as her insistence that his letters home did not require censorship.  All letters home were read by school staff, a practice that the young Lewis found “disgracefully tyrannical” (Sayer 31).

But one must remember that the young Lewis was thirteen during this time.  This is why the administrators were alarmed when they found Cowie “holding Jack in her arms”.  He was on the cusp of adolescence and maturity, and other adults found this strange attachment unbecoming and inappropriate. Malvern, on the surface, had been a pleasant experience.  But Lewis reveals in SBJ that he was mercilessly bullied by the older boys and mocked for his apparent lack of athletic skill.  Here, he found an ally, a woman who in the absence of his mother had showered him with feminine affection.  Now, she was promptly removed from his life, leaving him at the mercy of the bullies and the lofty pretentions of the schoolmaster and instructors (Sayer mentions that headmaster A.C. Allen was a good teacher, but “lacked” the ability to “be able to identify students who might need help with emotional problems”). Furthermore, Miss Cowie’s philosophical cocktail had left Lewis asking uncomfortable questions about religion, questions that contradicted and perhaps negated the principles discussed in his grandfather’s pulpit.  Perry Bramlett writes in the essay “Lewis the Reluctant Convert: Surprised by Faith”, “There was no deliberate attempt by her to destroy Lewis’s faith; her singular manner of religious and spiritualistic questioning seemed so exciting that Lewis’s conventional religion by contrast, seemed dull and unattractive” (C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy edited by Bruce Edwards 107).

Despite this brief flirtation with rationalism, Lewis would eventually return to Christianity.  This complicated journey equipped him to speak to religious skeptics about the “discrepancies” between intellect and faith.  After time at Malvern, Lewis came under the tutelage of “The Great Knock”, his father’s former tutor Mr. Kirkpatrick.  Kirkpatrick assisted Lewis for the Oxford entrance exams known as Responsions. Lewis performed poorly on the mathematical section, but was offered admission as part of the Officer’s Training Corps.  Europe was going to war and Lewis would find himself, just a few years later, engaged in the Great War.  This was not the romantic notions of war depicted in Homer; this conflict acquainted him with the hideous face of death he had first glimpsed with his mother, but would also lead Lewis to another woman, one he would refer to in later correspondence as “Mother”.  However, the true terms of their relationship continue to stir controversy today.

Next week, we discuss “Furlough and Fascination”, the inimitable (and married) Mrs. Moore.

Works utilized in this post include:

Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis

Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times  – George Sayer

C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works – Walter Hooper

C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy (4 volumes), edited by Bruce Edwards (I HIGHLY recommend you acquire this set. It is an asset to my personal library!)

Introducing “The Oddest Inkling”

Many people know about the enduring friendship between C.S. Lewis and mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien.  But did you know that Lewis had another dear friend??  His name was Charles Williams.  Williams’s work was ripe with mysticism, and yet amidst the tangle of philosophies, there remained an abiding resonance of orthodox faith. His works include War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, The Place of the Lion, Shadows of Ecstasy, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows Eve (to name a few). Lewis deeply valued their friendship.  In fact, when Williams suddenly passed away in 1945, Lewis edited an entire book of essays (by various contributors) titled Essays Presented to Charles Williams.  The astute scholar and poet Sorina Higgins has dedicated an entire site to the ongoing study of Charles Williams.  PLEASE bookmark and visit it often!!