All His Road Before Him: C.S. Lewis’ 1920s Diary

July 14 — Began reading C.S. Lewis’ diary from the 1920s, when he was still an athiest and an undergraduate at Oxford, as part of my attempt to read through most of his published works in an effort to understand this Christian thinker. Still getting to know this man I thought I knew.

For all these years and many after, he kept house with the mother of a war friend named Paddy Moore, who had been killed in action, and her daughter Maureen. He and Mrs. Moore are widely suspected of having a physical relationship, though it’s never discussed in the diary or in letters; Lewis tried to hide his living situation from his father, which adds fuel to the fires of speculation.

July 17 — At the hundred page mark, there’s been plenty of what we expect and love about diaries: insights into the small details of life and how Lewis spent his days. Fun little stories that his friends have told him. What life was like at Oxford in the years after the Great War. Possibly the most interesting insight so far has been into his writing. The day after he started the diary, Lewis began composing a poem called Dymer which would eventually be his second published book. As a writer myself, it’s deeply interesting to see how he too struggles sometimes to get the words out, what he thinks of them when they are out, and what his friends think when he lets them read. I may be wrong, but I think it’s quite rare to have such a detailed record of a book’s composition such as we have in this diary, which of course makes it all the more valuable.

July 30 — Occasionally you get the fun of reading what famous people thought of each other when they met. Already had a taste of this in Lewis’ letters where he describes going to a tea party given by W.B. Yeats. In his diary there is another opportunity to see him rubbing shoulders with a well-known person…only to be disappointed by his apparent ignorance of who T.E. Lawerence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) actually is! Beyond the remark that this “man called Lawrence” is interesting and agreeable, we get nothing. He should try picking up a newspaper once in a while.

Lewis has a creative writer’s instinct for story even when talking about his own circumstances, and telling things that actually happen to him and people around him. Sometimes there is even a narrative structure to such stories, the ups and downs inherent to drama. This is especially true of an early example in the diary, when a young friend of the household named Maisie has to “escape” from her controlling and demeaning parents to pursue dance lessons in London. Lewis’ escapades in the situation read like a John le Carre spy novel. And there are, of course, the quieter and more intimate stories that unfold day by day, such as the Christmas he spends at home in Belfast with his father and brother.

August 20 — Lewis’ storytelling takes a harrowing turn when, for two weeks in 1923, he and the Moores take in Mrs. Moore’s brother, a Dr. Askins, who begins to suffer from delusionary episodes when he believes he is being tormented by demons in hell. Lewis records the strain and pressure this puts in everyone, including the nightmare of witnessing insanity firsthand, in detail, which makes it a very memorable episode from the diary.

Episode comes in the middle of Lewis’ day to day life, of course, and I feel as though I’m walking with him through his circumstances; it helps that there’s a lot to sympathize with in the struggles of an undergraduate. He finds studying difficult; exam questions are unfair and he does the best he feels able on papers, certain he’s mucked it up again. Along with this are the worries about money and whether a job will ever open up, and “whether I shall ever be able to write good poetry”. All of which makes for an even deeper joy when he’s awarded a First in English, one of only two students in his class; added to his other degrees, it was the third First he was given. Lewis was a much smarter man than he gave himself credit for.

August 25 — Growing more convinced that Lewis was insane. Apparently he read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (over 900 pages in the OWC edition)…in only four days. Evidently in full, given how thorough his written thoughts are; no skimming job. His reading is prodigous throughout the diary–knocks off whole books of Paradise Lost between tea and dinner–but this one struck me as a particular wowzer.

Diary unfortunately becomes spottier the farther on you get, with gaps spanning around six months or more sometimes. This means that it unfortunately skips over the period when, joy of joys, Lewis finally gets the fellowship at Magdalen that he always desired, and which the reader knew all along would be his. But the diary is active during one of the more notable events in Britain during the period: the General Strike of 1926. This lets us have one of the privileges so valuable to historians, namely a firsthand account of a significant social moment. Lewis doesn’t necessarily record any brilliant insights or analysis of the labour movement; he’s an Oxford don and has other concerns. But still fascinating to learn how people would volunteer in canteens and in other services so that life can still go on. Lewis himself is getting ready to travel down to London with Owen Barfield to do exactly that when the strike ends.

But buried within the period of those nine days when Britain was near-paralyzed is an entry that has even more seismic significance for Lewis’ life, although he doesn’t know it as he writes. Attending a gathering of the English teachers, he meets and chats, apparently for the first time, with a man he describes as

…a smooth, pale, fluent little chap–can’t read Spenser because of the forms–thinks the language is the real thing in the schools–thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty–we ought to vote ourselves out of existence if we were honest–still the sound-changes and the gobbets are great fun for the dons. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.

It’s Tolkien. He’s describing J.R.R. Tolkien. This appears to be the first time they ever met, or at least spoke at length. It was a meeting that would change both of their lives forever.

September 4-13 — Having finished the book a week ago, I now find I have to talk about it on the blog. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to sit down and review someone’s published diary. Is the critic meant to rake a person over the coals for not being insightful enough? For not listening to their editor? For either withholding or revealing too much about their inner self? Perhaps we could give the plot a star rating; one out of five for a lack of action, or unrealistic characters.

How does one review a published diary? The answer, of course, is that one doesn’t. Not in the usual way of reviewing books, at least. They are not constructed or edited in the way of other books, and so the standards by which we judge it have to be unique. And one of course wonders if they should be judged at all. Though diaries and journals were often written at the time with at least some notion of an intended audience, they are also private and personal, valuable for the insights they give us about a man when his guard is down and he can say what he pleases. They are the biographer’s bread and butter, and the avid fan’s intoxicating wine — and whether or not we’re vultures picking over a corpse, I won’t dare to speculate.

The diary breaks off before Lewis’ father dies, before he converts to Christianity, and before he joins with his friends to form the Inklings, but all of these are on the immediate horizon. The editor’s title for the book was a well-chosen quote from his narrative poem Dymer, which is being composed for most of these years: by the end, we have come a long way’s walking with Jack Lewis, but all his road lies still before him.

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