Did CS Lewis have a secret romance with pal's mum before marriage to Joy?
As a festival marks the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis Una Brankin looks at the love affair that changed his life, plus a rumoured romance with an older woman
Published 18/11/2013 | 01:30
Shadowlands is up there with Out Of Africa and The King And I in the list of classic films based on real-life love stories. The beautifully shot tear-jerker brilliantly brings to life the Belfast-born writer, Clive Staples Lewis, known only vaguely by many until then for his fantasy children's books. Anthony Hopkins was highly convincing as the middle-aged Lewis, the thinking woman's crumpet for brash American poet Joy Gresham, played with gusto by Debra Winger.
Joy began writing to Lewis about her two young sons' love of his Narnia books in 1950. So enchanted was she by his letters that she flew to Oxford to meet him in 1952, an encounter depicted in a memorable scene from the 1993 British-made movie, when feisty New Yorker Winger enters the hallows of an all-male club at Oxford and, unable to identify her pen-pal, hollers out his name.
The uptight academic is slowly charmed and begins to relax his stiff upper lip as Joy introduces a bit of fun and spontaneity into his hitherto dull existence.
In a fact alluded to in the film, Joy divorced her alcoholic and abusive husband, novelist William Gresham, in 1954 after he asked her to participate in a threesome with his mistress.
Two years later Joy married Lewis and they honeymooned at the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn, one of his favourite haunts. The part-Jewish American and her children gave Lewis the happiest times of his life – but they weren't to last.
It's a heart-breaking true story – more of which later – but the film takes quite a few liberties with the facts. It portrays Lewis as a confirmed bachelor who has been leading a sheltered and stuffy academic life, sharing a house with his brother Warren, who he always referred to as Warnie. In literary circles it's believed, however, that the former Campbell College student was a toy-boy in his 20s for a much older lover.
While being trained for the Army in 1917, Lewis shared a room with another cadet, Edward 'Paddy' Moore, and the two made a mutual pact that if either died during the war, the survivor would take care of both their families. Paddy was killed in action in 1918 and Lewis kept his promise. Paddy had earlier introduced Lewis to his mother, Jane King Moore, and a friendship was quickly established between them.
Lewis was 18 when they met and Jane was a good-looking 45. The bond was particularly meaningful to the young man while he was recovering from his wounds in hospital, as his eccentric and distant father did not visit him.
Lewis lived with Jane until she was hospitalised in the late 1940s. He regularly introduced her as his 'mother', and referred to her as such in letters. His own mother had died of cancer when he was a child and he developed a deeply affectionate alliance with Moore.
Rumours about their relationship caught fire with the publication of AN Wilson's biography of Lewis. Wilson (who never met Lewis) believed the two had been lovers for a time. His biography, however, was not the first to address the question of Lewis's relationship with Jane.
George Sayer, who knew Lewis for 29 years, wrote in the introduction to the 1997 edition of his biography of his friend: "After conversations with Mrs Moore's daughter, Maureen, and a consideration of the way in which their bedrooms were arranged at The Kilns (the Oxford home they shared), I am quite certain that they were lovers."
Lewis always spoke highly of Jane, describing her as one of the most important people in his life. "She was generous and taught me to be generous, too," he told Sayer.
In 1930, he and his brother Warnie moved into The Kilns with Jane and her daughter Maureen. The four of them clubbed together to buy the house, which passed to Maureen when Warnie died in 1973. Jane Moore suffered from dementia in her later years and was eventually moved into a nursing home, where she died in 1951. Lewis visited her faithfully every day in the home until her death, by which stage he was in contact with Joy Gresham, a former communist and a convert from atheism to Christianity.
Shadowlands correctly shows Lewis as accepting Joy at first as an agreeable intellectual companion and friend, and on this basis he agreed to enter into a civil marriage with her in 1956, so she could continue to live in the UK with her sons David and Dominic.
Lewis's brother Warnie wrote: "For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun." However, after a fall and bouts of excruciating pain in her hip, Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. The tragic news brought the couple closer and the relationship developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage.
Since she was divorced, this was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time, but a friend, the Rev Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at Joy's bedside in the Churchill on March 21, 1957, another almost unbearably poignant scene in the wonderfully atmospheric Shadowlands.
Miraculously, Joy's cancer then went into a brief remission, and the couple lived happily as a family, along with Warnie, until her eventual relapse and death in 1960. The year she died, the couple took a brief holiday in Greece and the Aegean; Lewis was fond of walking but not of travel, and this marked his only crossing of the English Channel after 1918.
He continued to raise his two stepsons after Joy's death, which had challenged his faith and cruelly took a shining light from his life but led to some of his best philosophical work.
His book A Grief Observed describes his experience of bereavement in such a raw and personal manner that he originally published it under the pseudonym NW Clerk to keep readers from associating the book with him. Ironically, many friends recommended the book to Lewis as a method for dealing with his own grief. His authorship was only made public by publishers Faber after his death on November 22, 1963, at the age of 64. His passing was overshadowed by the assassination of President JFK on the same day. Two very different men, but equally brilliant and influential – the most definitely unstuffy writer Caitlin Moran (far left), for example, based her debut novel The Chronicles of Narmo, written at 16, on the Narnia tales, weaving them into her experiences of home-schooling.
The eldest of eight children, she was home-educated in a council house in Wolverhampton, and her debut novel is a laugh-out-loud account of how 15-year-old Morag Narmo and her siblings fare when their parents take them out of school and start schooling them at home.
With five children, two unruly pets and some eccentric attitudes in the home the experiment soon descends into chaos.
So even in death one of the greatest writers to come from Northern Ireland was still having an impact with the ladies.