The mysterious Mrs. Moore.
Every biographer of C. S. Lewis must face “the Mrs. Moore question” and decide what to make of the relationship the beloved writer had with a woman more than 25 years his senior who remained a major part of his life from the time he returned from the trenches of the Great War until her death in 1951. Mrs. Moore was the mother of Lewis’s friend, Paddy, and before they went to the front, the young men promised each other that if one were to die, the other would look after his friend’s family members. Paddy was killed. And Lewis kept his word.
After the war, Lewis (known as Jack to his family and friends) formed a household of sorts, moving in with Paddy’s sister, Maureen, and Paddy’s mother, Janie, a woman who was estranged and separated from her husband. For more than 10 years, the newly formed “family” bounced around to various houses in Oxford before finally settling in 1930 at The Kilns.
Early biographies (Carpenter, Sayer, and Hooper and Green) described the relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore as purely platonic, driven by grief and longing—with Moore fulfilling a maternal role in the place of the mother Lewis lost to cancer and Lewis becoming a surrogate son for a woman grieving a boy lost to war. More recently, Harry Poe has aligned with this view, pointing out how difficult it would have been to carry on an affair in a household that was so open, with maids and neighbors constantly coming and going (The Making of C. S. Lewis, 206–9).
Most later biographies of Lewis conclude there was a sexual relationship between the two during the 1920s, before Lewis’s conversion (Wilson, Jacobs, McGrath, and Zaleski). And even some of the earlier biographers (Sayer and Hooper) changed their position later in life, acknowledging the likelihood of a sexual element after assessing the situation and its many peculiarities.
Why, for example, did Lewis keep his living arrangements a secret from his father?
When Lewis visited his father in Ireland, why did Mrs. Moore feel the need to conceal their correspondence by sending him letters through a friend?
Why was Lewis’s brother Warnie appalled at the “freakishness” of the arrangement (Sayer, 131, King, 58-59)? And why did he express relief in 1919 at the news that Mrs. Moore was still married and therefore “can’t marry Jacks,” unless the implication was that Lewis would have married Mrs. Moore if it were possible (Zaleski, 90, King, 59)?
In 2021, more evidence came to light, as it was revealed that Owen Barfield (a fellow Inkling author) had confirmed to Walter Hooper (Lewis’s literary advisor) that Lewis admitted to having engaged in a sexual relationship with Mrs. Moore before his conversion.
Whatever happened during the 1920s, by the time Lewis converted to Christianity (and after Jack and Warnie moved with Janie and Maureen Moore into The Kilns) the door was shut—not only figuratively but literally—to an ongoing sexual relationship. Mrs. Moore’s room upstairs may have been next to Jack’s, but the door between the rooms was locked. Lewis even installed a metal staircase so he could enter his room from the outside. Yes, for more than 20 years, C. S. Lewis had to walk out of the house and around to the side to enter his bedroom.
(I recently spent a couple weeks at The Kilns, and the warden explained how, after Mrs. Moore died in 1951, her room became Lewis’s study. The door that would ensure easy passage from his study to his bedroom had been shut and locked for so long that Lewis no longer had a key, and even after a locksmith was called, the story goes, the wooden door was so warped after 20 years of being closed, it still wouldn’t open. It had to be replaced. When Lewis shut a door, the door remained shut!)
What intrigues me most about Mrs. Moore isn’t the salaciousness of a possible sexual relationship but rather how the later years of Mrs. Moore influenced Lewis’s character and writing.
Whatever illicit love might have been in the 1920s, by the 1930s and especially the 1940s, the relationship was marked by Mrs. Moore’s growing cantankerousness. Friends who visited The Kilns during this period (such as George Sayer) described her as a good conversationalist who loved receiving guests at the home. And no doubt, Mrs. Moore extended Lewis’s social circle beyond the cloistered walls of Oxford University. “She was generous and taught me to be generous,” Lewis told Sayer. “If it were not for her, I should know little or nothing about ordinary domestic life as lived by most people. . . . I was brought down to earth and made to work with my hands” (Sayer, 135).
That’s a characteristically Lewisian way of putting a positive spin on Mrs. Moore’s influence. His brother Warnie portrayed her as intensely selfish, domineering, and demanding, a constant drain on Lewis’s energy and time through his “restricting and distracting servitude” to her every whim (Sayer, 165, King, 85-88).
“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens.” (King, 87)
Lewis wrote in 1947 that his time was taken up with “duties as a nurse and a domestic servant” (Jacobs, xiv). Mrs. Moore constantly called for his assistance and had him always walking her dog (McGrath, 245). Even Sayer acknowledged she became “autocratic and difficult” (Sayer, 301).
In short, The Kilns was not a haven of harmony and rest for Lewis during his most prolific years of writing. He was a Christian apologist, growing in knowledge and pursuing holiness, yet saddled with an increasingly difficult elderly woman whose words and attitude were thorns in his side.
Lewis never wrote negatively about Mrs. Moore, unless she’s the inspiration for the motherly figure who shows up as a source of temptation in The Screwtape Letters (never satisfied, a “positive terror to hostesses and servants”) or unless Lewis had her in mind when, in his imaginative vision of the afterlife, The Great Divorce, he described a woman who goes on grumbling forever until she becomes nothing more than “a grumble.” (Warnie kept a record of some of the maddening, unwittingly hilarious statements and dialogue characteristic of Mrs. Moore at The Kilns, a selection of which can be found in Don King’s new biography of Lewis’s brother, 124–28.)
Shortly after Mrs. Moore died, Lewis wrote in a letter,
“I have lived most of [my private life] in a house which was hardly ever at peace for 24 hours among senseless wranglings, lyings, back bitings, follies and scares. I never went home without a feeling of terror as to what appalling situation might have developed in my absence. Only now that it is over do I begin to realize quite how bad it was.” (Collected Letters, Vol. 3, 107–8)
The transformation of C. S. Lewis—from an arrogant, lustful young man in his teens and 20s to the warm and selfless sage of spiritual insight—is most evident in his letters. Walter Hooper described him as the most thoroughly converted man he ever met, Christlike through and through (C. S. Lewis and His Circle, 199). And surely this is one reason his works have endured; they come from someone whose piety and goodness are palpable, from a man who truly sought to become a “little Christ”—as he described in Mere Christianity should be the goal of all Christians.
And so I wonder . . .
Would we have received the same level of spiritual insight and passion of C. S. Lewis in his sanctified later years apart from the purifying fires of trial brought about by Mrs. Moore?
Would the warmth and humanity so characteristic of Lewis shine through in his works if he’d only known an easy life as a bachelor don?
If Lewis had never endured life with a woman whose presence became more a burden than a blessing, would he have been as perceptive and insightful regarding human nature, different types of temptation, and the victory of holiness over lingering sin and selfishness?
Had Lewis enjoyed a charmed life in The Kilns, surrounded only and ever by the people whose company he preferred, absent any tension or disharmony, would he have become the man whose work still radiates with goodness and truth even today?
It’s impossible to resolve or answer these kinds of questions definitively. But more than wondering about the “mysterious Mrs. Moore,” I find it tantalizing to consider the mysterious providence of God in the life of C. S. Lewis, who turned the relationship that once provided an occasion for sin into the occasion for his sanctification.
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