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Trade Paperback
464 pages
Jun 2005

Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis

by George Sayer

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Very Different Strains

“Two very different strains had gone to our making.”



Although he regarded Ulster as his homeland, Clive Staples Lewis denied being Irish. “I’m more Welsh than anything,” he once said to me, “and for more than anything else in my ancestry I’m grateful that on my father’s side I’m descended from a practical Welsh farmer. To that link with the soil I owe whatever measure of physical energy and stability I have. Without it I should have turned into a hopeless neurotic.” During the disappointments and emotional difficulties of his twenties, this link with the land gave him self-confidence. It was a quality he badly needed, for it was then his conviction that, as he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “we hold our mental health by a thread.”1

But, in fact, the last Lewis ancestor to till the soil as his main occupation was his great-great-grandfather Richard, who was born about 1775. He was also the last to live in Wales or to be entirely Welsh. His farming was done at Caergwrle in Flintshire, not far from the English border. There was one unusual thing about him. In a country in which most small farmers were “chapel,” he and his wife were “church.” This gave to his children the advantage of being able to learn to read and write at the little church school in the village, and a faith to which the family for the next one hundred years remained unswervingly loyal.

Joseph, his fourth son and Clive Lewis’s great-grandfather, moved across the English border to a small holding at Saltney, then a separate village, now a suburb of Chester on the river Dee, southwest of the city. He seems soon to have quarreled with the vicar of the parish because he felt he was not given sufficient prominence in the church services. He left, joined the Methodist church, and became its minister. He kept on the small holding to supplement the necessarily small amount of money he was given by his flock, but his heart was in the ministry and especially in preaching, which, in the highly emotional style then common, was powerful. It made such an impression that even now it is possible to find elderly men and women who have heard of him from grandparents. From him Clive inherited three qualities far more important than Welshness: religious enthusiasm, a fine resonant voice, and real rhetorical ability.

Joseph was the father of eight children. His fourth son, Richard, was Clive’s grandfather. The ablest and most ambitious of the children, Richard worked hard to educate himself. He attended night school while a workman on Merseyside and acquired some elementary knowledge of ship’s engineering. In 1853 he married a woman named Martha Gee, probably a Liverpudlian and English. Soon afterward he moved to Cork, where he worked as a boilermaker in a ship repair yard. All of Richard’s six children—Martha, Sarah Jane, Joseph, William, Richard, and Albert—were born there within eleven years. Albert, Clive’s father, was born in 1863. A year later, the family moved to Dublin when Richard took a better job as foreman, or “outside manager,” for the shipbuilding firm of Walpole, Webb, and Bewly. Here he met and impressed John H. MacIlwaine, a rather older ship repairer who had saved a little money. In 1868 they moved to Belfast, the great bustling shipbuilding metropolis of the country, and went into partnership as “MacIlwaine and Lewis: Boiler Makers, Engineers, and Iron Ship Builders.”

The business prospered, with a bad effect on Richard’s character. He soon came to love wealth and became arrogant and snobbish. He moved from the rather humble Mount Pottinger area of Belfast to the higher-class Lower Sydenham, where, with the help of a mortgage, he bought a house called Ty-issa. His prosperity did not last long. From about 1884, there was disagreement between the partners. The causes are obscure. MacIlwaine is said to have been harsh and Lewis a little unscrupulous in a dispute about responsibility for a defective boiler. The result was that Richard left the firm in 1886 and soon afterward got a job with the Belfast harbor board at a salary of £150 a year, about £4,000 or £5,000 of current English money. During the last years of his life—he died at age 76 in 1908, a year that turned out to be calamitous for Clive—he was helped with money by his sons, especially by Albert. He was a difficult man to live with, his moods alternating violently between the heights of optimism and the extremes of depression, a characteristic inherited by three of his sons, including Albert. Although a snob, Richard’s table manners were appalling. He insisted on being served first at meals, even if there were visitors, and ate rapidly and greedily.

