On the last day of July 2020, one of the hottest days of a hot summer, my husband and I moved from our flat in North Oxford to a house in Risinghurst, East Oxford. The most interesting thing about this sweaty and stressful experience was that our new home, The Kilns, had also been the home of C.S. Lewis. The house now belongs to a California-based organisation who take their name and inspiration from the life and work of Lewis. (You can see their website here: https://www.cslewis.org/aboutus/) The C.S. Lewis foundation acquired The Kilns in the late 1980s and since 2001 have used it to host a small community of graduate students and visiting researchers, we were joining this community as ‘Scholars in Residence’. We had at that point been married just under a year, I had just finished my first year of study towards a DPhil and William had just finished a Master’s and was to begin a DPhil in the autumn.
The Kilns is a long, squat, brick house with dormer windows peering sleepily at the road over a tall hedge. The road is not a busy one but a quiet cul-de-sac of a residential area which to many students of the university seems unimaginably remote from the academic and social centre of the city. When Lewis lived here the area was farmland and The Kilns shared the narrow country lane only with an old brick and tile works for which it was named. When Lewis bought the house in 1930, his brother, Warren Lewis, wrote that it gave ‘as great privacy as can reasonably be looked for near a large town.’ This didn’t last. New houses proliferated over the next two decades and in 1958 the ring road divided Risinghurst from Headington. To us, however, the house had the feel of a rural retreat. We lived there through two national lockdowns and for much of the year there wasn’t any cause for us to venture down the hill into Oxford. The garden proved to be blessing and just beyond the gate was the C.S. Lewis nature reserve and Shotover country park where we took many muddy walks to ward off cabin-fever.
C.S. Lewis lived in the Kilns from 1930 until his death in 1963. Even when he was working in Cambridge he came home to Kilns at the weekends. Lewis had bought the house with his brother and Mrs Janie Moore, the mother of his friend from the army, Paddy Moore, who had been killed in the First World War. The three of them lived there with Mrs Moore’s daughter, Maureen, and later, after Mrs Moore had died and Maureen had married, the Kilns became home to Joy Davidman, whom Lewis had married in 1957, and her two sons.
Inside the house has been restored to look something like it would have when Lewis lived there, using the evidence of photos, letters and diaries. I generally worked sitting at the dining table facing either a print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, like the one Joy had hung in the room, or a photograph of her brandishing the shotgun she used to frighten trespassers out of the eight acres of garden. I attended many Teams meetings sitting at the desk in the room where Lewis and Warnie used to ‘get up a fug’ which means to shut themselves away smoking until the air was dark and soupy. The period-appropriate furnishings of the house made people wonder how and why I was joining the call from the 1950s. The presence of the Aga stove made the kitchen the social centre of the house. This was where we huddled on February mornings drinking coffee, sat talking until the wine was finished and badgers were sniffing under the windows, slurped instant noodles on a Sunday after church and generally pondered, planned, and procrastinated. Our housemates were all graduate students and we formed something like a microcosm of a Middle Common Room (at Brasenose known as the HCR). We had film nights, played board games, attempted watercolour painting, went rowing together, practised conference papers, and even composed and performed what turned out to be a winning entry for Brasenose Ale Verses. Our chief festivities all involved eating, we sat down to special meals together often throughout the year including Thanksgiving, Burns’ Night, Lunar New Year, birthdays and weekend brunches. Writing a DPhil in the humanities can be quite a solitary experience, and during the pandemic it could become lonely and isolating, but in my housemates I found solidarity, stability, and fun.
It’s not difficult to see how much of the joy of the year came from us endeavouring to find at the Kilns the things we had lost through lockdown. Much of the substance of the academic and social life of our colleges was gone. Working, exercising, singing, eating and worshipping were often only allowed within a household. The usual pattern of life for Scholars-in-residence at the Kilns was disrupted too. The house would have ordinarily been open for tours three days a week and have hosted conferences and events. For the year we were there, however, the atmosphere was less one of a museum and more one of a monastic community, albeit a very lax one. The one interruption to our insular existence was the arrival of a film crew in October, who put us up in an AirBnB while they filmed ‘The Most Reluctant Convert’ at the house. The number of visitors and tourists who came just to see the outside of the house or take a picture with the blue plaque made me very surprised that I had lived in Oxford for five years without ever having heard of The Kilns, although I heard very frequently various and dubious stories about the Inklings in the centre of Oxford.
William and I moved out of the Kilns this summer and writing this blog-post has given me an opportunity to reflect on what the year has meant to me. The relaxation of restrictions gives hope for a more normal start to a new academic year. We look forward to the renewal of college communities through the return of in-person events but the relationships forged and strengthened in their absence endure and give us comfort in our uncertainties about the future. Many people said to me while we lived at the Kilns that it must have been inspiring to sit and write where C.S. Lewis sat and wrote so many wonderful, insightful, and influential works, but on reflection the thing that I most connected with was not the legacy of the Kilns as a centre of scholarship but as a home. Lewis’s life was not purely intellectual but contained domestic difficulties and deep sadness: like many of his generation, he was deeply affected by the First World War. Mrs Moore, to whom he was devoted, suffered from dementia, Warnie battled alcoholism, his beloved wife, Joy, died only three years after their marriage. This intense grief caused a crisis of faith for Lewis. Grief, loss, domestic difficulty, and uncertainty about the future have been more present than usual in our homes this past year, but that doesn’t mean that there is no room left for all the goodness, nourishment and hope that can be found there. When I was eating freshly baked scones, listening to my housemates practising pianos, violins and recorders, or glimpsing a deer in the garden as the sun came up, I found myself quite frequently surprised by joy.
By Megan - Doctoral Student in History