CS Lewis said that the job of the critic is to look at what a writer says, not who he or she is. Still, that hasn't deterred countless hacks and academics from poring over his life and producing, in the 50 years since his death, a shelf-full of biographies of the creator of Narnia. And well they might: the tweedy Oxford don – a brilliant lecturer with a hearty laugh and brimming ashtray – had a private life as mysterious as the world he invented.
Born in Ireland in 1898, and educated at a boarding school in England, Lewis came to Oxford an atheist, but became persuaded by Christianity. This would inform his writing such that some critics like to complain that the Narnia Chronicles are ham-fisted religious allegories. But their popularity is undeniable, and in the 1950s brought Lewis fame and money. Oxford University, being the viper's nest of jealousy and bitchiness it is, conveyed its tacit disapproval by denying Lewis a professorial chair. An own goal, because Cambridge later lured him away.
His sex life was just as thwarted. When in the Army training for the First World War, he formed a friendship with a fellow cadet, Paddy Moore, who was killed on the Somme. Lewis vowed to look after Moore's mother, and formed an even stronger bond with her, living with her from the age of 18 into his late 40s. The precise nature of their relationship is confused, but some say it was sexual. In this, as in much of Alister McGrath's clearly written and rigourously researched biography, the facts are dispassionately presented, and we are left to make up our own minds.
McGrath gives it a bit more welly when it comes to Joy Davidman. She was the American poet Lewis married, four years before she died of cancer. The story of their affair was told with some poetic liberty in Shadowlands, the 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins. In that version, a gurgling New Yorker shakes up a dusty don. In truth, as McGrath persuasively shows, she was a manipulative gold-digger who targeted a pin-cushion bachelor.
All this may have little bearing on our reading of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. But, as McGrath's compelling narrative shows, the writer's life is often just as interesting as his work, whatever C S Lewis might have said.
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