Online Conversation | Dorothy & Jack: a Story of Friendship & Formation
with Gina Dalfonzo
On October 30th, 2020 we are delighted to partner with Hearts and Minds Bookstore to welcome author Gina Dalfonzo for a discussion around her recent book, Dorothy and Jack: the Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis. The formative role friendships play in developing our intellect, character, and very lives cannot be overstated. The story of Dorothy and Jack’s unlikely friendship demonstrates how we can learn to transcend our differences, comprehend our own blindspots, and understand the true value and worth of a friend.
Special Thanks to this event’s sponsors: John & Dorothy Castle
The painting is View of University Park looking towards New College, Oxford by William Turner of Oxford, after 1825.
The song is May You Find A Light by Josh Garrels
Transcript of “Dorothy & Jack: a Story of Friendship & Formation” with Gina Dalfonzo
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on Dorothy and Jack, a story of friendship and formation. Our guest today tells the story, a remarkable story, of the friendship between two remarkable people, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. C.S. Lewis, of course, is a household name. He is the much loved writer and apologist whose work such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Abolition of Man, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and so many others have helped form the moral, spiritual, and literary imagination of generations, while also addressing with reason, wit, and good humor the case for Christianity.
Dorothy Sayers was just as well known in her day and particularly to fans of mystery novels. Considered a rival of Agatha Christie, she wrote a series of a dozen or more around the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, the gentleman detective, including such classics as Gaudy Night, Murder Must Advertise, and Whose Body?. She was the first class of women allowed to graduate from Oxford, which she did with highest honors, paid her bills while working in advertising where she’s credited actually with coming up with the slogan “It pays to advertise,” and meanwhile published several volumes of poetry, along with stage plays and essays. In addition to laying much of the intellectual framework for the classical Christian school movement through her work, The Lost Tools of Learning, she also became a celebrated translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and wrote stage plays such as The Man Who would be King, who lived out her convictions that the Christian story was the most exciting and radical of tales.
Their friendship, which began with a fan letter, grew slowly over the course of many years and came to deeply influence the thought, work, and life of them both. And while much has been written about the impact of C.S. Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien and his fellow Inklings, relatively little attention has been paid—and no book has been published—on the fascinating and historically significant friendship between C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers until now.
Our guest today is Gina Dalfonzo. Gina is the author of the newly-released work Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, published by Baker Books. She’s also the editor of The Gospel and Dickens and the author of One by One. She’s a columnist at Christ and Pop Culture and the founder and editor of Dickens Blog, a blog for all things related to Charles Dickens. Her writing has appeared quite widely in the Atlantic, Christianity Today, First Things, The Weekly Standard, Mere Orthodoxy, and many other publications. Gina, welcome.
Gina Dalfonzo: Thank you so much.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So let’s just start at the very beginning. Most of our viewers are going to be very well familiar with C.S. Lewis. Some may not be as well familiar with Dorothy Sayers. And I understand that Sayers, Lewis, along with Dickens, are your most favorite authors, writers, and thinkers. And why don’t you just start off by saying who is Dorothy Sayers and why is she such a favorite of yours?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, Sayers is someone I discovered in a college course around the same time I discovered Lewis and Tolkien and others, and I was immediately just taken with her wit, her intelligence. She obviously knew a wide variety of authors, so was very well-read. Just her wisdom and honesty and just so many things about her. It was one of those connections you make with an author who lived long before you, when you just, you have that meeting of minds and you feel like, “here is somebody I just really look up to, trust, love, can learn from.” All those things. So, yeah, in that class, I read one of her mysteries, Gaudy Night, and her play cycle, The Man Born to Be King on the life of Christ, and was just so captivated by both. And after that, I was just reading everything of hers that I could get my hands on.
Cherie Harder: So much has been written and discussed about the friendship between Lewis and his fellow Inklings and in particular Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and it is a fascinating story. We’ve actually hosted an Online Conversation about it ourselves earlier this year with Joe Laconte. But it’s strange that so little has been written or discussed about the friendship between C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Why so little attention?
Gina Dalfonzo: That’s a great question. And I think everybody is just so familiar with the Inklings story. And it is a story that— it does really get your attention. I mean, the fact that there was this circle at Oxford University with Lewis and Tolkien; I mean, those two alone were responsible for some of the greatest works of the 20th century, and all these Oxford scholars and their friends just sitting there sort of exchanging ideas and critiques and being so creative. I mean, that does capture the imagination.
