Remembering the Two Jacks: CS Lewis and John F Kennedy

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My diary is usually a blank since Covid and becoming a Carer, apart from the inspiring reminders to ‘Put bins out’ or ‘Do food order’.  But that wasn’t the case on 22 November 2013.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of author and Professor C S Lewis and author and President John F Kennedy.  All Lewis fans know that he died on the same day as the terrible assassination of Kennedy, and so the fact didn’t get much publicity at the time as a result.

That any of these events should have had an effect on my diary entries for 2013 seems increasingly strange as the years go by.  But it caused an unlikely clash: I was supposed to be in two places at once.

Firstly, I was invited to be part of the celebration of C S Lewis’ life at the inclusion of a memorial to him in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey in London. This was later to be published as:

Secondly, I was invited to the celebration of the life of President Kennedy being held on the same day at the memorial to Kennedy at Runnymede in Surrey.

The Kennedy Memorial Trust

Back in 1984 I had been awarded a scholarship to Harvard by the Kennedy Memorial Trust, and it was this Trust that had been set up in 1965 to acknowledge the British people’s huge outpouring of grief at the President’s death.  The two parts were to be a “memorial in landscape and stone” at Runnymede and a ”living memorial” in the form of the Scholarship programme for around ten postgraduates a year to go from the UK to Harvard or MIT.  There are now over five hundred of us. [1]

Runnymede near Windsor was the scene of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the ‘Great Charter of Liberty’ extracted by the barons from King John, which meant even the king was to be subject to the law. In a sense it was the beginning of parliamentary government and the inspiration for ideas of political liberty around the world, and it was here the official memorial stone to the President was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965.  The ceremony was attended by members of the Kennedy family, and the land that holds the memorial was granted to the American people in perpetuity.   The event was largely organised in 1965 by David Ormsby-Gore, Lord Harlech.  He had been one of Kennedy’s best friends and British Ambassador to America (and who, strangely enough, was to interview and then award me the Kennedy Scholarship in 1985 on the very day he too was to die tragically, in a car crash on the way home).

There is a video of the moving ceremony at Runnymede and the surrounding countryside: the walk through a wicket gate and then a wood and then the path to the seven ton block of Portland stone, which were all part of the memorial and designed to be like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ for the visitor.

It reminded me of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College Oxford where Lewis had his spiritual breakthrough in his talk with Tolkien and Dyson.

The two memorial stones are similar in some ways, including quotes from the men themselves, though on a different scale:

Lewis at Westminster Abbey

Of course I wanted to be at both events in 2013.  But since I’d been asked to be part of a panel discussing Lewis’s influence today, but would only have been a spectator at the Kennedy event, then it certainly made sense to be at Westminster Abbey.

Plus the fact that Lewis had influenced my spiritual and academic life to a far greater extent than Kennedy, although the scholarship to Harvard was fantastic and led me to spend four years in America as a result.

I tend to be reading books by or about CS Lewis most of the time, but by sheer coincidence I’ve just finished a different book that instead involved Kennedy, as it was the biography of his ‘forgotten’ sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’ [1]

Kick and Jack

When Kick was born in 1920, Jack was already two and a half.  They were to become best friends in a family of nine children and remained so throughout life, although Kick’s was to be cut short by tragedy even before her brother.  At her untimely death in a plane crash in 1948 she was already a widow.  She had married William ‘Billie’ Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, but Billie had been killed in heroic circumstances in the Second World War.  She really could have wandered around the magnificent Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and whispered ‘Of all this I might have been mistress’, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

  It was partly through her social success with the English upper classes, backed up by their father being the American ambassador to Britain, that mean Jack Kennedy had access to the rich and powerful in the UK.  I was interested to read how pro-British he was, especially in his admiration of Churchill, for example, studying his speeches.

Irish Roots

Of course Kennedy was also keen to explore his Irish roots in several Irish counties.  The fact that his sister had married into the Devonshires also meant that they had invitations to their Irish property, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, which also would have belonged to Kick’s husband, had not tragedy intervened.  The extent to which the Kennedys had woven themselves into British life before the War really surprised me.  It also made me think more about CS Lewis’ Irish roots in Belfast and the ‘pull’ that Ireland has for the many millions who have ancestry there, including my own via a grandmother and her family, the MacNabs.  For both CSL and JFK, Ireland was ‘home’.

The Devonshires and Chatsworth

I now realise that this makes sense of a photo I once saw.  It was of President Kennedy’s Inaugural parade in January 1961, and there right on the front row was Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, right next to the President. The photo is in a book of Debo’s letters [2].

At the time everyone wondered who on earth this woman was.  But she, as Debo Mitford, had been great friends with Kick Kennedy when Kick had dated Billie, the Marquess of Hartington, and Debo had dated his younger brother Andrew, so they hung out as a foursome before the War.   When Billie was killed in 1944, Andrew inherited the title and therefore became the next Duke, and owner of Chatsworth and numerous other stunning properties.  If death hadn’t intervened for Kick in 1948, aged only 28, she would have been the ‘new’ Duchess, so in a sense Debo was a substitute for Kick at the Inauguration.

JFK had been so upset at the death of his sister that he only visited her grave at  Edensor near Chatsworth years later, just months before his own death.

The Two Jacks as Young Readers

But one of the things that surprised me the most was how similar the two Jacks had been in childhood and early youth, in the sense that both had been loners much of the time and voracious readers, and of course it was this that was to give them the edge in their subsequent careers, forming their main interests and pursuits.  I already knew about CSL’s reading habits, but was amazed at how frequently JFK had been ill and in hospital or bed bound whilst growing up and had therefore read so deeply.  Both had been deeply influenced by their boyhood reading on the history of Chivalry, for example.  And later on JFK’s father’s appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St James, and the political and aristocratic contacts that this provided in the UK, meant that Kennedy could as a young man meet the political and cultural heroes he had only encountered in his reading.

Christmas at Chatsworth

At Christmas I usually re-post my blogs about the wonderful Narnian ‘Christmas at Chatsworth’ event I also attended in 2013.   Of course the main focus of this is from the creative imagination of Jack Lewis, as each room at the stately home was magnificently decorated with characters and themes from the ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

But this year, as I look again at these Christmas photos, I will definitely be thinking of the Kennedy connection as well, of Kathleen and her younger brother Jack, who also wandered around Chatsworth in awe.  I will remember the future President, and Kick his sister who should have been a Duchess, and the events that forever link the two globally famous Irish Jacks, the Professor and the President.


[1]  For Kennedy Memorial Trust, see

[2]  Paula Byrne, Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth (HarperCollins, 2016)

[3]  For Debo & JFK, see

and (ed.) Charlotte Mosley, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, 2008) re Inauguration.

For the short film about the Kennedy Memorial, see

For the Westminster Abbey Institute Symposium from 21 November 2013, see

Children and Masks in Literature

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The subject of home-schooling and the wearing of masks for children has been unavoidable recently.  It reminded me of the experience of the Brontë children, when being raised by their clergyman father Patrick.

When his wife died in 1821, he suddenly became a single parent of six small children.  He had to ask the same questions as many parents today.  How to teach these small people and prepare them for the future?  How to inculcate moral values and encourage healthy relationships?  How to get to know them better – to know what they’re really like?

