CS Lewis: It All Began With a Picture

Listen to a podcast featuring Lewis expert Sandy Smith and discover how Lewis’s Belfast homes influenced his writing career

‘I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.’

In the second of Sandy Smith's trilogy of CS Lewis lectures at the Linen Hall Library, Smith returns to Lewis’ childhood.

This time - rather than focusing on how Lewis' childhood in Belfast helped to inspire The Chronicles of Narnia - Smith explores how the author’s childhood homes shaped his career and personality.

Little Lea is, perhaps, the author's best known dwelling place in Belfast, but it wasn’t his only home there. Lewis was an east Belfast boy, born in a house on Dundela Avenue. It was there that he took his first steps, said his first words and had his first encounter with world-building - involving a biscuit tin and his brother. Smith recounts the story:

‘He said there was a morning when one of the servants had given to his brother a biscuit tin. CS Lewis' brother, Warren, is sent out into the garden with the biscuit tin. He goes around the garden, pulls some moss and lays it out nice and flat like a little lawn. He then proceeds to embellish and adorn it with twigs and little leaves and flowers and shrubs and a piece of a flowering current. When Warren’s work of art was finished, he presented it to Lewis.’

It was a moment that stayed with Lewis. He wrote about it later in his book Surprised by Joy, remembering in particular the smell of the flowering current.

From the house in Dundela the Lewis's moved to Little Lea, or ‘the New House’, as they called it. On their way to Little Lea

the Lewis’ would pass 191 Belmont Road where the O’Neill’s lived. They were old associates of the Lewis family and in That Hideous Strength Lewis mentions his long-time correspondent, Jane O’Neill (the daughter of the family) in the dedication.

‘Lewis thought he was doing Jane a great favour,' remarks Smith. 'Jane, for her part, hated it. She didn’t want her name associated for all time with a book that bore the title That Hideous Strength.'

Back on the topic of Little Lea, Smith argues that some of Lewis' most powerful early memories were formed in the house. It was there that he became the ‘product of long corridors…’ as he explored the new house and found his way into the attics – which provided him with the inspiration for the opening scene in The Magician’s Nephew.

The attics were Lewis' kingdom, where ‘nothing was forbidden’ and he read the books his father stored there. ‘There were books readable, books unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.'

It was in the attics of Little Lea that Lewis ‘kept pen and ink’ and wrote his first novel Boxen, a tale of anthromorphic animal knights set in India. It perhaps sounds idyllic for a young writer-in-training, but not all of Lewis' memories of Little Lea were happy ones.

‘There came an evening when I was sick and crying with headache and toothache,’ Smith reads Lewis' account in Surprised by Joy, ‘and distressed because my mother did not come to me.’

It was a February evening in 1908 and his mother was ill herself. She had cancer and was being operated on downstairs on the dining room table. Like the smell of the flowering current his brother had given him, the smell of the antiseptic and anaesthetic used on his mother would stay with Lewis for the rest of his life.

His mother survived the operation, but unfortunately didn’t survive the illness. It was the third family bereavement that year and Lewis’ father was unable to cope with the loss. He sent both his sons away to England, to different boarding schools, and stayed alone in Little Lea.

Lewis says of that period, ‘Had he but known it, poor man, that he was not just losing his wife that week in August, but he was losing his two sons as well.’

CS Lewis: An Exhibition runs from March 2 – March 25. The next lecture in the series, entitled Beginnings in a Belfast Garden takes place at 1pm on Wednesday, March 16.