I have now reached the end of the monster, 2,000 page, volume three of the collected letters of C. S. Lewis. I seem to have averaged around 300 letters a day. It is quite a testimony to the charm of his literary style, even with stock letters, which many of these were, that I reach this point without burning eyes and a headache.
Most of the letters are perhaps of limited interest. Nevertheless there are enough new ones which are interesting to make the task worthwhile. I took to folding down corners on letters I might want to look at again, after about 900 pages. I should probably do the same again.
These five days immersed in another man’s life have been a little surreal. For that is precisely what so long a book, even skimmed as I did, involves. I think a better sense of the ordinariness of it all comes out; what we might have felt if we had met Lewis professionally, or something.
One thing that I had never realised was that his final illness began not that long after the last volume of the Narnia stories was published. This was in 1954. He fell ill in 1957 and was never well again, dying in 1963. How much of his possible output we must have lost! He died young, in other words, growing “old early” in his own phrase. To become an invalid in your mid-50’s is a sad thing.
Likewise I had never realised that Till We Have Faces was conceived under the influence of Joy Davidman. I cannot say that I like this work, nor the later fragments in a similar vein. The Lewis that we all loved in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, and in the Narnia stories, seems to disappear under this influence.
Another detail that comes out from this collection is that Lewis was not treated rightly, financially, by Geoffrey Bles, his publisher. The details of the sums involved are not given, but one example that is given is the way that the US rights for Lewis’ books were dealt with. Originally Bles arranged for US publication. The US publishers sent Lewis’ royalties to Bles, who deducted a ‘fee’ before passing on what remained. On the retirement of Bles, he wisely took himself to a literary agent, which meant that the last two Narnia stories had a different publisher, but also that much greater sums were paid in royalties.
Again it is curious that Lewis had apparently never heard of the IVF (now UCCF), even though it was the largest student Christian movement in both Oxford and Cambridge at the time.
Is this volume an essential purchase? I could hardly say so. On the contrary, this is barrel-scraping with a vengeance! But even so, enough remains of the summer wine to be worth sampling.