The Sorrows of Fathers and Sons

Thoughts from the Lives of C. S. Lewis and Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, was born in 1850 and raised in a Christian home in Scotland. His father was a civil engineer and brought up his only child to know and believe the Bible and the Shorter Catechism.

When Robert went to Edinburgh University, he left this childhood faith and never returned. He formed a club that had as one of its mottos, “Ignore everything that our parents taught us.” His father found this written on a piece of paper and was informed by Robert that he no longer believed in the Christian faith.

The father, in an overstatement that carries the weight of sorrow, not the precision of truth, said, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.”

Robert wrote to an unbelieving friend, “It was really pathetic to hear my father praying pointedly for me today at family worship, and to think the poor man’s supplications were addressed to nothing better able to hear and answer than the chandelier.”

The path would not be altered, nor the father’s sorrow. In the end, Robert pursued a married woman. She divorced her husband to marry him. Depression was not cured by alcohol. They sailed to the Samoan Islands in the South Seas, where Robert died suddenly at age 44 of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1894.

He wrote that “the sods cover us, and the worm that never dies, the conscience sleeps well at last, [and life is a] pilgrimage from nothing to nowhere.”

A son is not a father’s only life-investment, but there is none like it, and when it fails, there is no sorrow like this sorrow.

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Four years after the death of Robert Louis Stevenson, another literary giant, C. S. Lewis, was born. His story of unbelief has a happier ending, but his relationship with his father was especially painful for his father Albert.

His mother Florence had died of cancer when Lewis was 9. His father did not remarry. There were ample defects on both sides—father and son. But the wounding of the son was more conscious and almost brutal.

By the time Lewis was 20 in 1919, he was, to his father’s dismay, an avowed atheist. That Summer, in fact, he was probably in a sexual affair with a woman old enough to be his mother and living off his father’s money at Oxford University, and lying to him about it all.

Albert wrote in his journal about the breakdown in his relationship with his younger son, and one explosive encounter in particular when he discovered that the young man had lied to him about his bank account:

He said he had no respect for me—nor confidence in me.... That all my love and devotion and self-sacrifice should have come to this—that he doesn’t respect me. That he doesn’t trust me.... I have during the past four weeks passed through one of the most miserable periods of my life—in many respects the most miserable....  The loss of Jack’s affection, if it be permanent, is irreparable and leaves me very miserable and heart sore.

Albert dared mention this pain a few months later in a letter to his son, and received back a remorseless response in which the son explained how his previous bluntness was beneficial:

As regards the other matter of which you spoke in your letters...I am sure you will agree with me that the confidence and affection which we both desire are more likely to be restored by honest effort on both sides and toleration—such as is always necessary between imperfect human creatures—than by any answer of mine which was not perfectly sincere.

Some truth there, but no contrition.

Amazingly, both Stevenson’s and Lewis’s fathers kept on sending stipends to their sons through the years of rejection. In spite of words like, “I am simply incapable of cohabiting any house with my father” (Stevenson); and, “I really can’t face him” (Lewis), the fathers kept supporting their sons.

Six years after his father’s death, Lewis wrote to a friend to catch him up on the last decade: “My father is dead.... I have deep regrets about all my relations with my father (but thank God they were best at the end). I am going bald. I am a Christian.”

Perhaps sending money through the broken years was the right thing to do. Perhaps not. What it shows is not approval, nor that the sorrow had disappeared. Rather, it reveals a kind of bond between fathers and sons that is the foundation of pain, not its removal.

[My biographical sources are Iain Murray, The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain (2009); and Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (2006).]