by James O’Fee
The Backward Glance: C. S. Lewis and Ireland, by Ronald W. Bresland,
(The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1999) ISBN 0 85389 746 8, paperback, 140 pp, 8.50 (UK), $17.95 (amazon.com).
C. S. Lewis, at Home in Ireland by David Bleakley, Foreword by Walter
Hooper (Bangor, Northern Ireland: Strandtown Press, 1998) ISBN 0953 55120-2, paperback, 202 pp, 9.99 (UK), 13 postpaid to any other country. Available from Strandtown Press [8 Thornhill, Bangor BT19 1RD, Northern Ireland, Tel: Bangor 454898]
When Kathryn Lindskoog asked me to review Ronald Bresland’s fine book, I realised quickly a need to deal with David Bleakley’s equally fine book, published a year before. Bleakley’s has a similar theme, but his treatment is quite different, so that there is little overlap in content between the books. I David Bleakley has produced an enjoyable and readable personal memoir for the Centenary of Lewis’s birth in 1998. The author is well-known in Northern Ireland. He holds the CBE, the honour that C.S. Lewis, turned down. David began his public life as a Labour MP in the Northern Ireland Parliament, and he became a Minister in the Northern Ireland Government. In the spiritual sphere, Bleakley was General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches and became President of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society.
Bleakley’s focus is on Lewis’s Irish background, but he adds other material, such as that on the Cowley Fathers, where he has specialist knowledge. He supplements this with information from his many correspondents, the prominent and the obscure.
Bleakley begins at a gallop. Within a few pages we find messages honouring Lewis from the President of the Irish Republic, Mary McAleese, from the Nobel-Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and from the flautist James Galway, Belfast’s “Man with the Golden Flute”. More messages follow, including one from another Nobel Laureate.
David Bleakley grew up in a working-class home in Strandtown, Belfast, close to the Lewises’ Dundela Villas. Like Lech Walesa, Bleakley left school to work as an electrician in the local shipyard. Then about 1945 the course of his life changed when he applied for and won a Trade Union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford.
At Oxford a remarkable incident occurred. Hearing the young man’s accent across a crowded student cafe, C S Lewis came over and introduced himself to Bleakley. Finding that Bleakley came from the same suburb, indeed from the same church, as himself, Lewis invited Bleakley to call on him at Mag-dal-en College “although these funny English people call it Maudlin College”. A friendship blossomed despite their many differences; for example Lewis did not favour the subjects that Bleakley was studying, politics and economics.
Bleakley relates several anecdotes illuminating Lewis’s Irish side, which include the origin of Lewis’s definition of heaven as “Oxford lifted and placed in the County Down”. Bleakley presents a detailed picture of the Strandtown, where C S Lewis grew up. He adds valuable photographs, including one of Gundreda Ewart, whom Lewis considered the most beautiful woman he had known. And he tells of Lewis’s little-known “father-confessor” in the Cowley Fathers at Oxford.
Bleakley has a selection of charming letters on Narnia from Belfast schoolchildren. There are messages from a “cloud of witnesses”, which include the Heads of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in Ireland and the leaders of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist denominations. The collection concludes with a letter from evangelist Billy Graham!
The whole is an engaging mix, reflecting the author’s imagination, industry and enthusiasm. The book has sold well in Ireland, and it deserves a wider readership abroad.
Ronald Bresland’s book is the product of his year 1997-98 as a Research
Fellow attached to the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University,
Belfast. The book follows a biographical format, but the theme is literary criticism, an investigation and appreciation of how Lewis’s Irish background influenced his work.
Bresland first learnt of Lewis at his primary school where a teacher read the Narnia stories to her class. Bresland commands a deep understanding of the literature of Ireland, and during his fellowship he studied important primary sources, notably the copy of the “Lewis Papers” held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. His book has the welcome scholarly additions of Index, Bibliography and so on (lacking in the Bleakley book).
Bresland identifies Irish connections with Lewis at several levels. Among Irish writers, W B Yeats was a major influence on Lewis’s early poetry. In the 1920s Lewis met Yeats in Oxford when Lewis discovered Yeats’s fascination with the occult. Shortly afterwards, a brother of Mrs Janie Moore became deranged and died in torment. Lewis blamed the brother’s interest in the occult, and Lewis would reject the occult as a dangerous snare. Bresland traces the influence of the episode in forming Lewis’s first attempt at a novel, what Bresland calls the Ulster novel (really only two chapters), set on the Liverpool-Belfast ferry and then in Belfast.
About 1917 Lewis was attracted to the ideas of the Romantic Nationalist movement, associated with W B Yeats and his circle. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves of his love for the Ireland of “Patsy Macan” (sic) and declared that if he ever were to become interested in politics, he would be a nationalist. (Patsy MacCann is a character in a novel by Irish writer James Stephens.) Lewis also writes that, if he were ever to publish (ie the material that became Spirits in Bondage), he would choose the publisher Maunsel in Dublin to “tack myself definitely onto the Irish school”.
