Felix Kent’s last PERFECT piece for The Toast was Descartes Goes To Stockholm To Teach Queen Christina Philosophy At Half-Past Five In The Morning, And The Early Rising Kills Him.
“The same girl who had first let her in had apparently just opened the door and was still standing in the doorway. Jane now conceived for her that almost passionate admiration which women, more often than is supposed, feel for other women whose beauty is not of their own type. It would be nice, Jane thought, to be like that — so straight, so forthright, so valiant, so fit to be mounted on a horse, and so divinely tall.”
–From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis
I can’t have been more than ten when I went through my copy of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes with a bottle of Wite-Out and felt pen, determined to, at any point when Petrova’s appearance was mentioned, change the text. In the book, or at least in my mind, she was ugly, and not in the ugly-duckling way of so many children’s book characters (Sylvia’s views on her interesting looks notwithstanding), but straightforwardly un-pleasing to look at. She was also the only character available for me to identify with. I lacked the talents of Posy and the charm of Pauline. And I was damned if I was going to think of myself as ugly.
I did not finish this task, being lazy and also left-handed and not able to write small enough in the book to make it look nice, which drove me nuts.
In my early teens I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I loved Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra I found too anxiety-provoking to really enjoy; I can’t handle books where the drama comes from one character hovering for much of the book on the verge of making a terrible mistake.
“Don’t read That Hideous Strength,” my mother said. My mother is a great C.S. Lewis fan, also a believer, in the religious sense. One of my best sources for what to read. And a woman who grew up in the Fifties and became an academic. Became, like Ransom, the trilogy’s main character, a philologist.
“Why not?” I said.
I don’t think my mother used the word “yucky” in her reply, but that was more or less what she meant. I went ahead and read the book anyway.
It’s my favorite of the series; it’s probably the C.S. Lewis book closest to my heart, in that it’s the one that I think about the most when I’m not intentionally thinking about anything. I am not one of those people who have read all of C.S. Lewis; I tell you that because you may be one of the people who has. I’ve read the Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. I read bits and pieces of Til We Have Faces, which my mother says is the best. I saw the movie Shadowlands, and I cried and I cried and I cried.
I am not pretending to expertise here.
It’s my favorite despite the fact that Jane, the main character, is not altogether a likeable female character. She condescends to Ivy, whose husband is in jail, and Mrs. Dimble, who is Christian and does not pretend to academic attainment. (Jane is a graduate student who has recently married an academic.) Also she is not as smart as she thinks she is.
I like it partly because it is so painstakingly accurate in so many things. This, for example, is the single best description of looking at things from a moving vehicle that I’ve ever read:
And in between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit staring at the train, whose two eyes looked like the dots, and his ears like uprights, of a double exclamation mark.
I can’t even tell you how many times I have felt like I needed to get out of the car immediately and start a brand new life for myself because of exactly that phenomenon, and I have never seen it put into words so perfectly anywhere else.
And then there’s the coziness that comes from having most of the main characters in a tiny island of safety while the world falls to pieces around them and there’s the toasted cheese and there’s academic politicking leading to the triumph of evil and there’s Merlin and there’s a bear.
But I really want to talk about the dresses. Towards the end of the book, as good is triumphing over evil, most of the non-evil female characters gather together in a room called the Wardrobe. They have been instructed to choose dresses. They are not given any mirrors with which to see how they look in these dresses.
Each of them tries on only one dress, chosen for them by the others. The dress chosen is always perfect, captures their essence. Camilla, who likes weather and horses, wears “a long slender thing which looked like steel in color though it was soft as foam to the touch. It wrapped itself close about her loins and flowed out in a glancing train at her heels. ‘Like a mermaid,’ thought Jane; and then, ‘like a Valkyrie.’”
Jane, who is the main female character, on the other hand, “could see nothing specially appropriate in the robe which the others agreed in putting on her. Blue was, indeed, her color but she had thought of something a little more austere and dignified. Left to her own judgment, she would have called this a little ‘fussy.’ But when she saw the others all clap their hands, she submitted.”
When I read this book I longed to be Camilla, just like when I read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford I longed to be Linda. Which of course rules me out from being a Camilla or a Linda; Camilla would never dream of wanting to be anyone but herself, a little like Diana Mitford thinking in prison how lovely it was to be herself, but without the Nazism.
The quality of wanting to be somebody else is a quality that Jane has in spades. “Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?”
If you haven’t read the book, and were starting to wonder where the yucky parts come in, this is where they come in.
The sweet-and-fresh business didn’t bother me much at the time I first read the book. Probably because I grew up in a world and family where I felt interesting and important and also it was assumed I would have to get a job one day to support myself. But the part about the fussy dress, that ate at me a little bit.
I asked my mother, trying not to tip my hand, which of the dresses she thought I would have been assigned, if I had been there in the room. This was in the old days, when there were no Buzzfeed quizzes to answer these questions for you, and so you had to open your soul to people in that pathetic kind of way.
She said that she thought I would be given Jane’s.
I said, tentatively, if she thought I might be really more like Camilla. My mother is kind. She didn’t laugh at me. Maybe, she said, maybe.
Not too long ago. I went shopping for a dress to wear at my wedding. I had to try on a lot of dresses. There was no magic dress that revealed the essence of my soul. I tried on a lot of dresses. Some I looked better in than others.
In every C.S. Lewis book I’ve read there are things that stay with me and then there are things that I vehemently disagree with. That’s nothing special to C.S. Lewis — one of my favorite all time books, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies In Classic American Literature has this to say about women: “The very women who are most busy saving the bodies of men, and saving the children: these women-doctors, these nurses, these educationalists, these public-spirited women, these female saviours: they are all, from the inside, sending out waves of destructive malevolence which eat out the inner life of a man, like a cancer.”
(I would much rather be send out waves of destructive malevolence than sit there being sweet and fresh, but that’s just personal preference.)
What I find so difficult about reading C.S. Lewis, though, is that he really fights any attempt to take the parts you like and leave the rest. He’s really down on that. You get one dress, and you don’t get to choose that dress for yourself. You don’t even get to see yourself in the mirror once you’ve got the dress on. You don’t get to take out your white out bottle and rewrite things to suit yourself.
And probably that’s also part of what I love about That Hideous Strength. Because there’s always a fascination in having someone else tell you who you are, even when it’s horrifying.
Once I was fifteen and on the shuttle that takes you from the airport to the longterm parking lot with my mother. We were on our way back from Seattle and our flight had been delayed and I was busy freaking out over not getting my homework done. I was whining. A middle-aged guy with his wife across from us looked at my mother indulgently. He said that I reminded him of one of his two daughters. One of his daughters was very organized and didn’t procrastinate and didn’t panic, and the other one was just like me. I hated that man. I still hate that man twenty some years later. I want to tell him that he didn’t know the first damn thing about me.
But of course, just like Jane, I worry that he was right about me all along, that all those unpleasant voices, some external and some coming from inside the house, are right about me. There’s not a damn thing to be done about it. I put on my dress, look at myself in the mirror. I think I look pretty good.
Felix Kent used to live in Southern California but now she lives in Northern California.