Friday, May 8, 2015

A Distressing Letter (CSL to OB)

So, the newest issue of THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES has arrived, and this time the story that caught my eye is the printing of a previously unpublished letter* from C. S. Lewis to Owen Barfield, dated July 5th 1949. According to the accompanying article by Walter Hooper which sets the letter in context, this particular letter was held back by Barfield when he sold the rest of his C. S. Lewis correspondence to Wheaton back in 1972, because it dealt with Warnie Lewis's alcoholism (Warnie was still alive at the time, dying early the next year, in April 1973).**

It makes for distressing reading, all the more so in that CSL was struggling with sickness (a strep infection) and exhaustion at the time as well as taking care of Janie Moore, who was suffering from alzheimer's, while trying to deal with Warnie's binge drinking. The usual pattern seems to have been for Warnie to check himself into a private hospital for detox, then sneak out each night to visit a nearby  pub for an evening's drinking. We've known for a long time that this was his pattern during vacations to Ireland, but it was news to me that he did the same in Oxford, at least during this particular (July 1949) episode.

All this is simply one man's personal difficulty, shared with his immediate family, but reading this makes me wonder: were Warnie's troubles a contributing factor to the break-up of the (Thursday evening) Inklings? We know that the Inklings ceased to meet on Thursday evenings just a few months later (in October 1949).  Presumably not, given that they continued to meet thereafter in a pub, unless Warnie's problem was not set off by beer but only by stronger drink (e.g., gin, whiskey) of a sort less likely to be served at a convivial luncheon.

All in all, a sad account*** of a good man's fatal flaw, and the misery it caused himself and others.

--John R.

*at least I'd certainly not seen it before, and it's not included in COLLECTED LETTERS, though several letters for CSL to Arthur Greeves discussing Warnie's condition dating from about the same time made their way into that collection.

**the original letter is now in the Wade; thanks to Laura for confirming its location for me.

***the main account of Warnie's alcoholism is to be found in the introduction to THEY STAND TOGETHER, the collected CSL/Arthur Greeves correspondence [1979];  I think this new account supplements rather than supersedes that older one.

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