hose of us for whom the literary legacy of C.S. Lewis is a much-loved treasure can enhance our appreciation of his life and work if we learn a bit about Belfast, Northern Ireland, the land of his birth. The windows of our understanding of how his life was shaped by place can be opened by revisiting specific significant locations.
C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898. There are few weeks in a year that I do not drive along Dundela Avenue where he was born. And I even more frequently pass by the house, named Little Lea by Lewis’s father, to which his family moved in 1905. This house is on Circular Road in Belfast, and for several years I lived just a few houses away. Even now I live only a short distance from Little Lea. My awareness of the former Lewis house is partly a simple consequence of where I live, especially in relation to my daughter’s home on Circular Road. I also frequently lead tour groups to the locations in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland that have associations with Lewis and his family. Little Lea is a significant stop on these tours. In addition, I give talks about C.S. Lewis to a wide range of groups. These activities provide opportunities for me to describe the house, the site’s significant events, and how these events shaped Lewis’s life. Each time I see the house, I’m reminded of aspects of his life, of things he said about them, and of things he said in consequence that have the potential to influence our lives, even decades after his death.
Little Lea occupies a large lot on Circular Road. Lewis tells us in Surprised by Joy that his father chose the site mainly for the view. In 1905 the Lewises had an uninterrupted view from their front door over the wide fields to Belfast Lough, to the Antrim Shore and the distant skyline of the mountain peaks: Divis, Colin, and the Cave Hill. Writing in 1955, Lewis describes the house as “a large one, even by my present standards.”1
Today, although some aspects of the view might be altered slightly, not much else has changed. Little Lea still occupies a location characterized by the calm maturity of a leafy city suburb. The road is arched by tall trees, with girth to match their years. In summer when the leaves are heavy, it is almost tunnel-like. Around the garden, the tall hedges have thickened to secure the privacy of the site. The posts of the electrically operated, wrought-iron security gates feature the words Little Lea and Private. The driveway winds from the road, flanked by colorful floral borders along the well-kept lawns, and leads around to the front of the house. It is the epitome of all that is calm, mature, and secure.
Shortly after Lewis’s family moved to the new house, his brother, Warren, was sent off to school in England. At Little Lea, Lewis’s mother taught him French and Latin and a local teacher, Annie Harper, taught him the remaining curriculum. His lasting memories of these years, 1905–1908, revolve around his mother, Annie Harper, and members of the extended family and household who were on hand for conversation. He remembers the solitude he enjoyed in the large gardens and in the spacious attics. He also remembers having unrestricted access to all his father’s books. It was in Little Lea that Lewis began his education. His first book, Boxen,2 although not published during his lifetime, took shape there, and there he wrote his first poems.
Next page »