Charles Wrong on Oxford Academics in Lewis’s Day

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 76, Spring 1998 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

It doesn’t altogether surprise me that A. L. Rowse said K. B. McFarlane detested Lewis. Apparently Magdalen College in their day was a real snake-pit of academic hates and intrigues. Probably that was, and is, true of a great many colleges, the typical academic personality being what it is. (And I’m one myself, and so was my father, and both my grandfathers.)

Rowse and McFarlane were close friends, but McFarlane was much the better historian of the two. A very fine tutor, as well. My brother has told me that he always took an interest in my subsequent career, and I’m grateful for this as well as his tutorial expertise.

I can’t judge McFarlane’s accusation that The Allegory of Love is bad history. Lewis always struck me as showing the highest and most scrupulous scholarship. Granted, McFarlane was a medieval historian; but his field was the 15th century and surely the Allegory deals with an earlier time than that. In any case, as Tawney said, “That men thought as they did is surely as important as that they acted as they did, and not less when thought and action were at variance.”

I have to admit I’m not very fond of A. L. Rowse. His marginal comments on Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton always struck me as peurile. And I wasn’t that impressed with him as a historian, having found one egregious error in his Bosworth (can’t now remember what it was). But it’s interesting, and commendable, that he should have admired Lewis as a man.

I’ve looked up Lewis in McFarlane’s letters. A letter written in June 1954 says that Lewis was persuaded to accept the new chair at Cambridge, and “all the good men in college are mourning. On the other hand, [A. J. P. Taylor] has declined consideration at Edinburgh, which doesn’t please the President (or me) very much.” I’m not sure McFarlane didn’t have his tongue in his cheek when he wrote that.