Fifty years from Shadowlands: Childhood memories of the world of C. S. Lewis

Fifty years from Shadowlands: Childhood memories of the world of C. S. Lewis

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

This is a shortened version of Msgr Peter J. Elliott's talk given at the C.S. Lewis Seminar held at the Thomas More Centre on 17 September 2005. The complete texts of all talks given at the seminar are due to be published in book form by Freedom Publishing.

My remarkable father, Rev Leslie Llewelyn Elliott, was the Vicar of St Luke's North Fitzroy, an inner-Melbourne Anglican parish that had seen better days. We moved there from Inverleigh in the Western District in 1949, then on to Albert Park in late 1957. My father did not get "good parishes" in those years. He was much too outspoken.

My father often used to talk with enthusiasm about C.S. Lewis. I recall him getting people who came to him to discuss problems of faith and doubt to read Lewis's books. He had been reading Lewis since the immediate post-War years, as I see from his edition of The Pilgrims Regress, a work he relished for he could swim easily in the deep sea of philosophy and he enjoyed the storms of what we call today the "culture wars".

When recommending Lewis's better known works, my father warned that Miracles was difficult to understand, but most useful if you could grasp its main argument, which he summed up as: "Miracles are not so much contrary to nature as contrary to what we know about nature". He told people to read Mere Christianity first, adding that it had to be filled out with the Church and sacraments.

He was keen on apologetics, and insisted that Christianity has a rational basis, that it makes sense, for faith requires understanding. While not being a fundamentalist, he had a conservative attitude to the Scriptures, like Lewis, and he also deplored liberal religion and insisted on the great orthodox essentials: Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection.

Our eventual family encounter with what is now called "Shadowlands" came about in an unexpected way. But first, some background is needed to explain the circumstances that led us to England and Europe at a time when few families could travel overseas, for we were certainly not wealthy.

During World War II my father had organised a Models' Exhibition, held in the Melbourne Town Hall, followed by another larger one in about 1951, held in the vast Exhibition Building. Through these exhibitions he raised large sums of money for his beloved charity, the Missions to Seamen.

He had been the Melbourne Port Chaplain during the War. In 1954 he planned something much more ambitious, an International Trade Fair to take place at the Exhibition Building in the following year. Always looking into the future and able to anticipate trends, he saw the desperate need for trade in the post-War world and the need to end Australian isolation.

Provided with first class tickets by the Missions to Seamen, carrying a visa endorsed by the Menzies Government with letters from the Chamber of Commerce, my father took his wife and two sons to England and Europe. We sailed on the P & O Himalaya on 13 October 1954. He went to sell space for the trade fair through the various European trade ministries, but he did not wish to travel alone. This was to be a family tour, for he also wanted to take the tension out of my mother's life. She was not happy in North Fitzroy.


We arrived in London in early November and found it smoggy, shabby and depressing. There were still many bomb sites around. After a dismal week in Islington, not gentrified in those days, we moved up to the more cheerful zone of Belsize Park, a small suburb tucked in at the bottom of the big hill that gradually rises to Hampstead Village and Hampstead Heath. We rented a large flat at 1 Lancaster Grove. The flat was owned by the Avoca House Hotel.

This pleasant private hotel was constructed out of four or five identical mansions from the early 19th century, as were its various apartment houses in adjacent streets. All these grand but somewhat faded houses were painted white or cream, with steps leading above the basement to the front door of the principal three stories rising above.

We had been there a short time when a very friendly lady with an American accent approached my father (he was wearing his clerical collar). She introduced herself as Joy Gresham. Like us, she took her main meals in the hotel and lived in a nearby flat. She revealed that she was acting as the literary secretary to C.S. Lewis. My father was delighted and at once they launched into a dialogue that would continue for some months!

Unlike the character presented in the film, Joy was not glamorous, but she was a fascinating woman with a brilliant mind. She had passed through an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. She had brought her two sons, David and Douglas, to England because of a developing association with C.S. Lewis that began in 1952. She seemed to understand men and boys, and was a good mother to her two sons at a difficult stage in their lives. I believe she found it easier to talk to men and much preferred their company.

Joy gave my father a paperback she had recently written, using her maiden name Joy Davidman, for she came from a Jewish background. Smoke on the Mountain is a set of contemporary parables about the Ten Commandments, hence the Sinai inspired title. After reading her description of a man violating the commandments by worshipping his car on Sunday, genuflecting to it, bathing it and anointing it, I have never been able to look at anyone washing a car in the same way, nor have I been able to be as attentive to my own car's body work as I should.

C.S. Lewis had encouraged Joy to write once she had converted to Christianity, largely under his guidance. Her journey to faith was made from a Jewish background and through a phase of communism. Like so many intellectuals of my father's generation, the Marxist dialectic at least encouraged people to think, to argue, even if it so often led one into realms of which Marx would not have approved.

One day, Joy told my parents that Jack [C.S. Lewis] was coming down from Cambridge to London on business and she had arranged for him to come to the hotel to meet us, particularly to meet my father. On the appointed evening we were just finishing dinner when he strode into the dining room.

