Sunday 5 August 2012

The greatest mystery of C.S Lewis's life - is it so mysterious?


According to his brother Warren (Warnie), the greatest mystery of C.S Lewis's early life was his attachment to 'Mrs Moore' (Janie Moor or 'Minto')  from 1917 (when Jack was 18, and Janie was 45) to her death in 1951.

(The situation is well summarized in


The mystery comes from the absolute secrecy with which Lewis treated the business, so that the topic was out of bounds to everybody including Warnie (who lived with Jack and Minto) - indeed this was one topic about which Jack was routinely misleading, deceptive, dishonest - often describing Minto as his mother, even in letters written in Latin to the future Saint, the priest Don Giovanni Calabria.


Of course, nobody will ever know the truth about it, but the matter is comprehensible on the basis of Lewis's personality.

I believe that what happened was that the relationship between Lewis and Minto was initially sexual (this is now generally accepted), but when this ceased (the time and reasons for which are not known, but was almost certainly before or at the time Lewis gradually became a Christian around 1929-31), Lewis felt he had done Minto a great wrong.

At this time, I strongly suspect that Lewis made a vow to do service to Minto for the rest of his life, as a penance for the wrongdoing. I suspect that this was a private matter and that he told nobody - but for the rest of his life he stuck to this penance, and that this is what explained the extraordinary servility of the relationship between Jack and Minto for the last 20 or so years.

It would also explain the most tragic aspect of Jack's penance, the point at which its rigidity harmed the person he loved most: that is his brother Warnie.

Because this secret penance of Jack's affected Warnie in multiple ways, every day of his life - since the household now revolved around the whims of Minto with no possibility of discussion, no disagreement being allowed.


Jack would always side with Minto against Warnie on all matters where there was conflict, no matter now unreasonable, or even malicious, she became - which was deeply wounding to Warnie.

And even as Minto dwindled into dementia in the last years of Minto's life this continued - until the situation became unbearable for Warnie and he lived on his House Boat as much as possible throughout the later years of World War II. When this escape became impossible, Warnie took refuge in binge drinking.

For the rest of his life sustained binges of helpless drunkenness would punctuate things, leading to hospital admissions and almost killing him on several occasions. And of course, once established, alcoholism often is impossible altogether to dislodge; and leads to lying both to oneself and to others.


So the main ill effect of Jack's servile penance to Mrs Moore was inflicted his beloved brother Warnie.

That Jack would serve Mrs Moore as a rigid, inflexible penance for their early illicit sexual relationship seems highly plausible; that it caused Warnie's late life binge-drinking alcoholism was tragic.

But - given a couple of plausible assumptions - it is not really a mystery.



Wurmbrand said...

This is worthwhile, responsible speculation.

It prompts this reflection -- that vows should be rare indeed. Offhand I would say that most Christians should perhaps make only two vows in their lives: at Confirmation, and when they marry.

Usually what we see is that even these vows are not made in complete sincerity. A great deal of the misery that we see in society could be attributed to people not keeping these two vows.

But, on the other hand, one generally should not make vows.

(About Confirmation vows: I don't know about others' circles, but in mine, the Sunday service on which confirmands make their vows is the low point of the Church Year. Young people, having completed their years of catechesis, make vows which they break as of the next Sunday, when they fail to come to church. Thus their official entrance upon adult life as Christians is marked by insincerity. I think it would be well if there were public recognition of their having completed their Christian instruction, but a delay in their Confirmation. If in the interval they have been faithful in church attendance and other public marks of a Christian, then they could make their vows some time later.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - "vows should be rare indeed"

Yes, very true. Breaking a vow inevitably inflicts damage, keeping a vow may inflict even more damage - so a vow can lead to a 'double bind'.

I think this is something to do with vows being (usually) too narrow and too specific.

Ariston said...

Interestingly, Orthodox Christians do not swear vows; there are affirmations at baptisms and—especially adult baptisms—but they are of belief and membership in the community, not of particular behaviors. A lot of people are surprised that Orthodox do not even swear wedding vows (or monastic ones, for that matter). The only words my wife and I spoke when married were that we were there of our own free will.

Now, I'm not saying this as evidence of Orthodox moral superiority— I think Latin Christianity was correct to embrace the vow–centric nature of Roman law and culture for certain profound acts, like marriage (or, much later, monastic vows). They mirrored the law and culture of those peoples (though they may have less well–fit the later Germanic Christians). I think both traditions were vow–cautious in the religious realm; Christ's words on the matter were not forgotten.

