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Book review: C. S. Lewis’s Oxford by Simon Horobin

28 June 2024

An academic’s heavy workload impresses Richard Harries

A HUGE amount has been written about C. S. Lewis, and, as a result of Shadowlands, the story of his life has become well known. But this book is sharply defined and covers an area that has not been written about in such detail before. It is not a book about Oxford; nor is it another biography of Lewis. It is exactly as the title suggests, about the life in Oxford which Lewis lived so intensely for most of his career: studying, teaching, writing, arguing, and drinking. And the author, Simon Horobin, could not be in a better position to write about it; for, not only is he a professor of English, but his college, Magdalen, was the one where Lewis was a Fellow for nearly 30 years.

What comes across to me, above all, is how hard Lewis worked. Those brilliant lectures did not just come off the top of his head. The plates in the book show the very detailed scholarly notes that Lewis made on all the texts he worked on, very often in Old English. Then his teaching load was massive. He did 24 hours of tutorials a week, in contrast to the standard number now of eight hours. Lewis took this teaching very seriously, debating strongly with his students and encouraging them to formulate their own views. Contrary to some perceptions, he was equally committed to teaching his female students, many of them very clever.

According to Warnie, Lewis’s brother, he was not ambitious and nor did he do politics; so he was not at all put out when he was not appointed to a number of positions that he was more than qualified to occupy. He was focused on his research and teaching.

By permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, ILC. S. Lewis (second from right) with the Inklings. From the book

When he did move to Cambridge, to a post specially created to attract him, he found Magdalene College much more Christian than Magdalen at Oxford, where he had spent most of his life. Magdalen was full of intrigues led by an atheist don who wanted to get rid of him. On the other hand, he did not like the fact that Magdalene allowed him only one glass of port at dinner, as opposed to the three that he had been offered at Magdalen.

This book not only explains clearly the academic system in which Lewis operated, but also explores his important friendships especially through the Inklings. We learn how his relationship with Tolkein cooled when the saintly Charles Williams became part of the group. We learn about the different pubs that they all visited so regularly. We learn about the famous occasion when Lewis’s arguments were undercut by the philosopher Elizbeth Anscombe, though Horobin argues that Lewis was not so put out as some in the past have argued, that he was.

This book does very well what it set out to do. It gives a vivid and detailed picture of the very particular Oxford that Lewis adorned for so many years.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

C. S. Lewis’s Oxford
Simon Horobin
Boldeian Library £30.00
Church Times Bookshop £27.00

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