Lessons from Patrick Brontë

Patrick tells us of an idea he came up with in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. Many years later, was wanting to write the biography of her friend and Patrick’s oldest surviving daughter, Charlotte:

“When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.” [1]

This startled me when I first read it a few years ago.  Why would wearing a mask make the children more honest and forthcoming?  We tend to associate masks with hiding and disguising.  Would this actually work in drawing the children out?  Judge for yourself.  Patrick continues:

“I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience.’  I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell), what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.’  I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of man and woman; he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.’  I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible.’  And what was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature.’  I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, ‘That which would make her rule her house well.’  Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.’  I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they made a deep and lasting impression on my memory.  The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated.” [2]

Perhaps to us these answers from young children sound more like some weird catechism than the free-flowing thoughts of children.  Were they just saying what they thought their clergyman father wanted to hear?  Of course we can’t possibly tell, even if we had been there at the time.  And of course there is the added fact that the Brontë children were in all probability child geniuses, three of whom would go on to write some of the greatest novels in the English language.  Even with our more ‘enlightened’ views in some respects, we might not be quite in their league!  But there is the reminder in the names included in brackets after the girl’s names that they would later feel compelled to write under male names in order to get an audience, in other words, by wearing a masculine mask.

But I was also intrigued by Patrick having a mask lying about the house.  Where was this from?  Had he gone to a masked ball with his young wife in happier days?  It was researching the subject of masked balls for my latest novel Night and Mr Knightley that made me look into the subject in the first place.  What sort of a mask was it – an ordinary black domino mask, or a tribal wooden carving?  Its appearance – and how scary it was – might well have an effect on how confident the children would feel in making their replies.  I was also surprised at the idea of a mask being used to help children become more up front about their real selves.  Was that a realistic expectation?  They would still be looking into their father’s eyes.  They would still have to live with him and their siblings the moment the mask was removed, still be in an adult’s power.

Mrs Gaskell concluded that it was a “curious education which was made by the circumstances surrounding the Brontës.  They knew no other children.  They knew no other modes of thought than what were suggested to them by the fragments of clerical conversation which they overheard in the parlour, or the subjects of village and local interest which they heard discussed in the kitchen.  Each had their own strong characteristic flavour. They took a vivid interest in the public characters, and the local and the foreign as well as home politics discussed in the newspapers.  Long before Maria Brontë died, at the age of eleven, her father used to say he could converse with her on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person…. Wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds, were hidden under an enforced propriety and regularity of demeanour and expression, just as their faces had been concealed by their father, under his stiff, unchanging mask.” [3]

Perhaps a good exam question might be: ‘Illustrate the pros and cons of home education for children using the example of the Brontës’!  Gaskell obviously interprets the use of the mask as a symbol of repression.  More useful for them was the overhearing of adult conversation in the home, both of professional clergy and servants, all steeped in local life.  The reading aloud of books and newspapers and family discussion of the issues of the day made for mental stimulation and broadening of outlook.  But just that phrase “they knew no other children” chills our hearts.  Yet look what they became!  Gaskell reminds us of their “wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds” that emerged from this strange process.

A later reference to Charlotte and masks is from her adult experience in Belgium when she is taken to a Carnival, marking the beginning of Lent.  There were masked characters and she was singularly unimpressed:

“The Carnival was nothing but masking and mummery.  M. Héger took me and one of the pupils into the town to see the masks.  It was animating to see the immense crowds, and the general gaiety, but the masks were nothing.” [4]

Hopefully not too traumatised by childhood experience then! I used Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre as a basis for my first Rotic Club murder mystery Murder and Mr Rochester, which of course reflects her great love for the Monsieur Héger who took her to see this parade of masks.

My second Rotic Club novel uses Jane Austen’s novel Emma as a starting point but it is in this one that I make use of the theme of mask-wearing and deception at a masked ball, a trope so loved by Golden Age mystery writers. You can see this reflected in the number of masks on the cover of Night and Mr Knightley!

Warnings from C S Lewis

Almost a hundred years later another Irish writer was making use of the concept of masks in the education of children. 

But the way C S Lewis utilised the wearing of a mask in his first novel Pilgrim’s Regress, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, is very different to the more sanguine and hopeful attitude of Patrick Brontë.  In this allegory, the little boy John is taken from playing in the fields and put into ugly uncomfortable clothes to visit the Steward (clergyman).  He is the local representative of the Landlord (God).  John has to sit still and be very good in the Steward’s big dark stone house.  His parents seem very grave and intimidated there, but at first the old Steward seems jolly and friendly.  He talks to the little boy about fishing and bicycles to the extent that John almost feels normal with him and relaxes.

“But just as the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat.  He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful.” [5}

The Steward then speaks to John in a sing-song hypnotic voice about how good the Landlord is to let them live on his land.  He gives the little boy a card with lots of rules written in small print: “half of the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing…”  There were also far too many to remember.  But just when John is despairing, the Steward whips the mask off “and looked at John with his real face” and advised him to lie about it all anyway.  He then “popped the mask on his face all in a flash” and threatens John with ending up in a black hole full of snakes and lobsters if he disobeys any of the rules and emphasises the goodness of the Landlord again.  John of course is terrified and doesn’t understand anything else the Steward says, apart from as he leaves when the Steward again takes off the mask and tells him not to bother about it all.

Lewis is here of course reflecting the very mixed messages and awkward teaching that he received as a child at church.  In this allegory, the parents abdicate responsibility for teaching their child about God themselves and instead leave him to the ambiguous moral advice and complex theological teaching of local clergy.  John is later given a little mask to wear at what is effectively the death of his “disreputable Uncle George”, who trembles so much before his eviction (death) that a mask will not stay on him and everyone “had to see his face as it was” which was too dreadful for them and they all looked away.

Later in the story, John as an adult meets Mr Halfways who has a long flowing beard and looks rather like the Steward but John is pleased to see that he doesn’t need a mask because “his face is really like that.”  A caricature of the Steward’s mask is later used by characters who want to mock their religious upbringing.

Lewis went on to use the idea of masks and veils in his final novel Till We Have Faces, in which religious leaders also use masks to hide who they really are to gain power over others, or as a way of transcending the self.  Apparently the original title favoured by Lewis for this book was Bareface, but the final title came from Orual asking near the end of the story concerning the gods: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” [6]  To be our real selves and speak the truth is the only way we can truly relate to God and others and have meaningful relationships.

Sadly we are living in a time when masks are necessary to protect our health, but it does seem particularly poignant when it is forced on children who are still in the early stages of forming their characters and relationships.  We certainly seem to be ambivalent about mask-wearing, judging from the way they are used in literature, either literally or metaphorically.  Both Patrick Brontë and C S Lewis would have known from their classical and Biblical studies that a mask-wearer is ‘hypokrites’, an actor who wears a mask,

who pretends in public to be someone they aren’t and that Jesus was particularly stern in his warnings to religious and political leaders to avoid this sin against God, the self, and others.

A Cry from Paul Laurence Dunbar

And just as mask-wearing has become compulsory for so many, it is still psychological necessity for those who feel oppressed, who feel the need to hide their true selves from others behind a false public persona because of their gender, race or class. 

This has rarely been expressed more powerfully than by the American Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the end of the nineteenth century, in words that tell an uncomfortable truth for children and adults alike:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!” [7]


At a time of global mask-wearing, Patrick Bronte’s desire that his children should learn to “speak with less timidity” so that he could get to know them better, C S Lewis’ goal that we should not need masks in order to look good because our faces are “really like that”, so that God and others can “meet us face to face” in reality, and Dunbar’s cry for relief to Christ from the pain of the need for a false outer self for protection – all of these are sentiments and stances that we can own today for our children and ourselves, even if we use different methods.  We all long for the one who truly sees us, who calls us forth, who won’t harm us in our vulnerability when we are “barefaced”, but who will meet us with love.

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (I John 3:2)

Till the Time Without Masks then, Till We Have Faces…

[For more on Jeanette Sears’ latest books, see the WELCOME page on this website or go straight to her Amazon page]


[1]  Elisabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, 1857.

[2]  ibid.

[3]  ibid.

[4]  ibid., quoting a letter from Charlotte Bronte, dated March 6, 1843.

[5]  C S Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933.

[6]  C S Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 1956.

[7] Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘We Wear the Mask’ from Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1896.

