Remembering C.S. Lewis: A Brief Friendship That Changed a Life
On the anniversary of the author’s death, his private secretary remembers the man behind the beloved wordsmith.
The person who welcomed me to his home in the university town of Oxford was Walter Hooper. The accent of the person greeting me, however, within this quintessential English setting, seemed incongruous, as, even after all these years, the voice still had the unmistakable accent of the American Carolinas.
Although born in North Carolina, it is Oxford, England, that has shaped the course of Hooper’s life — and, in particular, his meeting with the writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Hooper spoke to the Register on Nov. 15.
In the summer of 1963, a young college instructor from the University of Kentucky decided to spend his vacation in England. He had one object: to meet his literary hero, C.S. Lewis. Hooper had read all the Irishman had written: his fiction, nonfiction and Christian apologetics. With some trepidation, Hooper wrote to Lewis and asked if he could call upon him in Oxford. Lewis agreed to the meeting with his American admirer.
“Lewis knew that I was coming over from the United States to meet him,” Hooper told me. “From the first, I assumed that I’d have only the one meeting with Lewis, and I wanted to make the most of it!”
Before any meeting the young Hooper decided to see if he could catch a glimpse of where Lewis then lived, namely a house called The Kilns on the outskirts of Oxford. “The Kilns was difficult to find. On June 7, 1963, I went out — not to seek out Lewis, but to see if I could find his home. I’d wandered around a long time before someone told me how to find it,” remembers Hooper.
Meeting a Literary Giant
Eventually, he knocked on the door of a house in the vicinity and asked for directions. From there, he was shown to where Lewis’ housekeeper lived, who, in turn, directed Hooper to The Kilns. Nervously, the young man approached the house. To his surprise, he saw through the window the unmistakable figure of Lewis sitting and reading. “When I caught a glimpse of Lewis through the window, I was ashamed of bothering him. But I had already rung the doorbell. He was, from the first, very friendly; and, although I was not expected, he made me more than welcome. It was teatime, and I liked tea as much as Lewis did. He rushed to make a pot. And all together, between us, we drank three pots while we talked.”
As Hooper speaks of this memory, his face is illuminated by a recollection so obviously dear to him — one, even yet, filled with joy. There is an old adage that it is best not to meet one’s heroes. Hooper was aware of this when setting out to meet Lewis. Nevertheless, he so much wanted to meet the writer. He would have been happy with a single pleasant, if formal, conversation with Lewis. Instead, here he was at Lewis’ Oxford home, taking tea with him and having one of the most exhilarating conversations of his life.
“C.S. Lewis’ conversation was riveting,” remembers Hooper. “I asked which of his three interplanetary novels he thought the greatest, and he said Perelandra. Then he asked me which of the novels I liked best. I said, ‘I agree with you — that Perelandra is your best novel.’” But Lewis wanted his question answered as precisely as it had been formulated: “Which of the novels do you like best?” he asked again. Hooper replied, “Oh, that’s simple — the one I like best, my favorite — That Hideous Strength.”
Hooper was puzzled at the writer’s insistence and so asked him to clarify. “Your question,” Lewis elucidated, “was which of the novels is greatest, and my question to you was ‘Which of the novels do you like best?’ There is a difference.”
Looking back, Hooper sees this brief initial exchange as being significant. Both men were keen on precision in conversation and intellectual exchange. Today, decades later, Hooper feels that clarity was one of Lewis’ greatest attributes as a writer.
That unexpected encounter with the writer was not purely intellectual, though. Hooper was amazed at how friendly and unpretentious Lewis was. And the American, even at this stage in their fledgling friendship, experienced the Irishman’s sense of humor. “By this time, we’d had three pots of tea,” he told me. “Remember, I’d been in Oxford a few days and didn’t know that in most homes the bathroom and toilet are separate rooms. I asked Lewis if I could use the ‘bathroom.’ He conducted me to what was really the bathroom — the only thing it contained was the bathtub. He flung down several towels and produced several tablets of soap, and he asked if I had everything I needed for my ‘bath.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I said. When he left me alone I felt very uncomfortable. Eventually, I returned to the sitting room and explained it wasn’t a ‘bath’ I wanted.” At this, Hooper remembers Lewis roaring with laughter before adding: “That will break you of those silly American euphemisms. Let’s start again. Where do you want to go?” And Hooper was duly shown to the right location.
That first meeting closed with the famous writer escorting Hooper to a nearby public house, the Ampleforth Arms, where the American could catch a bus to the center of Oxford, where he was staying.
By this stage, Hooper was even more in awe of Lewis the man than the writer. Meeting his hero had proved to be as memorable an occasion as he could have hoped for, but, in his heart, Hooper thought that he would never again have access to Lewis in such an informal and intimate way.
But he was to be proved wrong. As he boarded the bus, he said, “Professor Lewis, it’s been a great pleasure meeting you.” To which came the response, “You’re not getting away! You’re coming to the Inklings meeting.”