My childhood memory is of a rather 'tweedy' man, solidly built, but not a big person. His eyes seemed to sparkle in a friendly face, an approachable open man, not the image of C.S. Lewis in my eleven-year-old Narnian child's mind, for I expected an imposing wizard or some ethereal kind of person. He was very down to earth, a ruddy faced squire not some pallid Oxford don. I kept looking at him as we sat drinking coffee and chatting in the lounge.

Then he whisked my father away for what turned out to be a long night - a pub crawl of Fleet Street, more precisely a visit to one watering place frequented by science fiction writers, in whose company Lewis now held an honoured place. My father later recalled that night as one of the most fascinating experiences of his life, not only meeting writers whose work he knew well, but the way the conversation rapidly shifted from science fiction to religion, particularly Christian apologetics.

Respect for clergy

Then my father noted something that humbled him, a feature of Lewis's outlook which others have observed, his deep respect for the clergy, and this coming from a man who could buy and sell most of them in theology and philosophy. In the course of the complex discussion on religion Lewis would often defer to my father or direct those present to put their views to him because, after all, he was an Anglican priest.

Joy was still carrying the effects of a marriage breakdown and divorce. My father had a reputation as a skilled pastoral psychologist, and some years later he remarked that he had counselled her at her request. He left it at that, never adding any details. He was a man of great discretion with a strong professional ethic about the "seal of the confessional".

Joy invited us around to her flat one afternoon to meet her two sons who had returned from boarding school on vacation. My brother and I went out into the front garden with David and Douglas. We found them to be somewhat stuffy English school boys, and did not think they were Americans.

The Horse and His Boy had come out in the previous year. My parents bought a copy and my brother and I presented it to the Gresham boys and asked for their autographs. Their childish scrawl, in '50s blue ballpoint, may still be seen on the page where the book had been dedicated to them by the author, who would later become their devoted step-father.

Douglas has written a most informative book about his childhood, In Lenten Lands. It is slightly marred by implicit hostility towards Catholicism, surprising since he has settled in Ireland. Although he is a committed Christian, he also shows a lack of appreciation of the essential place of the Church in Christianity. I suppose he would argue that this was what Jack believed, Christianity rejecting "Churchianity".

Despite Lewis's abhorrence of sectarianism and his satires of foolish clergy, he respected the communal dimension of Christianity. However, I am skeptical about theories he would have become a Catholic had he lived a little longer. In spite of the apologetical riches he found in Chesterton and his friendship with Tolkien, I frankly doubt that he would have taken that step.

Encouraged by Joy, I wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis, enclosing sketches of Aslan the lion, explaining how hard it is to draw lions. He replied to my letter, agreeing with the difficulty. They tend to look like dogs! His little letter is treasured in our family archives.

One day in the early spring of 1955, Joy invited my mother to join her on a visit to Oxford. I recall that this was because my father and myself had spent a day there, for some reason without my brother and mother. So Joy took my mother and Paul to visit Oxford, or should I say to visit Magdalene College, for they did not see much more of Oxford than Magdalene, which was Jack's college before he left for Cambridge that year.

I vividly recall my mother coming back that evening and remarking that all they did was walk around Magdalene, seeing where Jack had his rooms, where Jack ate his dinner, where Jack walked and where Jack prayed. My mother then declared that Joy was in love with the man and would surely marry him.

My father was aghast at this suggestion and strongly contradicted her. Having suffered from his own parents' divorce and with strong views about the indissolubility of marriage he could not contemplate the great C.S. Lewis marrying a divorcee. I later learnt that my mother was one of the first people to predict what would actually happen. As it turned out, and as Douglas Gresham explained in his recollections, they were free to enter a sacramental marriage because Joy's first husband was divorced before he married her.

When we returned to Australia in June 1955, we lost contact with Joy. My father was not a good correspondent; we moved to another parish and life went on. From afar we followed the marriage, then Joy's tragic death and Lewis's mourning her in A Grief Observed. Then we mourned his quiet passing, overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.


I continued to read the Narnia books, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, as these came out, then, as a teenager, graduated to the science fiction and began to explore the apologetics. I did not find them all useful. But as I became interested in Catholicism, I recall the surprise of finding paperbacks by C.S. Lewis while browsing in Pellegrini's bookstore, in Myers. That would have been in about 1958, in pre-ecumenical times.

I later learnt that many Catholics who read Lewis in those days did not know he was an Anglican. At Melbourne Grammar, Broadcast Talks was set as a text book for our year 12 classes in "divinity" in 1961. I thought that they could have chosen one of his more interesting works. I did not find the formalistic and dry religion offered at school particularly engaging and was already moving slowly and steadily towards Catholicism.

These memories I share are distant, fragmentary, not particularly significant in terms of history, nevertheless they are cherished. They are only one tiny piece in the much larger mosaic of so many people's lives that have been touched by one man. He had direct influence not only on those who met him or read his works, but on the whole Christian world. His strength, balance and vision are needed in our own "Shadowland" times.

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