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Postscript to the C.S. Lewis–T.S. Eliot Story: ‘A Grief Observed’
The Backstory of C.S. Lewis’s Singular Book on Suffering Written after the Death of His Wife
While C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot labored together on the committee to revise the Coverdale Psalter in 1959–1963, tragedy struck. After an earlier bout of cancer, Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, faced another. A routine checkup in October 1959 confirmed her disease had returned. Joy was more positive about the news than her husband. “We are,” he admitted, “in retreat.”1
The couple tried managing life as before. In April 1960 they even vacationed in Greece. Wasn’t that risky? Joy’s doctors advised against it. “I’d rather go out with a bang than a whimper,” she told her ex-husband Bill Gresham in a letter, “particularly on the steps of the Parthenon.”2
Despite her condition, the trip was a success. Joy, who walked with the help of a cane, nonetheless hiked to the top of the Acropolis. But her health faltered shortly after their return.
Assaulted by pain and nausea, she was hospitalized in May. Surgeons removed her right breast. Again she rallied, though her condition worsened through June. At times she seemed her old self, but such momentary relief merely postponed the inevitable.
By July, Lewis found himself so consumed with caring for Joy, he wrote the Psalter committee to let them know he wouldn’t make the upcoming meeting. “I must regretfully ‘rat’ for [i.e., miss] the meeting,” he said. “My wife’s present condition puts any idea of an absence from home out of the question. Please make my apologies to all.”3 Ten days later on July 13, Joy died.
Lewis was shattered.
Unsurprisingly, he turned to writing. He began filling notebooks with the raw impressions of grief: dread, anxiety, anger, disillusionment, doubt, and ultimately hope tempered by the trauma of loss. Eventually, those impressions would become a book, A Grief Observed, and the slender volume’s journey to publication brings Lewis’s erstwhile rival and newly formed friend, T.S. Eliot, back into view.
Examining Lewis’s letters, biographer Henry Lee Poe suggests he began writing the book in late July, a couple weeks following Joy’s death. Dateable snatches of text from the notebook also appear in some of his correspondence; for instance, the opening line, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” appeared in altered form in a July 21 letter to Katherine and Austin Farrer. Poe dates the start of the book here.4
Lewis called writing the book “a defence against total collapse, a safety-valve” and busied himself with it all through August.5 By the end of the month, he was nearly done. He showed it his friend, Roger Lancelyn Green, August 31.
Lewis finished the manuscript in September and wondered if the observations would help others amid seasons of loss. Surely he should publish this attempted “map of sorrow.” But just as surely, he must do so anonymously. The revelations of anguish were entirely too intimate to welcome the public in to peer, guess, and gape. He swore Lancelyn Green to secrecy and developed a plan with his literary agent, Spencer Curtis Brown.6
To maintain anonymity, Lewis and Curtis Brown decided against submitting the manuscript to Lewis’s usual London publisher, Geoffrey Bles. Instead, they sent it on September 27 under the pseudonym Dimidius (Latin for “cut in half”) to Faber & Faber, where T.S. Eliot was director.
It took little time for Eliot to guess the author. Given what he knew of Lewis and his recent situation, he probably could have deduced it on his own. Confirmation came, however, from a clue Lewis and Curtis Brown never suspected would expose them: the author’s own handwriting.
The manuscript had been typed, but Lewis had jotted down corrections. Eliot had given the manuscript to another director, Charles Monteith, who had been a student of Lewis’s at Magdalen College. Monteith instantly recognized the handwriting scattered through the fifty-odd pages and confirmed the authorship.7
Struck by the power of the book, Eliot decided to publish—but with a caveat. “I and two other Directors have read A Grief Observed,” Eliot wrote Curtis Brown on October 20.