However, those words are paired with the admonition that any verbal commitment is as strong as a vow; the condemnation is then about vows as hubris. The damage is there, no matter what, the vow may lead us into perverting the very meaning of the good that may have been sworn, which is an Aristotelian tragedy writ in a life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - thanks for the comment. I didn't know that.

Unknown said...

This is unfortunately a very one sided and poorly researched article. Note that I do not mind speculating if Lewis might have had deeper, more intimate affections for Mrs. Moore, but the writer of the article fails to address important details that make the situation much more difficult to comprehend OR assume one side or the other.

1. Lewis' mother, Flora Lewis, died in her bed at home on 23 August 1908. Lewis wrote in "Surprised by Joy" that the moment had chronically scarred him. "WIth my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life" (23). Mrs. Moore may have provided Lewis with a mere maternal affection that he greatly missed.

2. The absence of his father, Albert Lewis, also provoked Jack, as his friends called him, into searching for "family." Albert first sent Warnie off to school in England, which separated Jack from his brother and best companion. Lewis was later sent to schools in England, and detested them at first, referring to one of them by the name of a concentration camp "Belsen" when later writing about it. In his correspondence, Lewis often lied to his father, though he regretted these actions after becoming a Christian. After his father died, Lewis remained with Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They were "family" to him. Mrs. Moore had lost her son in the Great War, and in that respect, Lewis became the son and Mrs. Moore the mother.

3. The article mentioned the "tragedy" of Lewis causing Warnie's alcoholism. It's hard to find truth in such a statement, considering Warnie's past. Warnie not only fought in the trenches of WWI, he also served as an officer in WWII as well. Whereas Lewis found a way to compartmentalize the traumatic experiences in the Great War, Warnie found more solace in his alcoholic binges. As recorded by Alister McGrath in the biography, "C.S. Lewis: A Life", Warnie even missed part of Jack's funeral ceremony because he was drunk. Warnie may have had much more difficulty coping with the images of war, they seem to have had a permanent affect on him. It is also hard to believe that Lewis was the cause of Warnie's alcoholism, because Warnie had problems with alcohol before He knew Lewis had become acquaintances with Mrs. Moore. It seems more probably that Warnie's alcoholism was most likely due to his wartime experiences, and less because of Lewis' influence. One last further note is that Warnie's binges did not cease after the death of Mrs. Moore on 12 January 1951.

I do think it's a possibility that Lewis had sexual relations with Mrs. Moore, however this article assumed far too much about Lewis' life, while ignoring crucial details. Personally, I vouch that Lewis' did not have these relations with Mrs. Moore, that it was a maternal affection serving to replace much of what he'd lost with his biological mother. However, I cannot disprove that there may have been greater affections.

The case, then, still remains a great mystery.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MA - I'm sorry you find this poorly researched! - I presume you are a professional Lewis scholar who has been reading solidly for the past decade - because otherwise you couldn't possibly have read more of Lewis's work, and about Lewis and his circle than I have!

I think you really mean just that you *disagree* with this speculation.

I would regard points 1. and 2. as irrelevant to Lewis's secrecy and dishonesty about his relationship with Mrs Moore.

How childhood experience affects adult behaviours is a highly speculative field, fool of falsehoods (e.g. by Freud and influenced by Freud) - most empirical studies show zero measurable relationship between childhood experience and adult personality (see Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption).

Lewis himself is no more a reliable witness in this respect than anyone else.

wrt point 3 - Warnie's alcholoic binges were not a problem until the early 1940s - so far as I can tell from the available information - but I have NOT read Warnie's un-published diaries at Wheaton College. The problem is to explain why binge drinking began in a man in his fifties.

Of course, once the pattern of binge drinking has been established, this may have a permanent effect - it is clear that Warnie in middle age and later life became 'an alcoholic' in the sense of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he was not that way in the first 2/3 of his life.

"I do think it's a possibility that Lewis had sexual relations with Mrs. Moore" - I think the sexual relationship is now established, from the eyewitness circumstantial report of Maureen Moore (Mrs Moore's daughter) as reported by George Sayer in the revised edition of 'Jack' - his biography of CSL.