1 January 2021

HOW CRUEL WAS C S LEWIS? (1)

Sir John Betjeman thought Lewis was cruel. Having messed lazily around at Oxford, and having sniggered about Lewis, his tutor, behind his back, B yet expected him to intervene when he failed an elementary examination in Divinity and faced being sent down. Lewis declined to help. I think most readers who have taught would feel a certain sympathy for him.

But Lewis must have been a sharpish tutor. Jane Studdock, he tells us, who wanted to write a doctoral thesis emphasising Donne's triumphant vindication of the body, "was, perhaps not a very original thinker". And there was Dr Dimble's dullest pupil, who turned up "to read an essay beginning Swift was born'".

And how about H G Wells? Lewis, writing in 1943, not long before Wells's death, hung him up to merciless ridicule. In That Hideous Strenth, the figure Horace Jules is clearly Wells; Lewis could hardly have devised a name more like Wells's name without calling the character Wells.

I think I can detect class-prejudice in this picture; Oxbridge elitism; mockery of undignified physical characteristics. Let us, er, enjoy for a moment some of the riper insults.

"Jules was a cockney. He was a very little man, whose legs were so short that he had unkindly been compared with a duck. He had a turned up nose and a face in wich some original bonhommie had been much interfered with by years of good living and conceit. His novels had first raised him to fame and affluence; later, as editor of a weekly called We Want To Know, he had become such a power in the country that his name was really necessary to the N.I.C.E."

Lewis does not scruple to resort to authorial disdain. Jules is "a spouting popinjay". But perhaps more interesting is the attitude of Lord Feverstone. This character is one of the story's baddies. He subscibes to the advanced Eugenicism which was the intellectual fashon of the interbellum years. His main ambition is his own advancement. So he is uninterested in the demonic forces at work in the N.I.C.E. He despises the practicioners of College Politics ("Curry and his wangling Machine"), and is aghast at the idea that he might be elected Warden of his College. And so his contempt for Jules adds a validity independant, in structural terms, to the authorial voice itself.

Lewis gives to Jules an anecdote which is documented as true of the actual Wells:

"'And as I said to the Archbishop, you may not know, my lord,', said I 'that modern research shows the temple at Jerusalem to have been about the size of an English village church.'"

Noticing in passing that this peasant does not know how to address, either formally or informally, an Archbishop, we observe that he is a victim of the But-Modern-Research-shows mode of debunking the past; and, moreover, that he considers the architecturally small dimensions of the Jerusalem Temple somehow to undermine 'religion'. Brilliantly, Lewis subverts Jules/Wells ex ore Feverstone:

"'God!' said Feverstone to himself where he stood silent on the Fringes of the group."

A few minutes later, Jules observes: 

"The whole question of our sex-life. What I always say is, that once you get the whole thing out into the open, you don't have any more trouble. It's all this Victorian secrecy which does the harm. Making a mystery of it. I want every boy and girl in the country--"

 With elegant economy, Lewis ridicules this nonsense:

"'God' said Feverstone to himself."

In other words, we don't need Lewis or anybody else to explain what nonsense this is, when even a crook like Feverstone despises it.

Lewis degrades Jules/Wells into the status of not even being a worthy intellectual adversary. He privileges his readers with the assumption that they share his contempt for the shallow nonsense of 'Modern Thought'.

To be continued.

4 comments:

Unknown said...

I teach English at a community college in the US. I have greatly enjoyed Lewis's little witticisms about students--especially "Swift was born."

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I had missed that Horace Jules was Wells ...

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"He subscibes to the advanced Eugenicism which was the intellectual fashon of the interbellum years."

It seems at the Bierhallenputzsch, Hitler was not yet into that devilry, but he "read up on it" in the Lanzberg prison ...

neilmack said...

I recognized Wells in Jules a long time ago. And I have always assumed that the grisly Miss Hardcastle in That Hideous Strength is drawn from Mary Sophia Allen, the pioneer policewoman and fascist. Are any other characters at Belbury recognizable?