The Wardrobe in Question?
Photo/Courtesy of The Marion E. Wade Center)
I seem to be the one coming late to this point, for others have already commented on it, but as I was doing some light reading in children's literature yesterday, I came upon a passage in Edith Nesbit's 1908 story "The Aunt and Amabel" that made me wonder about C.S. Lewis's possible literary debt to Nesbit.
Rosemary Lake, who has written children's stories of her own and maintains a website
devoted to fairy tales, mentions this possibility of Lewis's debt to Nesbit and provides the specific scene
from Nesbit's story that I had also noted in my reading. The main character, Amabel, has just been banished to a spare bedroom for having done something that she ought not to have done:
She was to spend the whole day alone in the best bedroom, the one with the four-post bed and the red curtains and the large wardrobe with a looking-glass in it that you could see yourself in to the very ends of your strap-shoes.
The first thing Amabel did was to look at herself in the glass. She was still sniffing and sobbing, and her eyes were swimming in tears, another one rolled down her nose as she looked -- that was very interesting. Another rolled down, and that was the last, because as soon as you get interested in watching your tears they stop. [.....]
Then she looked round the room for something to read; there was nothing. The old-fashioned best bedrooms never did have anything. Only on the large dressing-table, on the left-hand side of the oval swing-glass, was one book covered in red velvet, and on it, very twistily embroidered in yellow silk and mixed up with misleading leaves and squiggles were the letters, A. B. C.
'Perhaps it's a picture alphabet,' said Mabel, and was quite pleased, though of course she was much too old to care for alphabets. Only when one is very unhappy and very dull, anything is better than nothing. She opened the book.
'Why, it's only a time-table!' she said. 'I suppose it's for people when they want to go away, and Auntie puts it here in case they suddenly make up their minds to go, and feel that they can't wait another minute. I feel like that, only it's no good, and I expect other people do too.'
She had learned how to use the dictionary, and this seemed to go the same way. She looked up the names of all the places she knew -- Brighton where she had once spent a month, Rugby where her brother was at school, and Home, which was Amberley -- and she saw the times when the trains left for these places, and wished she could go by those trains.
And once more she looked round the best bedroom which was her prison, and thought of the Bastille, and wished she had a toad to tame, like the poor Viscount, or a flower to watch growing, like Picciola, and she was very sorry for herself, and very angry with her aunt, and very grieved at the conduct of her parents -- she had expected better things from them -- and now they had left her in this dreadful place where no one loved her, and no one understood her.
There seemed to be no place for toads or flowers in the best room, it was carpeted all over even in its least noticeable corners. It had everything a best room ought to have -- and everything was of dark shining mahogany. The toilet-table had a set of red and gold glass things -- a tray, candlesticks, a ring-stand, many little pots with lids, and two bottles with stoppers. When the stoppers were taken out they smelt very strange, something like very old scent, and something like cold cream also very old, and something like going to the dentist's.
I do not know whether the scent of those bottles had anything to do with what happened. It certainly was a very extraordinary scent. Quite different from any perfume that I smell nowadays, but I remember that when I was a little girl I smelt it quite often. But then there are no best rooms now such as there used to be. The best rooms now are gay with chintz and mirrors, and there are always flowers and books, and little tables to put your teacup on, and sofas, and armchairs. And they smell of varnish and new furniture.
When Amabel had sniffed at both bottles and looked in all the pots, which were quite clean and empty except for a pearl button and two pins in one of them, she took up the A.B.C. again to look for Whitby, where her godmother lived. And it was then that she saw the extraordinary name 'Whereyouwantogoto.' This was odd -- but the name of the station from which it started was still more extraordinary, for it was not Euston or Cannon Street or Marylebone.
The name of the station was 'Bigwardrobeinspareroom'. And below this name, really quite unusual for a station, Amabel read in small letters:
'Single fares strictly forbidden. Return tickets No Class Nuppence. Trains leave Bigwardrobeinspareroom all the time.'
And under that in still smaller letters:
'You had better go now.'