Of his four sons, the eldest, Joseph, born in 1856, was the uncle that Clive and his brother, Warren, liked best. Described in The Lewis Papers as “lacking the spasmodic generosity of Albert, the irascibility and prodigality of Richard, and William’s morose ostentation, he was the best balanced and most uniformly kindly of the four brothers.”2 Joseph, a marine engineer, had a strong sense of family and the ties of blood. He took an interest in Clive and Warren, but unfortunately died in the same year as his father and their mother, before he could know them well.

The second son, William (1858—1946), “was the least amiable of the three brothers—the most easily depressed and the most rarely elated. . . . His mind was heavy, commonplace, and self-centred. With him sententiousness took the place of sentiment.” He married a woman of higher social class, “in whom few but himself could detect any attractions . . . enjoyed the pleasures of the table, and, though not intemperate, was fond of the bottle.” We are told that “he succeeded in making his house so uncomfortable to his children that they successively revolted.”3

In one respect he had an influence on Clive’s father. His desire to enhance his social self-esteem caused him to be the first member of the family to send his sons to somewhere thought more gentlemanly than an Irish school. He sent them to public schools in England. The example was followed by his younger brothers, including Albert. It had the common result of producing boys who despised their own parents.

William had a business in Glasgow that sold rope and felt, and he was joined in it by Richard. Born in about 1861, Richard was of mercurial character, given to outbursts of sudden anger, but often happy, thanks to a simple sense of humor that included an appreciation of the fantastic and a liking for practical jokes, especially if they were at Albert’s expense.

Albert James was born in 1861. He was “dogmatic, loquacious, and sensitive on the point of dignity,” and therefore particularly vulnerable to teasing. He has recorded that it was Richard’s teasing and temper (“We can’t stand this fellow James any longer”)4 that caused his father to send him to a boarding school instead of to the national school where the other children had gone, as a matter of course. He had the good luck to have in W. T. Kirkpatrick a headmaster with whom he got on exceptionally well. As soon as he left school, he was apprenticed to a solicitor, qualified with distinction, and, after a brief partnership, set up in practice on his own in Belfast. He was a success, thanks to an excellent memory, great industry, a quickness of mind that included a gift for telling repartee, and a fine resonant voice, all gifts that Clive inherited. He was an attorney of complete integrity, finding it hard to represent a cause or client he did not believe in. His managing clerk, and, following him, both sons, liked to tell the story of his way of dismissing clients of doubtful integrity. They told me he would almost shout, “In fact then you want me to use my legal knowledge to help you to commit a swindle. Get out of this office.” The effect was that of a kick from a boot.

He often appeared for the prosecution in the Belfast police court, and, although he was fair, he had the reputation of being severe in cross-examination. A cartoon published in a local paper shows Albert as a man of commanding presence, formally dressed, good-looking, but with a disapproving and slightly sulky air.

He was a kind man all the same, generous to the poor and unfortunate, both in gifts and money and in legal work, which he would often undertake without payment. Clive had the same generosity and perhaps learned it from him. Both father and son practiced it in spite of a fear of being bankrupt. Both were inept in the investment of money and both, as we shall see, could be miserly.

Albert had ambitions outside the law. He was a member of Belfast literary societies and quite a practiced political speaker. His purely literary work, nearly all unpublished, consists of poems and short stories. The poems are a little like those of Charles Lamb, mildly romantic or whimsically humorous. The short stories are much better and reveal his dramatic sense, humor, and gift for dialogue. It is quite possible that, if he had persevered, he would have become a successful novelist.

In the opinion of his sons, he might also have become a successful politician, but he was handicapped by a lack of private means and a “fine” sense of honor. His speeches show a real rhetorical gift. He spoke in admirably rhythmic sentences, was shrewd in his attack on his opponents, convincing in his show of moderation and, above all, had the gift of presenting a complex argument in convincingly simple terms. Both his sons inherited the gift of simple exposition. They owed far more to him than either realized and, in fact, shared most of his good and bad qualities.

The boys tended to despise their father’s family, but were proud of their mother’s. Flora Hamilton had on her father’s side “many generations of clergymen, lawyers, sailors, and the like behind her.”5 On her mother’s side she was a Warren, descended from a Norman knight who was buried at Battle Abbey in Sussex.

