Heroines and Humility part 2

Yesterday, Dr. Crystal Hurd shared her thoughts about the heroines The Place of the Lion and That Hideous Strength in Heroines and Humility Part I. Now here is part II.

Heroines and Humility: How Charles Williams Shaped C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, Part II

She thought herself so intellectual and scholarly and capable – and so she was. But she was also an absurd, tender, uncertain little thing, with childish faults of greediness and conceit, and Anthony felt strongly that no one except himself was likely to recognize the childishness. They all took her at her own valuation, and some like her and some disliked her. But to him she so often seemed like a child with its face against the window-pane, looking for the rain to stop so that the desired satisfaction might arrive. Her learning, her articles, her doctorate – and the picnic would be ended, and she would be fortunate if she were not, like most people, tired and cross and unhappy before the end of the day   – The Place of the Lion

In a previous post, we discussed how Charles Williams was welcomed into the Inklings by admirer C.S. Lewis. Williams’ heroine, Damaris Tighe, is a strong-willed intellectual who eschews spiritual considerations and romantic involvement. She prefers to remain unmarried and focused on her studies, but often at the expense of deepening her relationships. However, her defenses erode when strange events cause her to reevaluate the power and validity of mythical archetypes. It is worth mentioning that Williams espoused a belief in co-inherence, which Sorina Higgins describes as “the idea that Christ’s risen life inhabits believers so that they share the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. This is based in the Trinitarian theology of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling and love of the three members of the Godhead, from which all human love and co-operation are made possible” (“An Introduction to Charles Williams”). Co-inherence requires an intimacy, a strong and abiding connection between others which Damaris (and later Jane) prevented due to pride and selfishness. A further study of parallels follows.

* * *

To the perceptive reader, the influence of Williams’ Damaris on Lewis’ Jane Studdock is quite clear. Lewis begins his first two installments of the Ransom trilogy with the narrator Lewis; he begins the text of That Hideous Strength with a frustrated female bitterly reciting words on marriage from the book of Common Prayer. She pours her energy into her studies, while nursing a lingering disappointment. Damaris is also a confident woman, a noted scholar of Abelard, who rebuffs Anthony’s advances. She simply will not be conquered. She derives all of her self-worth from her academic accolades, and erects a lofty emotional barrier to detract affection. Perhaps this is because Damaris interprets relationships as a threat (not a complement) to her intellectual achievement. In her mind, no reconciliation exists between the two seemingly contradictory roles of scholar and wife.

But that is where Damaris and Jane are mistaken. Both roles can be maintained satisfactorily. Neither Antony nor Mark exudes an offensive alpha-male dominance that tyrannizes their relationships. On the contrary, Anthony at least is very welcoming and supportive of Damaris’ occupation. He desires a balance of family and academic responsibilities.

In fact, a rigid interpretation of feminism can often be more restrictive than liberating. Damaris and Jane are both strongly opposed to “limitations” of females, and yet, they often create them by espousing an asceticism associated with severe forms of feminism. It is perfectly acceptable to be a wife and not a scholar (according to status quo) but impossible to be a scholar AND a wife? Wouldn’t this belief be unjustly confining if the prevailing social order encouraged “gender equality”? True freedom would be choosing all the individual genuinely desires, instead of what allegiance to an ideology demands.

The word “feminism,” even in contemporary culture, evokes passionate response and debate. The Inklings were at the cusp of this social shift and noted a distinct pattern of animosity present in several veins of feminism that catalyzed major issues. When drawing attention to, or in some cases satirizing, this dogmatism, the Inklings were quickly labeled as “misogynistic.” Why didn’t Susan cross into Aslan’s Country? Why aren’t more women (at least more unconventional women) present in The Lord of the Rings? Yet, even cherished friend and fellow (female) writer Dorothy Sayers responded to the unhealthy hostility in an address to the Women’s Society in 1938, an essay now published as “Are Women Human?”:

When I was asked to come and speak to you, your Secretary made the suggestion that she thought I must be interested in the feminist movement. I replied – a little irritably, I am afraid – that I was not sure I wanted to “identify myself,” as the phrase goes, with feminism, and that the time for “feminism” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, had gone past. In fact, I think I went so far as to say that, under present conditions, an aggressive feminism might do more harm than good. (Unpopular Opinions 106)

The hesitance is not a disagreement of perspective, but one of definition. What is the standard expectation of “feminist” behavior? And can feminism, like extreme religious fervor or any breed of excessive fanaticism, “do more harm than good” when it inspires hatred and irrationality? If one disagrees with its excessive application, it is faulty logic to assume the individual disagrees with ALL feminist doctrine or the struggle for equality. Sayers is not opposed to feminism or gender equality but rather to the radical implementation of an ideology that maligns an entire gender based on the actions of an arrogant minority. It does not further discussion, but rather smacks of retaliation. When such fanaticism ceases to benefit the common good, when it loses its primary vision, when protest simply becomes pageantry and pantomime, it has failed its purpose.