But when you come to look at Lewis, there is so much more to him than that, than just that one circle of friends that was influencing him. He corresponded with a wide number of people. He had friends outside that circle, including female friends. And Sayers was one who he just had this connection with that grew and deepened over time and was just so fruitful in a number of ways. And, you know, their connection is known. I mean, if you go to the Wade Center at Wheaton, where they curate the papers and artifacts of Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Chesterton, and other related writers, Sayers is there. She’s one of the writers whom they study. So the connection is known, but the friendship has just not been explored that deeply. And it was something that I just wanted to bring out and share, because when you read their letters to each other, they’re just so wonderful to read, so much fun to read. And so I just wanted to take that and show people, hey, here’s a story that hasn’t been explored that much, but it’s really great. And I just want you to know about it and know what kind of influence it was on them.
Cherie Harder: The way you describe their first encounter, at least their first correspondence encounter, is almost sort of a meet cute for pen pals. Evidently, she wrote him a fan letter, even while he was talking up some of her works to his friends. How did that initial correspondence encounter become a friendship?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, he was just an up-and-coming writer when she first wrote to him, and she was already very well established as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. And so it was an honor for him. And he acknowledged that it meant a lot to him, that she would take the time to write and say that she liked his work. Unfortunately, that first letter has been lost, so we don’t know exactly what she said, which is a great pity. But he appreciated it, he wrote back. They started corresponding, a little sporadically at first and then more and more regularly. And appreciation of each other’s work is a great basis to start off a friendship on. And then later, when they got to know each other a little better, then they could start critiquing each other’s work a little bit and give more of the bigger picture. But they established early on that basis of respect and appreciation that would stand them in good stead through all of their friendship.
Cherie Harder: So to an outside observer, there seem to be many things they had in common, certainly a very strong tie to Oxford for both of them. They both were big fans of Chesterton. They both loved poetry and sort of dabbled in that. But they had a sort of an unusual point of commonality as well, in that they both had had at least a youthful time of spiritual struggle. And in Lewis’s case, of course, he was an atheist for a while. With Sayers, it was perhaps more subtle than that. But then they went on to become Anglican apologists. Was that a point of commonality, one that they discussed much?
Gina Dalfonzo: You don’t see them discussing it a lot in their letters, but Sayers did read “Surprised by Joy.” She actually reviewed it, gave it a good review. So she was familiar with Lewis’s background, the struggle he had been through, his period of atheism, and his time of coming back to the faith. She knew about all that. I’m not sure how much of her background she shared with him. She was very private about some things. She had gone through a time in young adulthood where she never really got away from her faith intellectually, but she sort of got a little bit reckless in her behavior, didn’t always practice her faith fully. And so I don’t know how much she went into that with him, but she did know about his his period of spiritual struggle.
Cherie Harder: One of the things that really sort of strikes the reader in reading your book is how formal their correspondence was for so long. That first fan letter came in 1941, and it wasn’t until 1954, just three years before her death, that they actually addressed each other by first names. What was the reason for this sort of stiffness or formality?
Gina Dalfonzo: So much of it was the culture. I mean, I really think that was it. It was just the way people addressed each other then. I was going to say particularly in academic circles, but I don’t actually know that to be true. It may just have been a very common thing throughout the culture. So, yes, it was “Mr. Lewis,” “Ms. Sayers” for a long, long time. Which is kind of funny to read, because when they actually get to the body of the letter, they’re not at all formal with each other, not after the first couple of letters. They are just lively and straightforward and just two friends writing letters. So it is a little bit funny, maybe even a little bit jarring to see those formal titles. And finally when he got an honorary doctorate, she wrote and said, OK, do I call you Dr. Lewis? Do I call you Mr. Lewis? And he said, just call me Jack. And he said, you know, it’s been a long time. You’ve never said anything about it. I’m just going to say it. So let’s go by first names. And then they did from then on.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. You wrote at one point, and this is a great quote, that their friendship, like any good friendship, brought out aspects of their characters that weren’t quite the aspects brought out by any other of their relationships. What, just given all the research that you did, what did they bring out in each other that other friends did not?
Gina Dalfonzo: Honestly, I think for one thing, one major thing, they gave each other just the chance to vent. And it wasn’t something that you see them doing a lot, certainly not in public and not not always with other relationships and in other correspondence, especially him. Each of them was a Christian apologist who was more or less the only person in his or her immediate circle who was doing that kind of work. Of course, Lewis had the Inklings, but they were mostly creative writers or academic writers, philosophical writers. This sort of popularizing theology thing that Lewis was doing, that was pretty rare in his circle and even kind of looked down upon. If you read up on his circle, his circumstances, it was just, you know, it was just not done. And so he was kind of alone there.
