A sword between the sexes

A sword between the sexes: C.S. Lewis and the gender debates

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Brazos Press, distrib. Lion Hudson, 2010, Pbk., 264p., ISBN 9781587452088

A keen intellect and a rich academic background are necessary in tackling a substantive study of C. S. Lewis and gender‘ writes one reviewer of this book. I couldn’t agree more. Possessing neither, this opus with its 778 footnotes (no, not a misprint!) gave my brain an unaccustomed and unexpected workout. In exploring concepts of gender both before and since C. S. Lewis, as well as Lewis’s own views, the book encompasses the disciplines of philosophy, theology, psychology, the social sciences, and literature. This is an academic book; and the ‘rich academic background‘ of the reader is for the most part assumed.

For the more general reader, however, whose interest may well be in Lewis himself rather than in the wider and more academic aspects of the gender debate, two questions of particular interest emerge. Firstly, was C. S. Lewis, regarded by many as an archetypal misogynist, ‘a better man than his theories‘ in his actual treatment of and relationships with women? Secondly, did Lewis’s views on gender evolve and change during the latter part of his life, and if so, to what extent was this due to the appearance of Joy Davidman, the Jewish American divorcee who eventually became Lewis’s wife? “There is‘ wrote Lewis following Joy’s death from cancer, “hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them.

Lewis grew up in the Edwardian era and in his early years at Oxford held a view of gender that was ‘both essentialist and hierarchical‘. But this, as the author points out, merely reflected the ethos of the times. Men’s innate moral and intellectual superiority, and their right of authority over women, was considered natural, God-ordained and biblical. Lewis was perhaps unusual in limiting male authority over women to the spheres of marriage and the church. In fact he championed the cause of women’s equality in political and economic – though not at this stage academic – life. While firmly favouring the proposal of a ‘quota‘ limiting the number of women that would be admitted to Oxford University, he nonetheless recognised and encouraged female students of talent and ability, tutoring these with the same conscientiousness as talented male students. He also corresponded extensively with female authors and scholars such as the poet Ruth Pitter, and the writer and broadcaster Dorothy L. Sayers. On the domestic front, there was Lewis’s unlikely attraction to Janie Moore, a woman of apparently limited intellect with whom he chose to share hearth and home for thirty odd years. She constantly interrupted his work with demands for assistance with household chores, which Lewis obediently performed. Her demands on him increased with age, and were still met. In his actual relationships with women, was Lewis indeed ‘a better man than his theories‘?

By the 1950’s, however, it is clear that Lewis’s thinking on gender relations was undergoing a shift – even before the wave of ‘new feminism‘ hit Britain and the United States in the 1960s.… ‘there ought spiritually to be a man in every woman and a woman in every man‘, he writes to a female correspondent. ‘And how horrid the ones who haven’t got it are: I can’t bear a ‘man’s man’ or a ‘woman’s woman’. In a letter to Dorothy L. Sayers written in 1955, he goes even further, finally stating ‘a preference for people‘ (emphasis original). This from a man who had shown a lifelong preference for exclusively male companions, and who had earlier asserted that true friendship could not normally exist between a man and a woman ‘because they would have nothing to be friends about‘.

But there can be little doubt that it was Lewis’s experience of marriage to Joy Davidman that finally sheathed for him ‘the sword between the sexes.

What was Joy not to me?‘ he writes in A Grief Observed, published after her death. ‘She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier … all that any man friend (and I have had good ones) has ever been to me …’ (emphasis mine).

For the present writer, however, the most absorbing chapter of the book is one not obviously related to the title theme. It carries the subtitle ‘C. S. Lewis and Family Life‘, and deals among other things with Lewis’s relationships with children. Once describing himself as ‘a bachelor who has seldom even talked to children‘, he acquired a surprising number of godchildren, and was of course the recipient of a vast number of letters from juvenile readers of the Narnia books, especially from the United States. His face-to-face experience of children, though, was virtually non-existent until World War 2 brought a posse of young evacuees to his Oxford home, ‘The Kilns‘, followed a few years later by his two stepsons, David and Douglas Gresham. It is in his interaction with both the evacuees and the Gresham boys that the warmth and ‘human‘ side of Lewis the academic, the ‘man’s man‘, comes to the fore. Lewis claimed not to enjoy the company of children; yet clearly there was something in these youngsters that he could and did respond to. Refreshingly anecdotal, this chapter proved to be an unexpected revelation – and a delight.

To conclude with those bibliographic details that are supposed to interest librarians: the book is blessed with an index, though with one or two surprising omissions, and frustrating in that it frequently failed to retrieve for me passages that I wanted to refer back to. There is no bibliography as such, though the seven hundred and seventy eight footnotes of course include numerous bibliographical references. It would have been useful to have these references extracted from among the expository footnotes and grouped together under subject headings to form a proper (and extensive) bibliography. The expository footnotes are copious as well as numerous (sometimes occupying up to half the print page), but definitely illuminating and well worth reading in full.

I admit to having been selective in my review of this book, and more academically inclined readers may rightly claim that I have not done it justice. If you are, like myself, a ‘general reader‘, this is not a book to take to bed with you; but it is, as one reviewer has put it, certainly an ‘eye-opener‘.

Contributed by: Barbara Gilman, MA, who is a retired librarian and worked previously for the University of Hull and the Torch Trust for the Blind.