Literature offers us a rich panorama of marriages in which the woman is a shrew and the husband a victim. Not every male is a Petruchio and can “tame” his conjoint. But while not a marriage, the mysterious partnership between the great C. S. Lewis and Janie King Moore, which lasted half of Lewis’s life, bears some profound similarities. How is one to describe the strange bond between a divorcee of more than 40 and a young man who was not yet 20 at the time the relationship began?
“Jack,” as Lewis was known to his family, enlisted during the First World War while still a teenager. While undergoing training, he befriended a young man named Paddy Moore, who had a divorced mother and younger sister, Maureen, back at home. The young men promised each other that if one of them were to be killed in combat, the other would look after his friend’s parent. (Jack’s father was a widower.)
They were both sent to France, but soon afterward, Jack was wounded and was for a while hospitalized in France before being sent back to England to complete his recovery. The young Moore never came back.
When back on British soil, Jack notified his father that he was hospitalized, but Mr. Lewis — a slave to his profession — informed his son that he was too busy to visit him. But Mrs. Moore, who was also apprised of where Jack was, made a point of constantly visiting the young man. Those of us who have tasted the purgatory of a prolonged hospital stay know how vulnerable one is, and what it means to meet a person who surrounds one with affection.
And the young Jack was an ideal prey: He had been emotionally deprived as a child after his mother’s death when he was eight years old. His father sent him to a boarding school, where the boy was very unhappy. Finally he was put in the hands of a private tutor — an atheist — who gave the young man a remarkable intellectual formation, but one totally deprived of any spiritual or religious food. By 17, Jack was adrift: suffering from a typical hypertrophy of the intellect and an atrophy of the heart.
Mrs. Moore, being an “experienced” and “mature” woman, perceived the young man’s psychological needs and made it her mission to cater to them. The starting point was their common mourning over the death of her son, Jack’s friend. Moreover, Jack felt bound by his promise that he would take care of his friend’s mother. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last for more than 30 years.
No doubt, the young man was deeply moved by Mrs. Moore’s affection. To taste the sweetness of devotion was, to him, like an elixir, and he became very attached to her. They decided to live under the same roof; young Jack, appointed tutor at Oxford, was to be the provider. He was living on the meager stipend he was getting for his tutoring, supplemented by the small allowance his tight-fisted father would send him. (Jack, wisely, did not inform his father of this bizarre arrangement, knowing full well that Mr. Lewis would not give his approval. The older Lewis — nailed to his desk — never visited his son. He remained ignorant of the relationship to the end of his life.)
A strong bond had clearly developed between Mrs. Moore and Jack. Lewis was an atheist at the time, and Mrs. Moore fully shared his views. But grace was working in the soul of someone who would one day become an outstanding Christian apologist. Reading Chesterton while hospitalized in France had planted seeds that would blossom later. That initial discovery was deepened and enriched by reading George MacDonald and John Henry Newman’s famous “The Dream of Gerontius.” Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy ultimately shattered his atheistic stand. However reluctantly, Jack became a believer. But Mrs. Moore remained an atheist, and living in close daily contact with a woman who was both loud and outspoken about her convictions certainly created an unenviable and thorny situation.
Later, another member joined the trio: Warren, the older and beloved brother of Jack. At first he was moved by the devotion that Mrs. Moore showered on Lewis. But soon, he realized that this affection was a façade: In fact, Jack was a prisoner, caught in the nets of a ruthlessly domineering and possessive woman.
Cracks in the façade began to show in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. This little book, a masterpiece of literature, made him famous, and rightly so: It admirably sketches the various techniques that the Evil One uses with little effort and great success to steal victims from what the demon Screwtape calls “THE ENEMY.”
One of the “clients” of the younger devil, Wormwood, is an elderly lady, “a positive terror to hostesses and servants.” One of her very many weaknesses is “the gluttony of Delicacy”: Whatever is offered to her is never to her taste. Her requests are so very modest, but are never met: All she wants is “a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted.” Neither maid nor friend is ever capable of satisfying her. There is always something lacking, something not well done. She has therefore every reason to be disgruntled; she asked “for so very little,” but even this “very little” is not met.
