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Sixty years after the death of C. S. Lewis, his bibliography remains a daunting benchmark for anyone aspiring to the title of “Christian public intellectual.” But few people know that much of it was written under circumstances that should have made it impossible to produce any work of significance. To his audience, he was the great “Mr. Lewis.” At home, it was another story, as his life was consumed with caring for a woman who didn’t appreciate his vocation at all.

Lewis first met Janie King Moore as a very young man training for war, together with her son, Paddy. The two future soldiers promised they would look after one another’s single parents if one of them died in combat. Young Lewis was drawn to Mrs. Moore, a spirited and maternal Irishwoman who was separated from her husband. When Paddy died, Lewis didn’t just look after his friend’s mother. He began keeping house with her. 

This is generally understood to be the “huge and complex episode” on which Lewis refuses to elaborate in his memoir Surprised by Joy. For decades, biographers were split over the precise nature of this peculiar relationship. A. N. Wilson believed young Lewis’s letters held enough subtle clues to put the burden of proof on scholars who thought the living arrangement wasn’t sexual. It was only after the recent death of Lewis’s secretary Walter Hooper that conclusive evidence emerged, as confirmed by Lewis’s lawyer and fellow Inkling Owen Barfield. In Hooper’s words, “Owen Barfield told me that yes, Lewis told him there had been a sexual relationship and it began really at the time, right after he came out of the army.”

This revelation shouldn’t have shocked attentive Lewis readers, whose letters hardly paint his younger self as a paragon of sexual morality. Further, his early contempt for “religion” would have been something he shared with Mrs. Moore, who was at best indifferent, at worst hostile to Christianity. It’s not difficult to imagine how these two lost souls might have formed a co-dependent entanglement—the woman without a man in her life, the man without a woman.

But young Lewis would eventually find himself most reluctantly on his knees, becoming a theist, in his rooms at Magdalen College. By Alister McGrath’s calculations, it was in that same year that Lewis and Mrs. Moore moved into the famous Kilns. There was a connecting door between their bedrooms, the only way Lewis could access the rest of the house without climbing out his window. Nevertheless, he chose to build a fire escape and bolt the connecting door shut. It would remain closed until Mrs. Moore’s death.

As far as we know, Mrs. Moore never relinquished her ingrained anti-Christian prejudice. As her affection for Lewis curdled into all-demanding possessiveness, she became a steady drain on his time and energy. We glimpse something of what he quietly endured from his collected correspondence with close friends and confidants. He always writes with characteristic warmth and matter-of-factness, never complaining, only asking for prayer. Sometimes he tells them the house is doing well, and sometimes he frankly confesses that things are “pretty bad.” For better or worse, this is the shape of his life. His prayer requests for Mrs. Moore are especially tender, touched with sadness. “Pray for Jane,” he writes to his long-time correspondent Sister Penelope. “She is the old lady I call my mother and live with . . . an unbeliever, ill, old, frightened, full of charity in the sense of alms, but full of uncharity in several other senses. And I can do so little for her.”

As the decade wound down, Lewis had become so overwhelmed with his “duties as a nurse and a domestic servant” that he had to turn down an invitation to discuss the future of the church with the archbishops of Canterbury and York. By 1949, he confided to a friend that he feared his creative well had run dry, and he might never write another book. Still, he found his peace in God’s will: “If it shall please God that I write more books, blessed be He. If it shall not please Him, again, blessed be He.”

That year would prove to be an annus horribilis for Lewis. To Barfield, he bluntly described a typical day highlighted by “dog’s stools and human vomit.” (Mrs. Moore demanded he walk her dog every few hours.) His alcoholic brother Warnie’s frequent “benders” further added to his burden. Under stress, his immune system weakened, and he became so dangerously ill with the flu that he had to be hospitalized for days. 

And yet, impossibly, by the end of this horrible year, Lewis would finish two Narnia chronicles and begin a third. By the time The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published, Mrs. Moore had gone into a nursing home. This caused Lewis great financial anxiety. Ordinarily, an author with his success wouldn’t be concerned about money, but Lewis had chosen to put all of his royalties into a charitable trust managed by Owen Barfield. In the meantime, he visited the woman he called his mother every day. Sometimes she would complain about wanting to go home, sometimes she was simply “childish and incoherent.” Sometimes she recognized him, sometimes she didn’t. Whatever her state of mind, his presence was her fixed point. 

Her stay was not drawn out. Janie King Moore would die of pneumonia on January 12, 1951. She was buried in the same churchyard where Lewis would join her twelve years later, almost fifteen years younger than she was at the time of her death.

Lewis’s letters from this period are marked by an understated deep relief. He wrote to a frequent correspondent that he was only just beginning to appreciate “how bad it was” in hindsight. And yet, though we miss the works he might have written under different circumstances, we might also wonder whether the books we have would have been the same, had duty not compelled him to die to self every day for the sake of one fragile, impossible old woman. In the end, his own words rang as true for himself as they did for everyone else: “Whether we like it or not God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.” 

Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.

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