My wife has read it also, and we have all been deeply moved by it. We do in fact want to publish it. . . . We are of the opinion that we have guessed the name of the author. I, as you intimate and as I should expect from the man I think it is, he does sincerely want anonymity, we agree that a plausible English pseudonym would hold off enquirers better than Dimidius. The latter is sure to arouse curiosity and there must be plenty of people amongst those who know him, and perhaps even among the readers of his work who do not know him, who may be able to penetrate the disguise once they set their minds working.8
Hence was born N.W. Clerk, a pseudonym contrived by Lewis. The name did sound more plausible but was perhaps too clever. Lewis had used the initials N.W. (Nat Whilk, Old English for “I don’t know who”) before when publishing poetry at Punch. What about Clerk? It simply refers to a writer, a scholar.
Another former student and colleague, George Sayer, figured it out. “Of his friends, as far as I know, only [Roger Lancelyn] Green knew of [A Grief Observed],” he said. “When he gave me a copy, because he thought it might help my wife who had just lost her father, he said, ‘It is by a man I know.’ I had no doubt of the identity of the pseudonym, N.W. Clerk, for I knew that he had published poems under the initials N.W.”9
The book hit the market in September 1961, a full year after its hasty composition. Eliot personally wrote the catalog copy and jacket blurb with his own hand.10 “A Grief Observed is a very unusual document,” he began.
It consists of a series of reflections forming a coherent whole, by a husband upon the death of his wife. A man of mature mind, a Christian, has seen a wife to whom he was deeply attached approach death by the way of a slow, painful and incurable malady. Now that she is gone, he probes his own feelings and reveals his thoughts with relentless honesty.
Several of us have read this meditation, and immediately recognised it as the work of a man of exceptional intellect, exceptional sensibility and exceptional gift of expression. The fact that we choose to publish so brief a record of sorrow is evidence enough of our belief in its value. The book will find a grateful and appreciative audience among many men and women and in particular among those who have suffered in this way and have thought, as well as felt, while they suffered.
Beyond writing the promo copy, Eliot sent advance copies of the book with a personal letter to gin up interest among, says Faber archivist Robert Brown, “leading theologians and Church figures.”11 One of those recipients? The archbishop of Canterbury, who had invited both Lewis and Eliot to the Psalter revision committee that brought the two together in the first place and helped end their rivalry.12
“Thanks to Eliot’s connections and support,” says Robert McCrum, “this little book attracted a disproportionate attention for the work of an unknown.”13 Without Eliot’s friendship, it’s possible the book never would have been published at all.
That said, A Grief Observed didn’t sell terribly well at first. Anonymity protected Lewis but drew no buyers to bookstores.
After Lewis died in 1963, however, N.W. Clerk was also laid to rest. Faber secured permission from Lewis’s estate to republish the book under his own name.14 This “meditation . . . of a man of exceptional intellect, exceptional sensibility and exceptional gift of expression” has since secured its place as a spiritual classic, ranked twenty-two in the Guardian’s hundred best nonfiction books of all time.15
Because of its subsequent success, you can find various editions wherever you look. But if you want a copy of the original run—with Clerk’s name, not Lewis’s—you can pick one up for an easy $600 or so. I refer you to John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books where such a volume awaits a discerning buyer and loving home.
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A. N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis (Fawcett Columbine, 1990), 179.
Wilson, C.S. Lewis, 179.
George Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center 22 (2005), 49–50.
Harry Lee Poe, The Completion of C.S. Lewis (Crossway, 2022), 299–300.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Harper, 2009), 59.
Poe, The Completion of C.S. Lewis, 298.
Wilson, C.S. Lewis, 285. Poe, The Completion of C.S. Lewis, 298. The manuscript length was noted by Robert McCrum in “The 100 best nonfiction books: No 22—A Grief Observed by CS Lewis (1961),” Guardian, June 27, 2016.
C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, edited by Walter Hooper (Harper, 2007), 1201.
George Sayer, Jack (Crossway, 1994), 394.
Robert Brown, “A Grief Observed,” TSEliot.com, n.d. Brown’s article features an image of Eliot’s handwritten notes for the blurb, including his strikethroughs, arrows, and edits.
Michael Ramsey was then archbishop of Canterbury. He served before as archbishop of York and in that capacity had joined his successor at Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, in the invitation of Lewis and Eliot.