Flora’s father, Thomas Hamilton, was vicar of Saint Mark’s, Albert Lewis’s local church in the Belfast suburb of Dundela. Clive usually referred to the family as southern Irish, but this needs qualification. The Hamiltons were not in race Irish at all, but descended from a titled Scottish family that was planted— that is, allowed to take over land—in County Down in the reign of James I. In the eighteenth century, Thomas’s grandfather was a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and then an Irish bishop. Thomas himself, born in 1826, graduated at the top of his theology class at Trinity College, Dublin. In his subsequent career, he showed himself both exceptionally brave and exceptionally foolish with a stubborn devotion to principle characteristic also of his grandson. His health was poor, yet he volunteered to serve as a naval chaplain during the whole of the Crimean War and in addition volunteered for duty in camps where deaths from cholera took place every day. Because of his belief that swearing was a deadly sin, he was most unsuited to life in the navy. He went so far as to publicly reprimand officers who swore at their men, and it is not surprising that he did not last long. He was an extremely emotional man who preached with so much feeling at Saint Mark’s that he often wept in the pulpit, to the amusement of some children and the intense embarrassment of others, including the children in his own family. One of the themes of his sermons is still current in Belfast today: that is, his extraordinarily violent attacks on Roman Catholics, whom he regarded as literally possessed by the devil. He does not seem at all to fit the description of the Hamiltons in Clive’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy: They “were a cooler race. Their minds were critical and ironic, and they had the talent for happiness in a high degree.”6 Nor is this comment true of Clive’s mother or of any other members of the family.

Thomas’s wife, Mary Warren, was a far more intelligent woman, yet, especially by northern Irish standards, an incompetent and disorganized housewife. In the eyes of Clive and Warren, she was aristocratic. She came from an Anglo-Norman family that had been planted in Ireland in the reign of Henry II and had been landowners ever since. She introduced into Saint Mark’s rectory the free and easy, disorganized way of living common among the Anglo-Irish gentry of southern Ireland. The house was untidy and dirty, but had some very good old furniture and plate, much of it in dilapidated condition. Animals were everywhere except in the master’s study: “The house was typical of the woman: infested with cats (which were however rigorously excluded from the study); their presence was immediately apparent to the nose of the visitor when the slatternly servant opened the front door. . . . The hand which his hostess extended to him would gleam with valuable rings, but would bear too evident traces of her enthusiasm as a poultry keeper.”7

There are many descriptions of such rooms in Anglo-Irish literature, for instance, in Somerville and Ross or in Flora Shaw’s delightful novel, Castle Blair. All his life, Clive Lewis preferred them to rooms that he called “uncomfortably tidy”; indeed he did not mind if the wallpaper hung loose from the walls or if it had been stripped off so that the bare plaster showed. His own house, the Kilns, was for years in this state, but his study, the room in which he worked, was always clean and tidy.

Mary Warren Hamilton’s main interest and subject of conversation was politics. She was a Liberal and a supporter of home rule for Ireland, a proposal that would give the whole of Ireland (not just the southern part) a parliament of its own, so that it would be self-governing without, however, ceasing to be part of the British Empire. This and her habit of employing southern Irish servants caused her to be unpopular with many Belfast people.

The Hamiltons were bad parents with no talent for making their children happy. They openly and obviously favored two of their children, Lilian and Cecil, and almost ignored Flora and the younger boy, Augustus. The members of these pairs had nothing in common with each other except the determination to oppose the other pair. Lilian and Cecil were “at perpetual and sarcastic discord.” Cecil was insolent. Indeed, he would have to have been to hold his own against Lilian, a clever, eccentric, handsome girl of “extremely quarrelsome disposition” who enjoyed being at war with as many members of the family as possible. (She once said of Albert, in his presence, and in regard to a legal matter, “for poor Allie is so ignorant.”) After the death of her husband, who spent most of his short life in a mental hospital, a cook sorely tried by her vegetarianism and other dietetic theories retorted after a sharp verbal exchange, “Sure, didn’t your husband, poor man, get himself put into a lunatic asylum to get away from you?”8 Perhaps when he came to write The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Clive took her as his model for Alberta Scrubb, Eustace’s unpleasant feminist and vegetarian mother.

