C.S. Lewis’ thinking on sex, and sexual references in his biography, have puzzled readers and scholars alike. He hasn’t always seemed as “Christian” as some Christians would like. “Is C.S. Lewis too Sexy for America?” the Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson recently discussed.
The suggestions of queer sexuality in Lewis’ biography are even more startling, and more remote from his perceived image. We might begin from the scatalogical talk often found in his family, a theme that Andrew Rilstone detailed in 2006. As noted in biographies, when Lewis was a toddler, his nursemaid, he recalled, threatened to smack his bottom. For his brother Warren, or “Warnie,” Lewis would forever be “Smallpigiebotham” —Ii.e. “small piggy bottom,” shortened to “APB.”
This may provide context for Lewis having rejected his given name. As Warnie narrates the matter:
Disliking “Clive,” and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger to his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.” He stuck to this the next day and thereafter, refused to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then Jack.
Warnie doesn’t note that “jacksie” was an ordinary British slang term for the anus.
Both boys were packed off to boarding school. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalls that the older boys who were leaders, called “prefects,” made sexual use of younger boys. Startlingly, Lewis describes the sex as a bright spot in a world that was mostly just cruel. “In his unnatural love-affairs,” he writes, the prefect “forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are.”
Lewis doesn’t say he was himself used in this way, but he had described the event in familiar terms, without citing any informant, or discussing how he had evaded such treatment. There might be other clues. Lewis had made his father take him out of one school by saying he would otherwise kill himself.
Christian scholars have downplayed Lewis’ discussion of school sex, following the lead of Warnie, who had said it wasn’t as bad as his brother said. But in a 2012 study, C.S. Lewis, Poetry, and the Great War 1914–1918, John Bremer observed that the matter may be more complicated. Warnie never married, never showed interest in women, and became a chronic alcoholic. A classic profile, Bremer writes, of “probable homosexual inclinations.”
He suggests that Warnie speaking of prefects having sex with boys in boarding school might be tricky, as Warnie had been a prefect.
Lewis’ first love?
While at boarding school, Lewis made his first friend. In Surprised by Joy he frames his meeting with Arthur Greeves as a “first love,” or love story. Greeves was a few years older and considered an invalid after being diagnosed with a heart condition — wrongly, as he later learned.
Both boys were bookish and interested in poetry and myth. They’d become lifelong friends. Lewis writes later of Arthur as not being an intellectual, but he had feelings, and “he taught me to share.” It seems that in their frequent letter-writing, Lewis found his own voice as a writer. He first calls himself “C.S. Lewis” in a letter to Arthur.
A biographer, A.N. Wilson, offers:
We could very definitely say that if it had not been for Arthur Greeves, many of Lewis’ most distinctive and imaginatively successful books would not have been written. The letters were the dress rehearsal for that intimate and fluent manner which was to make Lewis such a successful author.
A reader might not make a connection: Lewis’ warm, conversational writing voice was developed for his friend who was, it turned out, homosexual. Warnie had strongly hinted at it, recalling of Arthur: “He bears a remarkable resemblance to his sister Lily, even physically.” He added that Arthur was “a very good-looking man with the same golden hair and roses-and-cream complexion as Lily, and something of the same gestures and movements.”
Lewis’ readers are very familiar with Arthur, and not just from reading the letters. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes about his “first friend” as:
The man who first reveals to you that you are not alone in the world by turning out (beyond hope) to share all your most secret delights. There is nothing to be overcome in making him your friend; he and you join like raindrops on a window.
Arthur’s letters to Jack don’t survive, but Lewis’ replies seem to indicate that Arthur had been dropping hints about his sexuality. Lewis replies once, jokingly, that “you must have very depraved taste if you like THAT passage…” Then it seems Arthur wrote him a kind of coming-out letter. The matter focused on the issue of how to name what Arthur felt that he was. He seems to have disliked the word “pederast,” and preferred the word “Uranian” as was being used. Arthur was reading Edward Carpenter, the Christian advocate for homosexual acceptance — a startling reference to find in Lewis’ early spiritual biography.
Lewis replies on May 23, 1918:
Congratulations old man. I am delighted that you have had the moral courage to form your own opinion, independently, in defiance of the old taboos. I am not sure that I agree with you; but, as you hint in your letter, this penchant is a sort of mystery only to be fully understood by those who are made that way — and my views on it can be at best but emotion.
Arthur talks about his queer role models, like the sculptor Cellini. Arthur seems to chat about a boy he likes. Lewis replies on December 2, 1918: “Are you still bound to him by the chains of desire as well as by ‘pure’ friendship?”
