21 August 2016

lewis & potter.

I have, in preparation for a project, been leafing through Lewis' collected letters—one can hardly do anything but leaf, as except for the slim and delightful Letters to Children they're all rather intimidatingly doorstoppery. Excepted also is the volume that Warren Lewis edited, which takes the eminently sane path of collecting only the interesting bits of letters, and interspersing them with interesting bits out of Jack's diaries. Dare I say that Warren was in some ways a better editor of his brother's work than Hooper was? I do dare, because it's true. He didn't annotate but I don't hold this against him as it saved him from Hooper's deadly sin of overannotation.

The extent of the Lewis correspondence is vast, especially when you consider how very little pleasure it gave him. (A note to Dorothy Sayers: "Oh the mails: every bore in two continents seems to think I like getting letters. One's real friends are precisely the people one never gets time to write to.") Despite that—and may we give thanks for his sake that he was spared the indignities of email, which would have enabled even more total strangers to make unreasonable demands on his time—he wrote terrific letters. Did you know he had a long correspondence with a nun and used to sign himself Brother Ass? And here's the reason for this post, a particular gem I encountered in volume II (1931—1949). He's discussing Beatrix Potter in a letter to one Delmar Banner:
It was the Professor of Anglo-Saxon [i.e. Tolkien] who first pointed out to me that her art of putting about ten words on one page so as to have a perfect rhythm and to answer just the questions a child would ask, is almost as severe as that of lyric poetry. She has a secure place among the masters of English prose. He and I have often played with the idea of a pilgrimage to see her, and pictured what fun it would be to shoulder aside the mobs of people who want to show you all the Wordsworth places with the brief rejoinder "We are looking for Miss Potter."
Which is delightful. I'd known that Lewis loved Potter's work, especially Squirrel Nutkin—in some ways his totally unpretentious love of children's literature was one of his more appealing qualities; see also the bit in The Problem of Pain where he's talking about numinous awe and his first example is out of The Wind in the Willows—but I hadn't realized that he saw her as a serious artist to this extent, still less that Tolkien loved her too and the two of them were a sort of fan-club. This sort of thing is why even when Lewis says something infuriating (as he so often does!) I can never get properly mad at him; I criticize him of course, but emotionally I can only sigh and say "sit down, Jack," as though he were a troublesome uncle or a much-beloved family friend. I've known him too long: I know too many endearing little facts about him, and I'm too well-acquainted with his fundamental intellectual humility.

So what I want to know is chiefly
1: Did they ever meet, and
2: Do we know if she knew his work?

Question 1 is a great deal easier to answer than 2, at any rate with the materials I have on hand. The Banner letter reads as though they hadn't met (you don't go on a pilgrimage to see someone you're already acquainted with, do you?), and it's dated November 1942; Potter died just over a year later, in December 1943, and it's not inconceivable that the two could have met at some time in that window. This letter is the last reference to her in the volume, though, and glancing at several biographies I don't see any references to her apart from the fact that he enjoyed her work. So there's no correspondence, and if there was a meeting the Lewis biographers either don't know about it or haven't thought it worth mentioning. I can't approach the question from the other end because I haven't any works on Potter. (There's no reference in the Tolkien biography either.)

But there's one last means of finding out. The context of the original letter I cite is that Banner had asked him to visit, and Lewis said that he couldn't but would love to, especially if there was any chance of managing to visit Potter—who lived near him in the Lake Country. And then early in 1944 there's another letter to Banner wherein he writes "Less chance now than ever of my getting to your much desired valleys. My domestic difficulties grow worse daily and half my correspondence consists of refusing engagements which I should both like to, and ought to, accept." So by 1944 the desired visit to the Lake Country had not materialized. If it had, even or especially in the form of a "pilgrimage," it seems to me he would have mentioned it here, and so I'm almost certain that no meeting ever took place. It's not the answer I wanted, but the satisfaction of using research to answer a trivial but interesting question is so great that I don't mind in the slightest.

As always, if anyone has any contradictory knowledge—or any data on whether Potter ever read Lewis—please write in. Please join me also in the mental image of C.S. Lewis and Beatrix Potter as a superhero team-up and/or a crime solving duo. She's a genre-defining children's author, he's also a genre-defining children's author, she's a Lake Country sheep farmer, he's an Oxford don, they fight crime. Yes? Yes.

Nothing more on the Lewis project for now, though a proof of concept may show up here at some point in the nearish future. And I've got several other posts in the pipeline, but as I'm flying to the States tomorrow and will be moving back in to the dorms I expect I'll be fairly scatterbrained for a good while yet. Which is the other reason I've been reading Lewis of course; the combination of straightfowardness and familiarity is very soothing indeed.

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