The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

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The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!



But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


1] You can see more at

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.

Donna Fletcher Crow interviews Jeanette Sears

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I was delighted to be interviewed recently by the well-known American novelist Donna Fletcher Crow for the International Christian Fiction Writers website.  Here are the text and pictures:

A Murder in Michaelmas:  Jeanette Sears Interview by Donna Fletcher Crow for ICFW

Jeanette Sears

Jeanette Sears

Donna: Jeanette, welcome to International Christian Fiction Writers! We are so privileged to have an internationally known C. S. Lewis scholar visit us. Before we get to talking about your last novel tell us about your contribution to Women and C. S. Lewis.

Jeanette:  Thank you so much, Donna, for inviting me. It’s great to speak with you, and thank you for asking about my non-fiction as well as fiction. Yes, I was asked by one of the editors of Women and C S Lewis, the wonderful Carolyn Curtis, if I would write a short opinion-piece for this Lion Hudson book which has been published in the UK and USA this summer. The aim was for around 30 contributors who regularly research and write on Lewis to say what influence he has had on them, particularly in the area of Lewis and women. Did Lewis have a bad attitude to women? Has his teaching had a negative impact on them? That was the sort of question we were to address in our response. Well-known writers such as Alister McGrath, Michael Ward, Colin Duriez, Crystal Hurd, Monika Hilder, Randy Alcorn, Malcolm Guite, Holly Ordway, David C Downing, Don King and others all chipped in to reassert Lewis’ reputation and standing in this area. I suspect the piece that’s most critical of Lewis is probably mine! I take him to task on the subject of women priests. But basically we’re all fans who are very grateful to him for his influence on our lives and we hope that this book on a popular level will be interesting for fans and critics alike.

New book 'Women and C S Lewis'

New book ‘Women and C S Lewis’

Donna:  And you also published a guide to C. S. Lewis’ Oxford, didn’t you?

Jeanette:  Yes, I’m glad to say that The Oxford of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis has sold around 7,000 copies and is in Blackwell’s and the main tourist shops in Oxford. I had been taking people on Inklings tours of Oxford and approached Oxford Heritage Trails who had published walking tours on different themes for many years. I’m glad to say it’s become their best seller, even beating the one on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland!

'The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis'

‘The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’

Donna:  Now, tell us about A Murder in Michaelmas. Of course, I loved it because it’s set in Oxford, revolves around Arthurian legends and has an American heroine— subjects all dear to my heart. It must have been quite a challenge weaving all those strands together.

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

Jeanette:  I thought you might like it! I’ve just enjoyed reading your A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, so I suspect we have a lot of interests in common! I lived in Oxford for 10 years – as an ordinand at theological college, a curate, a student chaplain, and a Summer School Director for a college – so I got to know the life there from the inside. I found myself using it as a setting for a murder mystery very naturally, as of course have many before us. Oxford seems to bring murder out in people, in literature at any rate! (By the way, I used to live on Fairacres Road in Iffley, as did your heroine for a while.)

Donna:  Have you always had a love of things Arthurian?

Jeanette:  Not particularly. No more so than any other Brit – perhaps it’s in our DNA. But I wanted to have a plot that reflected the medieval setting of Oxford and that could easily include the theme of witchcraft and the occult. I had been to the Oxford Arthurian Society (which sadly no longer exists) and so made up my own Lancelot and Guinevere Society. I thought this could be a re-enactment group where students dress up as characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the nastier characters as well as the good guys. Was the murder a re-enactment that went horribly wrong, or did the victim’s death have some other cause? You may have noticed that I also love the Preraphaelites, and often quote them at the beginning of chapters. Well, they loved Tennyson and the Arthurian legends, and so I suppose I love Arthur because I love them. Of course, C S Lewis rather liked them as well – I really love That Hideous Strength in which he draws on these medieval stories.

Donna:  Why did you choose to work with an American heroine?

Jeanette:  My heroine, Eve Merry, was originally written as British, but then it occurred to me that her being American would work better, especially as a contrast to the English upper-class hero and fellow student Crispin Martin de Beauchamp-Massey. She’s studying Theology, he’s reading English Literature. She’s from a poor background, he’s rich. She’s a Christian (although struggling after her father’s death), while Martin is a bit of a cynic. So I thought to have them as different nationalities would add to the conflict and interest. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for 4 years in the 1980s so I thought I could have Eve heralding from there, plus Oxford is blessed with many keen and enthusiastic American students, so I figured that would fit well too.

Donna:  Eve and Martin are such interesting characters. Will we be seeing more of them? Do you envision this book as being the first in a series?

Jeanette:  Oh, thank you. Yes, I hope this will be a series. I’ve started writing the second ‘Merry and Massey Mystery’ – it’s called Death of a Sluggard. The first mystery had the theme of Christianity versus the occult; this one has the debate between Religion and Science as the ideological background which the murder throws up. Eve and her friend Charlie Boscombe, who is a Biochemistry student, will be tackling the so-called New Atheists, with eccentric help from the irrepressible Martin of course.

Donna:  Your website says you’ve been a church minister, a university lecturer, a London bookseller and a writer. What a wonderful variety of experience. Do you find all this background helping you in writing your novels?

Jeanette:  Definitely. I’m sure you find that as a writer now you have to also be a public speaker, event planner, book seller, sales and marketing expert, teacher, pastoral counsellor, etc etc, as well! So it all comes in handy, whether it’s plotting the books, talking about them in public, or getting people to buy them. My children’s novel (although really it’s for everybody) called Pig’s Progress began as stories I told to live audiences at church and school.

'Pig's Progress'

‘Pig’s Progress’

Donna:  You also lecture on Dorothy L. Sayers— another of my favorites. How has a love of Sayers influenced your writing?

Jeanette:  She’s my heroine. I first read her Clouds of Witness when I was 10 and immediately wanted to be a writer. I include talking about her on my Inklings tours of Oxford, even though she wasn’t officially an Inkling. As a theologian and a writer of murder mysteries, she’s got to be my patron saint. If I can reflect any of her intelligence, style, faith and imagination in my writing, who could ask for more?

Donna:  You have so much to keep up with it must be hard to keep all your hats in a row. What’s next for you?

Jeanette:  Mmm, you’re right, it can be tricky combining everything. At the moment I have a lull in speaking events so there’s more time to concentrate on the writing. I’ve been finishing a comic literary novel called The Last Romantic. Then I’ll be writing the first of (I hope) a series of murder mysteries set in my home town of Nottingham. Oh, and finishing Death of a Sluggard, and working on more non-fiction on C S Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers.

Donna: Jeanette, thank you so much for taking time in your busy life to be with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Jeanette:  It’s been my pleasure. The next publication is my contribution to C S Lewis at Poet’s Corner (Wipf and Stock) which should be out fairly soon. One of the highlights of recent years was being able to be part of the events surrounding the inclusion of Lewis in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and this is the written form of those events, plus lectures and blogs it inspired.

Donna:  And where can we find you and your books on the web?

Jeanette:  My web address is and my books can be accessed on Amazon from there. Donna, many thanks again, and may God bless you and yours. (Perhaps we’ll get to meet in Oxford sometime?!)

[You can find the original of this interview at: and Donna at]


C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

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C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

'Madresfield: the Real Brideshead' by Jane Mulvagh

‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead’ by Jane Mulvagh

My breakfast time reading for the last few days has been Madresfield: the Real Brideshead by Jane Mulvagh [1]. It is an account of the history of the Lygon family and their country home, told via a series of objects found in and around the house (eg. The Nursery, The Ditch, The Portrait, the Red Heels, The Tuning Fork, The Tree of Life). As with any aristocratic British family whose ancestors ‘go back’ to the Norman Invasion, the family was active and involved in most of the major events of our island’s history and politics and frequently pioneers in the arts and exploration.

