All My Roads Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis
Lewis, C.S. All My Roads Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis (1922-27). Ed. Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. 438 pp. ISBN 0-00-215406-4.
Reviewed by Nancy-Lou Patterson
[This review originally appeared as “Boiled Eggs and Plums” in Mythlore 18.4 (#70) (1992): 46-47.]
C.S. Lewis once said that for a study of sin, he had only to look within himself. This long book, by turns wearying and riveting, documents the small smugnesses, the tiny tolerances, the monotonous miseries, and the minor miracles of daily life over a six year period, as Lewis, his middle-aged companion Janie Moore, and her daughter Maureen, shared a series of uncomfortable dwellings while he moved from being a twenty-three year-old student to a twenty-nine year-old teacher at Oxford.
The diaries, kept by fits and starts (and truncated still more by the editor’s editing), are primarily though not exclusively about what he called “the home life” (273). For him, “the difference between coming back to my real home of an evening” (169) was a major contrast. Clearly, his life with Mrs. Moore had become the life he wanted to live. For him, “the cream of the day” was “to sit by our own fire, to chat and read, to have our own easily prepared and quickly dispatched supper––all peaceful and delightful” (290). Those who have read his biography, and know of his mother’s early death, the unspeakable schools he attended, his brief pleasure as an Oxford student interrupted by a sojourn in the trenches of France, including wounds which he still remembered vividly, will understand his bliss. But such bliss was mixed: he spent hours engaged in housework, painting, wallpapering. Mrs. Moore endlessly invited others to join them, always had a toothache or a headache or a backache, and required “jars”––earthenware hot water bottles––at all hours of the night; Maureen and her girlfriends interrupted his studies; but such is home life. He was content. His chief anxieties were associated with his efforts to find work as a scholar and teacher in order to support this household; and in the meantime, his father paid for most of it, all unaware of the complexity of his son’s domestic arrangements. It is no wonder that visits to his father’s house in Belfast were an agony for the young Jack Lewis; he was in terror of his second family being discovered. The diaries show clearly his development from an opinionated youth to a man on the doorstep of maturity; as they conclude he is still what his fellow Oxonians had nicknamed “Heavy Lewis,” but his voice is assuming its full power.
One of the delights of this book is meeting Aunt Lily, his mother’s sister, a wonderful, brilliant, eccentric, and exasperating lady who lives alone with her cats, a sort of fairy godmother to Lewis, who was a little in awe of her intense but entirely ungoverned intellect. In her we can catch a glimpse of his mother and of––at long last––his wife; vivid, autonomous, and ruthless; something in these women called out to him. He sums up Aunt Lily like this: “the Holy Ghost discusses all his plans with her and she was on the committee that arranged creation” (154). Delicious!
His brother Warren is a major player too; the two of them entertain themselves royally by visiting near Wynyard, their terrible school, rejoicing to recall that they are alive and well while their monstrous headmaster is already in hell. And the entire hair-raising encounter with his wife’s kinsman who goes mad, to which Lewis later, refers glancingly in several places (the sufferer thought, probably rightly, that his youthful syphilis was responsible, while Lewis thought it was his dabbling in the occult), is given in full detail, for those who, reading it elsewhere, have wondered what it was that gave Lewis such a scare.
Again, although we have been told that in later years Lewis entirely avoided political and current affairs, quite a vivid view of the General Strike is given, with Lewis as an interested and remarkably impartial observer. Perhaps the scenes of violence and rioting lie behind his portrayal of the riots in Edgestow in That Hideous Strength.
All the while, he reads prodigiously, he studies, he prepares and marks exams, and he writes poetry. We hear of the development of Dymer almost line by line, and read of its publication and of the reviews it received. We hear also, comic, cruel, and occasionally racist observations about everybody he knows and meets, male and female alike. He has the tongue of an eighteenth-century caricaturist, and his gleefully venomous pen, perhaps sharpened by the knowledge that he will read aloud what he has written to “D” (Mrs. Moore), is seldom anointed with charity.
As for Christianity––he refers to “the uncomfortable sacrament” as an in-joke paraphrase of the Book of Common Prayer when writing ruefully of Maureen’s Confirmation, recalling, of course, his ashes-in-the-mouth of a forced Confirmation in his own boyhood. On the other hand he writes pages of beautifully honed and heartfelt description of scenery and weather enjoyed on his many walks, expressing the profound nature mysticism which was his first contact with the God who would one day overtake and embrace him.
“Supper of boiled eggs, plums and cream in the garden,” he writes on 29 May 1922 (42), and this is a good simile for the contents of this book, by turns commonplace, even base, amusing, horrifying, touching, comic, and sublime. Oddly, this work was published under the rubric of HarperCollins Religions. Readers should be warned that this is not a work of apology, or theology, and not a fantasy, and not a study of literature, though all these elements occur in germ, curled within the glazed case of an unfolding human personality––still a kernel, a green bud, only in potential the intellectual tree of light that was to come. Walter Hooper’s editorial mechanisms and interpolations are useful and tactful. The introduction by Owen Barfield serves as an Imprimatur and has, of course, its own distinctive interest. Nevertheless this would not be the first book by Lewis to put into a neophyte’s hands. Its late appearance in the canon is, in many ways, justified. It would be best to read Surprised by Joy first, because the more the reader knows about Lewis, the more the reader will see in All My Road Before Me; not only of the man, but of the action, silent and relentless and all unrecognized, of his God within him. He was, after all, to have a home that would last forever.