The Inklings was the weekly gathering of academics and writers that took place in various public houses in Oxford. Lewis was a prominent member of this group, as was J.R.R. Tolkien. And, subsequently, Hooper did attend that gathering of Inklings. Further meetings ensued, before Lewis invited the young American to come to a church service with him one Sunday at Holy Trinity Church, followed by breakfast at The Kilns, a short walk from the church. That Sunday was to prove a turning point in Hooper’s life, for it was then that Lewis asked if he would consider becoming the writer’s private secretary.
Hooper did just that and moved to live permanently in Oxford. Lewis died a matter of months later on Nov. 22, 1963, at the age of 64. Speaking many years later, and having met many literary figures, Hooper is in no doubt that Lewis was the most interesting man he has ever met.
Sine Hooper lived and worked so closely — if, sadly, so briefly — with Lewis, I asked if he had gained any insights into Lewis’ more private character and, in particular, into his Christian faith — that faith that he had so publicly and expertly extolled and expounded.
Hooper described one such hidden aspect, which was known, he said, to few individuals at the time.
“Charity in Lewis went very deep,” said Hooper, “and I Iearned about it from his great friend, Owen Barfield, who was also his lawyer. Beginning with The Screwtape Letters in 1941 and a bit later with the first series of radio talks, which were published as Mere Christianity, Lewis refused to touch a penny of his income from these talks. Instead, he sent the publishers and the BBC a list of orphans and widows and directed that the money be sent to them.”
But the author’s kindness had an unexpected negative outcome for him. As Hooper explained, “Lewis did not understand the difference between gross and net profit, and in the spring of 1942, he discovered, to his horror, that he owned a hefty tax bill on the moneys he’d given away. Before things got out of hand, Owen Barfield helped Lewis set up a charitable trust called the Agape Fund. Thereafter, and until Lewis’ marriage in 1957, Lewis had two-thirds of his total income paid into Agape Fund for the supplying of anonymous gifts to various people in need, but especially widows and orphans. The Agape Fund was re-established after Joy, his wife, died in 1960.”
An American Converts in Oxford
On March 27, 1931, Walter McGehee Hooper was born in Reidsville, North Carolina. He earned an M.A. in education, and by the early 1960s, he was an instructor in English language and literature at the University of Kentucky. After the death of Lewis, Hooper devoted himself to keeping the writer’s memory alive, working as a literary adviser to his estate. In addition, he was a literary trustee for Barfield, another member of the Inklings, from December 1997 to October 2006.
Like Lewis, Hooper had been baptized into the Anglican Communion. In due course, he studied for and was ordained in the Anglican ministry. Later, he served as an Anglican clergyman in Oxford. Today, as we chat near a statue of Our Lady in his living room, surrounded by books on and about the lives of saints, Hooper is devoutly Catholic. I ask him about why he became a Catholic.
“The time was 1988. I believed the promises of the Catholic Church, while at the same time Anglicanism seemed a mess, in which its members said conflicting things about abortion and many other things,” explained Hooper, adding, “Anglicanism had begun to further unravel since C.S. Lewis died in 1963. I became a Catholic in the U.S. — where my family lives — on July 31, 1988. Since then, I’ve been going to St. Aloysius Church in Oxford.” That church is in the care of the Congregation of the Oratory.
Aged 88 years old, Hooper continues to be a daily Massgoer, a regular practice of his life since his conversion.
“I felt that Lewis would have approved of my becoming a Catholic,” he said. “At least, Lewis would have told me to be a good Catholic.”
Hooper went on to add, “Pope John XXIII said at the opening of the Second Vatican Council: ‘The deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, is one thing, and the way they are enunciated, while still preserving the same sense and meaning, is another.’ This is exactly what Lewis believed. The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and the Narnia stories are examples of what Lewis ‘enunciated’” and, in Hooper’s opinion, “they are as Catholic as you can get.”
Hooper’s spacious and beautifully decorated apartment displays recurring images of two men. One, naturally, is C.S. Lewis. The other is Pope St. John Paul II. The Polish pontiff was another profound influence on Hooper’s life. At the request of the late pope, Hooper traveled to Rome to meet with him and talk of C.S. Lewis. Pope John Paul had read all Lewis’ works and was especially interested in The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves. Hooper recalls the Pope commenting that Lewis had been given a great Christian apostolate, before adding with emphasis that he had also acted upon the gift given him. Even today, Pope John Paul II’s understanding of and appreciation of C.S. Lewis moves Hooper.
Hooper may be an octogenarian but his mind and powers of recall are excellent. In his long life he has met many famous individuals and has counted some among them as close friends. As he shows me out of his apartment, we pass framed portraits of his time with C.S. Lewis — a snapshot of them standing in the sunshine outside The Kilns, both smiling — and of Hooper meeting Pope John Paul II and others. I asked him how he looks back on his life.
With what seems almost an exclamation of joy, he replies immediately, “I’ve had a wonderful life.”
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent.