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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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Another interesting parallel between Spirits in Bondage  and Lewis’s more general biography actually tied into Narnia, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.  It is clear that Lewis did not consider his conversion grounds to discard the vividness of his earlier imagination.  In fact, he mined his own unChristian period for Truth much like he did other non-christian authors.

Consider his description of the “Land of the Lotus” from “XXV. Song of the Pilgrims”:

Land of the Lotus fallen from the sun,
Land of the Lake from whence all rivers run,
Land where the hope of all our dreams is won!

Shall we not somewhere see at close of day
The green walls of that country far away,
And hear the music of her fountains play?

[…]

But we shall wake again in gardens bright
Of green and gold for infinite delight,
Sleeping beneath the solemn mountains white,
While from the flowery copses still unseen
Sing out the crooning birds that ne’er have been
Touched by the hand of winter frore and lean;

This compares very favorably to what Polly, Digory, and Fledge encounter in the quest for the golden apple at the end of The Magician’s Nephew .  There, they find an isolated, magical garden set high on a huge green hill:

All round the top of the hill ran a high wall of green turf.  Inside the wall, trees were growing. Their branches hung out over the wall:  their leaves showed not only green but also blue and silver when the wind stirred them.  When the travelers reached the top they walked nearly all the way round it before they found the gates:  high gates of gold, fast shut, facing due east. […] [Digory] went in very solemnly, looking about him.  Everything was very quiet inside.  Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound.  The lovely smell was all around him:  it was a happy place but very serious.  (157-58)

Many of the same specific elements are the same–the green walls, the fountains, the colors green and gold, the brilliant rivers (referenced just a few pages earlier in The Magician’s Nephew).  Of course, the expression of the conception is separated by years, and so it isn’t an exact correspondence, but it is close enough to think that, perhaps, they are one and the same.

Perhaps what we’re seeing here is really Lewis’s fleshing out of the toy garden that his brother Warnie had brought into their nursery many years before.  In Surprised by Joy, he described the feeling evoked by that “biscuit tin filled with moss” as similar to “Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden” (16).  That does seem to be what Lewis was attempted to capture in both his poem and his book.  Without more specific context, we’ll probably never know for sure.

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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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Wynyard School, domain of the insane Robert Capron

The Inklings have gone, and the house is quiet.  We had a few nice stories tonight, particularly a Civil War short story from Ronnie in which the dialog was excellent, and it brought on a good discussion.  Rachel read more of “Death’s Goddaughter,” and we sampled another chapter of Lisa’s book.  Washed it down with Monty Python.

On to a bit of Lewis.  Tonight I read through Jack’s arrival at Robert Capron’s Wynyard school, where he went with Warnie after his mother’s death, and his reactions to the very high church they attended while there.  For those unaware, Capron (called “Oldie” in Surprised by Joy) was an insane headmaster who ran a dwindling establishment with a paranoid, iron first.  Lewis later described some of the “punishments” that were inflicted on students for even the slightest perceived breech of the many written and (more often) unwritten rules as tantamount to torture.

In the opening letter (LP III: 140) written on 19? September 1908, Jack seems willing to give the place a fair chance.  Though he does call Capron “eccentric,” he things that he “will be able to get on” with him, and even states that he things he “shall like this place.”

His next letter (LPIII:  147) on 29 September is quite different in tone.  He tells his father about Capron accusing Warnie of breaking a rule that no one had ever heard of (he failed to bring his jam to tea) and Jack almost pleads for them to be allowed to return home early.  “We simply cannot wait in this hole till the end of term.” (emphasis in the original)

Jack’s response to the church they were required to attend is interesting to me, not least because I am, like him, a low churchman who only later was exposed to a high liturgy.  I grew up United Methodist and Baptist, and we now attend an Anglican (Reformed Episcopal) Church that uses the 1928 prayer book and much of the serious liturgy.

In his letter to his father marked 3 October (LP III 149), Jack is wary, disgusted, and indignant at being forced to attend “so frightfully high [a] church that it might as well be Roman Catholic.”  In Walter Hooper’s editorial comments that follow, he excerpts from a small diary Lewis kept at the time where he expressed his feelings in no uncertain terms.  He called it a “kind of church abhorred by respectful Irish Protestants.”  Those around him were “Romish hypocrites and English liars.”

Later, in Surprised by Joy, he remembered it more kindly.  Though he understood that he clearly responded very negatively on the surface, he also credits that church for introducing him first to the real doctrines of Christianity “taught by men who obviously believed them.”  In that sense, that small, church filled with “hypocrites” and “liars” became the original basis of Jack’s faith.  I wonder if any thoughts connected to it crossed his mind years later, as he was being dragged back to faith, kicking and screaming, in Warnie’s sidecar on the way to the Whipsnade Zoo?

More to do tomorrow than I have hours in the day for, so I probably won’t be able to pick this back up until Monday.

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Flora Lewis, Jack's mother

For today’s reading, I decided to take another small bite:  A few letters from 1906 to 1908.  These are the last few that were written while Jack’s mother, Flora, was still alive.  It is a logical place to stop anyway, since the next in the series are sent from Wynyard School, and that marks a notable change in his life experience.

These letters include LP III: 79, 80, 82, and 105.  79, 80, and 105 are to Warnie (his brother) and 82 is to his father, Albert.

In 79, which was written on 18 May 1907, I’m immediately struck by the significant increase in spelling and punctuation errors I see.  Whereas two years before, his letter was very well and clearly composed, this one abounds with errors that one might well expect from a younger writer:  “onley” (only); “seteled” (settled); “wont” (won’t); “adia” (idea); “wight” (white); etc.

It is also notable that he mentions to Warnie that he is already composing his first play.

80 is notable for a brief history of “Mouse-land” in which Lewis gives Warnie a time-line breakdown of that country’s ages and kings from 55 BC until the ascendancy of King Bunny in 1377.  Again, an interesting level of detail.  At this point I wonder if Lewis ever considered studying history.  I know that my own interest in “real” history was spurred on by the “creative” history I read as a child.  I’ll keep an eye out for hints that might provide some evidence as opposed to mere speculation.

82 is a brief postcard that Jack sent Albert while he was away on holiday, and I notice that by 105 (Jack telling Warnie of his visit to “chains memorial” lighthouse in Larne Harbor) that Jack’s grammar and spelling have improved again and are back close to what I saw in the letter from 1905.  He also mentions the illness that eventually kills his mother for the first time.

Of course, these few letters are hardly grounds to form absolute opinions, but I think there might be two likely causes for the fluctuation in Jack’s spelling and grammar:

  • He had help on  the 1905 letter.  Perhaps it implies that Flora or his governess was working with him, maybe even using the letter to Warnie as a writing project.  The later letters may not have benefited from their ministrations.
  • He took more care with that letter than he did with the others for some reason.  Perhaps he wanted to impress Warnie with his first letter and later got sloppier when it didn’t seem to matter as much.
I also note that Lewis was homeschooled in the classical method during this whole period.  Food for thought.
Not sure if I’ll be able to blog again before Monday.  We have our own Inklings writers group tomorrow and a busy Saturday.  I have to find time to put more wood up for the winter too.  Sundays I don’t intend to blog.  Hopefully an opportunity will present itself.

Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Walter Hooper, ed.(San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco, 2004), 3-5.

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