New Finds about Lewis's Conversion

It all began with an overheard conversation. Last summer, at the Marion E. Wade Center doing research for a book project on Till We Have Faces, I eavesdropped a discussion concerning an unpublished manuscript by C. S. Lewis that had been labeled as an early version of Surprised by Joy.

Thoroughly intrigued, I looked over the manuscript. I soon discovered that, while it indeed contained passages closely resembling those in Surprised by Joy, published in the fifties, it also contained very obvious similarities to The Pilgrim’s Regress, written some twenty years before. I pushed aside the research I was doing on Till We Have Faces and set myself to transcribe the manuscript, which Walter Hooper calls “Early Prose Joy.” The results of that transcription, to be published this month in VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review, astounded me for three reasons.

First of all, I discovered that the manuscript contains an account of Lewis’s conversion as an “Empirical Theist.” Wade Center Director Chris Mitchell pointed out that this phrase appears nowhere else in Lewis’s writing. Indeed, the 62 page manuscript apparently forms a clear, two-part account of Lewis’s pre-Christian conversion, and does so in a much more straightforward manner than any of his later attempts at autobiography. The manuscript, once published, should prove a treasure to apologists and philosophers interested in the specific philosophical path Lewis took toward conversion. Names such as Berkeley, Bradley, Hume, Kant, and Plato, alongside Lewis’s grappling with consciousness, the self, idealism, realism, solipsism, and the absolute are all referenced in a deliberate order. It shows how Lewis was dissecting and describing his developing theistic philosophy.

The “Early Prose Joy” manuscript also has dozens of phrases, concepts, and structures that later made their way into Lewis’s published autobiographies. This of course calls to mind Lewis’s advice to one writer: “When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the rewriting of things begun and abandoned years earlier.” It seems clear to me that Lewis had the manuscript before him and copied phrases and structures from it directly into The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy.

In addition, the manuscript includes a phrase that made it perfectly clear that Lewis’s theistic conversion did not occur, as he so famously stated in Surprised by Joy, in the “Trinity Term of 1929,” but actually took place in 1930. A key passage, read alongside Lewis’s letters, pinpoints the actual date to a three-week period. Lewis got that crucial date wrong, and every scholar has followed his lead since then. This comes as no great surprise when you consider Lewis’s rather flexible relationship with dates and numbers. Nevertheless, I’m proposing that you can cross out “1929,” and replace it with “1930” in your copy of Surprised by Joy.


If you’re interested in reading Andrew’s article, please inquire further at VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review

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