Four months before his death, Lewis wrote to An American Lady
“Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realised suddenly that I had forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so blighted my childhood.”
Everyone who has read Lewis’ autobiography remembers the lurid description of his prep school: he told one of the Narnia fans who wrote to him after he became a celebrity that it had been even worse than front line trenches in World War I. Some of his biographers think he went a bit over the top in his description. But it was clearly pretty bad. There was a single teacher; he didn’t make much attempt to teach the children; just set them maths problems to do over and over. The was an outside toilet, no library, no playground, no sports field, no science lab. The food was inadequate and disgusting. And naturally, the teacher used to hit the boys. Surprised by Joy includes a lurid description of “Oldie” (Rev. Capron) caning a pupil: Lewis describes it as a form of torture, and claims that the same boy had been beaten on twenty or thirty previous occasions.
Well, that is how schools often were in those days. Lewis's dad said that schools had to be horrible or else they wouldn't be schools at all. It was 1908: you can’t (I am told) judge the past by the standards of the present. English teachers would carry on giving boys the cane for another ninety years. Winston Churchill and Roald Dahl got worse and it didn’t, to coin a phrase, do them any harm. Describing a prep school as being like a concentration camp seems a tad disrespectful to the Jewish community: did C.S. Lewis really read about the liberation of Belsen and think “Gosh, that sounds just like Wynyard Preparatory School”?
Two points about Lewis’s description of the school seem to have entirely passed his biographers by.
First, Lewis says that the headmaster treated him as “rather a pet or mascot”. It is interesting that he says “pet or mascot” rather than simply “favourite”. (The term “teacher’s pet” was certainly current by 1955 and probably in 1908.) He says that the rewards of being Capron’s pet were “purely negative”. It’s a very odd turn of phrase. A negative reward is by definition a punishment; although in some pedagogic contexts it might mean “withdrawing a privilege in the expectation that it will be reinstated later”. Does he mean simply “I avoided some ill treatment, but I didn’t get any kind treatment”; “I got fewer punishments but no treats”? Or does he mean “I was his favourite; but his favourites were singled out for worse treatment than the others?” But he talks about Oldie having “favourite victims” and “boys who could do nothing right” and he wasn’t one of those.
And then he does something atrociously Lewisian. He tells us that there is something he is not telling us.
He does this sort of thing moderately often: recall that later in Surprised by Joy he will announce to the world that he is going to “omit one enormous emotional incident”; elsewhere he mentions a friend who has a phobia of the Encyclopedia Britannica “for a reason I defy you to guess.” And of course, when sexuality pops up in his work, he is inclined to warn us that he is now going to speak very frankly about a certain thing and then refuse to name or mention it.
“I must restrain myself. I could continue to talk about Oldie for many pages. Some of the worst is unsaid. But perhaps it would be wicked, and it is certainly not obligatory to do so.”
“Some of the worst is unsaid.” He has described the teacher as being a bully. Lewis does not think that Capron is one of those who approves of corporal punishment because he was a sadist: he wasn’t spanking boys for sexual kicks. Perhaps he was simply a psychopath. Lewis says that he has heard a rumour that Capron was insane; it is a matter of fact he ended his life in Camberwell House Asylum. Walter Hooper claims that Capron had been declared mad by a brain specialist before Lewis arrived at the school.
So what is this “worse” thing that Lewis thinks it might be immoral to reveal? He told his young fan that she was too young to know what really happened at his school: did a 1960s school-girl need to be protected from “he used to whack us” and “the loos were disgusting”?
I draw a blank. Does he suspect that Capron murdered a pupil? Or is he alleging some kind of sexual abuse? He is a little old-boyish about the pedophilia at his next school: it definitely happened; it never appealed to him; but mostly he found it a crashing bore. He treats relationships between boys of eighteen and boys of thirteen as consensual love affairs. At Malvern when a younger boy became and older boy’s boyfriend he was referred to as a “tart”. Is it possible that Lewis is using the expression “pet or mascot” as a euphemism? And that the negative consequences of being favoured by the old man were that he avoided beatings but was subjected to molestation?
But Lewis has one good thing to say about Oldie. In one respect only he was a good teacher. There was a particular subject that he taught well and that Lewis felt he was a better person for having learned.
Which subject? See if you can guess.
After the description of working-class “P” getting whacked, Lewis adds a footnote. I don’t know why it is a footnote: is it because he can’t quite bring himself to say it, or is it an afterthought, or is it a funny way of emphasising the point?
"This punishment", he says, "was for a mistake in a geometrical proof."
Oldie's one redeeming feature is that he was a good geometry teacher. And the one incident that Lewis singles out as an example of his cruelty is a geometry lesson.
C.S. Lewis only believes in Bulverism because he was traumatised by an abusive geometry teacher.
Alternatively please drop a few pence in the tithe jar.