Inkling, Historian, Soldier, and Brother: A Life of Warren Hamilton Lewis
A number of biographies have been written about Warren Hamilton Lewis’s younger brother, C. S. Lewis, but Don King is the first scholar to undertake a biography of the elder brother who played a key role in the founding of the Inklings, that remarkable group of friends in Oxford whose writings have become a permanent fixture in the annals of twentieth-century literature. Known to his family and friends as Warnie, and known more formally as Major Lewis, Warren Hamilton Lewis served in the Royal Army Service Corps from the beginning of World War I in 1914 until the beginning of hostilities between Japan and China in 1932. Thus, he managed to retire with an army pension, which would support him for the rest of his life, before the age of forty.
His eighteen years in the army provided Warnie Lewis with a global, if not cosmopolitan, experience of life, which took him to postings in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the fading days of the British Empire. He traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean as he circumnavigated the globe. He visited cities and locales as varied as North Africa, West Africa, Suez, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Panama Canal, and the United States. Such an experience of the world informed his seven volumes of the history of the age of Louis XIV, which probably accounts in part for the critical acclaim his histories received.
Long regarded as a thorough and meticulous scholar, Don King has left no manuscript or stone unturned in his effort to bring to life one of the most interesting of the Inklings. He leaves the reader in little doubt that he has turned every page of the eleven volumes of Lewis family papers which Warnie Lewis compiled and edited, as well as every line of the diary which Lewis kept throughout his life. One would expect no less from King, but he always surprises by turning up hitherto unknown or unpublished letters and documents which throw light on the subject at hand, as he did with his earlier definitive books on Joy Davidman and Ruth Pitter.1 King not only uncovers the primary resources that bring us close to the life of Warnie Lewis, but he also has the skill to weigh them and balance them against each other to give a critical picture of Warren Lewis independent of the brother he so loved. King pays attention to the major secondary works on C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, but he does not shrink from disagreeing with a received tradition when the evidence warrants it. Of particular value is the appendix in which King provides a summary of the similarities and dissimilarities of the brothers.
Warnie Lewis grew up in the home of a prosperous barrister and his college-educated wife in the Protestant suburbs of Belfast at the height of the power and wealth of the British Empire during Victoria’s last decade as queen and empress. Then his mother grew ill and died of cancer. Warnie, and eventually his younger brother, was sent to public schools in England where the boys initially suffered under a tyrannical headmaster before being sent to new schools. Warnie learned the art of getting along even when he felt socially and financially inferior to the other boys. His younger brother did not learn this skill. Their different experiences of Malvern College led to a breach between them in their teens that would not be healed until their twenties. In the meantime, a world war intervened and Warnie’s younger brother formed a strange attachment to the mother of one of his army friends who was killed in action. For the next thirty years, Warnie’s devotion to his brother and his resentment of the presence of Mrs. Moore would form the backdrop of his private life.
King does an excellent job of exploring Warnie’s day-to-day experience of life at the Kilns, the house and grounds near Oxford where the Lewis brothers and Mrs. Moore lived together with Mrs. Moore’s daughter from the early 1930s until Mrs. Moore went to a nursing home in 1950, finally dying in 1951. Warnie poured out his disgust for Mrs. Moore on the pages of his diary, but he did so with ample specific examples of what it was about Mrs. Moore that bothered him so much. She could be charming and gracious to visitors like Owen Barfield, who thought Warnie’s criticism of her was unwarranted based on his experience of her in the early 1920s and the two or three times he saw her in the 1930s, but she had both a public and a private face. Warnie’s descriptions of her behavior also show that she had skill at manipulation, humiliation, and conflagration. She constantly fought with her daughter, Maureen, which distressed Warnie greatly, until Maureen finally married and left the Kilns.
King provides a balanced view of Warnie’s attitude toward Mrs. Moore, but he also shows how their relationship contributed to Warnie’s growing problem with alcoholism. Warnie was drawn to his brother, but the price he paid for living with his brother was living with Mrs. Moore as well. The one brought him joy, but the other nearly drove him mad. She certainly drove him to drink. King points out that Warnie began keeping a list of irrational remarks that Mrs. Moore would make on virtually any subject, which illustrated that any subject, regardless of how trivial, could become the basis for a major quarrel. For peace to return, it was necessary that everyone submit to her judgment. King provides numerous examples of the variety of comments Mrs. Moore made which exposed an ignorant, unreasoning mind, but one will serve to illustrate. After seeing the 1933 film King Kong, Warnie gave his assessment of it:
Warren: “The fight between the prehistoric animals was amazingly done.”
[Moore]: “Were they real prehistoric animals?” (125)
Warnie and his brother endured a constant barrage of these kinds of remarks for decade after decade.
To a certain extent Warnie Lewis made a significant contribution to the literary output of his brother. C. S. Lewis could not type, and once The Screwtape Letters was published, followed by his radio broadcasts, he had an avalanche of mail to deal with every week. The younger Lewis felt obligated to respond to every letter. Warnie relieved a great portion of the burden by serving as his brother’s secretary. C. S. Lewis still had to answer the letters that required a more personal response, but Warnie composed and typed many of the routine acknowledgements for his brother’s signature which freed his time for writing.
On the constructive side, Warren Lewis played an important part in the beginnings and the continuing of the Inklings. At first, he belonged as a well-informed, well-read man who could contribute to a lively discussion of literature. When the group began about 1933, Warnie had begun his own editorial project of compiling the family letters, diaries, and other documents from 1850 through the death of his father a few years before. This project occupied his time and kept him in his brothers’ rooms at Magdalen College and away from the Kilns and Mrs. Moore during the day. Of course, he continued to write in his diary every day. He wrote in a lively, clear prose style that makes his writing a pleasure to read. Probably through the influence of the meetings with the Inklings, he soon undertook writing the first of what would eventually be seven books on the history of France during the long reign of Louis XIV. Writing became his new occupation after his retirement.
Two other enterprises kept him away from Mrs. Moore from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s. He bought a cabin cruiser to explore the rivers and canals around Oxford. He had a small galley and beds for two in the cabin, which allowed him to be away from the Kilns for days and weeks at a time. It also afforded him the opportunity to go on drinking binges without the interference of a solicitous brother or the bothersome Mrs. Moore. The other enterprise that took him away from the Kilns was Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Second World War. Warnie was called back to active duty as a captain, but he was soon promoted to acting major. He served in France until just before the collapse of the French and British armies. He had a series of bouts in the hospital, but we have no information about his hospitalizations. King surveys the opinions of other scholars who have speculated that he was hospitalized due to his alcoholism, but King sounds a cautious note at this point since we have no evidence upon which to speculate. Warnie was discharged from the army upon his return to England after his last hospitalization, with the thanks of a grateful nation and permanent promotion to major, which King points out would probably not have been the case if he had been discharged for behavior unbecoming due to drink. King does not downplay Warnie’s alcoholism and the toll it took on him and his brother, for which there is great evidence in Warnie’s diaries and his brother’s letters, but King is careful to draw the line between primary evidence and speculation.
This book provides a much-needed picture of the life of a man who had a significant literary career on his own and played a major role in the dynamics of the Inklings. Without Warnie’s diaries and his brother’s letters to him during his service at the beginning of World War II, we would know virtually nothing about the Inklings. He was always the first, last, and best friend of his brother, C. S. Lewis. He would have made life at the Kilns better for his more famous brother when he was also enduring Mrs. Moore.