What the BBC’s documentary about CS Lewis failed to mention

The BBC's documentary on Lewis

I happened to watch BBC 4’s programme on CS Lewis – “Narnia’s Lost Poet” – on Tuesday evening at 9pm. It was narrated by the writer AN Wilson, a biographer of Lewis, in his fluent and precise way (even if he did look slightly comic, talking solemnly to the camera from the back of a bus going up Headington Hill, in imitation of a journey that Lewis had done many times over many years.) It being television there had to be an “angle”, even if it was slightly manufactured; this was the idea that Lewis had yearned to be taken seriously as a poet, had failed in this enterprise and thus had poured his creative energies into his series of books for children.

There is something in this, of course, but as Wilson gave us an hour’s overview of Lewis’s whole life, his academic scholarship and Christian apologetics included, the programme might as easily have been described as “Our greatest wartime broadcaster” or “The man behind Screwtape”. It seems that such was the popularity of Lewis’s BBC wartime broadcasts that many people considered them superior to Churchill’s wartime speeches. And “The Screwtape Letters”, “Mere Christianity”, “The Four Loves” and “The Problem of Pain” are still read and in print.

Among the interviewees was the actor Robert Hardy, who had been a Magdalen College undergraduate during Lewis’s time. He related an anecdote of having read Lewis’s books before he met him and having imagined him to look like “an El Greco Jesuit”. Then Lewis walked past him in Magdalen’s gardens and Hardy assumed he must be the gardener, until Lewis introduced himself and – with a burst of laughter from Hardy – “There was this jolly farmer!” Hardy also mentioned Lewis’s kindness to him when he was late handing in an essay.

This was echoed by the reminiscences of Jill Raymond, the actress wife of the late Clement Freud. She had stayed at The Kilns, Lewis’s house in Headington which he shared with his brother Warnie and Mrs Janie Moore, when she was 16. Like Hardy, she was startled by the appearance of a writer she had revered, and also like Hardy, she recalled his generosity. He personally financed her through two years of drama school and thus he “changed my life.” I was glad to hear these two personal stories as I knew someone whose mother had also been tutored by Lewis when at Oxford, and who had described him as “a bully”. I have always hated the thought that this wonderful writer could be thus described, though I daresay, like all tutors, he did not suffer all his students gladly.

Mention of “Mrs Moore” at The Kilns brings me to the one irritating aspect of the programme. Both Wilson and Lewis’s latest biographer, Professor Alister McGrath, made the assumption that Lewis would naturally have had a sexual relationship with this woman, 26 years older than him and whom he had promised to look after if her son, Paddy, a comrade in arms, was killed in the Great War. On Paddy’s death in the trenches the young Lewis, then aged 20, stayed true to his promise and honourably assumed responsibility for his mother and his young sister, Maureen. He lived with them and financed the household for more than 30 years, until Mrs Moore died.

That their relationship was close is not disputed; but there is no evidence that Mrs Moore was other than a loving mother figure, who provided Lewis with the home life, emotional stability and maternal companionship that he had tragically lost, aged nine, when his own mother died of cancer. Modern people can’t conceive of close domestic affection between a man and a woman who are not related. But Lewis was a man who found it hard to disclose his emotions and who had largely chosen to live inside his head; Mrs Moore gave him the welcoming hearth and home that his own father, a shy and reserved Belfast solicitor, had not been able to provide after his wife’s premature death.

I have just opened at random A Grief Observed, the book Lewis wrote in a state of emotional agony when his wife, the American writer, Joy Davidman, died of cancer after an all-too-brief married life, lasting from 1956-1960. In one passage Lewis writes, “It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night!” Perhaps Wilson should have quoted this paragraph in the BBC film. It is evidence that late in life Lewis did experience the full happiness that marriage can bring – and which, until then, had been denied him.