And then for Sayers, she had her own circle of friends, but again, not many Christian apologists among them. So each of them could sort of be a little bit of a sounding board for each other. And they were quite frank and open and sometimes very funny about the trials, the stresses, all the things they were dealing with in that role. Sayers saying to Lewis something like—she was corresponding with an atheist—and she said to Lewis, you know, I don’t want him. I have no use for him, I want to pass him on to you. I mean, she just—and it’s kind of unusual for Christians to hear this today—but she did not feel a lot of what she called missionary zeal at all. She didn’t feel herself called to be an evangelist. And so when the role sort of thrust itself upon her, when she found herself writing works of apologetics and corresponding with people about it, she just felt sort of twitchy in that role. It just made her feel uncomfortable. And so Lewis could sort of listen to that and encourage her. And then, in turn, he told her, like, how bored he sometimes got with his correspondence. And her correspondence was very rare and refreshing for him. He enjoyed that. So that was sort of a little bit of an outlet for him when he got bored with the rest of the people writing to him.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, so much to ask there. One thing that jumps out is, you know, they were friends until her death in 1957. But the Inklings disbanded, I think it was 1949 was their last meeting. So their friendship extended even beyond the Inklings. Did the disbanding of the Inklings change their friendship in any way? Did he rely on her more for that kind of intellectual sharpening or did it just sort of continue to go, to grow in its own good time?
Gina Dalfonzo: I think it was good that he had her friendship then because he stayed friends with the men who had been in the Inklings—those friendships didn’t really go away—but he had lost sort of that group setting of critique and encouragement and all those things. And it had played a major, major role in his life and work. And I’m sure he missed it. And so he had this friendship established with her where they were already giving each other encouragement and critiques and so forth. And I think it did mean a lot to him to have that unbroken, continual source of support and an outlet. And I think he did rely on it a good deal.
Cherie Harder: How did they influence each other’s works, if at all?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, that’s a very interesting and complex question that I could probably go on all day about it, but I’ll try not to. I think that, as I said, the role of apologist did not come naturally to Sayers. I think it’s possible that without his encouragement and his support and his telling her, you know, this is important work and it’s good that you’re doing it, she might not have stuck with it. I mean, that’s me speculating a little bit. But I think there’s really something in that theory because she just— She did it because she felt that she had some knowledge that she could share that might help people that she could offer, but it just was not a comfortable role for her. And he sort of kept her on that road a little bit, I think.
And as for the other way around, I think that, as I said, it was very helpful for him to have her support after the Inklings were gone. But even beyond that, I think the friendship with her sort of opened his eyes to a lot of things, sort of broadened his experience. He grew up in a very male-oriented environment, continued to live in a very male-oriented environment, what with the military and then Oxford and all the all-male clubs and gatherings and social life and so forth. He did not really have a lot of experience dealing with women, which meant that his perspective was not always that broad. And I think she helped him, she gave him a little bit of that. She sort of helped him just to see that there are other perspectives beyond his own and to broaden his outlook a little bit. And I think she also—and I really dig into this in the book—she was very much a person who believed in “stay in your own lane,” do the work that God called you to do. You don’t have to write something or do something for everybody who asks you to weigh in on every major question of the day. So she would reprimand him a little bit for that. And they went back and forth about questions of artistic integrity and so forth. And I think she gave him a little guidance there and a little wisdom that he really took to heart.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned before that she had some trepidation around the role of the apologist, and in your book, there’s even some indication that he may have from time to time struggled with it as well. There were a few quotes that you mentioned that I just thought were so fascinating, where he wrote to her in 1946 that apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s faith: “A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it.” And meanwhile, she wrote to him that, “I am obliged to resent and resist this religious racket, which is continually forcing me into false situations, urging me to write on subjects I cannot honestly handle or distorting what I do in a manner that makes me appear to lay claim to more faith or spirituality than I have.” How do they wrestle through those frustrations and tensions together?
Gina Dalfonzo: Yeah, again, I think it’s really good that they had each other to sort of help with that and just that whole discussion about artistic integrity that I was talking about—I think it helped them both to work through some of these things, to think it through, to come to maybe a clearer understanding of what their role was, what they were called to do, how they didn’t necessarily have to do everything, but they should really do well what they were doing. So I think their friendship was enormously beneficial to them both in that respect.
Cherie Harder: So it would seem inevitable that any personality as forceful and no-nonsense as Dorothy Sayers or even just as opinionated as C.S. Lewis would inevitably have some kind of disagreements or even conflicts. What did they disagree on and how did they handle that conflict?
