‘This idle prig’: the truth about CS Lewis and John Betjeman’s long-lasting feud

<span>John Betjeman, above in 1972, attempted a rapprochment with CS Lewis, but failed.</span><span>Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images</span>
John Betjeman, above in 1972, attempted a rapprochment with CS Lewis, but failed.Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

CS Lewis and John Betjeman had a famously strained relationship. While the Chronicles of Narnia author dismissed his then-student at Oxford as an “idle prig”, the future poet laureate went on to thank, in the preface of one of his collections, “Mr CS Lewis for the fact on page 256” – even though the book had only 45 pages.

But a previously unpublished letter from 1936 now reveals that they did attempt a truce, albeit short-lived.

In the letter, which has been discovered by Simon Horobin, professor of English at Oxford and a fellow at Magdalen College, where Lewis taught, Lewis conceded that he may have “much more than I suppose for which to ask a pardon” from his days as Betjeman’s tutor a decade earlier. He offered: “Peace be to you and your house” – and gave an invitation to visit. Horobin unearthed the correspondence, which appears to be a response to a request from Betjeman that they bury the hatchet, in the Yale University Library.

“In the letter, Lewis made 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 amenities of a literary life’,” said Horobin, author of a new book CS Lewis’s Oxford.

Lewis had complained repeatedly in his diaries about his student’s poor attitude to work and tutorials, for which he had done no preparation. He wrote in his diary: “I wish I could get rid of this idle prig’.”

In another passage, he despaired over his failed attempts to teach Anglo-Saxon, the earliest recorded form of the English language, to a reluctant Betjeman, who turned up to one tutorial in “eccentric bedroom slippers”, saying he hoped Lewis would not object.

Horobin said: “Lewis, who cared so little for his own appearance that he was content to wear odd socks – even odd shoes – responded rather tartly that, while he would mind them very much, he had no objection to his wearing them.”

Betjeman, in turn, was bitter over Lewis’s refusal to support his bid for an honours degree, writing in Summoned by Bells, his blank verse autobiography, that Lewis had told him: “You’d have only got a third.”

CS Lewis was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, best known for his children’s fantasy classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia. He was also a renowned scholar, holding academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Betjeman became one of the pre-eminent poets of the 20th century, writing of Britain’s landscapes and architecture and satirising the middle classes. He was appointed poet laureate in 1972, holding the post until his death in 1984.

Despite the 1936 rapprochement, the mutual resentment between Lewis and Betjeman was clearly too deep. Horobin said Betjeman appears never to have forgiven Lewis for his lack of support, passing up few opportunities to make sarcastic remarks and outlining his resentment in a lengthy letter. “Betjeman acknowledged feeling ‘unpardonably rude’ in writing such a letter; it was perhaps for this reason that it appears never to have been sent. Perhaps simply writing the letter was sufficient catharsis.”

Horobin, who is the co-curator of a forthcoming exhibition, CS Lewis: Oxford and Other Worlds, which opens at Magdalen College on 17 April, has also unearthed Betjeman’s marks in college exams, suggesting that Lewis had good reason to doubt his ability. “Although Betjeman had initially excelled academically, Lewis had recommended in 1926 that ‘Mr Betjeman be informed that the [Tutorial] Board is not satisfied with his industry’.”