But why take a special interest in this family and their country pile rather than another? The clue is in the title of the book – Brideshead. Even though Castle Howard in Yorkshire was used to represent the Brideshead revisited in the TV and film versions of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of 1945, it was really Madresfield Court in Worcestershire owned by the Lygon family that was the beautiful old house in Waugh’s mind as he wrote.

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

And it was the (beautiful? you judge) son of the house, Hugh Lygon (1904-36), who was a model for the beautiful and doomed Sebastian Flyte.

Hugh Lygon

Hugh Lygon

The first chapter of Mulvagh’s book on ‘The Nursery‘ is actually about Waugh as it was in the nursery of Madresfield where Waugh wrote on his frequent visits.

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters and a friend

And what does all this have to do with C S Lewis? I certainly didn’t begin to read this book with Lewis in mind, but as always seems to happen, there were connections that seemed to jump out of the pages. Lygon (pronounced ‘Liggon’) is the family name of the Earls of Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) who own Madresfield and it is the sixth Earl of Beauchamp who was the main founder and financial supporter of both Malvern College where Lewis went to school (for one year in 1913/14)

Malvern College

Malvern College

and Keble College Oxford where Lewis received his military training before going to fight in France in 1917.

Keble College Oxford

Keble College Oxford

As I read more about the sixth Earl and his family, there were unavoidable resonances between his emotional history and spirituality (which expressed itself in architecture, literature, and good works) and Lewis the writer and Christian apologist.

The sixth Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

The chapter of ‘Madresfield’ that concerns Frederick, the sixth Earl, is entitled ‘The Breviary’. This is because he was a “highminded High Churchman” who was fascinated by liturgy and wrote a much-researched book of prayers and services now in Madresfield’s library [2]. Frederick had been a younger brother in the family who was not expecting to inherit the title – in fact, early on he looked more likely to ‘go over to’ Rome and become a priest. The young Frederick’s mother had died when he was only five and his father withdrew emotionally, so the small boy was largely raised by a stern anglo-catholic governess, with chapel at the beginning and end of every day and church seven times on Sunday [3]. Even as a schoolboy at Eton, Frederick Lygon began collecting medieval religious texts. He went on to read Greats at Christ Church Oxford and became a follower there of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a Tractarian or ‘ritualist’. Frederick even made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1856 in order to decide once and for all between the Anglican Church and the Roman but, after a severe struggle, remained Anglican, although praying for the reunion someday of the Anglican and Roman branches of the Church.

According to Mulvagh, “his Christian mission continued in his political career” [4] and he had considerable success in various government posts. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, described him as “a very smart, bright man, a little chimerical, gaily dressed and brushed, and beneath a most loving son of the church.” [5] In the House of Commons he earned himself the nickname “the Ecclesiastical Layman” and wrote all of Disraeli’s speeches on religious matters [6].

Meanwhile at Madresfield, Frederick’s older brother Henry Lygon, the fifth Earl, was transforming the house from a medium-sized squire’s manor house into a 160-roomed Victorian neo-gothic stately home [7].

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

But in 1866 Henry died of TB and Frederick succeeded to the title and the task of finishing the building works. This had happy results, as Mulvagh points out:

“Frederick’s devotion to God was bound up in the Gothic rebuild. Though in ecclesiastical matters he was nit-picking and academic, his architectural instincts were sentimental and idealized. The Gothic was the Tractarians’ preferred architectural style. Their romantic imagination associated it with the medieval: the chivalric knight, the medieval monk, the artisan. Inspired by nostalgia, these modern crusaders turned their backs on classicism, a style they associated with the decadence of Ancient Rome, the godlessness of Georgian England and, worst of all, the barbarity of French Republicanism. Gothic Revivalism – conveniently rinsed of all its violent associations – suggested to them high-minded poetry, an undivided and true church, Plantagenet nationalism and, for those so inclined, ancient lineage.” [8]

Malvern College

Frederick built almshouses, estate workers’ houses, several gothic churches, and donated to the restoration of the Priory at Great Malvern [9]. As a substantial landowner in Worcestershire, he helped found Malvern College and a nearby girls’ school. I picked up a copy of A History of Malvern College 1865-1965 by Ralph Blumenau [10] for only a £1 at my favourite shop in Oxford (‘Arcadia’ on St Michael’s Street – oh, another coincidence: the first chapter of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited about being an undergrad at Oxford is called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, I should imagine the source of the name of the shop). Frederick Lygon became the Chairman of the College Council, built the headmaster’s house, and was one of the main investors in the Building Company which was formed to develop the school. He was the biggest sharehloder, along with John Wheeley Lea, and Blumenau concludes: “it is no exaggeration to think of these two men as the principal founding benefactors of Malvern College.” [11] Frederick’s heir, William, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was only a minor when Frederick died but in turn also became Chairman of Malvern College’s Council in 1905.

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

While still just a member of the Coucil, the seventh Earl was instrumental in getting one of his old masters from Eton, S R James, to be Malvern’s headmaster. S R James was headmaster from 1897 to 1914 and therefore during the time Lewis and his brother attended the school (the college called ‘Wyvern’ in Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy). Blumenau makes several references to C S Lewis in his history of Malvern College, noting some of his positive and negative reactions to the teaching and regime there (I’ll deal with this in a later blog).

Keble College

John Keble himself died in 1866 and his supporters were determined to build an Oxford college in his memory (as well as to “counteract Rugby and Balliol” in spirituality) [12]. It was to be High Anglican, frugal, and for those training for ordination in the Church of England. Donors included Gladstone, Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford, and of course Frederick Lygon who gave £5,000 at first and more anonymously later. William Butterfield, a neo-gothic architect, was chosen as designer. The foundation stone was laid on 25 April, Keble’s birthday. “Not surprisingly, in its Gothic style, Keble bore a remarkable resemblance to the rebuilt Madresfield and some rooms in college were named after the Earls Beauchamp.” [13]


So it was to be the architectural preference of the 6th Earl of Beauchamp and the deep spirituality that it sought to express that was to be the backdrop for some of the formative years of C S Lewis at school and university. Both lost their mothers at a young age, had fathers who withdrew from them emotionally, and had formative training by a nanny/governess. Ironically, even though Lewis pretty much hated his time at Malvern and his military training at Keble, he grew up to share the deepest aesthetic and spiritual interests and instincts of Frederick Lygon’s heart – the medieval romantic imagination, nostalgia for the chivalric knight and medieval monk, a hatred of the idolatry of Reason, and a desire for the universal Church to be united once more.

Any other serendipitous connections? Well, while I’ve been writing this blog everything’s come full circle. I’ve been listening to the TV music of composer Geoffrey Burgon, a CD which just happens to start with Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia,

Geoffrey Burgon CD

Geoffrey Burgon CD

continues with Testament of Youth about young people at Oxford affected by the First World War, and which ends with – you’ve guessed it – the mellifluous beauty of Brideshead Revisited.

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

Lygon family at Madresfield Court


[1] Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, Black Swan, London, 2008.

[2] Day Hours of the Church of England, 1858 – it was actually a translation of the Roman Breviary and the Earl published it anonymously.

[3] Mulvagh, ibid., p199.

[4] ibid., p203.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p206.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p213.

[10] Ralph Blumenau, A History of Malvern College 1865-1965, Macmillan, London, 1965.

[11] ibid., p10.

[12] Mulvagh, op.cit., p215.

[13] ibid., p217.

C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

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C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.




[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).

Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

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Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Botticelli's Dante and Beatrice

Botticelli’s Dante and Beatrice

I’ve been so close for so long to finally finishing John Sinclair’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (it’s only taken me thirty years to get this far) that I thought to aim to finish at the end of 2014 might be an incentive. So I’ve been reading a couple of Cantos a day to try and get it done. I’d read Dorothy L Sayers’ translation in my twenties and loved it, then started on this version, in the (forlorn) hope that I’d learn Italian at the same time, as Sinclair’s translation lies next to the original text. I whizzed through the Inferno, then went a bit more slowly through the Purgatorio, and then ground to a halt on the Paradiso around 1992. No doubt life on this earth took over. I can remember going to a display of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy at, I think, the Royal Academy in the late 90s. The first room was full of luridly coloured drawings of Hell and its inhabitants and the room itself was hot and heaving with people. There were about half the number of people in the next room, devoted to the drawings of Purgatory. These illustrations were less highly coloured and more unfinished than those in the previous room. We then battled our way to the room devoted to Paradise to find that it was cool and serene with hardly anyone there – a very useful sermon or blog illustration in itself.

That of course was not Dante’s experience. In his story there were continual challenges to his vocabulary to describe just how many saved souls and angels he was seeing at the final stage, how many living examples of those kept alive by God’s grace – if he had known the word “gazzillions” he would probably have used it, since he was so fond of the vernacular. He is also finding it hard to describe the increasing beauty and holiness of the sights and sounds and is frequently blinded by the light as he gets closer to God. For many years I had a poster from the exhibition above my desks at home and at work – of Botticelli’s drawing of Dante next to Beatrice in mid-air, surrounded by the flames of the apostles and saints, with God just out of sight at the top of the picture. Dante has his hand up to his eyes as if he can’t take any more, even though Beatrice, his love, is pointing higher. Dante, even now, needs healing and his eyes strengthening if he is to see more.

Today I was as far as Canto XXX of the XXXIII. And it’s happened again! Dante again is overwhelmed by what he’s seeing: “Like sudden lightening that scatters the visual spirits and deprives the eye of the action of the clearest objects, a vivid light shone round about me and left me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence that nothing was visible to me.” [1]. Dante is using the language of St Paul’s experience of the divine light on the road to Damascus that left him blinded for 3 days [2]. But for Dante help is virtually instant: “…I was conscious of rising beyond my own powers, and such new vision was kindled in me that there is no light so bright my eyes would not have borne it. And I saw light in the form of a river pouring in its splendour between two banks…”

He sees angels like “living sparks” and the saved souls as jewel-like flowers set in gold that kept plunging into the water, as if drunk with wonderful smells, and laughing. Dante is instructed to drink of this water too so that he can see what’s actually going on, and when he does he no longer sees mere sparks and flowers but these changed into “a greater festival, so that I saw both the courts of heaven made plain.” [3].

This whole process of needing to be acclimatized before one can receive the beatific vision reminded me of the end of C S Lewis’ children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is probably what Lewis intended. How great, to sneak Dante into a kid’s book! As Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, King Caspian, Reepicheep and the others are at the final point of sailing to the end of the known Narnian world, they too need to drink the now sweet water in order to be acclimatized to the staggeringly intense light that is the prelude to meeting with Aslan at the edge of the world and the beginning of Aslan’s own country. They too are about to see their hearts’ desire and need to be made strong enough to bear it.

Reepicheep is the first to hurl himself overboard and drink the water, which he says is like “drinkable light”:

“And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were silent. They felt almost too well and too strong to bear it…” [4].

They now notice that they are reacting differently to the light which had been getting stronger around them everyday since Ramandu’s Island. “Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before…” [5]. The sweet water of “that last sea” makes the older ones on the voyage feel younger and fills everyone with joy and excitement and… stillness. It even enables them to see past the sun, beyond the End of the World and into Aslan’s Country – sights and smells and sounds that would break your heart with longing [6]. We know this because of one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of the Narnia Chronicles, that is, that Lucy herself spoke to C S Lewis and told him about it! He must have been curious, we assume, at her saying this most wonderful sight could break your heart. “ “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.”[7] But she does not elaborate further, and neither does Lewis, with the obvious implication that the experience is beyond words and we are in the realm of the apophatic. We are often treated to Lewis speaking to us as the author in his children’s stories but this is the only place where he tells us one of the characters has spoken to him and he is giving us their first-hand account, as if Lucy is a real person. It is as if Lucy (whose name means ‘light’) is Lewis’ Beatrice, telling him the glories of the heaven that he has not yet seen, the communicator of the ultimate sehnsucht.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of Lewis by this Canto of Dante. John Sinclair back in 1939, before the Narnia Chronicles were written, wrote in the commentary on his translation of Canto XXX:

“From such vision springs the love of true good, and from such love joy surpassing every sweetness. (The suggestion of Mr. C. S. Lewis, made in another connection, is relevant here: ‘The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.’)” [8].

Once Dante’s sight is strengthened, everything changes from mere “shadowy forecasts” to “their truth”. And Sinclair quotes Aquinas to support this, that “grace and glory are the same in kind, since grace is nothing but a certain beginning of glory in us.” Wow!! That God’s grace working in us now is the same ‘thing’ as his glory revealed to and in us later – what an amazing thought! And Sinclair adds that this section is Dante’s version of what is referred to in the 36th Psalm: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

What a great end to Dante’s great work – and my own year – anticipating the soul’s final enlightenment. And huge thanks too to Lewis for writing about this in a form children can understand – who, like me, might take another thirty or more years to get round to Dante – his characters literally acquiring the taste for heaven.

Come to think of it, my eyes have been very sore recently and sensitive to light. Mmm, now where is that sweet water…?


[1] John Sinclair (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and Commentary by John D Sinclair, III, Paradiso, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939/1961, Canto XXX, lines 46-51.

[2] Acts 9:9.

[3] ibid., lines 94-96.

[4] C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, HarperCollins, London, 2002 edn, p174.

[5] ibid., p175.

[6] ibid., p185.

[7] ibid.

[8] Sinclair, ibid., p442. This is a quote from Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain, so presumably Sinclair added this quote in the later edition of his translation.

Carey’s Oxford: Encounters with the Inklings

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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Professor John Carey

Professor John Carey

My holiday reading last week took an unexpected turn – it turned out to be yet another bout of Inklings Studies instead of a holiday. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic surprise to find Prof John Carey’s new autobiography on the shelf in a friend’s loo and to see it contained accounts of encounters with C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, Helen Gardner, Lord David Cecil, and Austin and Katherine Farrer. True, they don’t all come out of it very well, but I’m as fascinated as the next fan of the Inklings by first hand reports of them and their friends. We all want to know ‘What was it like to meet Lewis or Tolkien? What did they look and sound like? How did they smile, laugh? Did they have any odd habits we don’t know about? And what was it like to study with them or be their college colleague?’ Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Merton College, gives us some fascinating glimpses as he tells of his own experience in the Oxford of the 1950s onwards.