The discussion and illustration of this changing definition of feminism is present in both The Place of the Lion and That Hideous Strength. Both women fear they are essentially “acting like a woman,” which is counterproductive to the feminine movement of which Damaris and Jane are proud components. Jane complains that real conversation — discussions on deep philosophical subjects, are not socially acceptable between males and females. When Mark returns home, she is continually irritated by these expectations. She feels that he will find her conversation boring and insignificant in comparison to the lengthy sociological discussions he holds with colleagues. In fact, she is afraid Mark will perceive her as a typical female:

Men hated women who had things wrong with them, specially queer, unusual things. Her resolution was easily kept for Mark, full of his own story, asked her no questions…She knew he often had rather grandiose ideas, and from something in his face she divined that during his absence he had been drinking much more than he usually did. And so, all evening, the male bird displayed his plumage and the female played her part and asked questions and laughed and feigned more interest than she felt. Both were young, and if neither loved very much, each was still anxious to be admired. (89)

Later this resentment solidifies into hatred for not just Mark but for all male characters. She interprets them ascomplacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children or bartering them for cattle” and was “very angry” (117). As mentioned previously, many of the Inklings have been criticized for their depictions of women. And yet, both female protagonists struggle with what it is to be feminine. It is a sad reality that men authors who depict women are often accused of writing contradictions and catch-22s. If a male author creates a conventional female, one who is highly emotional and adheres to the “domestic goddess” archetype prevalent in Victorian literature (of which Lewis had a steady diet as a developing scholar), then he is guilty of being unoriginal. If he paints a thoroughly human female, one with issues and hang-ups, one who is gloriously flawed, then he is guilty of being disparaging, of showing scars, of ripping away a thin veneer and diverging from typical female representation, much like Lewis’ Orual in Till We Have Faces. However, the shaping of Lewis’ Orual came with the assistance and guidance of his wife, Joy Davidman Lewis, who assured him that the nuances of character resonated with respect and verisimilitude.

Neither Williams nor Lewis exhibits a critique of “liberated women” (both had healthy relationships with female colleagues and fans) but rather how men and women are both susceptible to Pride. Such stubborn self-assurance can become a stout fortress; it ultimately prevents connections and relationships which would abundantly enhance our lives. For Damaris and Jane, the threat of submission thwarts the joy of unity provided by marriage. For Mark, insatiable ambition leads him spiraling into dark and dangerous company. Here, selfish proclivities do not discriminate by gender. Damaris, after her religious conversion, is like the new Eve, while Jane is truly starting over with Mark after the destruction catalyzed by N.I.C.E. and the ensuing battle to defeat it. But the victory is also a personal one. Both women come to a better understanding of the material world and of spirituality, while relinquishing any vestiges of pride and resentment.

Like any valuable tool, the intellect can become a shrine of idolatry, the individual its guardian and worshipper. “I have learned more than I ever knew yet about humility,” writes Lewis to Arthur Greeves. Williams was a prodigious lecturer in his brief life, but his lessons still resonate through his literature and in the works of those he influenced. His seed of wisdom blooms throughout Lewis’ writings for the rest of his life. Lewis discusses the significance of humility at length in his broadcast talks which will later become Mere Christianity. Later, he pens a seven-volume children’s tale involving protagonists who wrestle with pride and temptation. He expounds on pride through the lips of a devil’s protégé. Lewis had wrestled with the topic before, but not with such clarity and perception as with Jane Studdock, a compelling figure directly inspired by Williams’ own fascinating heroine.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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2 Responses to Heroines and Humility part 2

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this! I don’t know if I can add much to the real discussion, and so won’t try, yet, but it is worth explicitly reminding people about Dorothy L. Sayers’ admiration for That Hideous Strength, about which she and Lewis corresponded.

    On 23 September 2013, Brenton Dickieson had a Pilgrim in Narnia post in part about Lewis’s correspondence with Evelyn Underhill, who had written him for the pleasure Out of the Silent Planet had given her. It would be interesting to hear her reaction to That Hideous Strength, too, had she only lived long enough to read it.

    Intriguingly, as Arend Smilde observes in his useful notes on That Hideous Strength at Lewisiana, “There is a possible source” for the office of Pendragon there “in Evelyn Underhill’s novel The Column of Dust (1909). In 1943 Charles Williams published an edition of Underhill’s letters and in his preface discussed that novel. 1943 was the year in which That Hideous Strength was written.”


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