Yet shortly afterwards Lewis was writing to Greeves of the danger of the ‘New Ireland school’ becoming a cult, or an intellectual by-way. Lewis wrote of the importance of keeping ‘in the broad highway of thought’, to ‘feel what can be felt by all men, not merely a few’. This about-turn was decisive – how greatly Lewis would succeed in the aim of communicating what ‘can be felt by all men’. ‘Spirits in Bondage’ was later published, but not in Dublin.
Frank Frankfort Moore wrote a satire on Ulster life, The Ulsterman (1914), which may have influenced the young Lewis in his part-satirical “Ulster novel”. Earlier unpublished texts of Lewis’s reveal his familiarity with Frankfort Moore’s book. Lewis knew well the work of perhaps Ireland’s greatest Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift — Lewis’s science fiction may have been influenced by Swift’s Gulliver.
Amanda McKittrick Ros was an Ulster writer beloved of The Inklings. Her novels are wildly melodramatic and romantic — she may be said to bear the same relation to prose that William McGonigal does to poetry. The Inklings amused themselves by a competition as to who could read the longest passage from Amanda’s works without laughing. One winner was John Wain who, Warren Lewis records, was able to read an entire chapter without a smile.
Albert Lewis had dealings with Amanda through his legal work. Amanda wrote Albert Lewis a letter published in Jack Loudan’s biography of Amanda, O Rare Amanda (London, 1954). Bresland has done us a service by re-printing this choice item.
Forrest Reid was a Belfast author of whom CS Lewis wrote an appreciation for the magazine Time and Tide. Both authors dedicated books to their friend Arthur Greeves. David Bleakley adds that Arthur Greeves arranged outings into County Down for Reid, Lewis and Greeves together. Bresland reproduces Arthur Greeves’ portrait of Reid, which hangs today in Reid’s old school.
Louis MacNeice was a poet and author from Ulster with whose background
Lewis had much in common. MacNeice gave his best-known play for radio the ominous title of “The Dark Tower”. Yet the two had opposed views of modern poetry and MacNeice was a friend of Lewis’s old rival for the poetry Chair at Oxford, Irishman C. Day Lewis.
At another level, many of CS Lewis’s closest emotional ties were with fellow-Ulstermen and fellow-Irishman, for example Arthur Greeves, Warren Lewis, WT Kirkpatrick, and Janie Moore. Bresland adds the names of many more Irish friends.
In his domestic arrangements, Lewis often lived with Irishmen (and women). Kirkpatrick spoke “purest Ulster” and Kirkpatrick’s Bookham became almost an Ulster colony in deepest Surrey. For many years The Kilns at Oxford, too, resembled an Irish enclave.
The Irish landscape continued to inspire and refresh Lewis throughout his life, yet at times he less sympathy with the human inhabitants. In a letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of Ulster, “The country is very beautiful and if only I could deport the Ulstermen and fill their land with a populace of my own choosing, I should ask for no better place to live in.” Bresland shrewdly argues that Lewis did precisely that in his Narnian stories. Narnia can be seen as an idealised Ulster populated with creatures from Lewis’s imagination.
This is a fine and well-argued book. There are, however, a few sins of commission and omission. Among its flaws is no mention of David Bleakley and his work, which preceded Bresland’s into print by a full year. The dust-jacket compounds the error by claiming that Bresland’s book is the first to examine how Lewis’s Irish background affected his life and work. Moreover Bresland mistakenly claims to present the first detailed appraisal in print of the “Easley fragment” or “Ulster novel”. By her work included in Light in the Shadowlands, your Editor preceded Bresland by five years. Please accept apologies from Ireland.
Bresland writes that W T Kirkpatrick was born in Belfast — he was born on a farm in County Down. And Bresland fails to mention Lewis’s tribute to Kirkpatrick, the character MacPhee in That Hideous Strength. Bresland ignores two Irish denizens of The Kilns. One was the widow Mrs Alice Moore, for whom Lewis built a bungalow in the grounds where she lived in the 1930s. Another was Vera Henry, through whom her native County Louth became a favoured holiday destination for Warren Lewis. Vera helped with the cooking at The Kilns in the 1940s and, with her brother Frank, so charmed the Lewis brothers that Warren began to take holidays at Annagassan, County Louth. Vera died in 1953, but Warren Lewis had developed a liking for these Irish breaks, where C S Lewis would often join him. Frank Henry, blessed with longevity, drove the Lewises on many of their Irish jaunts and lived to see the Lewis Centenary. Finally, omitted is any reference to Mary Rogers’ fine article “Narnian Ulster”. Despite these minor defects, The Backward Glance is a well-written addition to Lewis scholarship. A wonderful selection of period photographs supplements and illustrates the text. The whole is a delight.
Note: As noted on p. 9, the omission of Light in the Shadowlands has been corrected by a note from the publisher.
To read a book properly is to wake up and live, to acquire a renewed interest in one’s neighbors, more especially those who are alien to us in every way. Henry Miller