Friday, March 29, 2013

Janie Moore & C. S. Lewis

I’m not a C. S. Lewis scholar. And I’m not a blind devotee of Lewis. However, I think it’s wrong to libel the dead.

I’m struck by the confidence with which some writers assume that Lewis had an affair with Janie Moore. I could certainly be mistaken, but I don’t find that very plausible.

To begin with, suppose he did. Since Lewis was an atheist back then, there’d be nothing shocking or scandalous about his indulging in premarital sex. No one expects a young unattached male atheist to be celibate.

That said:

i) It isn’t normal for a teenage boy to have an affair with the middle-aged mother of a friend.

ii) Moreover, why assume Lewis was so desperate that he had to settle for her? He was an eligible young bachelor. A student at Oxford. Surely there were available pretty single girls his own age.

Most of us have seen pictures of Lewis when he was baggy, balding middle-aged duffer, but as a young man he cut a sharper profile.

So I can’t think of any compelling reason why an eligible young bachelor would settle for the mother when he surely had more appealing options to choose from.

iii) I don’t think it was at all unusual back then for young bachelors to have older housekeepers.

iv) Lewis lived with his brother Warnie. So should we also assume that Warnie had an affair with Moore?

v) Although Lewis, as a young atheist, would have no moral compunctions about premarital sex, even he would realize that banging on the mother of your late best friend, who entrusted her to your care in case he died in action, would be reprehensible. Deeply dishonorable. A betrayal of the first magnitude.

vi) It’s also possible that Moore was a substitute mother figure, after Lewis lost his own mother at the age of 9.

vii) Seems more plausible to me that he was simply honoring the pledge he made with his wartime comrade that if one died, the survivor would care for the decedent’s parent.

viii) Perhaps some people think that’s just a cover story. But is there any reason to think comrades in the trenches wouldn’t make a pact like that? WWI had horrendous casualties. Seems likely to me that many comrades said to each other, “If I die, look after my mother (father, brother), but if you die, I’ll look after yours.” Surely those conversations weren’t unusual in the infantry.


  1. It could be a publicity thing to keep C.S. Lewis books selling. There's nothing like a controversy to increase sales.

    It could be, C.S. Lewis groupies and anti-groupies need something to talk about. There's nothing like a controversy to increase sales.

    I recall many years back reading this book:

    This book explored the perpetual amount of C.S. Lewis material that always seemed to be coming out in the 1980's.... a very interesting read.

  2. Steve: I believe the only decent evidential basis for this claim comes from the letters to Arthur Greeves. I compiled all the evidence from those letters some years ago but do not now have it all fresh in my own mind. Here is one bit I do remember: Lewis tells Arthur in a letter when he is very young (just out of the army) that he "now loves somebody" (romantically), and it seemed to me that the context suggested that the person he is referring to is Moore. That was the biggest smoking gun, though I have a general recollection of other indications in letters written to Greeves around the same time of some sort of extreme feelings towards Moore--more than just a sense of duty.

    Another bit of evidence confirming that at the outset the relationship had a romantic aspect to it was Lewis's extreme reluctance to explain to anyone the origins of the relationship or the "story" surrounding that origin. This reluctance comes out in his reference to a large and complicated "incident" which was very important in his life but which he is leaving out, mentioned in _Surprised by Joy_. Had he been merely keeping a promise to his friend, which I agree with you is not implausible in itself, this could have been mentioned in an entirely open and uncomplicated fashion.

    Lewis's brother and father wrote to one another early in Lewis's relationship with Mrs. Moore in a fashion that suggested that they definitely believed the relationship to be scandalous in appearance, if not in fact. They were even concerned that Lewis might be blackmailed by Moore's divorced or estranged (I forget which) husband. Of course, their suspicions might have been completely wrong, but they were closer to the situation than we are--Warnie, in particular, knew Lewis better than anyone else.

    At some point in time, perhaps fairly quickly, the relationship did become one of surrogate mother and son, and Lewis referred to her as "my mother" for many years. As Warnie says in his introduction to Lewis's letters, it was not always made clear that she wasn't literally his mother.

    It is not surprising that even if he had some kind of strange, Edwardian romantic relationship with her originally, this should have morphed before too long into something non-romantic, though who knows how she would have taken that.

    At this point there is a lot of conjecture, and the evidence is thin. I would say probably the hypothesis that explains all the facts is that Lewis temporarily had some sort of romantic infatuation with Mrs. Moore and that, under the influence of that infatuation cojoined with a promise to her son, he set up the expectation that he would live with her and support her until the end of her life. He then felt that he would be an absolute cad if he didn't keep that tacit promise (he refers expressly to "setting up expectations" and "fulfilling them" regarding Mrs. Moore in a letter to Warnie), so he continued living with her and supporting her patiently at considerable inconvenience to himself until her death. There may never have been any actual physical aspect to the early romance, but if there was, both it and the romance appear to have been relatively short-lived.

