‘An awful lot of people, especially folk from the United States where he has a major following, think of CS Lewis as an Englishman. Mr Lewis was from Oxford,’ says Lewis expert Sandy Smith. ‘I’ve been trying to re-establish that he’s actually Mr CS Lewis from Belfast.’
To that end, Smith is holding a series of three lectures in The Linen Hall Library during March. It is part of the library’s celebration of the life and works of CS Lewis, accompanying their exhibition of rare and unique Lewis memorabilia.
Most of the audience took a circuit of the exhibit – examining the maquette of Digory Kirke, the first editions and signed items – before taking their seats to listen to Smith’s talk.
In the first of the lecture series, Smith covers Lewis’ early years. He talks about Lewis’ childhood in Belfast and the lasting effect it had on his writing. In particular the influence it played on Lewis’ creation of the fantasy world of Narnia.
Smith is obviously well-versed in the topic – he takes CS Lewis tours around the city on Sundays. Today he talks about Lewis, his parents and his siblings with a familiar – almost familial – fondness.
Lewis father, a solicitor, had an occasionally difficult relationship with his whimsical writer son. As a result he tends to get short shrift from Lewis’ fans. However, Smith is sympathetic towards the elder Lewis.
‘His diaries, until 1925, record an anxiety over CS Lewis. CS Lewis’ older brother, Warren, having finished his formal education in England, had gone to Sandhurst and was making a career for himself in the army. CS Lewis was going nowhere. His father’s diaries record that anxiety. Many days I’m sure, coming down those Cathedral steps he wondered, "What would become of this boy?" Some of you may have been there.’
Smith is also a great admirer of Lewis’ mother. One of the slides he uses is a grainy picture of a woman – stern looking, or perhaps nervous – in a graduation gown.
‘In 1882 very few women went on to third level education. In her graduation group she was the only woman. The other interesting thing is her subject: she graduated with joint honours in Mathematics and Logic. So his father was a Belfast solicitor and his mother was such a brilliant linguist and mathematician – from that gene pool something of interest was bound to emerge.’
As well as biographical details, Smith’s lecture is full of quirky asides and tidbits that flesh CS Lewis the person out into a real, engaging character.
Smith recounts a conversation between father and son that took place after a trip to France. On being asked if he had enjoyed the trip, Lewis said, ‘I am prejudiced against the French.’ His father naturally asked him to explain why and Lewis responded, ‘If I knew why it wouldn’t be a prejudice.’
On another, somewhat more sombre, occasion Lewis had returned to Belfast to attend his father’s funeral only to realize that he didn’t have a black tie with him. He records the experience in a letter to his brother, who was in Singapore with the army and unable to return.
‘He went up to the gent’s outfitters department on the third floor of Robinson and Cleavers, he buys the black tie and when the assistant hands it to him he says, “Charge that to my father's account”. Then he instantly realized that on that day his father no longer had an account. He comments in the letter that his father would have appreciated the humour, because both boys had lived most of their lives on their father’s account.’
There are other interesting details – the fact that the elder Lewis was a subscribing member of The Linen Hall Library or that Lewis would have watched the City Hall be built – and Smith keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
He winds up the lecture on a cliff-hanger, referring to how the Lewis family made it to Belfast in the first place. ‘…and it was there that the Lewises built the Titantic.’
CS Lewis: An Exhibition runs from March 2 – March 25. The next lecture in the series, entitledIt All Began With a Picture: The Origins of the Chronicles of Narnia takes place at 1pm on Wednesday, March 9.