Gina Dalfonzo: Yes. I think that discussion on artistic integrity was the biggest area of conflict. There was also—not that they necessarily disagreed, but they sort of had some issues to hash out there. And then there was also, again, the area of gender, where Sayers was writing to Barbara Reynolds, who would eventually become her biographer, and she was saying how much she liked Lewis, but then she added, you just have to accept that there’s a complete blank in his mind where women are concerned. And this was—I forget when this was—maybe midway through their friendship or something like that. So she felt that he just sort of lacked an understanding of women’s experiences and concerns, which, again, probably came out of that background of his, which was very male-oriented. But just the fact that she was his friend and that she talked to him so openly and frankly about so many things, just really, I think, helped him develop in that respect and just taught him a lot.
Cherie Harder: So I have to ask: I adore C.S. Lewis, but probably one of his writings that would be among my least favorites would be The Four Loves, just because it seems like often he takes friendship to essentially be an extrapolation of his friendship with Tolkien or the other Inklings and sort of ignores the kind of dynamics of so many other friendships. He talks about friendship as being essentially side by side, being less interested in each other than a common end or interest. And, of course, even at his time, I am betting that the vast majority of women in 1940s England were not united in friendship by a shared love of Norse mythology or whatever it was, but were rather interested in the details of each other’s lives, of sort of face-to-face type of encounter that he actually ascribes to the erotic as opposed to friendship. Do we have any evidence that Dorothy Sayers tried to intervene with him on this or that she changed his opinion at all, or did she just let that one pass?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, I think that she wouldn’t have been surprised at it. He was a little bit prone to generalize. You sort of put your finger on it when you talked about him taking one friendship in his life and sort of extrapolating it. He was prone to say, you know, this is this way and therefore this is the universal pattern. So he doesn’t really tackle male-female friendships or female-female friendships that much in that book. He thinks himself most qualified to discuss friendship between men because that’s what he knows best. But, yeah, I don’t know if Sayers ever really tackled him directly on that subject. I think she maybe just gave him a little bit of a pass. But just the fact that she was there, that she was in his life and that she was his friend, I think that did teach him a few things.
Cherie Harder: So you have some really interesting quotes. You mentioned Barbara Reynolds earlier, and at one point Sayers writes to say of Lewis, “I admit that he is apt to write shocking nonsense about women and marriage. That, however, is not because he is a bad theologian, but rather because he is a frightened bachelor.” How did Lewis respond to Sayers’ criticism? Because you know if Sayers is saying it to somebody else, she said it to Lewis directly.
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, that’s a great question. I think one thing that Sayers pinpointed in him, and I think she was absolutely right about this, is his humility. So he did have, like any of us, he had faults. He had tendencies to generalize. He didn’t always understand what it was that he didn’t know. And yet he was very open to correction. He was able to listen to people, listen to their critiques, sort of think them over. So if she did address these things directly with him, I think that he probably, at the very least, would have listened to her. I don’t know how deeply seriously he would have taken it, but he would have at least listened.
I think she says somewhere that he has the humility that can take rebuke, and so that for her— and I honestly, I think they both had this; you can see it in their writings, both public and private. You can see this humility that they both have, this acknowledgement that they were both sinners who had a long way to go. And this was a very strong aspect of their Christian faith. And so they listened to each other. And if they didn’t always act immediately on what the other said, at least they had the humility and the courtesy and the respect for each other that would allow them to listen.
Cherie Harder: So you excerpt many of the letters in your work, and when you read them, they are both just so full of— they crackle. There is wit and color and brilliance, but it’s beautifully written, very accessible. And you kind of wonder—at least it surprised me—why wasn’t Dorothy Sayers part of the Inklings? She had this strong Oxford connection. There seems to be such a similarity of sensibility. Why wasn’t she part of the group?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, on a very practical level, although she did have that strong connection to Oxford, she didn’t live near there. She lived, I believe it was a couple hours away, and was very busy with her work, taking care of her husband, who became more and more an invalid over the years. And she just had too much to do. The other thing was that the Inklings were an all-male group, always, from the beginning. And this was very standard for the time and for the place. Oxford, and probably the other major universities, had this tradition of all-male groups that nobody really ever thought much about. That’s just the way it was. And so she would not have been invited to become a member. Now, there were other things that she did at Oxford when she was able to visit. She would go to the Socratic Club with Lewis, which was a mixed-gender group and was very active in that when she could be, and actually, I think, considered or tried to start a branch of that group where she lived. So there were things and activities that she could do, just the Inklings weren’t among them.
