‘Bad’ Language: CS Lewis and the F-Word

Huw Evans Bad Language CS Lewis Sputnik Faith Art

I have been thinking about ‘bad’ language: perhaps what St Paul would have called ‘coarse’ language. In my mind, ‘bad’ language divides roughly into two sorts, which are related but different: vulgar language works against our humanity while profane language works against God.

My thoughts have arranged themselves around three questions, the first being: What have C S Lewis and Norman Mailer got in common?

Apart from the fact that they both wrote books, it appears that neither writer could spell the f-word. Norman Mailer notoriously ended up with fug in The Naked and the Dead because he gave in to his publisher’s view that it would be hard to sell the book if it had so much swearing. But Lewis? The f-word?  Surely he would not have used it in life, let alone in his writings.

Well, C S Lewis was a great writer, a Christian and a flawed human being. There is plenty of evidence that in his masculine, clubbable life, he swore with the best (or worst) of them (for a flavour of that side of Lewis’s life try A N Wilson’s biography, say, page 131 or 206 in the hardback edition). Personally, I have no difficulty imagining him using the f-word in life. What about his writing?

Narnia, so far as I remember, is an unsweary place, apart from the occasional ‘by the Lion’ (although I’m sure the use of that phrase would have earned a young, talking rabbit a clip round its long, fluffy ears). If we want to find Lewis’s characters swearing we have to turn to the space trilogy, which are almost his only novels with a contemporaneous setting. Noting a few G*ds (profanity) in Out of the Silent Planet we can skip over Perelandra – no swearing but some non-erotic nakedness – and come to That Hideous Strength, where we find a few bloodys, but also my chief exhibit: Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the NICE secret police.

Miss Hardcastle – a woman of good family but bad character – took pleasure in torture and was not averse to swearing. At least, I don’t think she was. She frequently strengthens her speech with the word bucking. I don’t think she is referring to horses and I have never come across that usage anywhere else. The letters f and b are very similar. I believe we are to read bucking (in our heads) with a different initial letter.

Why did he do that? Was it sensitivity for his audience, fear of audience reaction or something else? We can half-dismiss the first option, in that anyone with their wits about them knows what he is actually saying. The non-dismissed half of the point is that a more innocent reader could easily pass over it without noticing. As for audience reaction, I can allow something in that, but, to my mind, the ‘something else’ is important. Lewis is bucking for the same reason Mailer is fugging: to get the book published.

That Hideous Strength was published in 1945, nearly twenty years before Penguin published the not-for-the-servants Lady Chatterley’s Lover. British publishing was considerably more constrained than now. It is quite likely that his publisher would not have put out the book without the buckings. So Lewis is bound with Mailer in the constraints of 1940s publishing sensibilities.

Which brings me to my second question: if Lewis had not been constrained by the publishing conventions of the 1940s would he have replaced the buckings of That Hideous Strength with something more realistic? Time, I think, for a counterfactual.

Imagine if English literary culture in the first half of the twentieth century had been less refined and more robust in its attitudes to vulgar and profane language (I can feel my antimacassar twitching as I write that phrase). H G Wells’ failing shopkeepers would have been f-ing and blinding around the South of England. Siegfried Sassoon’s foxhunting men would have pitched profanities across the heavy clays of the Midlands and Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That might have had a two word title.

WWLD? (What would Lewis do?)

He could have retained his buckings, on the grounds that the actual word would still have given offence to some of his readers. We can be reasonably certain that if he was writing for a wholly Christian audience, or at least an audience that was heading in that direction, he would not have used vulgar language.

But what of books that were not intended for an audience of his co-religionists? In addressing this question we have to allow for the fact that Lewis’s audience in the not-then had a different character to his audience now: at the time of first publication his fiction for adults did not have the ghetto audience it does now. It was fiction for the general reader: Lewis characterised That Hideous Strength as being ’a fairy tale’ for grown-ups (and it was reviewed by George Orwell). A story perhaps not a million miles away from Dan Brown’s, but substantially better written.

I contend that in this not-past Lewis would have taken advantage of the greater freedom of expression and would have had Miss Hardcastle swearing in recognisable words. She would have been a character of full-blooded, self-serving evil, enjoying her brandy, cheroots and sexually-tinged sadism with a properly foul mouth (see chapter seven of the unabridged version of That Hideous Strength.)

But hold on. Miss Hardcastle is only swearing freely in my counter-factual, not in the real 1940s. Yet the tricksy thing about my counter-factual is that, with the addition of sex and drugs, it reflects the current position of the British literary scene (and the culture generally). We are free of many of the constraints which bound Lewis and have, as a consequence, to make the decisions about language and expression which Lewis did not face.

That brings me to my third and final question: how do we as artists represent and reflect a vulgar and profane world? Read the second part of this post here.

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