What would you have done? Rubbed your eyes and thought you were dreaming? Well, if you had, nothing more would have happened. Nothing ever does when you behave like that. Amabel was wiser. She went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle.
'I expect it's only shelves and people's best hats,' she said. But she only said it. People often say what they don't mean, so that if things turn out as they don't expect, they can say 'I told you so,' but this is most dishonest to one's self, and being dishonest to one's self is almost worse than being dishonest to other people. Amabel would never have done it if she had been herself. But she was out of herself with anger and unhappiness.
Of course it wasn't hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars, which is, of course, unusual in a booking office, and over the station clock was a full moon.
C.S. Lewis wouldn't have been borrowing extensively, but consider this famous scene
of the Pevensie children deciding to explore the old house where they've been billeted during the war, a scene occurring early in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
and conveniently supplied from a website titled The Chronicles of Narnia
Everyone agreed to this and that was how the adventures began. It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places. The first few doors they tried led only into spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected that they would; but soon they came to a very long room full of pictures, and there they found a suit of armour; and after that was a room all hung with green, with a harp in one corner; and then came three steps down and five steps up, and then a kind of little upstairs hall and a door that led out on to a balcony, and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other and were lined with books -- most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church. And shortly after that they looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead bluebottle on the window-sill.
"Nothing there!" said Peter, and they all trooped out again -- all except Lucy. She stayed behind because she thought it would be worthwhile trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure that it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two mothballs dropped out.
Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up -- mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in -- then two or three steps -- always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it.
"This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
In both stories -- the Nesbit short story and the Lewis novel -- we encounter a 'big wardrobe' in a 'spare room' that leads to a magical world.
Others who have noted this possible source include Paul F. Ford
, who has several web pages devoted to Lewis
and who writes of the connection to Nesbit in his article "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
at 50: A Celebration (and a Worry)" (pdf
), pages 3-4:
What came across strongly to me on this re-reading was how the narrative tastes of the children's books of Edith Nesbit. We know that Lewis loved her Bastable books (and even refers to the Bastable family in the second paragraph of Chapter One of The Magician's Nephew) and how some motifs from her stories The Magic City (1911) and "The Aunt and Amabel" (in The Magic World, 1912) went down very deep in Lewis’s imagination, only to come up in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The omniscient author's perspective, with a touch of the avuncular (all the talk about not shutting the wardrobe door) is alive in Nesbit and in Lewis. Lewis was saying a great deal when he told Chad Walsh in the summer of 1948 that he was "'completing a children's book he has begun "in the tradition of E. Nesbit",' when he had finished Surprised by Joy. (C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (1949), p. 10.)"
In her Journey into Narnia
(Pasadena, CA: Hope Publishing House, 1998), Kathryn Lindskoog notes the connection to Nesbit, as reported by Sarah J. Fodor in "Journey into Narnia" (Find Articles BNET
), Anglican Theological Review
, Spring 1999:
Providing a resource helpful to teachers, Lindskoog identifies a central theme for each book, summarizes key events, discusses a key symbol, and explains unusual vocabulary (such as the wooses in The Lion, from ouzel meaning blackbird, p. 106). She also includes a "Factual Quiz Just for Fun" and questions to encourage personal reflection. In her discussion of each book's background, Lindskoog notes the influence of Lewis's early reading of E. Nesbit's fantasies on his later writing. An appendix features a Nesbit story "The Aunt and Amabel" (1908), about a girl who embarks from the station Bigwardrobeinspareroom on a fantasy journey of reconciliation. Nesbit's story may have given Lewis the idea for the wardrobe in The Lion.
