Don W King. Inkling, historian, brother: a life of Warren Hamilton Lewis. Kent State University Press: Ohio, USA, 2022. pp 300.
I am delighted to read a biography of CS Lewis's beloved brother 'Warnie'; coming fifty years after his death; long after I had resigned myself to being permanently starved of detailed information on this most warmly genial participant in the Inklings club.
I have read and re-read the published 1982 selection from Warnie's superb journal Brothers and Friends, until my copy fell to pieces and I had to buy another. What appealed was the eye for detail rooted in a gift for getting the maximum of enjoyment and appreciation from the small things in life; coupled with a natural gift for supple and memorable prose (of a completely different flavour than his brother's).
But the fact that Brothers and Friends never went into a second edition suggested to me that there was little interest in Warnie among the reading public. Nonetheless; I read everything I could find about him, and even contributed a tiny publication to the literature; but I was curious for more.
I was not disappointed by Don W King's book; and devoured it over just a couple of days. It fills in all of the 'gaps' of things that I most wanted to know.
I was especially interested by the details of Warnie's military service in the regular army, throughout and after World War I.
I would, however, dissent from King's evaluation of Warnie's 18 year army career as successful. I am struck by the fact that he retired with the rank of Captain - having not been promoted the next step to Major throughout his last 15 years of service (as would have been expected, I believe).
From Warnie's attitudes - expressed throughout the journal and letters quoted in this biography and elsewhere - I would infer that he performed his military administrative roles adequately, but no more - because he aimed for no more than that. From quite early on, he was essentially treating the army as a job; so he was aiming at the easiest possible lifestyle within the externally-imposed constraints, and culminating in an early retirement at age thirty-seven (i.e. as soon as an adequate pension had accumulated).
It was not until after he was recalled from the officers reserve in 1939 at the start of WWII that Warnie was given the 'acting', then honorary, rank of Major by which he is known among Inklings scholars; a title which he used thenceforth in civilian life.
(The convention in Britain was that retired officers should only use their rank as a civilian title, for ranks of Major or higher - i.e. not for Lieutenant or Captain.)
Another aspect of Warnie's life which is well described here, is his inland sailing in the narrow boat Bosphorus. This turned out to be a more important activity than I had realized - with Warnie spending anything from a quarter to a third of the year afloat in the middle 1930s.
These experiences also led to his first writing for publication, with several extended essays on aspects of buying and maintaining such vessels, and navigating inland waterways. From the excerpts and summaries provided by Dr King; these were very well written and full of interest - despite the extreme level of detail (eg accounting and diaries) which he incorporated.
Again, it was Warnie's spontaneous personal enjoyment of these 'small things' which was communicated to the reader.
I also enjoyed some further information on the January walking tours that Warnie took with Jack in the same era - between retirement from the army and the outbreak of war in 1939. These are among the best passages in the selection in Brothers and Friends, and more information in summary (but not Warnie's prose!) can be found in Joel Heck's CS Lewis chronology.
I personally would have appreciated even more detail and even more quotation from these walk diaries; especially considering that they were regarded by Warnie himself as among the high points of his life.
Short of paying a personal visit to the archives in Wheaton College, Illinois (which I doubt will happen) I don't suppose I will ever see all the material on this matter. But perhaps I can hope for a more generous selection from the diaries to be published somewhere, at some point.
A further excellent aspect of this biography is the detail concerning Warnie's history books about 17th century France - especially in the reign of Louise XIV. I don't take any pleasure in this era and place, but I have read the first of these volumes, and found it very well done - elegant and memorable.
It was good to know of the other volumes in this series; and of how well the books (especially the early ones) were received by historians and newspaper critics alike. It is a fine achievement - especially considering that Warnie had no university training, and did not become an historian until his late middle age.
In evaluating Warnie as a man; I believe that King has done a good job. Warnie's great character flaw was his alcoholism - he was of an archetypical Irish type of an intermittent but very extreme binger; periods of moderation or teetotalism, punctuated by drinking constantly and in large amounts for several days until he required hospital admission.
Alcohol also brought-out and amplified the worst aspects of his character; avoidance of unpleasant duties, self-indulgence, and snobbery. These traits were not apparent when he was relatively or absolutely sober; most of the time completely submerged by his personal considerateness and 'good manners' that were so personally attentive and kindly as to be outstanding, even remarkable.
Warnie seems to have been sad, even a depressive, throughout life - and although he had a few good friends, it was his brother Jack that formed the focus of his love. Dr King describes this as 'dependence' - perhaps because it was a source of pain as well as joy; but I find this to be unpleasantly reductionist: great love does induce 'dependence' - but it is the love that is primary.
This leads on to a consideration of the faults and limitations of this book; because it is, throughout, prone to 'explain' Warnie's (and Jack's) characteristics in 'Freudian' terms. In other words, to explain personality in terms of childhood experiences (rather than, for instance, in terms of heredity); and to use concepts such a 'repression'.
For instance, Warnie's apparent - relative to Jack - lack of extreme and lifelong distress over the death of his mother when he was thirteen, is regarded as repression; and posited as a cause of later attitudes. Such unfounded speculations are so common among biographers, that they obscure the fact there is essentially zero positive evidence (and considerable counter-evidence) that there is any such thing as 'repression'.
Dr King does not seem to reach a clearly stated conclusion about the vexed question of the personality of Mrs Moore - and whether Warnie's negative descriptions and dislike of her are warranted or unreasonable. However, King does explore the issue very thoroughly; and he provides all the material necessary for a satisfactory understanding - especially in light of some recent revelations that 'solve' this longstanding 'mystery'.
My take is as follows: Living with Mrs Moore was - overall - fine for several years; but, due to senility, she progressively deteriorated first in personality, then in cognition, until it became a continual and worsening torment - both for Warnie and Jack too.
But this situation was exacerbated by the fact that Jack absolutely refused to acknowledge, or even discuss, the matter with Warnie; but instead behaved towards Mrs Moore with an absolute obedience showing neither debate nor dissent at her increasingly unreasonable behavior and demands.
Warnie was left to deal with this situation in complete solitude and without support; and found the whole thing incomprehensible, and deeply hurtful; but he never knew the reason for it. And this was probably a major life stress that contributed substantially towards the worsening alcoholism of Warnie's later years.
We now know that Jack had originally had a sexual relationship with Mrs Moore, but this had ceased when he became a Christian; after which Jack felt he had wronged her (i.e. wronged her by the earlier sexual relationship, especially since she was still legally married to Mr Moore), and (in summary) Jack determined to do a penance of looking after her in every way (without complaint) until she died.
This Jack told to Owen Barfield, who told Walter Hooper - who only revealed it in 2009 - and it became public only after Hooper's death. But, importantly, Jack never shared with Warnie the history of his relationship with Mrs Moore, or the nature of his vow to look after her.
I do not know why Jack decided to keep these facts from Warnie (I see no sign in any of Jack's writings), but I have little doubt that the lack of this information harmed Warnie in ways that I think Jack never realized. Jack seems not to have realized how badly the situation in The Kilns affected Warnie; or that it might have been ameliorated had the brothers been able to discuss things.
To conclude; Don W King's biography is a boon to fans of Warnie, and a book for which I am very grateful.
Its main 'fault' is that it is not twice as long - so as to include even more of Warnie's own words.
But perhaps Dr King will at some point be encouraged to extend his publishing endeavors on behalf of CS Lewis's 'older, but less famous, brother'?