Monday, June 8, 2015

Sorry, Ladies, C.S. Lewis Finds You Tedious and Icky

The Narnia novels, which C.S. Lewis wrote as children's stories, generally avoid sexual themes. An episode in the final book that Lewis's readers call “the problem of Susan” thus becomes multiply alarming: it brings sexuality (teenage romance) into the series and then condemns it, and the women who express it. In The Last Battle (1956), Susan Pevensie was denied re-admission into Narnia – and thus allegorically into Heaven – because she dared develop an interest in “makeup” and “boys,” neither of which left her time for Narnia or Aslan. Several authors have subsequently addressed Lewis's callous dismissal of Susan in their own stories. Ana Mardoll last month drew her followers' attention to a recent and curiously moving addition to this Susan Pevensie subgenre, “Elegant and Fine” by T. Kingfisher (alias Ursula Vernon).

Kingfisher speculates Susan turned away from Narnia because she and her siblings, who after all had grown to adulthood in the ancient kingdom, had all taken lovers there, of whom fate or Aslan had robbed them when it (or he) forced them back to Earth. Lewis showed no particular interest in his young protagonists' adult lives in Narnia and the psychological impact of losing those lives, but “you cannot live to be thirty years old and have it wiped cleanly from your mind.” Susan remained a thirty-year-old woman trapped in a girl's body, and sometime after the narrative of Prince Caspian, she decided she would not let her heart and mind remain broken. She left Lewis's children's story for her own grown-up one. For the crime of growing up, or refusing to live meekly as a “tame woman” at the feet of untamed men and Lions, Lewis cast Susan into perdition.

All due praise to those of Lewis's fans who do not accept this condemnation. His characters, especially the female ones, have dignity and depths that their literary creator hinted at but refused explicitly to acknowledge. Arguably, Lewis could not show these dimensions because he regarded many of his fictional characters as subalterns, intrinsically inferior to the princes and gods who really made things happen in the world. In an earlier post here I observed that Lewis's dislike of outspoken women, unruly students, and insubordinate “lesser breeds” (dwarves, animals, commoners) is of a piece: he argued quite explicitly that people could not be happy if they did not recognize their subordinate stations and learn silence and obedience. In the same essay Lewis averred his belief in equality before the law, but insisted one should not carry this into the church, the family, the classroom, or any place that really mattered to him.

I suspect Prof. Lewis's confident defense of inequality suffered a major blow after the Second World War, when many if not most Britons decided to pursue social equality as well as the legal variety. His later writings on subordination and rebellion, particularly those concerning the subordination of women, are those of a curmudgeon and escapist, fighting a battle lost long ago. Lewis's harrowing of liberally-educated Jill Pole in The Silver Chair, and his damnation of sexually-maturing Susan Pevensey, both occur in a fantasy world far removed from this one. Later in the 1950s, Lewis transferred his misogyny to another speculative genre, that of science fiction. In one of his last published works, “Ministering Angels” (1958), he suggested that many men, if unable to live in a world of meek and submissive women, would prefer doing without the female sex altogether. In the story, a bureaucratic Earth government sends two sex workers to an all-male colony on Mars. The “angels,” one a meddling female bureaucrat and the other an aging prostitute, are to minister to the colonists' carnal needs, but the astronauts have no wish for their company and indeed would rather flee Mars than stay with them.

In fairness, Lewis wrote this story as a response to an earlier essay in the same magazine (Fantasy & Science Fiction), “The Day After We Land on Mars,” in which Robert Richardson argued that men settling on the red planet would probably require regular visits from “nice girls” to boost “morale” and keep them from falling into bad habits, like masturbation and homosexuality. Lewis's speculation is less emetic than Richardson's, but he obviously wrote it to advance a particular message: no “nice girls” would ever fill such a role, and men did not necessarily need or want women's company in any case.* Together with Lewis's fantasy story “The Shoddy Lands” (1956), whose narrator expresses horror at women's vanity and their bodies (he finds bikini lines particularly icky), “Ministering Angels” and the later Narnia novels all yearn for isolation from the feminine. All express the wish that women – actual, mature women with their own opinions and carnal desires – would simply go away, and that a just God would arrange an afterlife free of their troubling presence. This sounds hellish to me, but for Lewis 'twere better to reign in hell than have to listen to assertive women in heaven.

* Lewis did marry during these last years of his life, and the marriage grew into a happy one, but his wife Joy was in poor health and neither expected the union to last long. Joy Lewis died in 1960.

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