Cherie Harder: One additional commonality that both Lewis and Sayers had is, for much of their life, they actually were doing a lot of caretaking for a significant other in some ways that was ill. With Lewis, of course, first it was Mrs. Moore, the mother of his friend who died in combat, who he had promised to take care of. And in some scholars’ minds there was a question about that relationship, but he was caretaking as she got older. Then, of course, later his wife, Joy Davidman, when she got sick. And with Dorothy Sayers, her husband, you know, I think there were some initially really good years of marriage, but then as he kind of descended into alcoholism, as well as the effects of his shell-shock becoming more apparent, just a lot of caretaking that went on. How did that affect both their work, their outlook, and their friendship with each other?
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, obviously, these were great demands on their time and energy, one reason they couldn’t get together as often as they would have liked to. The letters are full of things like, “I’m sorry I haven’t seen you in so long. It’s a pity we haven’t been able to get together. I hope we get together soon.” So I think clearly they would have seen much more of each other if they hadn’t had so many demands on their time. And among those demands was caretaking. I think it was a very practical aspect of faith for both of them, that this is how you treat others, because, well, as Lewis once wrote, “Your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” And so both of them were great believers in seeing the image of God in others and treating them accordingly. So that was very important.
And also their friendship was one that, for many years, it stayed sort of on what you might call a theological, cultural, literary level. They talked about work. They talked about all their interests, things they had in common. It didn’t really get to the personal level, which is how they liked it. They liked to just be able to write to somebody and toss off a bunch of literary allusions and write fun stuff or blow off steam, just that sort of thing. But their friendship wasn’t that personal at first. But in later years, they started talking more and more about personal things because I think any friendship will go there if you’re friends with the person long enough. And later letters are really very touching about some of these things where, for instance, Lewis tells her, what he didn’t like to talk about much, that his brother was an alcoholic. And Sayers wrote back and said, “Yes, my husband had that trouble. It’s very hard. I know.” This was after she was widowed. And when Lewis married Joy Davidman, whom Sayers met and liked very much, he wrote to her about some of the things he was going through, how he was so happy with Joy, but her illness was so hard on them both. And she was very sympathetic. So, yeah, eventually, if not right away, these things became another point of connection for them.
Cherie Harder: One more question and then we’ll go to questions from our viewers. You’ve actually suggested in the book that Dorothy Sayers, her friendship with Lewis, may have played at least some small role in his marriage to Joy Davidman. I would love to ask you about that, but also wanted to ask you about an unusual commonality for the two of them in that they both married divorced people at a time that the Anglican Church took that very seriously. And yet they were both Anglican apologists. And just how they they navigated or negotiated that tension.
Gina Dalfonzo: Yes, Sayers had, as you say, married a divorced man. They were not able to get married in the church precisely because of that and were married at the registry office or whatever it was. And as for Lewis, I think many of us have heard that story about how he sort of had to jump through some hoops to try and find a pastor who would marry him and Joy, and was finally able to find one. So, yes, that is an interesting commonality, as you say. Sayers, when she wrote to her son years later, he was going through his own divorce, and she said, you know— she sort of thought her own church, although she tried faithfully to follow its teachings, she thought it was maybe a little bit hard on divorced people. She wasn’t sure that they always made the right call there. She said, you know, if you’ve really tried and there’s nothing you can do, then there’s nothing you can do. So that was sort of how she felt about it.
And so Lewis, when he was marrying a divorced woman, at first he was trying to sort of finesse his way through it, trying to say, you know, nothing’s really going to come of this because, you know, she’s divorced and so forth. And this is just to help her stay in the country, all these things. And I don’t think he realized when he wrote this to Dorothy that she would not think twice about it. She wouldn’t mind. And when he eventually got to the point where he did want it to be a real marriage and he did sort of come to terms with that, she was very supportive. I think that she thought— As I said, she had met Joy, liked her very much. They were both very outspoken, brilliant Christian women. So they had, like, many things in common. And I think that it’s just the sort of marriage she would have wanted for Lewis because it just taught him so much and helped him grow in so many ways.
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and for all of you watching, you can not only pose a question, but you can also “like” a question, and that gives us a good sense of what some of those most popular questions are. I’ll also note that shorter questions tend to be more likely to be asked. So we’ll just jump right into it. The first question comes from Sarah George. And Sarah asks, “Lewis and Sayers obviously had a rich and wonderful relationship, but their correspondence was mainly through letters, i.e. disembodied. How do you think Christian men and women should navigate forming deep but chaste friendships with the opposite sex when technology directs us to see each other more often rather than read each other?”