With it being an autobiography, obviously Carey tells us a great deal about his own life and background which is fascinating in itself. He was born in London in 1934 and can remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations for King George V in 1935 (an elephant in a street parade in particular) and the fiery glare in the sky of the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936. I was particularly interested in the time he spent as a boy in Nottingham, my own home town, where he was evacuated in the Second World War for safety. But I will confine myself to Oxford and the Inklings…

Winning a scholarship to study at Oxford meant that Carey experienced the English Faculty there in the 1950s. He is scathing about the archaic nature of the syllabus (“a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour”) which of course Lewis and Tolkien had helped to design. It stopped at 1832, seeming to assume that everyone would read Victorian literature for pleasure anyway and that modern stuff wasn’t worth studying, or at the very least, the jury was out. The syllabus had been heavily weighted towards Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English (pre-1300), “on the grounds, I suppose, that since no one could conceivably read them for pleasure they suited the rigorous demands of an academic discipline.” [1] Carey was a fan of the Modernists and found delving back into Anglo-Saxon a great chore: “Apart from Beowulf only three or four poems are worth reading…” [2] But it was a tremendous luxury to be able to read all day and Carey loved the Oxford tutorial system with its one-on-one time each week with some of the greatest experts on the planet.  Lectures, he found, were sometimes a waste of time. “J. R. R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood.” [3]

Despite these seeming setbacks to his enjoyment, Carey achieved a First in his degree and set about applying for scholarships for postgraduate study. His interview at Merton for a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship was with Hugo Dyson, who had already examined him as an undergraduate: “…Dyson, an Oxford ‘character’, known for his wit. I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking-stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale.” [4] Carey acknowledges that Dyson was one of the famous Inklings and had had a role with Tolkien in bringing C S Lewis to the Christian faith: “So he was, at least in part, responsible for the Narnia books.” [5] But Carey never asked him about it. He does quote the famous story, however, of Dyson cutting off the reading of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien at the Inklings with his protest: “Oh, not another ******* elf!” [6] But Carey was certainly impressed with Dyson’s humour: “On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met…”, second only to Peter Ustinov who could do mimicry as well, although he always seemed more ‘rehearsed’, “whereas Dyson was famous for his spontaneity. It was said that, one evening in Merton when there was duck on the menu, and the bird served was not duck but pheasant, he remarked, ‘Ah, le mallard imaginaire.” [7]

But on the day of Carey’s interview for the scholarship at Merton he had the surprise of finding that, not only was he introduced to all the Fellows, he was expected to play bowls (called ‘woods’) with them on the lawn of the Fellows’ Quad after dinner, amongst whom was Prof Tolkien. (I too have a Tolkien-related memory of having dinner with the Fellows at Merton when I was a Curate at St Aldate’s church, unfortunately when the Professor himself was long gone. It was around 1994 and we had wandered on the Fellows’ Quad and seen the ruin of the many irises lining the medieval wall, apparently caused by the visit the day before of President Clinton whose helicopter landing in the field next door had whipped off all the flowers, spoiling what should have been a beautiful show. I then had post-prandial drinks in a Fellow’s rooms who casually mentioned that they were the rooms occupied by Tolkien. There was not much there other than bookshelves and a desk and my main memory is of everything painted white. In those days I didn’t have a camera on me, so that was that. The Merton Fellow seemed as nonchalant about it as all in Oxford are who are used to that sort of thing.)

One intriguing detail of what it was like to be a postgrad in English in the Oxford of the 1950s is that Carey had to take two introductory courses in order to specialise in 17th century literature – how to decipher 17th century handwriting, and how to set up a page of type and print on an old handpress in the Bodleian Library, just like a 17th century compositor. Apparently those on the course made authentic-looking 17th century Christmas cards that year!

The other major part of a postgrad’s life is of course Supervision. Carey is critical of the standard of supervision in Oxford in those days. He refers to Kingsley Amis’ description in his Memoirs of Lord David Cecil’s non-cooperation and unavailability for him. But he particularly singles out Dyson for his lackadaisical approach to his postgrads: “…Dyson would slam down a fistful of coin on the mantelpiece, explain derisively that this was all the university paid him for the supervision, and suggest he and [the student] go off and ‘drink it’ in a pub.” [8] (I’m sure there are a lot of us who would pay good money for the chance of a drink in a pub with Dyson, but anyway…)

Carey feels he was lucky to have Helen Gardner as his supervisor. She may have been scary at times, reducing some students to tears, and have knitted during supervisions, but she was brilliant and helpful. Most people at the time, apparently, thought she should have been given the Merton Professorship of English that went to Neville Coghill. Carey writes: “I met Coghill, a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care.” Coghill was so nervous about giving his inaugural address as Professor that he asked Carey to second for him and read his lecture in case on the day he couldn’t go through with it. Fortunately Coghill managed.

Carey doesn’t seem to have come across C S Lewis much apart from one main encounter at Keble College. The new Warden of Keble in 1960 was the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer who had just moved there with his wife Katherine, the detective novelist. Carey had managed to get a job there and moved into the same building as the Farrers at the same time. He was hugely impressed with Farrer: “He was lean, quick and witty, and seemed to me – though he was well into middle age – like one of Jane Austen’s clergymen – Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, say. His wife Kay was tiny, sharp and so neurotic you imagined she’d emit a shower of sparks if placed in a dark room… [She] talked in a series of rapid squeaks that were hard to interpret…. Farrer was the nearest thing to a saint I have met, but he was capable of asperity, as saints no doubt need to be.” [9] Farrer was always very considerate to the Careys and invited them one day to lunch to meet Lewis. Both Carey and his wife had Firsts in English and were in awe of Lewis’ “prodigiously learned” The Allegory of Love, “besides, he had a ferocious reputation as a tutor and was famed for having challenged an undergraduate who failed to share his passion for Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum to a sword-fight. However, he was not at all intimidating that day. He had walked down across the University Parks from his home in Headington Quarry, and strode into the room, rubicund and tweedy, with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, like a farmer on holiday.” [10] There were only the Farrers, the Careys and Lewis at lunch that day in “mahoghany-and-damask splendour”, eating stuffed onions served by a housekeeper.

They spoke on literature, as one would expect, and Lewis quoted a line from a poem, “It was a little budding rose”, but couldn’t remember where it was from. Carey reports his ambivalence at saying the source in such august company and showing up their ignorance, as he just happened to have read the Emily Bronte poem that contained the line that week. But he needn’t have worried, as “both Lewis and Farrer were obviously delighted to be enlightened, and showed not the least trace of pique, so in character-test terms they won by an enormous margin….” [11]

Carey had been raised in a Christian context but had lapsed from the faith. However, he seems to have remained fascinated by faith in others, especially the devotional poets of the 17th century. He was also impressed by Farrer’s preaching at Keble chapel. “In the pulpit… Farrer’s personality changed. He would start very quietly, almost in a whisper, and gradually work himself up into a soaring climax, as if the Holy Spirit had entered him, as perhaps it had. I was not a regular chapel-goer but I tried not to miss his sermons because I was interested in the histrionics.” [12]

Another of Carey’s jobs in Oxford was that of Fellow at St John’s College in 1965, teaching medieval literature alongside Tom Shippey who was later to become such an authority on Tolkien. At this point Carey identifies Shippey as “a science fiction fanatic” [13]. Carey is now Emeritus Merton Professor of English, aged 80, having retired in 2011 after a distinguished career at his alma mater and as a writer and critic.

It is sad that he always felt like he was studying the Christian faith from the outside rather than entering into it. “…I came to feel that studying seventeenth century English Literature was really the same as studying Christianity. That was all they seriously cared about, and they cared enough, at a pinch, to kill or to be killed for their own particular brand of it. I was excited by this. As a lapsed Christian I felt I could imagine – just – how it would be to believe as they believed. At heart I knew this was a delusion. I was simply substituting aesthetic admiration for belief, and a real believer would probably tell me there was a special department in hell reserved for people who did that. All the same, it was the nearest I could get. When I read Henry Vaughan, for example, describing his experience of God:

“O joys! Infinite sweetness! With what flowers

And shoots of glory my soul breaks and buds!”

“It seemed to me that no one in the post-God era ever feels joy like that. The death of God has meant the death of joy – if joy means absolute certainty of eternal life. If a modern poet wrote those lines they would be about having sex, which doesn’t seem a very adequate substitute.” [14]

What a shame a man with such an opportunity of quizzing the Inklings and co didn’t discover the open secret of their inner life of joy for himself.



[1] John Carey, The Unexpected Professor, p102.

[2] ibid., p103.

[3] ibid., p122.

[4] ibid., p135.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p136.

[8] ibid., p142f.

[9] ibid., p178.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[13] ibid., p239.

[14] ibid., p123f.

Do Poets need their own Corner?

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Do Poets need their own Corner?

