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C. S. Lewis Malvern College

Cherbourg School was connected to Malvern College at the time Lewis attended.

Finally got the chance to look through Jack’s letters from Cherbourg School today.  I need to take some time to examine them in more depth, but I did notice a number of general themes/issues that stood out right at the beginning and most of them have to do with his relationship to his father.

In Surprised By Joy, Lewis noted that he was mortally ashamed of the way he had treated his father, Albert.  He said that as time passed he intentionally put on a more and more elaborate mask with Albert.  Jack hid his true thoughts and real self from Albert while keeping up a pretense that he really was his father’s best friend.  While I’m not sure that it was intentional at this point in his life, the letters from Cherbourg appear to lay the groundwork for that later pattern:

  • There is almost a formula to Jack’s letters.  He seems to have a list of non-revealing discussion points that he moves through–the weather, the geography, local points of interest, trips to see the theater or hear a musical performance, and then finally requests for things he’s forgotten/needs.  None of this reveals anything in particular about Jack, what he’s experiencing, or what he’s thinking.  None of the important changes and revelations from Surprised By Joy make an appearance.
  • In his one letter to Warnie, he is already referring to his frustrations with his father’s company–“Rows after tea and penitentiary strolls in the garden are not pleasant…” (25), even as he later entreats his father to “pour out all your troubles” onto Jack’s young shoulders.  He said that he would bear the burden “as you know, very gladly.” (27)  There is clearly already a bit of a dual life story being written.
  • More than one Lewis scholar as noted the paucity of letters from Jack during his time at Cherbourg, and Hooper in particular takes this as evidence of the “personal renaissance” that Jack was undergoing.  While I do agree with that, there seem to be hints in the text that there were a number of other letters that simply haven’t survived (something Hooper does allow for, though he emphasizes the other explanation).  For instance, Jack specifically mentions to Warnie, “Please write soon (how often have I made that request and received no answer to it)…” (25).  He later mentions to Albert that Warnie “seems to consider the answering of letters a superfluous occupation” (26) implying of course that he was a regular attempted correspondent.
    • I think it worth noting that though there are a few possible inferences to draw from this, it would be a fallacy to attempt to do so.  We would be, obviously, arguing from an absence of evidence.

Finally, a quick note on Hooper’s chronology.  He dates LP IV: 49-50 (Jack’s letter to Warnie asking about Warnie’s getting the boot from his position as prefect)  to “1? July 1913” and LP IV 44-5 (Jack corresponding with Albert about Warnie’s demotion) to “6 July 1913.”  This seems to be out of order, for what that might be worth.  In 44-6 Jack specifically mentions that “shortly after I wrote my letter to you, I decided to write him…. [emphasis added]”  From the subsequent description of the letter’s contents, it is clear that Jack is describing 49-50.  Therefore, if 44-5 is correctly dated to 6 July, 49-50 must have been written on the same day.

No biggie, but there it is.

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I’ve decided that I will leave Spirits in Bondage aside for a while and try to get back into the basic process of working through Lewis’s letters.  I don’t think there will be a better (or more convenient) time for me to get back on the proverbial horse in the general process of reading through his letters.  Besides, if I use up all of my SIB content now what will I have to say later?  🙂

Picking back up from where I left off, Jack left Robert Capron’s Wynyard School and spent one term at Campbell College, not far from his home at Little Lea.  His father had moved Warnie to Malvern College and Jack to the nearby Cherbourg School.  At first glance in the letters it seems that Jack really doesn’t have much to say about his time at Cherbourg.  His is letters home from Cherbourg number, from start to finish, all of four (one letter per page).  In fact, on one page (Letters, vol. 1, 17), Hooper’s commentary (even in small print) takes up as much space as the letter itself.  From that, one might be tempted to think that Cherbourg didn’t matter that much.

An interior view of Chartres Cathedral. Impressive indeed.

And then we turn to Surprised By Joy.  There, Lewis calls Cherbourg “Chartres” after, as Hooper notes, “the most glorious cathedral in France” (Letters, vol. 1, 15).  In contrast to his few letters, he devotes two entire chapters (27 pages) to Cherbourg in SBJ.  That drastic of a discrepancy may indicate several possibilities, but I’ll mention two at the moment.  First and most obviously, it probably implies that he was simply too busy and excited with his self described “renaissance” to take the time to write.  Second and more seriously, it also likely marks a furtherance of the double life Jack  led.  He let his father see only one side of that life, while he lived the other with gusto.

This is a busy week, but I hope to reread these sections of SBJ and then take a fresh look at the Cherbourg letters.  I expect that some interesting comparisons will emerge.  I’ll have a new meditation post ready on Sunday and hope to post some more on this topic before next weekend.

Have a great week!

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My schedule through the end of November is insane, so I’ll be sneaking little snatches of my Lewis studies here and there until the blessed month of December when there will be a dramatic increase in sweetness, light, and chocolate (not to mention my waistline) and a corresponding decrease in my workload.  I’m planning on spending this break doing as little as possible for my current place of employment and devoting as much time to rest and distraction as I can as a matter of preserving my sanity.  Thankfully, I consider studying C. S. Lewis an eminently worthwhile distraction.

Tonight as I was reading a bit of Surprised by Joy (66), I was struck by a comment Jack makes in an almost off-hand manner.  He is discussing the chronological divisions into which he can describe his time at Cherbourg, and of the departure of his beloved matron, Miss G. E. Cowie.  He notes that her influence “had been the occasion of much good to me as well as of evil.”  Specifically, he states that,

…she had done something to defeat that antisentimental inhibition which my early experience had bred in me.”

This brought to mind something that had been hovering in the back of my thought since I started the project with Jack’s first few letters:  The serious, almost cold (at times) formality with which Lewis wrote at the time (see 1-16 of the collected letters, volume 1).  Much of what he has to say is purely informative–a simple statement of plain fact–and there are points in some letters where I felt that the writing itself was a formality.  Points of creative, personal light peek through, but, over all, Jack’s “antisentimental inhibitions” are plainly displayed in the letters.  At first I mistook it for an attempt to simply sound “grown up,” an air many children attempt to adopt.  On further reflection, though that may well still play a role, over all one gets the sense that Jack is presenting a formalized mask through certain letters, hiding his true emotions and thoughts.

This might be especially obvious in his letters home from Wynyard:  He didn’t let his father see the turmoil, pain, and real thoughts behind the veil of a “stiff upper lip.”  I actually already hinted at this in my discussion of the Wynyard letters.

Of course, as time went along, I know that Lewis refined this into an art with his father, keeping Albert in the dark about many things in his life.  It will be interesting to compare and contrast this with his letters to Arthur Greeves as time passes.

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The final significant point of explanation C. S. Lewis offers in Surprised by Joy concerning his path away from faith and into unbelief is related to the pessimism I discussed in my post on Tuesday.  Jack’s father, Albert, had been in the habit, as perhaps many working men are, of repeatedly lamenting the hardness of the world and the difficulty of making ends meet.  It had reinforced Jack’s own pessimistic outlook and encouraged him to think of life as “an unremitting struggle in which the best I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion” (64).  Even while at Cherbourg, Jack had already boiled all of life down to unavoidable drudgery.  As he said he described it to a friend, all they had to look forward to was “Term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we all die” (65).

Albert Lewis, Father of C. S. Lewis

Lewis later saw the same strand of laughable unreality in all this that he also saw in his general pessimism.  His father was quite comfortably and securely well off, especially by “our present tax-ridden standards” (64).  Really, he had no more business complaining about the difficulty of the universe than Jack did about the existence of Eton collars.

Of course, it’s easy to lose focus on the objective reality of what’s really going on around us when we’re submerged in the day-to-day grind of even generally enjoyable work.  That is especially true if that work begins to take on unreasonable proportions.  It devours your time, drains you, and leaves you feeling as if you have the weight of a very unfair world on your shoulders, particularly when it may seem that you have no recourse for relief.  I know I catch myself snapping unexpectedly at my family due to the stress I have had to deal with at work over the past year.  Even when I’m not being snippy, I find that I want to talk about the problems I face ad nauseum, because there is something in me that wants everyone to understand my plight and to sympathize.  Of course, I’m not so benighted as to think that there aren’t people out there who have it far worse than I, but it doesn’t always lessen my own particular burden to know that someone else’s is heavier.