Gina Dalfonzo: That’s a great question. And actually it’s one that’s come up a few times before, since the book’s been published and people have been giving me feedback about it. Even aside from the fact that most of their friendship was through correspondence, I think the number one thing or one of the biggest things we need to remember about it—and a key to the way that they handled themselves in it—is that they believed that every person was made in the image of God, that people are not to use each other for their own ends, but rather to build each other up, never to dehumanize each other but to help each other become more and more Christlike. Lewis has a wonderful quote about this somewhere. I think it’s in “The Weight of Glory” where he says, “All day long we’re helping each other to get either to heaven or to hell.” He took that very, very seriously, and he made it his business as much as he could to help others get to heaven, to go the right way towards God and not away from him. And so I think that is really the key, is that you look around at the people around you—and this includes cross-gender friendships—you look at these people as not somebody who might be put there for your benefit, your blessing, your entertainment, whatever, but rather as someone—you look at them holistically—as someone who belongs to God, is very precious to God, and someone that you want to help grow closer to God. And I think that really is the important thing.
Cherie Harder: So we have a couple of questions related to Joy Davidman. So Thomas Foley asked, “Please describe her relationship with Joy.” And an anonymous attendee asked whether Sayers had an opinion about Joy Davidman.
Gina Dalfonzo: Yes, they met—I’m not sure exactly how many times they met—it wasn’t very many. I think it was just one or two times. But they both liked each other very much, were impressed with each other’s intelligence. And Joy was a great fan of the detective novels. So when she got this chance to meet Sayers, she very much wanted to know, “Why did you stop writing these?” and was relieved, Lewis tells us, to hear that it wasn’t because she got sick of detective novels, but just because she felt she had done all she could within the genre. So I think Joy was such a great fan that it meant a lot to her to hear that, “Oh, no, I still do like detective novels. I’ve just moved on from there.” So, yeah, they had these things in common and liked each other very much. And it’s a pity they didn’t get to see more of each other because I think that would have been a great friendship, too.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Hilary Farley, who asks, “Can you speak more about their conversations on artistic integrity?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Yes, I will do my best with that, although it’s rather complicated. And as I would read these letters over and over and do my analysis of them, I would think, you know, I hope I’m doing this justice. This is kind of a tangled subject. But there were things like, for instance, Sayers would take him to task a little bit as far as, you know, you don’t have to say something about everything; just because you’re a Christian and the world needs Christian points of view, you don’t have to be the one to say something about everything, because she believed that God has gifted each of us with areas of expertise, areas where he calls us to work, and we should follow that call. And if we don’t, if we go around writing things and saying things and creating works of art just to preach a message, we’re going to end up creating bad works of art. And she would say that is a disservice to our Creator, who gave us the gift and the calling. When you make bad works of art that reflects badly on him. So she was like, “do not do that.”
And he pushed back a little because he sort of felt inclined toward that view, but he was hesitant about it. He was afraid that, you know, “If I get worried about my artistic integrity, then maybe I’m just being selfish.” Whereas, in modern parlance, you might say she was encouraging him to set boundaries in a way. You know, do what you’re good at, do what you’re gifted at, do what God calls you to do, let the rest go. And don’t go around just trying to preach at people when that’s not your gift. And I think he did take it to heart. Much later, when he wrote her eulogy, he talked about this and what she said about it. And when he wrote essays, for instance, about how he came to write Narnia, he made the point to say, “I wasn’t writing this to preach a message. I had images in my mind of the story. And then I wrote the story, and the messages, whatever messages there are, came with it.” And so she had taught him or she had encouraged him to put first things first and to write a good story first. And then all the things that are important to you will come into that. And so I’m sure she was influential there.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question comes from Roger Lang. And Roger asks, “Gina, how has your own understanding and appreciation for both of these authors been altered by your research for this book?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Oh, wow, that’s a really good question. These are writers—now, as I mentioned, I took that college course on them all those years ago—and so these are writers who sort of have, you might say, accompanied me through the years. I’ve been reading them all this time. I’ve been going back to them again and again. They’ve taught me so much over the years, and I think brought me some—I hope— some maturity and some wisdom and some insight. But going back to them again, concentrating on them the way I had to to write this book, I think brought me back to some things that are really important, just the seriousness with which they took their work and their writing and their role and also the clearness of their thinking, which is just a benefit whenever you go back to reading them again. It just sort of helps set you straight. It helps you get your feet on the ground. Just the wonderful imagination and yet the practicality, humility, all these things that kept them grounded. Of course, the great faith that both of them had. So many wonderful things about them just to keep revisiting.
