The great thing about being a tourist guide is that it is a continuing education. On a recent tour the group leader expressed an interest in visiting the home of C S Lewis in Oxford. I had read many of Lewis’s books but knew nothing of where he lived and was not even aware that it was open. Nevertheless, an internet search and a few emails later a visit was arranged and we were shown around by Rachel, a young English woman who had lived in California and had the accent and mannerisms of a valley girl.
The Kilns is in Headington on the outskirts of Oxford and was Lewis’s home from 1930 until his death – an event that went almost unnoticed as it happened on the same day as John F Kennedy was assassinated. Aldous Huxley (the son of Thomas Huxley, who invented the concept of agnosticism) also died on that day so the world was deprived of a famous Protestant, the first Roman Catholic president of the USA and the creator of a Brave New World in twenty four hours. Both Kennedy and Lewis were known as ‘Jack’ to friends and family and had Irish backgrounds but the Ulster Protestant Lewis and the glamorous young American president, with his Southern Irish origins, had little else in common.
Lewis lived at the Kilns with his brother Warnie and the two Moore women – Jane and Maureen, who was the mother of his friend Courtnay Moore (known as Paddy). Paddy and Jack had served in the trenches towards the end of the First World War and had promised each other that, if either died in action, the survivor would look after the other’s family. After Moore was killed, Lewis made good his promise and set up home with Mrs Moore and her daughter. Lewis’s own mother had died when he was young and his father was a distant presence so Jane Moore gave him the emotional stability he craved. He introduced her to friends as his mother and visited her every day when she suffered from dementia and had to be institutionalised in later years.
Were Lewis and Mrs Moore lovers? The issue has been debated ad nauseam but, if there was anything more to their relationship than a platonic affection, Lewis was very discreet and took the secret to his grave. In later life he married Joy Davidman, an American divorcee with whom he had corresponded, and had to put up with a certain amount of ribbing because his autobiography was called Surprised by Joy. This referred to his acceptance of the existence of God and conversion to Christianity – although he did describe himself as ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England’.
Lewis was known in his lifetime for being a simple but effective speaker and writer on Christianity. He was a close friend of J R R Tolkein, who lived nearby and who had hoped that he would become a Roman Catholic. Lewis, however, always supported the idea of ‘Mere Christianity’ which said that what Christians had in common was far more important than what divided them. He believed you should worship at your local church with your neighbours and is buried there next to his brother Warnie, who survived him.
The Kilns is not yet on the tourist trail and is used mainly as a study centre to promote the ideas and memory of C S Lewis. If there is no time to visit it, The Eagle and Child pub is a popular stop in central Oxford and has pictures of Lewis, Tolkein and the group known as ‘The Inklings’.
The Kilns is normally open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To arrange a visit go to: cslewis.org
My other blog is menfriday.blogspot.com (There is a discussion of the Queen’s cost until the end of May).