The Christian Broadcasting Network
has posted an excerpt
from "Chapter Seventeen: Into Narnia" of George Sayer's Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis
(Good News Publishing):
The thought that he might write a children's story occurred to Jack in September 1939, but he did not complete his first one, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, until almost ten years later. The evacuated children staying at the Kilns provided his original inspiration. One of them showed an interest in an old wardrobe, asking if she could go inside and if there was anything behind it. Her request triggered his imagination. Perhaps he was reminded, too, of a story he had read as a child, The Aunt and Amabel, by E. Nesbit, in which a magic world is entered through a wardrobe in a spare room. He had read and loved the books of Edith Nesbit, but had given them up when he went away to prep school for fear of seeming childish. Now he thought of writing a story for and about the evacuated children, because he was concerned about how poorly developed their imaginations were and how little they read.
The same Christian Broadcasting Network offers an excerpt
from Devin Brown's Inside Narnia
Lucy finds a second row of coats behind the first and the wintry land of Narnia behind that. In making a wardrobe the entranceway to another world, Lewis unconsciously used a device from "The Aunt and Amabel," a story by Edith Nesbit published in 1908 that he would certainly have come across as a child. In the summer of 1948, Lewis is recorded as making a remark to Chad Walsh about completing a children's book which he had begun writing "in the tradition of E. Nesbit" (Walsh 1979, 129). Green and Hooper argue that it is likely that Lewis had come across "The Aunt and Amabel" when it appeared in Blackie's Christmas Annual for 1909 [cf. different image from 1904 issue, noted by Gypsy Scholar], when Lewis was ten, but they also point out that he "had forgotten the Nesbit story entirely until reminded of it" (1994, 250–1).
Amabel, like the Pevensie children, has been sent away from home. In Amabel's case, she has been sent to stay with a great aunt, not because of air raids but because of "measles or a new baby or the painter in the house" (Nesbit 1994, 192), and in her room she finds a "large wardrobe with a looking glass in it that you could see yourself in" (194).
On the dressing table in the spare room where she is staying, Amabel finds a strange timetable for trains, and in it she sees a station named "Bigwardrobeinspareroom" (Nesbit 1994, 196), a name which will perhaps be echoed in Mr. Tumnus's references to the land of "Spare Oom" and the city of "War Drobe" (TLWW, 13, 21). We are told that Amabel, thinking that she will find only hats inside, "went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle" (Nesbit 1994, 197). Nesbit then writes: "Of course it wasn't hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal-cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars, which is, of course, unusual in a booking office, and over the station clock was a full moon."
Scholars even argue over the specific wardrobe that influenced Lewis, as noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
in "Which one opened door to Narnia?
" (Dec. 8, 2005), written by Tom Heinen, who also mentions the Nesbit story:
Lewis may have been influenced by author E. Nesbit, whose works he loved. In "The Aunt and Amabel" short story, a girl enters another world through a wardrobe. Lewis did not recall reading it but told a friend it must have helped trigger him, Mead said.
Another article, this one by Steve Chawkins in his article "Colleges both claim famous wardrobe
" (January 3, 2006), offered online in the Lincoln Journal Star
, reports on the same wardrobe war:
David Colbert, author of a guide called "The Magical Worlds of Narnia," contends that Lewis' wardrobe "was one of his many borrowings from E. Nesbit, one of Britain's favorite authors."
"The description of the wardrobe and the room and the world just beyond are almost direct borrowings from Nesbit's 'The Aunt and Amabel,'" Colbert said, "though, of course, Lewis' story quickly heads in another direction."
The debt to Nesbit is mentioned in passing by Mark Stibbe in his article "The Magic of Narnia
" (August 2006
), written for the British magazine Christianity
And then there's the wardrobe. For all Lewis's indebtedness to E. Nesbit's The Aunt and Amabel, this remains one of the most brilliant liminal images in children's fiction (one which lesser children's writers in our own time have sought but failed to emulate).
It seems that a lot of people have noticed the Nesbit wardrobe but can't entirely agree upon its degree of influence on Lewis. The influence looks rather strong to me, and I suppose that most of the writers above would agree to this general observation, but the details get complicated when dealing with writers as erudite as C.S. Lewis.
At any rate, Lewis's debt to Nesbit is interesting to consider, at least for me . . . and perhaps also for you if you've read this far.
Labels: C.S. Lewis, Literary Criticism, Narnia