Cherie Harder: So Claire Liekhart asks, “What can we learn about friendship from these two? What parts of their friendship do you think we may have lost today and should revitalize?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, they had such a foundation of appreciation and respect for each other and that really— this really stuck out to me when I was researching and writing this book. Of course, Lewis and the Inklings loved critiquing each other. It did them good. It’s sort of like iron sharpening iron. It kept them sharp. It helped them in their work. And yet as years went on—and I make the case that this sort of contributed to the Inklings falling apart—was that sometimes it was just a little bit too much criticism and not enough respect. And there were some hurt feelings along the way, which is understandable. When friends clash and aren’t careful to set a little bit of a limit to it, a little bit of a boundary, then there can be hurt feelings. And I think Sayers and Lewis, even when they disagreed, even when they clashed, they still really respected and appreciated each other and the work that the other was doing. And that meant a lot. I think a lot of people know that Tolkien didn’t really like Narnia, for instance, but Sayers did. And Lewis just happened to come across a letter to the editor that she had written about Narnia supporting it and arguing with some theologian or somebody or a writer who had critiqued Lewis. And so Lewis just sort of accidentally discovered that Sayers was a Narnia fan, and it really touched him, I think, because, you know, she was a fan of the works that others around him didn’t necessarily appreciate. And that had to be a little bit of balm to his spirit, I think.
Cherie Harder: So we have a few questions about your own writing and thinking process. And so I’m going to combine questions from Sharon Webb and Ginny Savage. And they ask, “Gina, you mentioned that admiring each other’s works was a good foundation for friendship. As an author yourself, are there authors you have become friends with?” And then Ginny asks, “Gina, how would you approach your own process of writing? What initiates your choice of topics?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, for the first question, yes, I think that we writers living in this current period are especially blessed to have the Internet and to have online writers groups. I know the Internet can be, you know, it could cause problems, but it can also be a great boon. If you’re a writer, you can form these networks of friends who you never might have known otherwise and who encourage you and support you and help you. And it’s such a blessing. Karen Swallow Prior, some of you may know of, has become of a great friend of mine. And we met just that way in a writers group. Rachel McMillan, a novelist from Canada, we became friends over the Internet admiring each other’s work. She’s the most supportive writer I’ve ever known. I mean, she lives to support other writers. And something she says a lot is, you know, there’s no space for competition, only community. And that may seem counterintuitive, but when you think about it, and when you live the writing life, it’s really not. Community matters, for writers maybe especially, because we do so much of our work alone and you can get to feeling very alone. And when you have other writers who understand, who get it, who have been there, who know the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the tribes, all of it. And they’re in your corner and they’re pushing for you and they’re talking up your works. It’s everything. It just means everything. So, yeah, that is a blessing.
And probably one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give anybody who wants to write is get in those communities, find your favorite writers who are writing now, follow them on Twitter or find them on Facebook. Just hang around them virtually as much as you can and learn from them and absorb what they have to say and get those networks and communities going. It’s so important. Let’s see. What was the second question? I got going there and forgot what it was.
Cherie Harder: I think you covered a lot of it.
Gina Dalfonzo: OK.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Elizabeth Biddle, and Elizabeth asks, “Especially given the connection each of them had with the Great War, did the two of them discuss questions of war and peace? And if so, what was the nature of that conversation?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, it was the middle of the war when they first met. Both of them were doing work for the BBC and writing articles and books that, in a way, they really considered their war work. Sayers definitely did. And Lewis was traveling around giving talks at army camps and so forth. So the war was sort of the common ground where they found each other, where they both came out of that. Sayers was planning a series of books that she and a friend would edit called “Bridgeheads” for the post-war sort of arena that she hoped would sort of take the country and the culture back to basic foundational Christian questions and help things, help society, maybe go back to basics, start moving forward, start taking big questions seriously. And she wanted Lewis to write one of those for her. And I think he was maybe a little bit interested, but that never came to fruition. The series didn’t get very far. However, Sayers did write The Mind of the Maker for that series. And I recommend it highly. It’s a wonderful book.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Norman Jepethson asks, “What books or people influenced Sayers in her faith walk?”
