Archive for the ‘Cherbourg School’ Category

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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Still trying to find time to sit down an give that comparison of Surprised by Joy‘s description of “Chartres” and Lewis’s letters home I mentioned a post or two ago the attention it deserves.  In the meantime, I came across a passage in SBJ that seems to point to part of Lewis’s inspiration for that so unlovable uncle, Andrew Ketterley, in The Magician’s Nephew.  Jack is discussing “Miss C.” and her interest in the paranormal that she introduced to him while she was at Cherbourg:

…that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since–the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. …  It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.  It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.

This does seem to compare well with Uncle Andrew’s discussion with Digory in his study after sending Polly to the Wood Between the Worlds.  There, Uncle Andrew is more interested in being known as a great sage, thinker, and wizard than he is in making anyone bow before him.  He seems to prefer mystical knowledge for its own sake, so much that he was willing to break his vows and even risk life and limb to acquire it.  Of course, once he had achieved greatness, no doubt he expected the whole bowing/homage bit would be sure to follow, but from the tone of the conversation, it seems that he thought it would come when people where awed by his presence, not because he forced them to against their will.  Here is one of the more recognizable bits of his talk:

“Rotten?” said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look.  “Oh, I see you mean that little boys ought to keep their promises.  Very true:  most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it.  But of course you must understand that rules of that sort…can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages.  No Digory.  Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures.  Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”

Both books were published in 1955, though Lewis began writing The Magician’s Nephew back in 1949, not long after he had finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I don’t think it is much of a stretch to see him putting a bit of his own temptation to the dark side of the supernatural in what we see from Uncle Andrew.

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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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Happy All Hallows’ Eve everyone!  Tonight is a good example of why I set this project up as a public blog:  otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting down to think on a little Lewis at all tonight!  A long day at work and then Trick or Treating with the family means I want to be curled up in bed, but since I haven’t posted since Thursday, I don’t want to let another night slip by.

I’ll try to keep this one short, since I still have more to do this evening.  In Surprised by Joy, right after explaining his attraction to the grand argument from Undesign, Jack notes that there is an obvious contradiction between the “Occultist fancies” he had absorbed from his beloved matron and the high, austere, and tragic atheism he had begun to adopt as a matter of philosophy.  They would seem to be mutually exclusive propositions, of course.  Like many of us, Lewis didn’t take the time to think it all out with perfect clarity and he “swayed” between them based entirely on his mood at a given moment.   The one common point between them was that they both pulled him away from his Christian faith, a bit at a time.  (65-66)

This tendency to ignore, indulge, or even to embrace paradox was a well established human trait long before Carl Barth systematized it into a theology or the postmodernists idolized it with their self-refuting descent into rhetorical nonsense.  I’ve seen it displayed as recently as this afternoon, when I was looking at the news.  In a story about the decision by Shorter University (a Christian school) to have its faculty sign a conduct agreement where they renounced sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, a random student contributed this gem of logic to the discussion:

“Who is one person to judge what somebody else does?” said one student, who spoke anonymously to the station. “It’s none of their business.”

And presumably the student made this statement with a straight face.  He/she is actually handing down a very obvious judgement against someone else (the school), condemning them for possibly judging someone else!  I have trouble understanding how some people’s heads don’t explode from the contradictions they have floating around inside their heads.  Perhaps it’s their abnormally thick skulls keep everything contained.

Of course, the point to observe here is that this is, indeed, entirely human.  Snark aside, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of just such an intellectual sin far more often that I would like to admit.  To see it in C. S. Lewis, it is a clear and present reminder that, for all his considerable brain and potent imagination, he was as “real” as you or I.

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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).


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 next point brought up in Surprised by Joy deals with paganism and myth.  My friend Rachel ironically prefigured this whole question in the post she wrote today for the other blog I contribute to, While We’re Paused.  This issue was the first one that Lewis says gave rise to specific, conscious doubts about his faith:  If all other religions were simply rot, why should he believe Christianity to be any different?

Jack noted that in all of his classes and studies at Cherbourg, he was being presented with a slew of religious ideas from all sorts of places and times. Virgil was first among these in providing a “mass of religious ideas.”  All of this was presented to him as universal rubbish–all except, conveniently, the particular belief system prevalent in England at the time.  Jack wondered, and rightly so, what made Christianity so different that it shouldn’t be held to be in the same crowd as all the others?  His teachers never gave him any answer to that question.  Indeed, they likely didn’t know themselves.  In Lewis’s words:

No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity.  The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a happy fortunate exception, was exactly true. […] But on what grounds could I believe this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest.  Why was it so differently treated?  Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently?  I was very anxious not to. (62-63)

From the perspective of history and philosopy, there are a couple of points that strike me:

First, I’ve noticed, and I teach my classes, that there is always a time lag that is evident between the time a new idea (or ideas) are thought up and the moment when people really, truly begin to believe it and act on it.  Until practice catches up to theory (and indeed for quite a while afterward), people tend to act only on certain parts of an idea, while ignoring others.  Put simply, they take the idea only so far as “makes sense” based on their current ideas and previous sense of morality rather than take it to its logical conclusion.  We often see a few decades pass before people really begin to do what a philosophy demands.  We must allow time for a new generation to be raised up with fewer of the old inhibitions intact.

Naturalism and evolution is a good example.  Darwinism was in existence for decades before anyone actually tried to manage the human herd.  It was a gradual process of younger people continually asking “Why not?” again and again and realizing that, if naturalistic Darwinism was correct, there was no sufficient answer that could be given.  Slowly, that led us first to the eugenics movements and eventually to the Nazi purges.  Each step towards the conclusion would have given pause to the ones that went before–and the ends would seem unconscionable to those at the beginning–but to someone “forward thinking” enough, it just made sense.

I think what we see in Jack’s Cherbourg is a society in the middle of such a transition.  Jack is observing a period of English history were, in fact, many people have ceased to believe in Christianity in any real sense–they just haven’t all realized it yet.  It is left to the younger generation (Jack, in this case) to take the older one at their word and therefore to carry their ideas to their logical conclusion.*

Second, something else that might be coming into play is the tendency for us to teach what we are taught, regardless of whether or not it is consistent with our larger belief system in any meaningful way.  I know I’ve seen multiple professors who I know believe strongly in standards of right and wrong, in the truths of Christianity, stand up in class and teach philosophies that they themselves would not espouse if they really took the time to think about them.  Unfortunately, they’ve compartmentalized their lives to the point that they cannot understand how one part of their life might affect the other.  They teach the history that was taught to them (either by professors in person or in books) without really critiquing it from even their own perspective let alone a consistently Biblical worldview.  Perhaps some of Lewis’s teachers were in similar straights.  Perhaps not.  Without a closer look at them (diaries, lectures, etc.) it remains speculation.

Jack’s situation also demonstrates why my wife and I choose to homeschool our daughter.  Teachers exercise a tremendous amount of influence over children, and when a system clearly inculcates the idea that religion (particularly Christianity) is rot on virtually every level, it is often only by happy accident that someone emerges from it not only with their faith intact, but educated in the process.  It is certainly true that few, if any, come out as educated Christians.  I see no reason why we can’t have both–at least we’ll try.


*From my own observations, this is an analogous period to American education in the 1970s, 80s, and perhaps a bit of the 90s.  America is always behind the curve when compared to Europe–and in this case it isn’t a bad thing.  I simply wish were weren’t trying so hard to catch up!  I see no reason to rush the handbasket on its way to Hell.

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