After her husband’s death, Lilian devoted herself to feminism, the suffragette movement, eccentric theories about food, and her collection of cats. She also wrote long pseudophilosophical letters to Clive and, worse still, sometimes visited him at Oxford.

Augustus, or “Gussie,” as he was always called, was as a boy academically backward and almost illiterate. Because his father, who disliked him, refused to spend money on his education, it was not discovered until he was middle-aged that he had great mathematical ability. He left school early and, after an apprenticeship with MacIlwaine, Lewis and Company, went to sea as an engineer. After some years of this (Albert was horrified at the way in which he would set off for, say, Calcutta, without saying goodbye to his equally unconcerned mother), he left the sea, settled in Belfast, and founded the marine engineering firm of Hamilton and McMaster. He is described in The Lewis Papers as “thoroughly selfish and mean,”9 yet with a sense of humor and an original mind that made him an interesting person to know. He sponged on Albert Lewis, yet somehow managed also to be one of his closest friends.

The youngest child, Flora, was a slim girl with fair hair and pale blue eyes. She had nearly as much mathematical ability as Gussie, enjoyed reading, was good at English, and therefore managed to secure a college education. She read mathematics and logic at Queen’s University, Belfast, at a time when its reputation for these subjects was extremely high. In her first public exam in 1880 she got a first in geometry and algebra, and in her finals in 1881, a first in logic and a second-class honors degree in mathematics.

She did not really make any use of her academic ability, perhaps because a teaching job would have required her wildly inef- ficient mother to employ an extra maid. Nor did having a degree make her happier; it meant that she was dubbed a bluestocking and teased a good deal. One would think that she would have leaped at any opportunity, including marriage, to leave so unhappy a home. It says much for her high principles and for the coolness of her disposition that for years she refused to marry a man she did not love deeply.

She was courted first by Albert’s eldest brother, William, but soon told him that she could never love him. He was a dull man whose conversation she must have found even more boring than her father’s harangues against the Roman Catholic church and her mother’s endless talk of the necessity of home rule. She regarded Albert’s later courtship differently. While she did not love him enough to marry him, she wanted to keep him on the hook.

He therefore charged her with being cold and heartless, an accusation she strongly denied. She wrote in a letter that she knew she was not demonstrative, but when she thought of the many nights she had cried herself to sleep and the way every day since their parting “had been saddened by the memory of what is past,” she felt that she did not “deserve to be thought of as heartless.” This is the most emotional sentence to be found in what we have of her correspondence. It was surely prompted by her fear of losing his friendship. She knew that she often said “sharp, unkind things.” She hoped that this fault, which had left her with very few friends, would not come between them, and that in a few years “when you have forgotten your love for me, a friendship such as I feel for you will always remain.”10 And so it went on for a few years, with Flora concerned with maintaining a rather cool friendship and Albert going as far as he dared without provoking rejection.

She was not Albert’s first love. From the time he was sixteen until he was twenty-two, he carried on a most affectionate correspondence with a girl called Edie Macown. His letters, carefully written, usually with the aid of a preliminary draft, are suspiciously flowery. Thus on one occasion he assures her that until he returns “that little lock of golden hair and that little bunch of forget-me-nots,” he will be “the truest and most loving friend” she has on earth. He thanks her a thousand times for her last letter which he would cherish until it dropped “to pieces with continual reading.”11 About this passage Warren Lewis wryly commented that “the letter in question is as fresh and unfrayed as the day the paper was first folded.”12

All Albert’s letters tended to have a literary quality. He seemed to regard them more as compositions that might one day be published than as spontaneous expressions of his thoughts and feelings. His relationship with Edie lasted nearly five years. At the end of it, each accused the other of flirting with someone else.

It is not surprising that the correspondence on Albert’s side contains much sentiment that does not ring true. What is surprising is that he kept Edie’s letters and his own draft replies for the rest of his life, entirely unaware of their frequent falsity and absurdity. “He saw life in terms of a stage play—sometimes a melodrama—in which it behooved him to give of his best in whatever role chance or his own inclinations had temporarily cast him. . . .”13 His feelings about the role he should play in relation to particular people crystallized early and then hardly ever altered.

