A review of “Letters To An American Lady,” by C.S.Lewis, Edited by Clyde S.Kilby

Before reading these letters I made the incorrect assumption that they were between C S Lewis and Joy Gresham, before he married her.

They are not.  They span the 13 years before his death (November 1963 on the same afternoon as the death of JFK) and are to a widow four years older than Lewis, Mary, “a southern aristocratic lady who loves to talk and speaks well.” This, together with the JFK link, I learnt in Clyde S.Kilby’s useful and concise Preface.  Mr Kilby, who edited the volume, puts the letters in context by summarising the key themes in Lewis’s theological thought that find their way into the letters, and highlighting the key events in Jack Lewis’s life that the letters cover.

In the course of these letters, Professor Lewis moved home and work from Oxford to Cambridge, met Joy, married her, and suffered her  loss, and became ill himself.  The letters become increasingly poignant as they chart Lewis’s decline, and end a few months before his death, with Lewis explaining he can only write letters that communicate “more of a wave of the hand.” 

The correspondence is one-sided.  Mary wished to remain anonymous.  But we gather that she was beset by problems at work, with unfair and jealous colleagues, with money and housing problems, and her poor health is a recurring theme.  Towards the end Jack jokes that between them it’s like a race to the grave.  Often, Lewis’s letters open with an “I am sorry to hear…” and you feel that Mary used the correspondence to offload and to seek to understand her suffering of various kinds.

Lewis addresses these themes of sufferings with many of the concepts of Christianity and ideas he describes in his other works; the sense of being refined by fire, of life being a disturbing dream before the true awakening (an idea repellent to many and not only of the humanist/atheistic creed), of the attempt at spiritual discipline being more important than the outcome, and more.  We can also find some of his other ideas on sins and virtue, of demonic interference, of man’s relationship to animals, and many others.

Lewis’s letters are brief and so these themes are often concisely and clearly expressed, and sometimes in a hesitant and testing way, as if he was thinking them through for the first time.  This, and together  with the minutiae of everyday domestic life and its joys and frustrations that the letters capture (cats, the weather, work and so on) the letters have a kind of warm ‘ordinariness’ around them.  There’s very little reference to politics and world events (a quoted reference to McCarthy as America’s Hitler stands out) but more on the societal and religious trends that Lewis finds antagonistic and disquieting, e.g.  the increase in liberal theology). 

The references to his marriage and Joy’s illness and subsequent death are poignant and powerful more for what they leave out.  There is no self-pity, no opening of the soul as “With the Grief Observed.”  Lewis is too mindful that he has his correspondent’s interests to attend to as well.  But we get a sense of the immense pain in the gaps and silences between the letters.

Jack Lewis, due to his fame as a writer and apologist for the faith, had many, many correspondents, and the Preface points out he felt duty bound to answer them all.  And so a common complaint in these letter is the amount of letters he has to address on a daily basis, and helps account for the brevity of the letters themselves.  But they are also testament to Lewis’s sense of service and duty to those who came to him looking for answers.  And it is testament to his power and skill as a thinker and writer that many still do.

letters from..

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