    People shouldn't speak of this as a settled fact by any means, but the idea of something improper about that relationship at least at the outset isn't _entirely_ without support. Probably most people who retell it as a given fact don't even know what that support is, though.

    1. Thanks, Lydia. Wasn't Warnie serving in France, Belgium, and Sierra Leona at the time Lewis got to know Mrs. Moore and set up shared living quarters?

    2. I believe he was indeed abroad, but Lewis wrote to him constantly. Again, Warnie's concerns are not knock-down, but this isn't just a matter of some dirty-minded 20th-21st century people making up an idea out of whole cloth. Lewis and Warnie were usually united in their views against their father, but in this matter Warnie seems to have agreed with their father as against Jack that there was something highly regrettable and prima facie at least initially unwholesome about the relationship.

      We do have a letter from Lewis in which he describes to Warnie in some detail the lengths of deception to which he went to hide from their father the fact that he was living with Mrs. Moore. When their father visited Oxford, Lewis literally induced a friend to come and stay with him and faked a room that was supposed to be that friend's regular room. He was all prepared to deceive his father into thinking he was living with a male friend. Presumably Mrs. Moore and her daughter were sent elsewhere. It turned out to be unnecessary because his father never came to his house, but he had the camouflage all ready to go. In such ways he induced his father to contribute for years to the upkeep of a household that his father completely disapproved of. Lewis later said that he believed he had treated his father very badly.

      I also _think_ (but would have to check this) that it may have been against the rules in Oxford, as it was certainly against custom, for an undergraduate to live with a woman to whom he wasn't married. For that matter, I think undergraduates may not have been allowed to be married, either.

      By no means was it "common" for a young man in Lewis's situation to do what he did, as if he had simply hired a housekeeper. It just wasn't like that at all. There was something very...fraught about the relationship. It was socially unusual and potentially a source of blackmail (the mere fact that he was living with a married woman, even if they were doing nothing wrong), hidden from at least one person who had a right to know (Lewis's father who was supporting him), its origins invested by Lewis himself with a puzzling air of mystery. And I do think the letters to Greeves support some sort of romantic origin for the relationship.

      Not that it matters all that much at this point in time. And as I said, I think if people are going to talk about it at all and imply that there _was_ something wrong about the relationship, they should find out more about the actual evidence. Mere loose talk does give one reason to think this is just made-up dirt.

    3. I do want to emphasize again that my best guess is that any romantic aspect of the relationship was relatively short-lived and occurred while Jack was very young. It was in that situation that he set up an expectation of continued support, etc., that he then felt bound to carry out until Mrs. Moore died. By the time he was even seriously considering becoming a Christian, as far as I can tell, he was treating it entirely as a mother-son relationship and was really just paying the price for whatever agreement he had made earlier in his life, even if that agreement was motivated by some sort of indiscretion or bad behavior of his own. He paid that price for decades in the form of mere patient service and dutiful support to Mrs. Moore.

  3. Sorry if I'm butting in. I've just been following along from the sidelines as it were, and wanted to say thanks for all this as well, Lydia! Quite interesting to say the least. A very thoughtful perspective. And approached from, I think, a most appropriately intellectually humble posture.

    By the way, I don't suppose you've read Alister McGrath's new biography, and if so, if you had any thoughts on the book? At least as I understand it, Sayer's is still the best accepted biography by Lewis scholars? I've read most of Lewis' fictional and non-fictional works, but I've never read a biography on Lewis.

  4. Patrick, I have to admit that I've read almost no biographies of Lewis. I've shied away from them, because we have such a huge amount (almost too much, in my opinion) of primary source material that they seem unnecessary. Even a lot of negative stuff was brought to light by Hooper's, to my mind unwise and not entirely honest, decision to accept Arthur Greeves letters and then to use ultraviolet light or whatever it was to raise and publish sections that Greeves had crossed out. There is such a thing as "too much information," especially about Lewis's personality, etc., when he was a _very_ young man and by his own account an amoral atheist brute, so to speak. Some of that information, too, is personal information about Greeves, which Greeves wasn't consenting to make public.

    But I digress. My point is just that I've never felt the need for any biographies of Lewis not written by Lewis. Having read _Surprised by Joy_, all the letters, Warnie's introductions, J.R.R. Tolkien's letters, the memoirs in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, etc., etc., it's not like there are additional facts I need to know that I'm missing.

    I confess that I'd probably find Sayer's biography interesting because he actually was a close personal friend of Lewis's.

    My own inclination would be to avoid anything by McGrath, not only because he wasn't a personal friend of Lewis's but also because my impression is that McGrath's philosophy is not similar to Lewis's.

    The thing is, even people who are really devoted to Lewis and have good intentions make howlers--obvious mistakes about him. I read someone recently implying that Lewis hesitated to become a Christian because he thought maybe Jesus was just the "Hebrew version of the Corn King myth." Um, no, not correct. And it's easy to cite chapter and verse to show beyond all shadow of a doubt that it isn't correct.

    So who needs secondary sources, y'know?

  5. That's a good point. Much appreciated. Thanks, Lydia! :-)