I wonder if this was written (or, at least, published) in response to the popularity of the film ‘Shadowlands’: partly to capitalise on renewed interest in Lewis, partly to redress perceived bias. The film, as I recall, seemed to leave Lewis, after all his years of convicted evangelism, rejecting his faith following his wife’s death. This was wildly inaccurate: Lewis continued to rigorously defend and encourage the Christian faith after Joy’s death. ‘Shadowlands’, perhaps to be more palatable to a wider (agnostic or atheist) audience, gave misleading emphasis to the immediate grief and doubt Lewis understandably struggled with in a month or two of trauma.
The format is unusual, although in some ways I suspect it gives a clearer, more balanced biography. Rather than look for themes in his life (eg. ‘The Oxford Years’; ‘The Kilns’), Griffin gives hundreds of vignettes, often only one or two paragraphs, organised chronologically. He’s careful to give a similar amount of content to each year (although he begins only from his 27th year as he’s given his first academic post), so there’s not the common editor’s bias of subtly deciding which years are the most ‘important’ as reflected in the amount of words devoted to them. Moreover it gives us a better awareness that Lewis lived his life day by day, not in hindsight – the vignettes helpfully place incongruous events together, just as our lives are not neatly sorted by topic as we live them. I felt this presentation did give a more authentic overview. Moreover this approach suits our MTV short attention span generation (I imagine this book was being snatched up by teenagers alongside Eminem CDs) – I found the pages went by fairly quickly.
Of course in doing this Griffin, as any biographer, had to pick and choose: bias is unavoidable. Indeed, Lewis was a prolific writer, surrounded by and corresponding with other prolific writers: there must be an absolute mountain of source material. I felt that while not quite canonising Lewis, Griffin tends to stick to the positive. For example, having read some of Lewis’ letters elsewhere, he could be quite damning of his father: however here he’s nothing but the gracious and grateful son.
Something that hit me was the way Lewis was always a child of austere, rationing, run down mother England – despite his celebrity at home and abroad – at a time when, particularly in the US, lifestyles were moving towards the luxury and opulence we take for granted today. David Lodge, perhaps most in ‘Out of the Shelter´, really highlights the contrast (and I was interested to notice that another author who really gives a sense of England at that time, John Wain, was a pupil of Lewis’) in a way that Lewis’ publications don’t. Unlike Lodge, Lewis doesn’t appear to have really pined for ease and space – well, not half as much as he loved living in a Spartan place saturated in history. Part of Lewis’ appeal to Americans was that he represented something they couldn’t have: he was an Oxford Professor (an odd similarity can be seen in the way ex-Princess ‘Fergie’, an also-ran at home, can make it onto Oprah – perhaps the highest honour many Americans can imagine. They fawn over a ‘real’ princess, something their democracy can’t provide, even though they could buy and sell her a thousand times). Moreover his books call upon the heady majesty of English myth: you feel elevated, not envious, after reading Lewis. I don’t think that Lewis was ever really tempted – despite Americans constantly sending food parcels over to virtually 3rd world mother England after the war – even to an established Professor at the most hallowed academic institution in the country! Lodge got a taste of comfort in his impressionable teens, and could never look back. Lewis didn’t, and could probably never imagine how a big centrally heated house could compare with the heady attraction of studying in the musty Bodleian.
Lewis’ brother Warnie, however, had travelled, and he deeply resented the deprivations of living with Mrs Moor, who apparently became extremely difficult to live with towards the end of her life (Warnie comes off very badly in this book, by the way. Despite him being a huge help to Lewis in dealing with torrents of correspondence, here he generally only pops into the text now and again when he’s off on a drunken bender). Griffin presents Lewis the saint – looking after, or working around, her despite academic and popular success – to remain faithful to a promise he’d made to her son, a comrade killed in the Great War. I wonder, however, whether Lewis had such a sedentary character that he just never got around to thinking a couple of moves ahead – to hiring someone to do a better job of looking after her than he could with his myriad commitments. He was, true to his upbringing, tight with money – although more with himself than others (Griffin implies that Lewis pretty much only used his extensive royalties in constant acts of individual charity). It may have been that a wife would have helpfully looked at some of Lewis’ bachelor habits and helpfully pushed him along to sensibly use some of his money to alleviate the time pressures that he constantly complained of. However in so doing we may have lost some of the jewels of relevant wisdom if Lewis had have thought more highly of himself than he did. Despite having the means, he never escaped the pedestrian grind and could relate, as he claimed, as a layman – something many with a fraction of his success would have lost. Or, rather, he escaped to his imagination, and took us with him.