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.

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.