Was Lewis himself attracted to Arthur? The intimate tone of the letters can make biographers wonder.
As George Sayer writes in 2005:
Jack was sensitive all his life to every sort of beauty, and he was attracted by Arthur’s charm and striking good looks — his fair hair, fresh complexion, and blue eyes. I have been tempted to suppress this obvious fact, because I know it may encourage some people to speculate that they may have had a sexual relationship.
What was the nature of their relationship? It seems to have been, somehow, in love. In 1916, Lewis writes in a poem for Arthur that has them wandering together through some poetic space:
Roaming — without a name — without a chart —
The unknown garden of another’s heart.
Arthur was the Christian one, Jack the atheist. In their letters, Arthur instigates discussion of religion, trying to get Jack to think about the bigger issues. Jack laughs it off. For him, the world is godless, cold and bleak.
The Christian hero seems to have had his spiritual course paved by his queer friend. As Bruce L. Edwards writes in a 2007 biography:
From Greeves, Lewis learned charity and kindness, and it always pained Greeves when the “arrogant atheist” Lewis would rail and attack Christians and their faith. But Greeves was always patient with Lewis, and it is significant that when Lewis passed on from merely believing in God to definitely believing in and deciding to follow Christ, Arthur Greeves was the first person he notified.
The teenage Lewis had his own sexual interest, which was erotic spanking. The references are embarrassing to the Christian biographer. Harry Lee Poe offers: “How this bizarre perversion arose, one cannot say…”
The story appears to be that the idea arose as Lewis had been fantasizing about Arthur’s sister Lily. He’d then read about erotic whipping in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade. The overall suggestion is strange. Lewis was fantasizing about spanking the sister of his queer best friend — who looked similar to each other — when Arthur might have preferred to be the receiver?
The boys talk about it. As Poe narrates:
Jack realized that his obsession with whipping beautiful women was not normal, and he was surprised that Arthur could even engage him in conversation about it when it did not appeal to him. On the other hand, Arthur may have been attracted to the topic from the other way around. Jack suggested that Arthur would enjoy being whipped by “some Eastern queen.” Jack did not mind telling Arthur that he would enjoy whipping Arthur’s sister and that it would do her good.
It’s not clear whether Lewis ever spanked anyone — other than himself. He writes to Arthur about his frequent masturbation as causing him to despair.
Lewis doesn’t appear to have been a spanking fetishist later in life, but some odd suggestions do peek through. In his later children’s novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is the character of a dwarf who wields a whip. The only person whipped is the boy Edmund, who reads for many readers as queer.
Lewis seems to have evaluated other men he liked in similar terms. When he later meets a young J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis calls him “a smooth, pale fluent little chap — no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
Jack, Warnie and ‘Mrs. Moore’
Lewis launched a romantic relationship, then, with an older woman. Serving in World War I, he says he made a pact with a fellow officer that they’d care for each other’s families if the other died. But Lewis seemed really to like Janie Moore. He was 18, she was 45 — the age at which his mother had died. Jack, Warnie, and “Mrs. Moore” lived together for three decades.
The nature of the relationship isn’t clear. She can seem to be mother and lover and demanding and difficult. Warnie writes in his dairy:
It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s life is subordinated to hers — financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens…
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes that “one huge and complex episode will be omitted” — evidently referring to Mrs. Moore. He only says that, until that point, he’d been unemotional and cold, but that was “very fully and variously avenged.”
He’d become an emotional mess. And wouldn’t speak of it. He found Jesus, and his Christian ministry began. A.N. Wilson wonders if Lewis hadn’t used religion “merely to give himself an excuse to abandon sexual relations with Mrs. Moore, whatever the nature of those relations had been.”
Lewis became Anglican, with Catholic edges, always “high church.” But Evangelicals in America liked the story of the brilliant intellectual who’d found Jesus. He was on the cover of Time magazine.
Later, Lewis became a star in this religious community, but it was a tepid interest initially. He was never keyed into many concerns of American Evangelical culture.
He lacked the “masculine” stance and attack that their clerics often summoned. He “writes like a woman,” a reviewer said dismissively in 1953. Lewis responded: Is that not praise? And cited Sappho, and the Virgin Mary.
Surprised by Joy
That he was a bachelor would have been, for his American Evangelical fans, very concerning. But then Lewis married Joy Davidman, a Jewish divorcee with two sons, who’d come to England to meet him in 1952. They ended up marrying in a civil ceremony on April 23, 1956, and had a religious ceremony the following year.