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

Far from being confined to the events of last November, a high level of interest in C S Lewis and his inclusion in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey continues. The lectures by Alister McGrath and Malcolm Guite and the discussion of the Symposium panel, of which I was a member, are now available on the web in audio and soon as a film on YouTube. It certainly does seem to have been “the Lewis event of the century” – at least so far! [1]

Just after the event itself I was very amused to read a poem by Wendy Cope on why there should be a Poet’s Corner at all. I don’t think anyone else has referred to it in connection with Lewis, so I thought you might like to see some of it. It’s from her first volume of poetry, entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [2] and is a comic response to an Engineer who had written to a newspaper complaining that there is a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to honour our nation’s greats in that field but not an ‘Engineer’s Corner’ or equivalent for those in different professions (presumably ignoring the many political and military ‘saviours’ who tend to get their statues scattered around sacred spaces willy-nilly the rest of the time).

The poet Wendy Cope

The poet Wendy Cope

So in ‘Engineer’s Corner’, Cope’s ironic consolation begins:

“We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –

That’s why so many poets end up rich,

While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.

Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?”

Of course life is easy for a poet, she continues. There’s a daily demand for their work as people eagerly devour at least a poem a day whereas, Cope sarcastically sympathises, desperate engineers have to take a second job to make ends meet and can’t have a social life if they’re to get any work done at all, the poor things.

“While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,

You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,

With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,

With no hope, even, of a modest bust.”

And of course small boys prefer poems to engines! Anyone can see that the massive popular embrace of poetry is why the country is going to the dogs.

I wish I could quote her poem in full but no doubt copyright forbids. The comic impact is much greater in her succinct sarcastic rhyme. But Cope’s main point here seems to be that poets deserve the attention they get in Westminster Abbey in order to raise their profile and do something to make up for the neglect and poverty they suffered in life. Engineers and the like, you already have your reward. She is not tackling the question of whether there might be something peculiarly appropriate about poets and other artists of the word having a place of civic honour in a place of worship, that those whose work is most likely to exalt our souls to access the spiritual should be privileged in this way. Do artists of the word have more chance of leading us to consider the Word Himself than the mechanics of the material? Perhaps it’s an argument that will always exist between the poetic and musical Hrossa and the mechanical and crafts-oriented Pfiffltriggi (to put it in terms of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet).

But as soon as we start to analyse this distinction in supposed worthiness for Abbey inclusion, there emerge some notable gaps. If we are to have a biblical emphasis on helping the poor and the sick, why is there not a Doctors/Nurses/Healers’ Corner? Or a Police and Social Workers’ Corner for those who rescue children from abuse and women from domestic violence? I could go on. In fact, the more one tries to analyse the need for a specifically Poets’ Corner, the more the argument falls down. This special Corner can’t just be to somehow ‘make it up’ to those we’ve treated rather shabbily here and feel a bit ashamed about, like children who give a special present to the teacher at the end of the year that they’ve given the hardest time to. And I wouldn’t have thought that the aim of a Poet’s Corner was to get every member of the populace writing poetry for themselves, an interesting world though that would be.

Sir Philip Sydney

Sir Philip Sydney

On a purely superficial level it seems appropriate that poets and writers should have their own corner to hide in – introverted observers rather than participators in life, who were able to view life from one step removed and so write to shape our vision of it more effectively. But straightaway I think of how many of our greatest poets were also men of action, for example those who were soldiers too – Sir Philip Sydney, Lord Byron, the War Poets themselves, and of course C S Lewis whose first published poem was ‘Death in Battle’ in John Galsworthy’s journal for war poets Reveille in 1919. Perhaps one thing those in Poets’ Corner have in common is that they were writers who burst out into the world in action and word and vision on a national and international level, and we finally caught on enough to honour them, whether hundreds of years later, or in Lewis’ case only fifty.

And all this talk of ‘great men’ – there are women in Poet’s Corner too. Wendy Cope herself is already an OBE and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, despite writing hugely enjoyable comic verse that appeals to a wide audience, so… who knows what will happen in the future, Abbey-wise? Rowan Williams, who preached at the Lewis memorial service at the Abbey, has called her the wittiest of contemporary English poets. She has almost been Poet Laureate twice and when she wanted to downsize to move house she sold her huge archive of material to the British Library. (This makes me very jealous as I’m currently downsizing and about to move house, but I think contacting the BL might be a bit premature in my case…)

In thinking about about how we honour our fellow human beings after death in public life, it’s easy to forget the real point – that everyone who does the will of God faithfully in this life will on the Great Day hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” from the Lord Himself and receive gracious reward from Him. What more does anyone need? C S Lewis gave a brilliant imagined portrayal of how human beings will be honoured or otherwise after death in his novel The Great Divorce of 1945. One character everyone remembers from this book is that glorious bright lady whom ‘Lewis‘ mistakes for the Virgin Mary herself, but is told by the MacDonald character: “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” When reviewing this book in 1946, The New Yorker said: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to pass through the pearly gates, Mr Lewis will be among the angels.” [3] I’m sure Lewis would have counted a true wisdom as the only one of those qualities to really count in that regard. Anyway, I’m here concerned with the far more earthly issue of who passes into the corner of the poets in Westminster Abbey. I think I would conclude that a special corner for poets is probably indefensible, but the fact is it’s there, and since it is there, and in view of what it’s become over the centuries, then Lewis should be there too. His inclusion is certainly miraculous considering his early lack of faith and other struggles. When His father Albert was discussing his son’s atheism with his eldest son Warren, he was obviously worried but still clung on to hope, writing “…I do think that if Oxford does not spoil him… he may write something that men will not willingly let die.” [4]


[1] I’m glad to say that my blog on the C S Lewis Memorial Service has been shared by hundreds on Facebook and included on lists of the most useful resources about that event, eg. by William O’Flaherty, and Sarah Clarkson at

[2] Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Faber and Faber, 1986.

[3] Quoted in Walter Hooper (ed.), C S Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, London, 1996, p289.

[4] ibid., p142.

Marsh and MacDonald

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MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'

MacDonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

Marsh and MacDonald

In my last blog, I made a link between a passage I had been reading in a Ngaio Marsh murder mystery and the memorial service for C S Lewis. I never dreamt I would be doing the same again for my next blog, although this time not about C S Lewis but in reference to his mentor, George MacDonald.

This week I moved on to reading Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar (1939), beautifully realised on TV and DVD with Patrick Malahide as her Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. If you like murder mysteries that also take you on a trip to the seaside with your favourite detective, then this is one for you (as well as the classic ABC Murders with Poirot, of course). ‘Death at the Bar’ is a pun, much beloved by Marsh for her titles, as the murder victim is killed at the bar in a darts match in an old-fashioned pub but is also ‘at the bar’ since he is a lawyer. Meanwhile, Inspector Alleyn is up to his eyes in work and exhausted in London and so is rather pleased to get the chance to travel to Ottercombe in Devon on the south west coast of England for a change that might prove something of a rest.

He and his main sidekick Inspector Fox are soon holed up in the olde worlde pub where the murder has taken place and are interviewing suspects. But they cannot resist the charm of the beautiful scenery stealing over them. One night, instead of concentrating on poisons and fingerprint evidence, Alleyn takes a break:

“He got up, stretched himself, and leant over the windowsill. The moon was out, and the sleeping roofs of Ottercombe made such patterns of white and inky black as woodcut draughtsmen love. It was a gull’s-eye view Alleyn had from the parlour window, a setting for a child’s tale of midnight wonders. A cat was sitting on one of the crooked eaves. It stared at the moon and might have been waiting for an appointment with some small night-gowned figure that would presently lean, dreaming, from the attic window. Alleyn had a liking for old fairy tales and found himself thinking of George MacDonald and the Back of the North Wind. The Combe was very silent in the moonlight.”

