Why Read Old Books: History and Its Relevance

An Introduction is a signpost – pointing not to itself but to the pages that follow. While “On the Reading of Old Books” is usually reprinted (and presented) as a stand-alone essay by Lewis, it is actually the introduction to a book written by someone else: “The Incarnation of the Word of God: Being the Treatise of St. Athanasius DE INCARNATIONE VERBI DEI, Newly Translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V. St. Th.”

This book appeared in 1944 from Centenary Press/Bles (in England) and later from MacMillan (in the US); it has been reprinted at least twice since then in paperback form.

There is a progression here: to talk intelligently about the Introduction, we should first talk about the book it introduces. But to talk profitably about the book, it is enormously useful to talk first about the friendship behind it. (And one suspects a friendship, because the book is dedicated to Lewis!)

The self-effacing “religious” was actually Ruth Penelope Lawson, who was born in 1890 and had entered the (Anglican) convent of the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin (at Wantage, near Oxford) in 1912. Sister Penelope studied theology and church history, and expressed her practical delight in Greek and Latin by translating numerous works from the early church fathers. She had already written several books of her own by 1939, including Scenes from the Psalms and Leaves from the Trees.

Sister Penelope read and admired Out of the Silent Planet, a book that had appeared in 1938 – written by C. S. Lewis, a don at Magdalene College in neighboring Oxford. Sister Penelope wrote a letter to Lewis in August 1939, and praised his book for (among other things) being thought-provoking, delightful, and scripturally-based. She pronounced it “more lovely and more satisfying than anything I have met before” and inquired if he planned a sequel to the story. She also enclosed a copy of her own recent book, God Persists: A Short Survey of World History in the Light of Christian Faith.

Lewis replied promptly; he admitted enjoying her praise of his book, and also confessed the struggle of trying to enjoy it properly without becoming wrongfully proud. He discussed Westonism, offered kind thanks for her book while singling out some passages for special appreciation, recommended the books of George MacDonald and Charles Williams for her reading, and (almost shyly) asked for her prayers as a man who was a relative newcomer to the Christian faith.

This delightful “omnibus” letter – addressing so many subjects in only a few short pages – sparked a friendship between the two that would last until his death in 1963.

Some forty-four letters from Lewis to Sister Penelope are preserved in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis – twenty-two of them between their initial correspondence and the appearance in print of De Incarnatione, all of which were written under the shadow of the War.

Over those years Lewis wrote to her warmly and widely, and, characteristically, of many things – his first confession, the appearance of angels (bodily or pneumatic only), Sister Penelope’s new books, his own projects, talks to Army officers, their upcoming BBC radio projects, the Shroud of Turin, Shakespeare, the vagaries of publishers, plays for children, the numbing dreads of wartime and the unexpected delights of blackouts ….. all abundant evidence that she enriched his life, and he hers.

In 1941, Lewis entrusted to Sister Penelope the original manuscript of The Screwtape Letters, because he had some apprehension that the only other manuscript copy might come to harm in the German bombings. “I enclose the MS. of Screwtape. If it is not a trouble I shd. like you to keep it safe until the book is printed (in case the one the publisher has got blitzed) – after that it can be made into spills or used to stuff dolls or anything.”

(This was consistent with his disregard for his own manuscripts after they had served their purpose. Lewis would often turn his original and fair-copy pages into scratch paper or “spills” to light the gas fire. One such rescued manuscript page is on display at the Brown Collection at Taylor University.)

Early in 1942 Lewis received and began to read her translation of De Incarnatione. He also spoke at her convent, and dedicated his Perelandra to “Some Ladies at Wantage” – the nuns. (Walter Hooper records the nuns’ amusement at being told that the Portugese edition of Perelandra rendered the dedication “To Some Wanton Ladies.”)

In early 1943, Sister Penelope informed him that her scheduled translation of De Incarnatione had been rejected by the intended publishers. Lewis promptly recommended that she try Bles, his own publisher. This apparently set into motion a successful and happy application, for De Incarnatione appeared in 1944 from Bles/Centenary Press with the Introduction by Lewis.

“St. Athanasius arrived the day before yesterday, looking very well dressed,” Lewis wrote. Apparently he was surprised (and pleased, though mildly worried) to find it dedicated to himself as “teacher and witness” – “It gives me real pleasure to have it dedicated to me, though I wd. have deprecated ‘witness’ if you had given me the opportunity. Apart from the suggestion of martyrdom (!) it carries implications which are rather overwhelming. But I am pleased and grateful all the same.”

This is not the last mention of De Incarnatione in the letters that were preserved, and the friendship continued on.

He continued to write over the years, discussing such topics as the Abominable Snowman, Holst’s Planets, George MacDonald’s poetry, and the impostrous Mrs. Hooker who was passing herself off as the “wife of C. S. Lewis.” He told her of such things as the death of his beloved friend Charles Williams, his ascension to the newly-created Professorship at Cambridge, and his marriage to the dying Joy Davidman. She in turn sent him news of her health and her planned projects – and copies of many of her own published and unpublished works, in which he never failed to find some delight. She also gave him a photograph of the Shroud of Turin – which he treasured, and kept on his bedroom wall for the rest of his life.

He wrote once to tell Sister Penelope that the Queen of Belgium had asked him (through her lady-in-waiting) for a copy of De Incarnatione, knowing that it was out of print and hard to obtain. (He does not say in the letter whether he was able to fulfill that royal request.)

By 1949 Lewis had grown wary of writing additional prefaces for other people’s books; he declined preparing an introduction to Sister Penelope’s The Morning Gift by remarking “I don’t want to write any more prefaces for a good bit: I think my name has come before the public in that way too often and ceases to do much good either to those for whom I write the prefaces or to me.”

(He declined a similar request from Harry Blamires with these words: “For a preface. No. That work begins to be dangerous to me and perhaps to the writer concerned. But I’ll gladly read the MS.”)

Sister Penelope still had the Screwtape manuscript in the 1950s, and inquired what Lewis wanted her to do with it. Lewis cared little for it, and indicated that he would simply dispose of it straightaway if she returned it to him – most of his scribbles ended up in the w.p.b. (waste paper basket) anyway.

Lewis finally told her, “If you can persuade any ‘sucker’ (as the Americans say) to buy the ms. of Screwtape, pray do, and use the money for any pious or charitable object you like.”

She eventually – though reluctantly – arranged for its sale to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and so preserved the only surviving full-length original Lewis book manuscript. The funds from the sale went to refurbish St. Michael’s chapel at the convent.

After the death of Lewis in 1963, Walter Hooper continued to visit and enjoy the company of the good Sister – active and spry and full of good humor and charity until her own death in 1977.


Dan Hamilton is a writer and technical consultant from Indianapolis, Indiana. He has edited a dozen George MacDonald novels, written the fantasy trilogy Tales of the Forgotten God:, The Beggar King, The Chameleon Lady, and The Everlasting Child. He also has completed two books with his wife, Elizabeth, Should I Home School? and Look Both Ways. He is the co-author with Dr. Ed Brown of In Pursuit of C. S. Lewis, and is on the steering committee of the C. S. Lewis Society based at Taylor University.


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