I think I first read That Hideous Strength when I was 18 or 19 and systematically making my way through C.S. Lewis’s canon. The conclusion of his Space Trilogy, THS is very different in tone and style from the first two books, and I didn’t much like it.
I gave it another chance at 21 while studying abroad in Oxford. I was engaged (J was studying abroad nearby in London), and I was starting to think about applying to doctoral programs for English literature. My time in Oxford only confirmed for me the rightness of both decisions: I loved traveling England with J and I loved the long mornings spent writing about Bleak House or the impact of the British school story on Harry Potter. When I read That Hideous Strength beside The Place of the Lion and saw the influence his friend Charles Williams had on Lewis’s writing, it sort of made more sense. But it was far from my favorite of Lewis’s works, even though it’s one of J’s favorite books ever.
Lewis is not someone who writes very often of women, having led an unusually male-centric bachelor life, and this book is, for the most part, fittingly male-centric. There are drinks at pubs, and jargon at the office, and later, a lot of kind of gross-out violence. Boy stuff. And yet.
The first sentence reads, “’Matrimony was ordained, thirdly’, said Jane Studdock to herself, ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.'” Then follows a plodding description of the emptiness of her existence as a housewife, concluding bleakly, “The sun shone and the clock ticked.” It’s a strange opening for a book that will encompass disembodied, sentient heads, Merlin, and more.
The reader soon learns that “marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.” The fate was practically mandated in the 1940s, when Lewis was writing, but is not unlike bleak, isolated moments of modern motherhood. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jane, though: “She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet.” This part, at least, is not entirely unlike my own evolution from first reading THS to reading today, from PhD applicant to full-time mama.
Lewis suggests we compare Jane with Mother Dimble, her friend who “had been a kind of unofficial aunt to all the girls of her year” and whose house “was a kind of noisy salon all the term.” This Mother Dimble draws Jane to the safety of the resistance movement when things turn sinister in town under the sway of the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiment (N.I.C.E).
Jane is called to the resistance’s shared house at St Anne’s when she begins to exhibit second sight. It is revealed, in the kind of line we now recognize from superhero movies, “You are a more important person that you imagine.” As she rails against her second sight, Jane is also, perhaps, railing against her fate as a married woman called to something different than she had intended: “I want to lead an ordinary life. I want to do my own work. It’s unbearable! Why should I be selected for this horrible thing?”
Jane’s marriage is not a happy one as the novel opens, and her husband Mark falls into the wrong crowd at work. It turns out marriage is much more central to identity than Jane, or 21-year-old Katherine, believed. The Director, a sort of Arthurian spiritual director [this book is so weird please bear with me], explains: “Child […] it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it.” He continues, “You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience.” Indeed, this entire novel can be seen in terms of obedience, and while the strict hierarchy that puts the women at St. Anne’s below both the Director and their husbands is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, it is exactly this order that stands in contrast to the apparently egalitarian, sinister circle which draws in Mark Studdock.
Jane’s story in THS is the movement from cold and lonely independence to loving interdependence. She discovers, gradually, that her starting principles have been faulty:
“To avoid entanglements and interferences had long been one of her first principles. Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought, ‘But I still must keep up my own life,’ had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind. Some resentment against love itself, and therefore against Mark, for thus invading her life, remained. She was at least very vividly aware how much a woman gives up in getting married. Mark seemed to her insufficiently aware of this. Though she did not formulate it, this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child — or not for a long time yet. One had one’s own life to live.”
This is, after all, marriage and motherhood, right? Becoming entangled, inextricably.
Domesticity is immediately more bearable when Mother Dimble comes to stay briefly with Jane. “The whole process of getting up and doing the ‘morning jobs’ was more cheerful, Jane found, because she had Mrs. Dimble with her.” Children are also presented as more than just a hindrance as Mrs Dimble reflects on her own home: “All those big empty rooms which we thought we should want because we thought we were going to have lots of children, and then we never did.” Her words foreshadow the the dual themes of living in community (vs “empty rooms”) and the gift of children.
At the shared household at St. Anne’s, Jane discovers
“A wide, open hearth glowing with burning wood lit up the comfortable form of Mrs. Dimble, who was seated in a kitchen chair at one side of it, apparently, from the basin in her lap and other indications on a table beside her, engaged in preparing vegetables. Mrs. Maggs and Camilla were doing something at a stove—the hearth was apparently not used for cooking—and in a doorway which doubtless led to the scullery a tall grizzle-headed man who wore gum boots and seemed to have just come from the garden, was drying his hands.”
It’s an appealing image, and though primarily feminine, has the aspect, at least, of men contributing to the life of the household.
Upon meeting the Director, Jane “surrendered without terms […] abandoned (without noticing it) that prim little grasp on her own destiny, that perpetual reservation, which she thought essential to her status as a grown-up, integrated, intelligent person.” Reading it in light of current feminist thinking, it’s an uncomfortable passage, because shouldn’t we all be in charge of our own destiny? And yet, from a Christian perspective, might it be meant to be read universally, not merely as the proper realm of a woman, since after all, aren’t we all called to surrender without terms?
The novel concludes on a tiny scale, Jane obediently “descending the ladder of humility” as she crosses the yard to the cottage where her husband waits: “Then she thought of her obedience and the setting of each foot before the other became a kind of sacrificial ceremony. And she thought of children, and of pain and death.” She hesitates, unaware Mark is waiting inside; then, seeing through a window his heaped clothes, she enters in with loving, housewifely exasperation.
So what, in the end, is the point of all this domesticity and marriage talk in the cosmic battle of good and evil? Afterwards, once the N.I.C.E. has been dissolved, MacPhee demands, “I’d be greatly obliged if any one would tell me what we have done — always apart from feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables.” I’m reminded of John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” and Lewis would have been particularly steeped in Milton. The book makes more sense to me on this third reading, as I’ve moved toward a life more centered around the hearth, more intentional about love and obedience. Maybe loving well, feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables is the point, for most of us, most of the time.