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Posts Tagged ‘Boxen’

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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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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"Jack" Lewis as a child

I picked a sorry time to start a blog.  I’m approaching the busiest point of an already unreasonably busy semester.  But hey, I need to start some time, so I’ll start slowly; just a couple of short letters to get the ball rolling.

The 1905 letter is the very first that Jack wrote to Warnie, and is the first contained in the published collected letters.  Warnie is away at Wynyard School and Jack is about eight years old.  Jack is talking about the adventures of his canary and some Halloween celebrations.  One point that I found interesting is how plain and straightforward his language is.  He’s reporting on events truly and completely, even if some of the evens must have been exciting (the fireworks) or even terrifying (his dog going into spasms and foaming at the mouth).  Everything is told in plain, straightforward style.

The second letter is shorter, and is full of news from Jack’s imaginary world of Boxen.  I know that Jack later said that Boxen was a rather dry, unmagical place, but I must say that I find his level of detail in demography and political intrigue to be a bit mind blowing.  A short quote speaks for itself:

The colonists (who are of course the war party) are in a bad way:  they scarecly leave their houses because of the mobs.  In Tararo the Prussians and the Boxonians are at fearful odds against each other and the natives.

A couple of things strike me about these two letters.

  • First, I find it ironic (and scary) that Lewis at eight years of age is writing more creatively and coherently than a significant number of my college students do at eighteen or even twenty.  I’d like to say that it was simply due to Lewis’s innate genius, but I’m afraid its probably not that simple….
  • Second, I’m amazed to see Lewis’s detailed knowledge of Boxen.  I know that we might be tempted to write that off quickly because, after all, it is his own imaginary world that therefore we should expect him to know quite a bit about it.  Then I remind myself that he’s only nine flippin’ years old!  How many modern nine year olds have you heard talking like that?

Of course, I wonder sometimes if that isn’t simply because we, as a civilization, haven’t simply become lazy in our thinking.  Coming up with that level of detail is  hard work for most of us, and we’d rather let someone else do it for us and then just present us with the results.  We certainly have become lazy in our writing.  Becoming a decent writer is difficult, and we want to be able to skip the practicing part and and expect instant gratification.  If we can’t have that, many of us just give up.  Quite sad really.

Ah well.
Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Walter Hooper, ed.(San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco, 2004), 2-3.

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