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Posts Tagged ‘Cherbourg School’

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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I’ve decided to spend some time looking carefully at the few surviving letters from Lewis’s time at Cherbourg.  It was a key time in his life, especially religiously, because though his intellect and imagination began to revive itself while he was there, serious damage was done to his faith also.  In fact, it was while he was here that he found himself “deliciously” lapsing into a warm haze of unbelief.  Therefore, I will devote at least one post to each of the few surviving letters from Cherbourg.  (I can’t keep that up for the rest of the project, of course, if I want to ever get it over with.)

This evening I’m going to take a step back and begin to work through Lewis’s account of his time there in Surprised By Joy for context.  His own explanation of his atheism could be turned into a decent academic paper in and of itself, so I don’t want to try to tackle it all at once. I’ll pick up with the letters again as soon as I can, frustrating though the delay might be.  I tend to get impatient, and I have to keep reminding myself that this project is the proverbial marathon for the sake of experience rather than a sprint to a particular publication deadline or conference presentation

Lewis referred to Cherbourg as “Chartres” in his autobiography, and he was only thirteen years old when he first arrived there with Warnie (who was attending nearby Malvern College).  It was, he said, the “classic” period of their school days and a key time in their maturation.  It certainly was key in his spiritual devolution:

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. (58-59)

Jack has already begun to pick up some of the habits he would regret later in life–smoking in particular–but he notes that his intellectual revival began in earnest.  In many ways, he was a typical schoolboy.  For instance, though the food at the school was good, they “of course…grumbled at it” (58).  It recalls to my mind the time in elementary school a transfer student yelled at a group of us when we were complaining about the otherwise good food at our own school in south Georgia.  We were all taken aback.  After all, aren’t school children obligated to complain about lunchroom food?

On the subject of his descent into atheism, Jack places a good bit of the blame for his fall from grace on a very well-meaning school matron, called Miss C. in SBJ (G. E. Cowie, in real life).  She was searching and experimenting with her faith at that point her her life and, like many before and since, had begun to explore some of the “paths less trodden,” and that had led her into the occult.  She introduced Lewis to the entrance to the confusing maze of “Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; [and] the whole Anglo-American Occultic tradition” (59).  Unbeknownst to her, she was carrying a candle into a room “full of gunpowder” (59).

I had never heard of such things before; never except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, concieved of spirits other than God and men.  I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf* had only flashed on my mind for a moment. […]  But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.  (59-60)

I can understand the temptation.  From my earliest years, I too have found all these things alluring.  I have, for years now, kept accounts of the paranormal–ghosts, faeries (the real, frightening sort, not the Tinkerbell vulgarizations), and other unknown phenomena–on my regular private reading list.  Oddly, I can carry on surprising intelligent conversations about a broad range of strange things.  And it is always an open and dangerous question to know where to draw the lines in my studies.  The whole subject has a unique, supernatural pull to it, and people that have never felt it usually don’t understand it.  Those that have, Jack says, “will know what I mean” (60).  All I can do is hope that it is this sense of wonder at the unknown that I apparently share with Jack will be a help to me with my own fiction writing rather than a spiritual hindrance, as Jack himself seemed to think it was.

Miss C never offered Lewis anything concrete, and that was the rub.  She opened doors that encouraged him to search for what was conceivable rather what was true.  This infected his view of theology, like a virus, and it turned the creed from something that was a certainty to a mere list of assumed possibilities.  Of course, there is nothing binding in possiblities.

So, ironically, Jack’s first step away from his faith was toward the occult, and only by gradual degrees unmarked did he finally find himself an atheist.

*Earlier, in SBJ, Lewis recounted that after he left Campbell College, he was walking in the garden at Little Lea and “I was for a second not quite sure that a little man [a dwarf] had not run past me into the shrubbery” (55).  This instance might be worth looking at by itself sometime, if to do nothing more than indulge my own fascination with Faerie.

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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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