Gina Dalfonzo: So many. As I mentioned earlier, she was incredibly well-read, but Chesterton was a major one, and, as many people know, he also was a major influence on Lewis. I talk about this in the book. They both discovered Chesterton around the same time. And this was sort of in the later part of World War I and immediately after. They were both— Sayers and Lewis were in different places spiritually at that time. He was sort of in the throes of atheism. She wasn’t really, but she was sort of wrestling with some faith questions in her own right. And both of them discovered Chesterton, and he just did them a world of good. There was so much cheerfulness, common sense, sound thinking, good theology, just so many things that they both needed. He just sort of showed up in their lives to bring that to them. And so he was a major, major influence.
Cherie Harder: So Michael Lundy asks, “Of what sentiments today would Lewis be dismissive or bored in those of us who so admire him? Have we put him on a pedestal which he would have eschewed in his day? Sayers obviously addressed him on different terms and he her. How might we engage with Lewis and Sayers in ways more consistent with understanding rather than adulation?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Well, I think Lewis would be quite shocked and horrified that there are memes going all over Facebook saying that he said things that he never said or even thought of. I mean, we owe a great debt to William O’Flaherty, who is out there debunking all the fake quotes and even wrote a book about it, because there is just so much of that. But that really touches on a deeper issue, which is that we are prone these days to recreate Lewis in our own image. Probably we do that with a lot of our favorite writers and thinkers. But Lewis, for whatever reason, seems to get it most often, or at least that’s how it looks to me. And I think he would just— I think he would probably be— I mean, he was polite, tried to be polite, but I think he would really be appalled and try to debunk it as he could because, you know, he was very, very much his own person. He was not just the sort of person who was out there saying whatever today’s Christians wanted him to have said. I mean, Martin Luther King Jr., when you think about it, gets much the same treatment. Well, everybody and anybody is like, well, this person said exactly what and thought exactly what I wanted him to have said and thought. But that’s not how it works. I think he was—more than anything—I mean, not being a prideful person, but just having his own personhood and his own thoughts and his own ideas. I think he would want us to respect that.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So the witching hour is coming. We’re going to wrap up with a last question, but I want to combine two questions that both pertain at least somewhat to their correspondence. Charles Petty asks, “Because Sayers was not part of the Inklings, was there any other format in which Lewis and Sayers would meet? Or was the relationship primarily one of correspondence?” And somewhat related, Christopher Schneider asks, “What have you learned about the discipline of letter-writing and what might the relationship of Dorothy and Jack have to teach us about this practice for today?”
Gina Dalfonzo: Well. The letter-writing thing is just something that we have to admit we’ve by-and-large lost. I mean, we write emails and texts, but it’s not at all the same thing. And it’s such a great pity. You know, I try to write the occasional letter to a friend or a godchild when I can, but even so, I think we’ve just lost that ability to write long, newsy letters, touching base with each other. And I wish we could get that back. I don’t know how we can. But as things are, I’m just grateful that we have all these letters from the past to read and to enjoy. As for other activities at Oxford, I’ve mentioned the Socratic Club. They both were very invested in that. And then there was some sort of a Dante club or something where Sayers would go sometimes and give papers or talks because she was very taken up with translating Dante in her later years, very much a fan of his. And Lewis actually gave her a party once when she was up at Oxford giving a talk on Dante or something like that. He threw a little party for her. So yeah, they found their own ways of getting together and doing fun things when she was available to come to the area.
Cherie Harder: As promised. Gina, the last word is yours.
Gina Dalfonzo: Ok, well, I want to read just a short passage from Sayers. This is from a debate where she and Lewis together debated an atheist. And the subject was, or the debate sprang from, a book by an author named Kathleen Nott who had criticised Lewis and Sayers for their faith. So just real quick, I want to read this passage, something that Sayers said during the debate. I find this quote incredibly timely, but also I think it would be timely whenever you came back to it just because our world is the way it is. So Sayers says, “It is no use talking as though love and charity were easy. You cannot buy them in the market and slap them on a situation like plasters. If Miss Nott were here now, she and I could establish the kingdom of heaven between ourselves immediately. That is, we could if we could. It is quite simple. She has only to love me as well as she loves herself, and I have only to love her as well as I love myself, and there is the kingdom. It is as simple as that. But would it be easy? Acknowledging myself to be worm-eaten with original sin, I acknowledge that I might find it difficult. And although Miss Nott is presumably without sin, since she does not admit the existence of sinfulness, it is conceivable that for one reason or another, she also might encounter a little difficulty. Yet it would be useless for her to protest that one cannot love an unlovable object, since charity is precisely a readiness to love the unlovable. That is the trouble with the Christian graces, that without grace they are impossible.”
Cherie Harder: Gina, it has been a pleasure. Great to talk with you.
Gina Dalfonzo: Thank you so much.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.