The story of the marriage has not been very clear. Davidman had a feminist boldness, and Lewis seemed to like that, especially as it prompted her to unladylike speech. He writes that she was “quite extraordinarily uninhibited. Our first meeting was lunch at Magdalen, where she turned to me in the presence of three or four men, and asked in the most natural tone in the world ‘Is there anywhere in this monastic establishment where a lady can relieve herself?’ ”
Lewis himself had a problem of frequent urination throughout his adult life, and during the course of their marriage, had a catheter installed. He married her to avoid deportation, as he wrote to a few friends, including Arthur. Sex was out of the question, Lewis adds, since Davidman was divorced. On the Christian logic from Matthew 19:9, it would be “adultery.” He adds: “An easy resolution when one doesn’t in the least want it!”
But then, the marriage became real. That’s the story. A fake marriage, done to help a friend, suddenly turned deeply passionate. If that would remain the public narrative, there were odd details. Lewis and Davidman went on a honeymoon — and Arthur went with them.
A cycle of poems that Davidman wrote in her final years was recently found and published. She seems to be writing here of her husband:
O my Antarctica, my new-found land
Of woman-killing frost!
Or in a later poem: “I wish you were the woman, I the man…”
The context, notes the scholar Don W. King, does seem to be the marriage, but he dismisses the poems as “hyperbole.”
Davidman died of cancer in 1960. Lewis wrote a brief 1961 book, A Grief Observed, about a man mourning his deceased wife. This seemed to many readers to be a non-fiction account of the Lewis-Davidman marriage. Their intimacies are discussed as very sexual. (“No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied…”)
But whether the book is fiction or non-fiction has vexed biographers. A sudden, physically passionate romance can seem implausible. Both Lewis and Davidman were at advanced ages, and both were unwell.
The manuscript of A Grief Observed reads like a journal that Lewis was keeping, but it was found only as a polished text. Unusually for Lewis, it was published under a pseudonym, only posthumously identified as his.
A visit from a young American
In 1963, a young American man came to visit Lewis. There was another bonding scene over bathroom talk. When Walter Hooper asked to use the “bathroom.” Lewis went to draw a bath — knowing he’d wanted what the Brits call the lavatory.
As Hooper recalls, Lewis asked him to stay on as a secretary. Warnie had done much of the paperwork, but the alcoholism had become incapacitating. Hooper later shared things he said Lewis told him — like that A Grief Observed was a novel, and that the Davidman marriage had been unconsummated.
In a memoir, Douglas Greshman, the younger of Joy Davidman’s two sons, then age 18, recalls of Hooper:
He was a handsome young man about fourteen years older than I, and he had a charm and gentle manner about him. He seemed at first to be almost in awe of Jack, and this I found slightly amusing, but, nonetheless, charming. He soon became popular with the whole household and his visits were looked forward to by all of us. Walter Hooper quickly took in the strange and difficult situation that existed at The Kilns and he tried to assist in every possible way.
Douglas recalls Lewis as “a tired, sick and grieving man, old beyond his years.”
In later years, Hooper describes his bond to Lewis in curiously wifely terms. “Lewis and I became more intimate, and finally he asked me to become his companion-secretary and I moved into his house,” Hooper writes in a 1979 memoir. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone quite so intimately as C.S. Lewis.”
He was remembered by Lewis’ friends in a 1974 biography. Lewis himself is quoted:
I want you to like him. I want all my friends to like him. He is a young American. Very devoted and charming. He is almost too anxious to please, but no fool. Certainly not a fool. I must have someone in the house when I go home.
The arrangement, however, seemed odd. The account continues:
While Hooper was out of the room, Mrs Farrer said to Lewis, “Jack, Austin and I have always thought you guarded your private life very jealously. Is it uncomfortable having Walter living in your house?” He answered, “But Walter is part of my private life!”
Preserving a legacy
Hooper returned to America, intending to resume as Lewis’ secretary — and then Lewis died while he was away. The cause was a heart problem, caused by a kidney infection, brought on by his catheter. Hooper returned to England just in time to save many of Lewis’ papers from Warnie’s destruction. It was all to be burned, just the personal papers of a writer fast being forgotten.
But Hooper saved what he could, and over the next years, working as a teacher, then Anglican priest, did a massive search for all Lewis’ work. Lewis hadn’t even kept copies of his own books.
