The influence of novelist, apologist and academic C. S. Lewis is as strong today as ever, with essays, movies and books continuing to debate and be influenced by his thought. However, in recent years there has been some discussion about his attitude to, and portrayal of, women, with some writers suggesting his opinions betray an outdated (and possibly misogynistic) view. Edited by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key, ‘Women and C. S. Lewis’ brings together a wide range of modern writers to consider this question. Carolyn Curtis talks with Ian Matthews about the thinking behind this book.
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What led you to write Women and C S Lewis?
I heard a conversation while spending a week at The Kilns, Lewis’s home in Oxford. Fellow guests were discussing critics who have called Lewis a sexist, even a misogynist. As a reader of Lewis, whose writing had greatly influenced my Christian walk, I was shocked.
My instincts as a journalist kicked in. Was this true? I knew Lewis’s personal story. His conversion from adamant atheist (even dabbling in the occult) to Christ-follower was dramatic, public, and credible. After that, Lewis read his Bible daily and was so immersed in his Christian walk that he became your country’s most prominent and effective “explainer” of the faith. Eventually, America “imported” him – and we still can’t get enough of Lewis’s writing and life story even fifty-plus years after his death.
I know how God changes people – He changed me! But could Lewis have retained a blind spot in this area? (A more disturbing thought: Would God have allowed it?) And I know gender matters. My coming of age was after Lewis’s death, a time of significant change for women, which I’d experienced first-hand. I sorted what attitudes and behaviors constitute sexism/misogyny and what do not during my career as a journalist and corporate communicator, my work on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., plus my work in American management and other seats of power.
Like any journalist, I’m a culture watcher. I see how gender is at the heart of contemporary issues ranging from government legislation to wars being fought on battlefields. I see those issues through the lens of a person who follows Christ. So I wondered if the charges against Lewis, though by credible sources, were a form of Christian-bashing – attempts to discredit and marginalize this scholar and author whose work so influenced the church in the 20th Century and beyond. I knew I had to research this information (and, as a fan of Lewis, I admit I braced myself for disappointment).
What I discovered was mind-blowing, and I thought it was book worthy. My literary agent, Steve Laube, agreed. So did Lion Hudson plc of Oxford.
I organized the book in a way I thought could most benefit our readers with sections on Lewis’s relationships, on Lewis’s work, on how his attitudes and actions impact the 21st-Century discussion about women, etc. And rather than writing the traditional non-fiction book in which a thinker/writer like me (with university degrees in journalism who has written numerous articles and books) researches and interviews experts, then weaves together the findings, I decided to make Women and C.S. Lewis a compilation book, so the experts could flesh out their ideas and insights more thoroughly and in their own voices.
It was also a way to introduce the experts (who range from scholars to authors to bloggers) to our readers, many of whom would be fans of Lewis or even potential readers of Lewis who might have been turned off by the sexism charges. For that reason, I encouraged contributors to use the popular voice more than the scholarly voice, and the results are stunning – a book for a wide variety of readers. (We even included photos of the contributors and biographical information such as book titles so readers could follow these thinkers, if they so choose.) I’m thrilled with the outcome and grateful to Lion Hudson for publishing Women and C.S. Lewis: What his life and literature reveal for today’s culture.
I partnered on the project with the brilliant Mary Pomroy Key, Ph.D. of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, which owns The Kilns and the C.S. Lewis Study Center in Northfield, Massachusetts, where she serves as Director. We both wrote Introductions to set up the contributors’ chapters. The book summarizes the findings in a Conclusion that also introduces readers to several people living out Lewis’s attitudes and actions (as related to women) in their own life experiences. The book includes study questions for individual reflection or group discussion.
We’re eager to hear from readers. Besides editors, our first readers were people who recommend the book, a four-page list including your country’s Brian Sibley, author and broadcaster known for BBC serializations and other work on Lewis and Tolkien. By the way, several of your beloved and well-informed countrymen on all things Lewis wrote chapters – Alister McGrath, Jeanette Sears, Colin Duriez, Michael Ward, Malcolm Guite – respected thinkers on both sides of the pond.
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There is a popular image of Lewis as a dry scholar, unfamiliar and afraid of women – probably partly due to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in Shadowlands. How far does this differ from Lewis in real life?
Great question! I generally admire the acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but I think he missed it with his portrayal. Lewis had a huge personality – in addition to his deep intellect, he was witty, overflowing with mischief and fun, and enormously generous to people of all walks of life. His pursuit of “joy” and appetite for a full life helped him to overcome his dark periods – spells of winter, some resulting from relationships that weren’t always healthy or balanced.
The first half of the twentieth century had a very different view of women to today. To what extent was C S Lewis a man of his time, and that we should make allowances for that?
Glad you asked. Readers of Women and C.S. Lewis may be surprised to learn how he interacted with women, particularly intellectual/literary women – supporting their work and responding both personally and professionally to their thinking and writing.
In fairness, not everyone we invited to write chapters agree with each other on Lewis’s views of women, and readers will learn why in their well-developed arguments. One commender, Charlie Starr, said the book makes “no attempts to smooth over beliefs unacceptable today.” Marjorie Mead said, “Attitudes and resulting actions towards others matter greatly, and this is certainly no less so, when they are informed by understanding based on gender.” Brian Sibley said the book is “full of shared wisdom and cogent argument that will challenge your perceptions of Lewis and his world.” Eric Metaxas is grateful, saying, “Thanks! Someone needed to write this book.”
