Making a virtue of necessity, McGrath attempts to offer a critical perspective on Lewis in lieu of firsthand testimony, a strategy that emphasizes scholarship rather than chatty anecdote. McGrath proves copious in his research, although his narrative method tends to keep Lewis at arm’s length.
McGrath is fond of using the editorial “we” in his sentences, as if he’s implicating the reader in an extended classroom lecture. It’s a way of writing that routinely points to McGrath as the narrator of the story, rather than to Lewis, the man ostensibly at the center of the book. What one misses in “C.S Lewis: A Life” is the cunning illusion promised by the best biographies – the feeling that one is immersed within a life as it’s being lived.
But McGrath is nothing if not thorough, taking full advantage of some recent resources not available to earlier biographers. Most notable is the extensive collection of Lewis correspondence published between 2000 to 2006. “These letters, essential to Lewis scholarship, form the narrative backbone of this biography,” McGrath writes.
Most of the story in McGrath’s book will be familiar to readers of earlier Lewis biographies. Born in Belfast in 1898 to an upper middle-class family, Lewis spent his childhood in a rambling house that had more than a passing resemblance to the setting of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The tranquility of Lewis’s early youth gave way to turmoil when his mother died, prompting his father to place him in a series of oppressive boarding schools. Isolated, Lewis took solace in books, giving himself the first lessons he’d use in a career in letters. Eventually, Lewis found a mentor in William Thompson Kirkpatrick, a former school master whose cultivated skepticism fueled Lewis’ growing doubts about orthodox religion. Lewis became an atheist, a position he retained into his early academic career as a scholar of English literature at Oxford.