Hooper seemed particularly interested to know what had gone on with Arthur Greeves. Lewis appears to have destroyed Greeves’ side of the correspondence, but Arthur had kept his, and given them to Warnie — after blacking out several passages. Hooper arranged for them to be X-rayed, and so the text was recovered. Hooper didn’t draw attention to the subject of Greeves’ sexuality, but A.N. Wilson later noted: “Arthur Greeves was homosexual.”
Though there’s little analysis of the matter, that the Christian hero had a queer friend was noticed by Lewis fans. One Christian site reports: “Lewis did not disassociate from Greeves because of it.” That was unexpected — for a Christian.
Hooper’s edition of the letters to Arthur Greeves, published in 1979 as They Stand Together, is a fascinating and largely untapped resource for queer studies.
Hooper made a few other curious moves. He produced a few “new” texts from Lewis’ archive that seemed to many readers very unlike Lewis, especially the half-formed, strange novella, The Dark Tower, which had oddly sexual, even homoerotic features. Among other points, this text became the basis for an American Evangelical Lewis scholar named Kathryn Lindskoog to wage a sustained, deeply personal attack on Hooper. She accused him of an array of forgeries. She sniffed around his sexuality, and insinuated all manner of misdeeds in various publications, including her books The C.S. Lewis Hoax and Sleuthing C.S. Lewis.
Other Lewis scholars sat on the sidelines as Hooper was the subject of what A.N. Wilson later calls “one of the most vitriolic personal attacks on a fellow-scholar… that I have ever read in print.” The matter became infamous, appearing in many popular publications, with Lindskoog regularly surmised to have found something suspicious, even if the details were unclear.
Hooper weathered the storm, perhaps because his services were so valuable to the C.S. Lewis industry. Year after year, Lewis stirred to life as a major religious voice.
It was no easy project. There was no video of Lewis, just some black-and-white photos, and snippets of audio. But Hooper found “new” essays lurking in libraries, and collected Lewis’ voluminous letters. New books appeared, and a whole imaginative world opened to Christian readers. There was Lewis’ fictional Narnia world, the scholarly meeting called the Inklings, “classic” books like Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and The Screwtape Letters.
It wasn’t Protestant, or Catholic, but somehow just Christian. It was like a shared room, a space in which the devout were allowed to be humorous, insightful, colorful, fantastical, feeling, intelligent, joking, querying — not always qualities that read as “religious.” Hooper was adept at marketing C.S. Lewis even to American Evangelicals in volumes like God in the Dock, an anthology tailored to their concerns.
In the popular mind, Lewis was mostly a sexless English professor, an extremely unusual profile for a Christian hero. His marriage was known, but a peculiarity. That was solved by the play and movie of Shadowlands, which found, however improbably, an affecting romance in the Davidman marriage.
And, in real life, Walter Hooper was his ambassador to the world, part scholar, part No. 1 fan. It was amazing to Lewis fans to be able to speak to someone who knew Lewis, a smiling, humorous man who’d serve you tea just as Lewis had served him.
The prefaces and endorsements Hooper wrote for many scholars became the gold standard for books about Lewis. And Hooper’s personal kindness and consideration became well-known.
He died on December 7, 2020, already ill, but with COVID-19. The Lewis scholarly community did a podcast memorial series in five parts. I listened to the nearly four hours of tributes — twice! The interviews are full of interesting information. I did not realize that C.S. Lewis had died, in 1963, largely unremembered. His funeral hadn’t been a public event.
There was little confidence at all among his social circle that his works would be remembered. Warnie, having inherited his brother’s estate, feared he’d personally become destitute! Lewis seemed a period writer. Hooper recalled going into a bookstore and seeing “a whole table of his books remaindered.”
Lewis became a Christian superstar only after he died — an unexpected development that flowed from Hooper’s public relations campaign of decades that involved incredible archival labor, canny promotion, charm, and sense of theater.
What was Hooper’s own story? A boy from North Carolina who’d been rejected by various religious institutions after checks of his sexuality, had come to England to pursue a semi-forgotten Christian author whose work had some quality he loved.
Lewis’ texts were written, but not the legend. And so, year after year, by Hooper’s unique skills, “C.S. Lewis” was born. Scholar after scholar in the new field of “Lewis studies” seemed, in the podcast series, personally moved by Hooper’s warmth and generosity, with many calling him “Christlike.”
No one mentioned that he was gay.
Jonathan Poletti has been published in Roctober, Tablet, the New Oxford Review and Salon and is currently a religion blogger and editor on the topics of LGBTQ, music, books, feminism, history and art at Medium.