Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis: An Intimate Portrait of C.S. Lewis, edited by Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982)
A few weeks ago, I had the misfortune of discovering what an unattractive person Joy Davidman, C.S. “Jack” Lewis’s wife, was in real life. She was nothing at all what I had imagined, and certainly she bore no resemblance to the stoic and inspirational character portrayed by Debra Winger in the fictionalized biopic of Lewis, Shadowlands. I did my best to express my surprise at Joy in this essay in The Imaginative Conservative, though I freely admit that my reactions were raw.
Immediately after finishing the collected letters of Davidman, I read the diary of Warren “Warnie” Lewis, Brothers and Friends. I came away as satisfied reading this book as I was unsatisfied (and a bit scandalized) by Davidman’s collected letters.
Born three years before Jack, Warnie immediately strikes the reader as one of the most intelligent and earnest observers of greatness in the last century. Though he suffered from severe alcoholism, bouts of deep depression, and a strange kind of nervousness around the opposite sex, Warnie is lovable at every level. As the reader encounters a man almost utterly overshadowed by his famous younger brother, he finds himself cheering Warnie on, hoping he’ll get his life together. Perhaps most importantly, though, with Warnie, the reader discovers the wonders of this world afresh with an innocence shockingly devoid of cynicism (again, in complete contrast to Joy Davidman, who seems nothing but cynical).
In a rare moment of frustration, Warnie wrote the following, four years after the death of Jack:
CSL’s home, complete with the great man’s brother, is [now a] show piece for any American who happens to visit Oxford…. And what is the worst is it that this situation is going to continue for the rest of my life…. I suppose that on my death bed—or at any rate the day before I die—I shall have some verbose American standing over me and lecturing on some little observed significance of J’s work. Oh [drat], [drat], [drat]! [Diary entry, August 1, 1967]
An Inkling—again overshadowed by most other Inklings—Warnie served successfully as an officer in the British Army during World War I and through the 1932, being recalled briefly in World War II. After retiring at the age of thirty-seven, Warnie devoted himself to true leisure—reading, editing, writing, conversation, and walking. In addition to the multiple volumes of family papers, Warnie edited, he also wrote and published seven well-respected books on the history of seventeenth-century France as well as a memoir of his brother in 1966. This memoir, Brothers and Friends, it must be noted, is the single best original source on the Inklings in print.
Warnie’s love and admiration for Jack knew no bounds, and he supported Jack always, even when he was at a loss to understand the actions or motives of his brother. There are several of these moments in the diary—which never shies away from controversy, but always in a singularly earnest way—the most spectacular and, to Warnie, the most unnerving as Jack in 1921 allowed Mrs. Moore, the physically attractive, single mother of one of his buddies in World War I, to live with the Lewis brothers in their home. Jack ended up living with her in a bewildering relationship until the spring of 1950. Despite Warnie’s own reservations about Jack on this matter and his intense dislike of Mrs. Moore, he moved in with the lot upon his retirement from the British Army.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, much of the diary discusses the dysfunctional domestic situation at The Kilns, the Lewis’ home, with Warnie seeking escape from it all as often as possible. Reflecting years later on those years while in a somewhat nostalgic mood, Warnie remembered “all the horrors of The Kilns—the spite, envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, the thousandth repetition of the pointless story, the pervading discomfort.” As he viewed it, Mrs. Moore had enslaved Jack, though Jack had willingly allowed such enslavement. He had traded a tyrannical father for a tyrannical mother, but, in so doing, Jack had nearly destroyed his career and his life. In the memoirs, Warnie frequently imagined what Jack could have written and accomplished had Mrs. Moore not demanded so much of his time. Warnie, of course, would also have liked for that time to have been spent with him and not with him and Mrs. Moore.
Throughout the book, Warnie reveals many of his own attitudes toward the world, as gleaned from his service in the army abroad and from his travels through Africa, Asia, and the United States. As much as he enjoyed his time in the military, he hated the monotony and regimented aspects of army life. Like many conservatives of his generation, he never trusted politicians (we are all their “dupes,” he complained), and he hated anything that seemed to be innovation merely for the sake of innovation. He also offered a number of fascinating insights into the characters and thoughts of individual Inklings, including Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Christopher Tolkien. While quite close to J.R.R. Tolkien, he expressed much jealousy over the success of The Lord of the Rings, wondering why Jack could not have had that kind of success during his own lifetime.
A voracious reader, Warnie also comments wisely on the books he is reading, whether Virgil or Jane Austen. Never are these insights fruitless or simple page-fillers, even nearly a century after several were made. Warnie possessed an excellent sense of bibliographic observation, especially when it came to history or poetry.
Because of my own academic work on Tolkien, I had read through Brothers and Friends several times, but I had yet to read it from beginning to end. This was my first such reading. Two things surprised me about Warnie.
First, though the story of Jack’s conversion to Christianity is a familiar one, especially given his famous September 1931 conversation with Tolkien and Dyson that convinced him to convert fully to the faith, I had not realized that Warnie had converted earlier that same year. “My most interesting personal experience while I was away was that on Saturday last, 9th [May 1931], I started to say my prayers again after having discontinued doing so for more years than I care to remember: this was no sudden impulse but the result of a conviction of the truth of Christianity.” Given how much Jack idealized Warnie, it would not be at all surprising if this conversion shaped Jack’s decision as much as the conversation with Tolkien and Dyson. There’s nothing but speculation here on my part, but it is an interesting question, nonetheless. Certainly, when Jack wrote Warnie of his own conversion later that year, Warnie breathed a sigh of relief. “Had he not done so, I, with my altered views would have found—hardly a bar between us, but a lock of a complete identity of interest which I should have regretted.”
Second, I had not realized that Warnie, while rejecting Catholicism, had come to respect it in ways Jack never would or probably could. While visiting Catholic Ireland in 1947, Warnie took deathly ill, most likely from his alcoholism. He checked himself into a nearby hospital, The Convent Hospital of Our Lady of Lourdes, and, to his shock, he fell in love with these women, the first women in his life to impress him since his own mother had passed away. “To the Protestant—or at any rate to me—there has always been something sinister, a little repulsive, almost ogreish, about the practice of the R.C. Religion,” he recorded. Yet, after recovering, he recorded: “There could be nothing more preposterously unlike the truth: the first thing that strikes you is the radiant happiness of these holy and lovable women…. Whatever else it is, it is a life of joy, and a place of laughter.”
Warnie remained a friend to these nuns, and they to him, until his last days. It also seems that while he and Tolkien had been good friends prior to this, the correspondence that the two began during Warnie’s recovery dealing with theological questions really solidified their friendship. Certainly, it is clear that Warnie cherished his time with the nuns as well as his correspondence with Tolkien during what otherwise might have been truly dark days.
Sadly, Brothers and Friends is no longer in print, but there are numerous used copies floating around. If you like C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, conservatism, England, Ireland, humanity, poetry, western civilization, or anything that truly matters, do yourself a grand favor and order a copy as soon as possible.
Reading it, even in these dread and violent days of 2016, you might very well picture yourself comfortably seated in the rooms of an under-appreciated Oxford don, surrounded by great friends, talking of things that are meaningful, smoking some Old Toby, and drinking some of the finest Old Winyards. Certainly much better than Turkish Delight.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.