The whole work is loaded with golden psychological remarks, and there are passages that trigger mirth, but those who know a bit more about Lewis’s life will inevitably read the book with some grief. Now, 40 years after his death, it is well known that some of these letters were inspired by bitter personal experience. For some 30 years, Jack lived under the same roof with a woman who, while passionately attached to him, “tortured” him in the most subtle and refined way, to the despair of Warren, the helpless witness of this tragic scenario.
This “attachment” turned out to be a form of slavery. Warren was both upset and baffled: How could his beloved brother — clearly his icon — subject himself to this psychological slavery? One day, having had his fill of frustration, he ventured to question Jack about this bizarre servitude. Jack’s answer was so sharp and abrupt that Warren understood the topic was taboo. He never raised it again.
The dimensions of the drama under Mrs. Moore’s roof are now well known, thanks to Warren’s diary, published as Brothers and Friends. In his introduction to The Letters of C. S. Lewis, he writes: “She . . . interfered constantly with his work, and imposed upon him a heavy burden of minor domestic tasks.” And later:
Over-worked he certainly was; not only by the burden of routine work as tutor and lecturer, not only by the domestic tasks laid on him by Mrs. Moore (“He is as good as an extra maid in the house” she would say complacently to visitors), but also by the extent and depth of his own reading the creative effort of original work both scholarly and religious.
It’s a theme that continues to come under Warren’s pen: He wrote in his diary, “What between back work and domestic service at the Kilns [their home] he gets very little time for original work.” His beloved brother was living like a slave.
Once, while visiting a zoo, Jack had to stay outside the gate holding Mrs. Moore’s dog that she had taken along. To take her dog on walks “became an obsession,” according to Warren, and one wonders at the amount of time that her victim — Jack — wasted while performing this task. Warren counted that five whole months of his brother’s life were devoted to it.
Even Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Maureen, was shocked by her mother’s domination over the young man. “Like everyone else, she is chronically indignant at the slavery in which M. keeps J . . . .” One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:
It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s life is subordinated to hers — financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . . .
Mrs. Moore was reveling in the comfortable consciousness that Jack was in her debt.She seemed to have the uncanny talent of torturing men in the most refined fashion, while maintaining a perfectly clean conscience. Warren lamented:
If her curiously insincere character, which seemed to me rather a casual collection of random prejudices than a character, was sincere in anything, it was her absolute conviction of her own perfection.
It probably never occurred to her that — for some mysterious reasons beyond our comprehension — Lewis chose to carry a cross that would have broken the back of most men.
Understandably, Warren became more and more outraged at Mrs. Moore’s behavior, but he soon realized that the situation was without solution. It was only with Mrs. Moore’s death in 1951 that ended “the mysterious self imposed slavery in which J has lived for at least thirty years.”
Mrs. Moore was, according to Lewis’s friends and family, a typical virago who is not a literary invention, but a creature of flesh and blood whom the Greeks would have called a fury. And yet the fact remains that, for half of Jack’s life, he freely accepted to be enslaved by a woman who abused his kindness and generosity.
Our concern is not to try to solve the “riddle” that preoccupied Jack’s friends for years. While we may marvel at his subservience, we should respect Jack’s silence on the matter; he knew why he chose not to share his reasons.
There is a French proverb that says, “A good mill changes everything into flour.” It is conceivable that the purgatory in which Jack lived for so many years acted both as a penance and a spiritual purification, deepening both his faith and his religious life by teaching him the meaning of suffering. As all things serve the good of those who love Him, it might indirectly have been a source of inspiration in many of his works.
That Jack suffered intensely is clear from a statement that he wrote after Mrs. Moore’s death to a lady who had rhapsodized about the idyllic situation in which he must have lived:
I have lived most of it (my private life) in a house which was hardly ever at peace for 24 hours among senseless wranglings, lyings, back bitings, follies and scares. I never went home without a feeling of terror as to what appalling situation might have developed in my absence. Only now that it is over do I begin to realize quite how bad it was (Brothers and Friends, emphasis added).
We might wish that Mrs. Moore had met a Petruchio. She might have needed more than one.