by Candice Frederick and Sam McBride
Candice Frederick and Sam McBride
Greenwood Press, 2001
ISBN 0313312451 £48.50
Review by David Doughan, November 2001
Gender (not to mention sexuality) and the Inklings is a perpetual topic of
discussion. This latest contribution is based very largely (and defiantly)
on what Lewis called
The Personal Heresy, i.e. the author's personal life
as it affects his [sic] work. It begins with a series of position statements,
including this, but also justifying Christianity to feminists, and feminism
to Christians. It continues with the sort of biographical accounts that in
most cases we have seen many times before: once more, Lewis's relationships
with Janie and Maureen Moore (largely based on his brother's diaries), and
with Joy Davidman, as well as his theories of friendship and the way he actually
treated friends, are dealt with at length, and there is an apparent attempt
at one stage to give an account of every woman Lewis met or corresponded with,
space being given in particular to Ruth Pitter. Only slightly less space is
devoted to Williams, Michal, and his
young women. A biographical sketch
of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith includes some statements about their marriage
(apparently based on Grotta) that many will find slightly puzzling - for example,
there seems to be a misunderstanding, or indeed even a misreading, of Tolkien's
reference to his marriage as
unfortunate (Letters p. 52) taken out of context.
I shall return to the subject of misreading / misunderstanding later.
After much on the lives, comes a chapter on the works. Again, there is little
here that has not been said before, though in Tolkien's case there is the
surprising omission of any mention of the tale of Aldarion and Erendis, a
crucial reading for this topic; similarly, when equating Galadriel with the
Blessed Virgin Mary, there is no indication of how the character evolved.
Lewis again gets the fullest treatment, although once more there are surprises:
when Digory and Polly die as adults (in The Last Battle) ...
they appear in Narnia as children, apparently pre-pubescent - readers
of The Last Battle will recollect that Digory's
golden beard flowed over his
breast and [his] face was full of wisdom (p. 138). Pre-pubescent face fungus?
The book concludes with a chapter entitled "Mere feminism", which includes a useful summary of who has written substantially on this issue before, and what their position roughly is on whether the Inklings were just sexist, or misogynist, or gynophobic, and which if any of them score better than others, and how this carries over (or doesn't) into their work (not for the first time, Walter Hooper gets a bashing). It also has an interesting summary of a discussion on the "MereLewis" email list. The general conclusion is that the Inklings (or rather the three discussed here) are guilty of sexism, and possibly of misogyny, and that this has to be taken into account when viewing their work from a feminist viewpoint, but it should not stop us reading the works.
This last chapter is, I believe, the most valuable in the book. However,
it does not redress the considerable problems I have with the rest of it.
To take one instance where I feel the authors' research could have been improved:
Oxford university life, and the vexed role of women in it. If the authors
had read, for example, Vera Brittain's Women at Oxford, or even
more relevantly Susan Leonardi's magnificent Dangerous by Degrees, they might
have had a more nuanced view of the position. Then there is the problem, already alluded
to, of misunderstanding - I have cited two cases, but there are others. For
example, it is stated that Tolkien did not like detective stories, and that
he loathed Peter Wimsey. Just for the record, the full quotation
(Letters p.82) reads:
I could not stand Gaudy Night. I followed P. Wimsey from
his attractive beginnings so far, by which time I conceived a loathing for
him (and his creatrix) not surpassed by any other character in literature known to me, unless by his
Harriet .... Deducing from this a general dislike of detective novels
is surely going a little far. And re Dorothy L. Sayers (who
as usual gets dragged into discussions of the Inklings), there are again
some dubious statements, most remarkably that
(like Lewis) she was partly Irish. Her only Irish
connection seems to be that her great-grandfather was apparently a land agent
in County Tipperary at one time (and conversely, imagine what would have been Lewis's
reaction to being described as only partly Irish). There are also instances
of misattribution (Tolkien's animadversions on women to his son Michael are
described as being addressed to Christopher), and occasionally downright
illiteracy, most egregiously when referring to
... the Shakespearean adage "Thou
protesteth too much, methink" . The Inklings may have been sexist
pigs, but at least they knew how to conjugate an English verb (and check
So no, I can't really recommend this book to anybody who wants to know about the thorny issues involved in the Inklings' relations with, and attitudes to, women - certainly not at this price. There are more worthwhile things on which to spend £48.50, as a glance at Tolkien Society Trading Company lists on this website will doubtless confirm.
Footnote from general reader: this book would be a reasonable starting point for the under-addressed subject of Tolkien and gender issues were it not priced out of the general reader's range. Unfortunately, many more academic books have a high cover price to cover a short print run, and also because the bindings have to be sufficiently sound for library use.
The price in the USA is less challenging than it is for overseas buyers as prices tend to shoot up on import, particularly in the UK.
Readers with a more restricted pocket will find an extensive chapter on Tolkien and Gender in Lewis and Curry's Uncharted Realms of Tolkien.