January 31, 2019

C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) was a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Through his Chronicles of Narnia series and books such as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, he also established a reputation as one of the most successful Christian apologists of the twentieth century. But did Lewis have strong opinions on British politics? Well one of Lewis’s former students at Oxford recalled that the “most astringent” comment Lewis ever made was that “it cannot be doubted that Mr. Attlee is an agent of the Devil.”[1] Granted, Lewis “never read a newspaper and was proud of it.”[2] Even so, while Lewis disliked Prime Minister Clement Attlee, he had a much more favourable view of Winston Churchill. Attlee was prime minister from 1945 to 1951, while Churchill was the prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955.

Lewis’s collected letters add up to nearly 4,000 pages in three volumes, and while Churchill is not discussed at length in these, there are some references. On 21 April 1940, in a letter to his brother Warnie, Lewis recounts having dinner with the Rev. Edgar Frederick Carlyle (1876–1964). [3] Lewis writes that Reverend Carlyle had read Churchill’s four-volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.[4] Rev. Carlyle “highly praised” Churchill’s work, and Lewis adds that that “is praise worth having since he [Carlyle] is both a great historian and an extreme liberal.”[5] Lewis’s brother owned a copy of this work as well.[6] Lewis wrote this letter only a few weeks before Churchill became prime minister. A few years later, in another letter, Lewis appears to have been entertained by hearing that Churchill reportedly said to an unnamed French notable, “Si vous m’upsettez any more, je vous obliterai!”[7]    

Rationally Speaking

Lewis’s dislike of Attlee and Labour is closely tied to the years of rationing and austerity when the Labour Party was in power just after the Second World War. In these years, Lewis wrote numerous letters to American admirers thanking them for sending parcels such as paper, stationery, and even ham and cheese across the Atlantic. Lewis wrote about British politics primarily when addressing Americans. In one typical thank-you letter, Lewis told an American named Warfield M. Firor that “a ham such as you sent lifts me up into our millionaire class. Such a thing could’nt [sic] be got on this side unless one was very deep in the Black Market,” and that “I found I’d almost forgotten what real cheese tastes like.”[8] Not all the British people were fortunate enough to have international fans. In a thank you letter to another American (Vera Mathews), Lewis ironically inverted one of Churchill’s most famous expressions by applying it to the Labour Party leader: “In sending to those behind Mr. Attlee’s Iron Curtain, you can never go wrong with MEAT, TEA, and SOAP….”[9] Clearly, Lewis was not impressed by the party in power, and his letters in this period provide compelling documentation of the difficult lives of the English people at this time—and Lewis was comparatively fortunate. Indeed in March 1948, Lewis, his brother, his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien’s son Christopher, and a few other friends all signed a thank you note to Mr. Firor for sending a ham, and said that they “all agreed that they had’nt [sic] eaten such a dinner for five years or more.”[10]

Lewis thought that Churchill’s promises were more realistic than those of Attlee and the Labour Party, and he greatly appreciated that quality in Churchill. It is telling that shortly before the 1951 British General Election, in a letter dated October 18, Lewis wrote: “There seem to be good prospects of putting Labour out, in spite of the fact that they are promising the earth, whereas Churchill, with his usual good sense, is promising nothing but hard times” (emphasis added).[11] Seven days later, on October 25, Churchill became prime minister again. Lewis was undoubtedly pleased that a politician with “good sense” was back in office.

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Lewis was cynical about how the Labour Party had rationed food and thought that Churchill’s government was more sensible. Following the election, after receiving a package from an American, Lewis reflected that Churchill’s new government “very rightly” had “refused to woo the electors by playing Father Christmas with a food bonus.”[12] He added: “It appears from information given in Parliament that Labour’s food gifts to the country in December were really only available by cutting the rations in other months, and this Churchill does’nt [sic] propose to do.”[13] Lewis found the Labour Party to be dishonest in comparison to Churchill. Around this time he told Mr. Firor that “most of us are v. much cheered by having got rid of the Labour government and at finding that we have done so without yet plunging into a period of strikes and sedition and ‘cold’ revolution, which we feared.”[14]

Winston is Back

Not long after Churchill was re-elected, in December 1951, Lewis received a letter directly from Prime Minister Churchill’s Office, offering Lewis the honour of becoming a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE); Lewis declined but not out of any disrespect to Churchill. In his reply, he wrote: “I feel greatly obliged to the Prime Minister, and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour will be highly agreeable.” If Lewis liked Churchill, why then did he say no? Lewis explains that:

there are…knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert ant-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there. I am sure the Prime Minister will understand my reason, and that my gratitude is and will be none the less cordial.[15]

Lewis likely received the offer because he had given a series of inspiring radio talks on Christianity for the BBC during the Second World War—when Churchill was previously in office. Regardless, his answer makes it clear that he liked Churchill but was concerned that the honour would affect how the wider public perceived his Christian apologetics (arguments defending Christianity) and fiction.

