Professor Simon Horobin's new book sheds light on the relationship between C.S. Lewis and John Betjeman

c s lewis's oxford book cover

A forthcoming book by Professor Simon Horobin sheds new light on the fractious relationship between C.S. Lewis, Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College from 1925-1954, and one of his first pupils, the poet John Betjeman. John Betjeman’s Oxford career began promisingly enough, with alpha marks in his College collection papers, but he was soon cutting tutorials and submitting half-baked essays. Lewis’s diary records his exasperation at a string of unconvincing excuses and Betjeman’s unwillingness to learn Old English. Betjeman was rusticated (i.e. suspended) for Trinity Term 1928 to allow him to cram for the Holy Scripture examination that he had failed twice.

The major blow to their relationship came when Lewis refused to endorse Betjeman’s application to be re-admitted for an Honours degree. According to Betjeman’s account in Summoned by Bells (1960), his tutor told him: ‘You’d have only got a Third’. It’s always been thought that Betjeman never forgave Lewis for this lack of support. It is certainly true that he passed up few opportunities to make sarcastic remarks at Lewis’s expense. In Ghastly Good Taste (1933) Betjeman acknowledged his debt to his former tutor, ‘whose jolly personality and encouragement to the author in his youth have remained an unfading memory for the author’s declining years’. In the preface to his collection of poems Continual Dew (1937) he thanked Mr C.S. Lewis for the fact on page 256; there are just 45 pages in the volume.

While researching C.S. Lewis’s Oxford, however, Professor Horobin turned up an unpublished letter from Lewis to Betjeman, dated 10 November 1936, which replies to a request from his former pupil to bury the hatchet. Lewis responded positively, making light of the ‘few bolts’ that Betjeman had shot at him in his prefaces, claiming that their verbal sparring was nothing more than the ‘ordinary amoenities of a literary life’. Lewis goes on to concede that he was a very young tutor when Betjeman was his student and that he may have ‘much more than I suppose for which to ask a pardon’. He concludes with a friendly benediction: ‘Peace be to you and your house’ and an invitation to drop in and see him if it is ever convenient.

But, despite this rapprochement, Betjeman’s anger continued to bubble under the surface. In 1939 he composed a long letter to Lewis in which he attempted to explain his resentment at Lewis’s treatment of him as a student, critiqued Lewis’s approach to modern poetry and offered a self-justification of his aesthetic interests. Betjeman acknowledged feeling ‘unpardonably rude’ in expressing such sentiments; it was perhaps for this reason that the missive appears never to have been sent. Perhaps simply writing the letter was sufficient catharsis for someone who, some ten years after dropping out without a degree, admitted that he still woke up angry in the night, thinking of the ‘mess I made at Oxford’.

C.S Lewis's Oxford by Simon Horobin is due to be published on 3 May 2024 by Bodleian Library.