We also have a tendency to overstate points to our children–I know I do.  We are so concerned that a stranger might kidnap Little Susie that we instill a pathological fear of all strangers in them when they are young.  (Not that it’s a bad thing…)  I suspect that at least some of Albert’s colorful descriptions of “real” life probably had their origins in a similar, kindly-meant motive.

Whatever the case, it is a reminder to me to take more care about what I say in front of children.  From Albert’s perspective, it was probably just a small thing–some complaining about work and a few strong words about the value of work–but it contributed to the complete loss of his son’s faith.  It prepared the ground for Jack’s pessimism, and his pessimism laid him open for what Jack himself calls atheism’s strongest siren song:  The “Argument from Undesign.”  He thought Lucretius put it well.

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratm
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see. (65)

And so, Jack Lewis, feeling that he had never truly met God in all of his forcibly manufactured prayers and certain that no good God could exist in such a universe, melted into a warm, contradictory haze of atheism, “dropping [his] faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief” (66).

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The Inklings (the writers group that meets at our house, patterned after the original) are incoming tomorrow night for the sixth annual “Dessert for Dinner” episode.  Presuming I survive the sugar and caffeine fueled antics, I’ll try to blog a little tomorrow too.  After that, I’ll see everyone again on Monday.


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The internet is being a “biddy” tonight (as my grandmother used to say) and I’m exhausted with more work yet to ignore in favor of collapsing into bed in exhaustion, but I want to try to stay as disciplined as I can.  Therefore, I’m going to take look at one letter at least.

When we last left our intrepid Jack Lewis, he had penned his last letter from the Hell-hole that was Wynyard School.  The school shortly thereafter gave up the ghost, and, within a year, so did its proprietor, Robert Capron (who died in an asylum in November 1911).  Jack spent one part of one semester at Campbell College, just down the road from his home, before transferring to a small preparatory school (Cherbourg) just outside Warnie’s beloved Malvern College.  The brothers could travel to school together now, and Jack could expect to move on to Malvern where Warnie was already cutting quite the figure.

The letter in question, written in January 1911, was Jack’s first from Cherbourg.  There are a few small points of interest, perhaps.

Jack, for all of his eventual love of learning, definitely has the standard schoolboy’s approach to school–They’ve apparently hardly arrived before he’s figure out how much longer they have to go before the next holidays.  At this point, he’s figured on 79.

Up to this point, Jack had loathed England and its countryside.  Of course, since his primary experience of England had been Wynyard, that isn’t surprising.  He was pleasantly surprised here, though, to find that “Malvern is one of the nicest English towns I have seen yet.”  He does note that, “The hills are beautiful, but of course not so nice as ours.”  (226-7, 16)

He is also asking Albert for his prayer book, which has apparently gone missing.  Unless this is an early example of the posing he later carried on with his father (from whom he hid his eventual atheism), it is an indication that he indeed had carried some belief with him.  I would like to know exactly what prayer book he’s referring to–it might illuminate his “unconscious” respect for the higher liturgy to which he had been exposed.  Of course here I might be revealing my own ignorance by not knowing off-hand.

Finally for tonight, I see that in Hooper’s footnote, Cherbourg was a school that was literally tied to its founder, Arthur Clement Alan.  He created it, it followed him when he moved, and finally closed when he retired.  I wonder why?  Was any effort made to see to a more enduring legacy?  If so, it obviously failed.

And so, good night!

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Today I decided to knock out a small batch of letters at once and see Jack through his terrible years at Wynyard School, called “Belsin” in Surprised By Joy.

For those unaware, Wynard was Jack and Warnie’s first boarding school.  In Surprised By Joy, Jack described Wynyard as one of the worst possible places imaginable.  The headmaster, Robert Capron (“Oldie”) was literally insane and later carted off by the men in white coats after he assaulted one of his students.  The school closed after the incident.

Of course, that wasn’t the only time he attacked his students.  Apparently, such incidents occurred on an almost daily basis.  Jack describes one boy (whose one fault was that he was the son of a dentist, and of too low a social standing for Capron’s preference) who was made to bend over while Capron (a huge, burly man) literally took running starts from the other side of the room with each slash of his cane.

