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

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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

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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.


Tim says:

Those who call Lewis a misogynist are mistaken, of course. He may have exhibited some traits of the sexism of his era and class, but don’t you think his relationships with women might have been considered quite progressive by his contemporaries? He took advantage of what connections he could to enjoy good communication and then learn from many smart and talented women writers and scholars. I find myself doing the same nowadays through this new-fangled internet thing.

Looking forward to the Anscombe entry next week!


Thank you for the kind words about my grandmother. She was quite a woman! I remember her and many of her friends very well.

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