This is just one of the very evocative descriptions by Marsh of the Devonshire coast and what a small English coastal village was like in 1939, almost cut off from the rest of the world. There are also interesting political discussions between characters, like Nark and Legge and Will Pomeroy, which would not be out of place in the polemic over emergent evolutionism, scientism, and social progressivism also used in C S Lewis’ cosmic trilogy of the same period and confirm that he had his finger on the pulse of the times (if more confirmation were needed). But I am chiefly grateful at this moment for this evidence that one of my favourite literary detectives was also a fan of fairy tales and the father of fantasy fiction, that his first recourse on a moonlit night was to think in imagery derived from the marvellous MacDonald, or should I say that I am grateful for this reminder from the mind of his fantastic female creator, Ngaio Marsh.

C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

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C S Lewis’ Memorial Service


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After being at the C S Lewis memorial events at Westminster Abbey this week – listening to lectures on C S Lewis, speaking at the C S Lewis Symposium, meeting up with C S Lewis fans and friends, and finally attending the C S Lewis service itself – I felt like having a bit of a day off today to recover, preferably on activities nothing to do with C S Lewis. Especially as I’ve also spent the last few weeks reading Lewis’ novels and writing talks about Lewis, some non-Lewis reading seemed in order, much as I love him.

But, as usually happens when I’m trying to escape a subject, the very thing I pick up instead drags me back to it – or, to put it more positively, gives new insight and perspective on the forbidden subject. This morning, as an escape, I picked up at random an old murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh called False Scent (1960). It concerns the death of a famous actress. And after being with the thousands who turned up to honour Lewis this week, I couldn’t help but resonate with the opening words of Ngaio Marsh’s story:

“When she died it was as if all the love she had inspired in so many people suddenly blossomed. She had never, of course, realised how greatly she was loved, never known that she was to be carried by six young men who would ask to perform this last courtesy: to bear her on their strong shoulders, so gently and with such dedication. Quite insignificant people were there… the family nurse… her dresser… the stage doorkeeper… Crowds of people whom she herself would have scarcely remembered but upon whom, at some time, she had bestowed the gift of her charm. All the Knights and Dames, of course, and The Management, and… the great producer who had so often directed her. Bertie Saracen who had created her dresses since the days when she was a bit-part actress and who had, indeed, risen to his present eminence in the wake of her mounting fame. But it was not for her fame that they had come to say goodbye to her. It was because, quite simply, they had loved her.”

That was exactly how I felt! I, surely, was one of those “insignificant people” who had turned up to honour Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As a speaker at one of the commemorative events, I did have a place in the Quire of the Abbey and so was closer to the ‘action’ and so felt doubly blessed and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking along the lines of “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Service booklet for C S Lewis' Memorial

Service booklet for C S Lewis’ Memorial

The service was stunning and moving, beginning with the oh-so-appropriate opening hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ based on Pilgrim’s Progress, then a recording of Lewis himself speaking about “getting a real self”. How strange and affecting to hear his voice in that setting. Then Dr Francis Warner, one of Lewis’ pupils, read from Isaiah 35 (including the wonderful phrase “the habitation of dragons”!), and Prof Helen Cooper, who holds Lewis’ old chair at Cambridge, read 2 Corinthians 4 (“eternal weight of glory”). There followed a particularly telling reading as Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, gave us Aslan’s welcoming of the children into his land forever after their earthly deaths from The Last Battle – hard not to shed a tear at that point if you hadn’t already. Dr Michael Ward led the dedication of the memorial that he has done so much to bring about and Walter Hooper, Lewis’ friend and secretary and the editor of his works, laid beautiful white flowers above Lewis’ name.   The Right Rev and Right Hon Rowan Williams (now “The Lord Williams of Oystermouth” – who knew?) gave a brilliant sermon on Lewis’ defense of language and the human, and the Choir sang Paul Mealor’s flowing arrangement of Lewis’ poem ‘Love’s as warm as tears’ – another opportunity for tears from the congregation. The prayers were led by a wonderful array of clergy representing the geography of Lewis’ life and the service ended on an uplifting note with ‘O praise ye the Lord!’

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

There was then the chance for us to actually see the memorial with Lewis’ name in the stone floor of Poet’s Corner, cut with his own words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

There may often be people going to services at Westminster Abbey just to see the magnificence of the building (and not pay the usual £18 entrance fee – there’s a tip for you) or some may have been tempted to come simply because Lewis is now a celebrity, as opposed to the very few who went to his funeral in 1963. But I don’t think this was the case yesterday on the 22nd of November, 2013. If I can adapt the words of the Ngaio Marsh story:

“But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

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Keats' Grave

Keats’ Grave

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Around 130 years ago there was an effort to raise funds to belatedly help the poet Keats, or rather his sister who was his only surviving close relative. There was a sense that not enough had been done to honour the young poet during his too-brief life. Only recognised post mortem as one of England’s greats, John Keats had been neglected and he and his family subjected to unnecessary suffering as a result.

I discovered this attempt at fund-raising when reading some of another poet’s letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Preraphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing in February 1880 to Harry Buxton Foreman, a collector of Keats manuscripts, to ask about Foreman’s copy of Endymion. Rossetti describes himself as “a lover of Keats” despite the fact that he then goes on to diss Keats quite severely (most of his sonnets were “very faulty or inferior”, although his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is good and the finest is On a Dream). He then refers to the subscription to help Keats’ sister Frances Mary, wife by this time of Valentine Llanos. Rossetti is sad that so little has been achieved by this point:

“It is grievous to me to find how little progress has been made with the Keats subscription. I have found a lukewarmness incredible to me even among special admirers of the poet. I had hoped much from America, but this it seems proves fallacious.” [1]

There was to be a happy ending eventually, however. Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, granted a Civil List Pension to Frances Mary in old age, the younger sister of the young dead genius. What else could the lovers of Keats do? There was always his grave in Rome with the memorial stone without a name, only to the one whose “Name was writ in Water”, organised by the painter Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died and honoured his request concerning the brief epitaph. Many, including Oscar Wilde, made the journey there to honour their poetic hero. I must confess, though I have been to Rome, I have never made that pilgrimage, although I did visit Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris in the 1980s. I still have the photo of me aged 20, standing under an umbrella next to the large Jacob Epstein monument of a sphinx, looking intense and dismal in the rain in an inappropriately bright cardigan that just failed to be sunflower yellow. The Epstein monument records lines from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol : “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” I had already memorised these lines as a Melancholy Romantic teenager and so was delighted to find them as the last word on my favourite poet of that time. (A bit different to Wilde’s last reported words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”, or indeed Disraeli’s great last words: “I think I’m getting better now”!) But it still took a while longer for Keats to be honoured in his own country with a memorial. There was an attempt in 1939 to have a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey but the advent of the Second World War delayed things till 1954.

But this November marks the honouring of another poet who was not honoured (as a poet, at any rate) in his lifetime. The great writer and scholar C S Lewis (the writer of Dymer rather than Endymion) is to have a plaque unveiled to his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, largely due to the efforts of Dr Michael Ward.  It has often been noted that Lewis, though sometimes ignored in Britain, has been embraced by America, and this is certainly true of those subscribing to the memorial to Lewis for Westminster Abbey. There has not been the “lukewarmness” from the USA that Rossetti noted in the Keats fund-raising, for which we’re very grateful.

But there is a slight way to go. You can still make donations at where you also get your free tickets to come to the celebrations. This is your chance to be a part of it. And this time I get to be part of it too, as one of the speakers at the Symposium on 21 November. I promise not to wear the unfortunate yellow cardigan.


[1] D G Rossetti, John Keats: Criticism and Comment, Private Circulation, 1919 (30 copies of 5 of DGR’s letters printed for T J Wise of Hampstead).