Lewis notes that he learned next to nothing while there, and that they were forced to spend the majority of the time doing random geometry sums (Warnie did the same five every day for more than a year without getting caught).  It forced Jack to learn a great deal about geometry, but little else:  “All the other arts and sciences thus appeared to us as islands (mostly rocky and dangerous islands) ‘Which like to rich and various gems inlaid; The unadorned bosom of the deep’–the deep being a shoreless ocean of arithmatic” (SBJ 28).

There is, of course, much that could be said about Jack’s time at Wynyard, and I have neither the time nor the the energy to say it, at the moment, so I’ll skip ahead to my chief observations:

First, Jack insists in Surprised By Joy that he and Warnie “did not succeed in impressing the truth [about the conditions at the school] on our father’s mind.” He also notes that, “We did not even try very hard” (30).   That is more than borne out by reading his letters.  Whatever Albert Lewis’s shortcomings, I cannot blame him for not pulling his sons out sooner, if the letters are any indication of what his sons told him.  After the comment (mentioned in my previous post) calling the place a “hole,” Jack says nothing in particular that would indicate what he and Warnie were facing.  Consider the following samples:

    • “I find school very nice but it is frightfully monotenis [sic]” (154, 9).
    • “As to what you say about leaving [Wynyard] I cannot know quite what to say.” (155, 9)
    • “In spight [sic] of all that has happened I like Mr. Capron very much” (155, 10).

It is also notable that in all of the remaining letters, Jack fails to mention any cruelty or particular dislike of the school.  They were evidently speaking of the issue in person and perhaps in Warnie’s letters, though, as evidenced by Albert’s question about them leaving.  It may be that Jack was concerned that his letters might be intercepted by Oldie himself, but that is mere speculation since, so far as I know, nothing to that effect is said elsewhere.

Also, it is possible that his reticence to tell Albert what is really happening implies that Jack is already distancing himself from his father.  He certainly already seems to be setting up his habit of trying to keep Albert at arm’s length.  That is particularly notable in the letter dated 16? December 1909 (195-6, 13), where he specifically tells Albert that he could meet Warnie at St. Lime Station, and it would “no longer be necessary for you to come over.”  I know this becomes a pattern, particularly with the advent of Mrs. Moore.  Jack later remembered his relationship with his father with shame, and wished that he could have undone and unsaid much of it.

In Surprised By Joy, Jack noted that intellectually his time in the school was “entirely wasted” and that it threatened to “have sealed my fate as a scholar for good” (34).  He notes particularly a “great decline in my imaginative life” (34).  This is also borne out by the letters.  There isn’t even a whiff of imagination beyond a reference to purchasing the Strand Magazine for a reading club they were creating.  Boxen isn’t mentioned once.

This is interesting because Lewis later became very, very good at retreating into his imagination in tense situations.  He particularly seemed to exercise it during his time in the trenches in WWI.  In my recently published paper in Mythlore, I speculated on possible origins for that ability, and I mentioned that one possible starting point might have been as a defensive measure against Capron’s torture.  From what I see here, that idea is entirely wrong; Jack’s imagination died while he was at that school.

Of course, Jack himself notes that he did learn some things…such as geometry and some English grammar.  I would point to the letters as clear evidence of the latter.  When he begins at Wynyard, he is still very much a younger writer, with poor punctuation and at times even poorer spelling (see above).  By the time he leaves, he had matured as a writer dramatically, and a significant increase is evident in his spelling, grammar, and general ability to express himself.

Finally for the night, I want to mention that I was moved by his depiction of Capron’s daughters, as captive to their father as his school boys were.  They strike me as a negative version of the daughters of Robert E. Lee, as bound to a tyrant as Lee’s daughters were to a hero.

I’ve always felt sorry for the Lee girls.  Their father was so good, so strong, such an incredible man, that none of them could find a husband to match his considerable standard.  They all died without marrying.  I don’t think Gen. Lee would have wanted that for his girls, and I know he would weep to know that he himself was the indirect cause of it.

Good night!

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