A Place for “Till We Have Faces,” by David C. Downing, Wade Center Co-Director

Recently the Wade Center unveiled a new display in its museum space, recounting the story of C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (1956) and how it came to be written. The exhibit features the portable Royal typewriter upon which Joy Davidman typed the novel, as well as a colorful afghan she crocheted for Lewis.

Museum display featuring Joy’s typewriter, and first editions of TILL WE HAVE FACES by C. S. Lewis (Left: British, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956; Right: American, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1957).

In 1960 Lewis sadly noted about Till We Have Faces in a letter, “that book, which I consider far and away the best I have written, has been my one big failure both with critics and with the public.” But time can heal wounds and bring fresh perspectives, and Lewis’s late novel is now generally regarded as one of his best, if not the best. As scholar Doris Myers explained, “The cure for such disappointment [of Lewis’s early reviewers] is to realize that Lewis is doing better and much more difficult things than his readers demand of him” (Myers, 213).

The point is well made. Lewis’s readers had been accustomed to enjoying a clear sense of “the good guys vs. the bad guys” in his stories, along with accessible Christian themes. But Lewis offered a number of bold innovations in this, his last novel. For one thing, the main character is not a guy at all—she is Queen Orual of Glome, a fictional kingdom between Europe and Asia in the third century before Christ (Myers, 194).

Orual assumes through most of the story that she is one of the “good,” a loving sister and dutiful monarch, who has been wrongly vilified by chroniclers. Since she lives in a time and place unreached by the Gospel, we cannot expect Orual to find her true self by means of direct Christian conversion. But the Spirit blows where he wishes, and so, in the end, the embittered queen comes to understand that her “case against the gods” is entirely unfounded:  she herself has been the victimizer, in the name of fiercely possessive love, rather than a victim. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the protagonist of the story learns eventually that “the fault lies not in our gods but in ourselves.”

The novel is subtitled A Myth Retold because it is a reworking of the story of Cupid and Psyche, first recounted by the Roman tale-spinner Apuleius. Ever since Lewis’s undergraduate days, he wanted to retell the story with a much psychologically nuanced portrayal of Psyche’s siblings. In his mid-twenties, Lewis wrote 156 lines of rhyming couplets recasting the Psyche story, a fragment now preserved in “The Lewis Papers” at the Wade Center. In this early version, the beautiful Psyche had an equally attractive brother, Jardis, and motherly older sister, Caspian. The sibling characters completely evolved in later drafts, but those names, or something very like them, did not go to waste in Lewis’s later fiction!

Joy and C. S. Lewis, 1958.

While Joy Davidman and her two sons were visiting the Kilns in March 1955, Lewis complained to her that he was in a creative dry spell. The two of them “kicked a few ideas around” that evening, and Joy was amazed to discover the next day that “Jack” had already written the first chapter! Joy felt that Lewis was a far more gifted writer than she was, but that she “helped him write more like himself,” and that he found her advice “indispensable” (Hooper, 247-248).

Joy continued to discuss the unfolding story with Lewis, and she used her Royal typewriter to turn his inky handwritten pages into neat typescript. She may have been something of a creative collaborator on the project, as some of Orual’s life-experiences seem to reflect Joy’s past more than Jack’s. Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, believes that it was his mother who gave Lewis the boldness to write an entire novel from a female point of view.

After getting off to a slow start, both commercially and critically, Till We Have Faces has been steadily growing in the esteem of readers and reviewers. This fall Dr. Rolland Hein, Professor of English, Emeritus, at Wheaton has been leading a Saturday morning study group on the novel at the Wade Center, to overflow audiences from the College and surrounding community. As Dr. Hein explains the ongoing appeal of Lewis’s classic tale, “In Till We Have Faces, Lewis is at his best, giving insights towards the end of his life on such vital subjects as the importance of spiritual perception and the nature of final judgment.  It’s a must read for all who are interested in Lewis’s thought.”

Detail of the afghan.

Sources cited: The most helpful single resource on Till We Have Faces is probably Walter Hooper’s masterful C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (1996). Two other insightful and useful studies are Peter J. Schakel’s Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis (1984) and Doris T. Myers’s C. S. Lewis in Context (1994). The quotation from Lewis’s letter is taken from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3, p. 1181 (to Anne Scott, August 26, 1960).

New Museum Display — Charles Williams and Victor Gollancz: The Story of a Publishing Team

Announcing a new display installed in the Wade Center’s museum in May, featuring correspondence between Charles Williams and his publisher Victor Gollancz: “Charles Williams and Victor Gollancz: The Story of a Publishing Team.” This is the second post this month on Charles Williams, in memory of the 70th anniversary of his death on May 15, 1945.

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The letters in the display come from a collection of correspondence deposited at the Wade Center by Brian and Sally Oxley.  The Wade Center is grateful to the Oxleys for these unique materials, and the story they share relating the publication history of Williams’s works. The full letter collection on deposit is listed in the Charles Williams Papers finding aid, folders 492 to 498. Wade Center visitors may view these and other collections in the Reading Room.

Victor Gollancz and his namesake publishing house became one of the most successful publishers in Britain from its founding in 1928 until the sale of the company by Gollancz’s daughter Livia in 1989 to Houghton Mifflin. Charles Williams, who became a friend of Victor Gollancz, published five of his seven novels with the publisher, and also edited the The New Book of English Verse, a collection of poetry, for Gollancz:

  • War in Heaven. London: Victor Gollancz, 1930
  • Many Dimensions. London: Victor Gollancz, 1931
  • The Place of the Lion. London: Mundanus, V. Gollancz, 1931
  • The Greater Trumps. London: Victor Gollancz, 1932
  • Shadows of Ecstasy. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933
  • The New Book of English Verse. ed. Charles Williams. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1935

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This collection of letters gives an intriguing look into Williams’s relationship with Gollancz, and offers background into their collaborative efforts to bring Williams’s work to print. In one instance, Gollancz comments that the name for one of Williams’s manuscripts, The Corpse, must be changed: “Anyone … would immediately think it to be a detective story: and this would have the double disadvantage of limiting the market on the one hand and of deceiving the purchaser on the other.” (Gollancz to Williams, March 19, 1930). The novel was later renamed War in Heaven.

In another anecdote, a displeased school master writes to the publisher about a “mass of misprints” in The New Book of English Verse. Yet when pressed, the school master could only produce a list of three typos. Norman Collins, an associate at Gollancz who would go on to become a famous BBC program creator, writes a note to Williams on March 10, 1936 saying: “it seems really contemptible that a man should complain of three misprints … in a book of over 800 pages. I would propose writing back in a more or less abrupt fashion.” Letters and various documents relating to each work Williams published with Gollancz (in the list above) are highlighted in the display, including a publishing contract for Many Dimensions, a letter from Williams’s wife (Florence ‘Michal’ Williams) to Gollancz, and copies of the books themselves.

Our sincere thanks go to Wade Student Worker and Archives Assistant, Basye Peek for her work in organizing the letters to make the collection available for researchers, as well as the letter selection, design, and caption writing for this display. Basye just completed her freshman year as an anthropology major at Wheaton College; she began working at the Wade Center in the fall of 2014. Thank you, Basye!

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Basye Peek at work in the Wade Center Reading Room with one of the Charles Williams letters. Basye was the main designer for the display “Charles Williams and Victor Gollancz: The Story of a Publishing Team.”