Albert’s role in his relationship with Flora was that of the devout lover who would wait forever. Her offers of only friendship rebuffed him not at all. He managed to keep in close contact with the family by making himself useful to Flora’s parents and later to Flora herself.

Flora’s mother eagerly took up Albert as a listener apparently interested in her political views. It was an exciting period. Not only was there fierce opposition to Irish home rule from the House of Lords (home rule was abhorred by the English upper classes), but there was also a split in the Liberal party that resulted in the balance of power being held by the Irish members of Parliament. The sensational adultery of their leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, added to the ferment. Since the members of her own family were uninterested in her endless political conversation, Flora’s mother frequently invited Albert to the house so that she could air her views.

Flora’s father also found a way to make use of Albert’s love for his daughter. He had Albert arrange and pay for a series of short holidays that he felt he needed, probably as a change from the unhappy and untidy life at the vicarage. As for Flora, she used her admirer to praise and criticize the articles and short stories she wrote for two or three years from 1889. In spite of Albert’s help, not one was published.

Her feelings for him did not change, but after seven years she came to believe that it was unfair to make use of his friendship without agreeing to be his wife. Perhaps, too, the fact that she was now in her thirties may have had some influence. Albert, who was—or thought he was—rather short of money at the time, suggested that it might be as well to postpone their marriage for a year or so. She agreed with an enthusiasm that suggests no strong desire to marry him at all and in addition prudently asked for the engagement to be kept secret for a few months. There wasnothing to prevent them changing their minds if they saw any reason for doing so.14

She is touchingly honest about herself and her own lack of feeling. She wishes she had more to give in return for his devotion. He won’t be getting much from marrying someone who has neither beauty nor money “nor anything else.” But she is sure that she is very fond of him and hates the prospect of ceasing to see him, which she would have to do if she refused to marry him. It would be unfair to let the relationship drift on for any longer. She fears that love has blinded him to her faults. It will be “rather a pity” if he discovers that she is no better than other people.15

Nearly all her letters show anxieties of some sort. She wants to live simply and thinks luxuries little more than social display. She fears she may be inadequate as a housewife, for she knows nothing about cooking and little about household management— certainly she could not have learned this art from her mother. She is a little worried about her health—she is already suffering from the headaches that were to pain her for the rest of her short life. She is self-conscious at being two years older than Albert and looking it. She addresses him as “my old bear” or “my poor boy.”

On August 29, 1894, Albert and Flora were married. He gave her as a present a piece of diamond jewelry that cost him between £70 and £80, the equivalent of $4,000 modern currency, a large sum in those days for anyone in his position but an expense indicative of his character, for all his life he vacillated between great generosity and almost equally great meanness. The ceremony was performed by the bride’s father at his church, Saint Mark’s, Dundela.

Their honeymoon tempted Albert to do something most uncharacteristic. He very nearly neglected an important client, the duke of Abercorn. The matter is worth recording for the light it throws on the political state of Northern Ireland.

The duke of Abercorn had represented Donegal in Parliament from 1860 to 1880 and was now involved in political sessions aimed at revising the list of those qualified to vote in elections. In fact, it was a fight between paid partisan lawyers, who would do their best to get as many as possible of the voters who “were not of the right way of thinking” struck off the list. Albert was a supporter of the Unionist party, led by Lord Salisbury, and an opponent of the Gladstonian party, now led by Lord Roseberry, which was in favor of home rule for Ireland and (how modern!) the abolition of the House of Lords. The duke of Abercorn, desperate for Albert’s support, sent three insistent telegrams reminding him that he had promised to appear at the revision sessions. Albert seems in the end to have given way to this pressure and cut short his honeymoon. He used to tell a story about one of the revision courts in which the presiding officer, after listening to arguments by the solicitors about whether or not a particular voter was qualified, cut the proceedings short by remarking, “Ah, well, he’s a nasty fellow anyway; we’ll strike him out.”16 Such gerrymandering seems to have been taken for granted in the north of Ireland, and there is no reason to suppose that Albert or his sons ever felt indignant about it.