Early in January 1952, in another letter to an American correspondent, Lewis again contrasted Churchill and Attlee.[16] Lewis said that further food shortages were expected in the coming year, and that Churchill had admitted that unpleasant things were on the way.[17] Nonetheless, Lewis added that “we are in hopes that his [Churchill’s] treatment will differ from Atlee’s in being like the pain after you have had a tooth out—getting less every day—whereas under the late government we were shirking going to the dentist and the pain was getting worse every day.”[18] Almost two years later, by December 1953, Lewis was telling that same American correspondent that “things are improving here under Winston,” but admitted that “we are still not exactly living in a land of milk and honey—cake in particular remaining something of a luxury.”[19] By September 1954, in a letter to an American named Vera Gebbert, Lewis praised the Churchill government, saying that “this government has done a magnificent job in getting us on our feet again, and a few weeks back, we solemnly burnt our Ration Books. Everything is now ‘off ration’, and though at first of course, prices went up with a rush, they are now dropping.”[20] By then, Lewis admitted that the donations from American admirers were no longer necessary, but told Gebbert that “if our friends the Socialists get back into power, you will be able to exercise your unfailing kindness once more by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!”[21] Clearly he did not approve of Labour.

Although Churchill was not a political leader by then, Lewis’s political leanings are further demonstrated in a November 1963 letter where he laments: “my brother tells me gloomily that it is an absolute certainty that we shall have a Labour government within a few months, with all the regimentation, austerity, and meddling which they so enjoy,” and that he had seen the last Conservative government in his lifetime.[22] Lewis made similar points in another letter that same day, and added that if Labour got re-elected, it would be “back to the old scheme of austerity for everyone and extravagance for the government.”[23]  Lewis died of his kidney problems six days after writing those letters, but the Labour Party did get elected the following year.

Other References

Lewis refers Churchill in a few other places, although not in much detail. In a 1952 letter, he made a brief reference to Churchill’s meetings with President Truman, while in a 1953 letter, Lewis mentions Churchill’s role at the Bermuda Summit involving Britain, France, and the United States.[24] In a different letter, Lewis alludes to Churchill’s remark that all babies looked like him.[25] In a 1960 letter, Lewis used the ungrammatical word “choate” in a sentence (a cheeky reversal of “inchoate”), and correctly noted it was a word that Churchill had used.[26]

Just as Churchill gave some of the most inspiring speeches of the twentieth century during the Second World War, Lewis’s own wartime broadcast were later collected in the popular book Mere Christianity, which is still widely read today. In a 2012 issue of Finest Hour, a writer to the Despatch Box portion of the magazine said that Churchill was “an orator whose grasp of the English language was equaled in his day by fellow writer C. S. Lewis. Both knew the power of the written word and spoken word.”[27] Yet the two were connected in more ways than that. Lewis also supported Churchill and his government over and against Clement Attlee and the Labour Party, while Churchill thought highly enough of Lewis to offer him a CBE. In short, the evidence suggests that both C. S. Lewis and Winston Churchill thought positively of each other.

Robert Revington is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.

[1] George Watson, “The Art of Disagreement: C. S. Lewis (1898–1963),” in C. S. Lewis Remembered, eds. Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p. 83.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. S. Lewis to Warnie H. Lewis, 21 April 1940, in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), p. 399.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., n. 228.

[7] C. S. Lewis to Sister Penelope, 5 October 1943, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, p. 592.

[8] C. S. Lewis to Warfield M. Firor, 1 October 1 1947, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, p. 806.

[9] C. S. Lewis to Vera Mathews, 24 November 1947, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, p. 812.

[10] C. S. Lewis to Warfield M. Firor, 12 March 1948, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, pp. 838–39.

[11] C. S. Lewis to Vera Mathews, 18 October 1951, in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 3, Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), pp. 142–43.

[12] C. S. Lewis to Edward A. Allen, 6 December 1951, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 147.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C. S. Lewis to Warfield M. Firor, 20 December 1951, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 150.

[15] C. S. Lewis to the Prime Minister’s Secretary, 4 December 1951, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 147.

[16] C. S. Lewis to Edna Greene Watson, 2 January 1952, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 153.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] C. S. Lewis to Edna Greene Watson, 7 December 1953, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 385.

[20] C. S. Lewis to Vera Gebbert, 25 September 1954, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 509.

[21] Ibid.

[22] C. S. Lewis to Frank L. Jones, 16 November 1963, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 1481.

[23] C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, 16 November 1963, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 1480.

[24] See C. S. Lewis to Edward A. Allen, 8 January 1952, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 155; C. S. Lewis to Vera Gebbert, December 1, 1953, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 382.

[25] C. S. Lewis to Vera Gebbert, 7 November 1953, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 376.

[26] C. S. Lewis to Jocelyn Gibb, 6 December 1960, in Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, p. 1301.

[27] Major Jesse I. Carnes, “The Ingredients of Character,” letter to the editor, Despatch Box, in Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012, https://winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-156/despatch-box-5/

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