Lewis – just a man of his time? I especially direct readers to Alister McGrath’s chapter on The Inklings, placing them in historical context yet noting that Lewis was “blind to gender,” and to Monika Hilder’s piece on the shifting heroic paradigm of the masculine and feminine in literature in which she dares to ask: Is Lewis sexist or are we the ones who are sexist? Her answers and explanations are rich and deep with analysis. Randy Alcorn observes that, while Lewis called himself a dinosaur, “…in the deeply respectful tone in which he speaks about women, he seems more ahead of his time than behind it.”
Clive Staples Lewis
There are some passages in his writings that do feel uncomfortable to modern readers – I am thinking in particular of the ‘instruction’ to Jane to have babies in That Hideous Strength and the description of the young woman in The Shoddy Lands. How should we approach these passages?
Like all people, Lewis was flawed. But I see a trajectory of growth in his views, relationships, and actions. If you read each section’s introduction in the book, in addition to the contributors’ chapters, you’ll discover that we unpack this trajectory. Naturally, as an atheist-turned-Christian (greatly used by God to explain the life of faith in Christ), Lewis was thoroughly informed and influenced by scripture.
You didn’t mention comments about Susan no longer being a friend of Narnia. Look for eye-opening chapters by Devin Brown, Joy Jordan-Lake, Steven Elmore, David C. Downing, Christin Ditchfield, Andrew Lazo and others who examine sexist claims in his fiction. (You haven’t asked if we “name the names” of critics who use words like misogynist to describe Lewis, but the answer is yes. Some of the names surprised me.)
We even have a section on Lewis’s poetry, what it reveals about his views on women. Writers are Malcolm Guite, Kelly Belmonte, and Brad Davis.
How influential were the women in his life? Not just his mother and wife but the young women such as Jill Flewett?
People fascinated with how Lewis interacted with and was influenced by key women will want to read chapters about his mother, Flora; his supposed “second mother,” Mrs. Moore; and, of course, his wife, Joy Davidman. Writers are Crystal Hurd, Paul McCusker, and Lyle W. Dorsett. Don W. King wrote about Lewis’s relationship with Ruth Pitter.
Your thoughtful question reminds me that Randy Alcorn discusses Flewett and other relationships. I agree that we can understand an influential person’s views and treatment of a segment of the population more thoroughly by looking beyond the “major players.” So we invited Colin Duriez to address Lewis’s relationships with a range of these women, including Flewett, in his delightfully entitled chapter, “C.S. Lewis and the friends who apparently couldn’t really have been his friends, but actually were.” His title plays with the idea that a supposed sexist or misogynist would have run from friendships with women, but Lewis did not.
We encouraged our thinkers/writers to color outside the lines of their chapter assignments. For example, some contributors examined how one relationship impacted another relationship Lewis had later in life – or how certain relationships impacted his work. (How could we not discuss Joy’s huge influence in his later books?)
In fact, Lewis’s relationship with Dorothy L. Sayers is so interesting we devoted two chapters to it, one by Crystal L. Downing, another by Kasey Macsenti.
Be aware that contributors examine – without flinching – some of today’s culturally more difficult writings by Lewis, such as his essay on women priests, his views on sex, etc. Look for chapters by Jeanette Sears, Kathy Keller, Michael Ward, Holly Ordway, Mary Poplin, Brett McCracken, John Stonestreet – excellent thinkers and writers.
I, for one, will be interested to see if readers come to some of the same conclusions as our contributors – even to my personal speculation about why some critics have tried to discredit Lewis with labels like “sexist” and “misogynist.” They can write to me via my website – www.carolyncurtis.net.
I was struck by Andrew Lazo’s argument that Till We Have Faces, by placing female characters at the centre, is very modern (or post-modern) work. I was reminded of writings such as Foe by Coetzee or The Wide Sargasso Sea who do something similar with previously silent voices. Do you think this was a conscious effort by Lewis to write from a female perspective?
Do read our chapter by Andrew Lazo! He explains his newest observations. He convinced me that, yes, Lewis set out to write Faces from a woman’s perspective (and why Lewis wrote it that way), taking a huge professional risk for a male author of his era. Andrew tells how the effort enriched Lewis’s marriage. Andrew also describes his significant conversation on this subject with Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham.
Which reminds me: Have I mentioned that the book’s cover photo was shot by young Doug when he was only eleven? Our brilliant cover designer, Jonathan at Lion Hudson, added the color. We are grateful to Doug and to others at the C.S. Lewis Estate. Walter Hooper kindly calls the book “A remarkably fine tribute to C.S. Lewis.”
What do you hope people take away from Women and C S Lewis?
First, accept that Lewis was human – and complex. However, he changed and grew in wisdom as he submitted himself (kicking and screaming, as we Americans say) from disbelief in God to a full life of faith and submission to God’s will. Lewis found “joy” in every sense of how he used that word. And that joy is available to all who seek Christ and serve Him.
Second, any look at Lewis’s life and work is an examination of God’s faithfulness. The trajectory of his life is really God’s story at work in any of us, if we will allow it.
Third, Lewis’s view of women is relevant in today’s news environment. Gender is at the heart of issues ranging from government legislation to literal battlegrounds. I hope readers of Women and C.S. Lewis will dig more into what Lewis said – and will depend more on Lewis’s source for truth, God’s Word.
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