Academic journal article Mythlore

The Anatomy of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Ruth Pitter and C. S. Lewis, 1946-1962

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Anatomy of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Ruth Pitter and C. S. Lewis, 1946-1962

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) is not well known, her credentials as a poet are extensive, and in England from the mid 1930s to the mid 1970s she maintained a modest yet loyal readership. In total she produced eighteen volumes of new and collected verse. (2) Her A Trophy of Arms (1936) won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937, and in 1954 she was awarded the William E. Heinemann Award for The Ermine (1953). Most notably, perhaps, she became the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955; this unprecedented event merited a personal audience with the queen. Furthermore, from 1946 to 1972 she was often a guest on BBC radio programs, and from 1956 to 1960 she appeared regularly on the BBC's The Brains Trust, one of the first television "talk" programs; her thoughtful comments on the wide range of issues discussed by the panelists were a favorite among viewers. In 1974 The Royal Society of Literature elected her to its highest honor, a Companion of Literature, and in 1979 she received her last national award when she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire. (3)

Pitter, in spite of this modest literary fame, had to earn her living as an artisan and worked very hard in order to make ends meet. She and her life-long friend, Kathleen O'Hara, operated Deane and Forester, a small firm that specialized in decorative furniture; often she worked twelve hour days, six days a week. Yet she was a voluminous letter writer. Her correspondents are a "Who's Who" of twentieth-century British literary luminaries, including A. R. Orage, Hilaire Belloc, Marianne Moore, Walter de la Mare, Julian Huxley, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Masefield, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Herbert Palmer, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, Siegfried Sassoon, Lawrence Whistler, Virginia Sackville-West, Lord David Cecil, Roy Campbell, AE (George Russell), John Gawsworth, Constance Sitwell, Arthur W. Russell, Hallam Tennyson, Stephan Tennant, Evelyn Waugh, John Wain, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, Kathleen Raine, and Australian Nettie Palmer. Of particular interest is her correspondence with C. S. Lewis. His letters and her journal recollections (with one exception her letters to Lewis have not survived) reveal the two shared a deep love for poetry. (4) However, they corresponded about other things as well. This essay surveys the correspondence between Pitter and Lewis (as well her correspondence to others about Lewis) and explores the intriguing nature of the friendship that developed.

Pitter first became aware of Lewis through their mutual friend, Lord David Cecil. On Feb. 1, 1941, Cecil writes Pitter: "I shared [your poetry] with C. S. Lewis the teacher of literature at Magdalen here & a very remarkable man--he wrote a book on medieval romance called The Allegory of Love, which is a superb piece of vital, vivid criticism--& he was deeply struck & went off to buy your poems." (5) On April 16, 1941, Pitter writes Cecil: "I am much interested and honoured by what you tell me of C. S. Lewis. I shall indeed like to have his book [The Allegory of Love]." (6) A year later he adds: "Did I tell you C. S. Lewis of Magdalen College is far the most brilliant English Literature man in Oxford, admired your work so earnestly when I showed him" (Summer 1942?). In spite of Cecil's comments about how Lewis appreciated Pitter's poetry, she only becomes excited about Lewis later after she acquires and reads The Screwtape Letters; she writes Cecil: "I found the book which has excited me more than anything has done for a long time--"The Screwtape Letters" [...] I do hope you have read it. He must be a phoenix; it says in the book that he is a Fellow, I forget of which college, but am nearly sure it is an Oxford one, so very likely you know him. I have actually bought the book" (July 13, 1942). Shortly after this, she heard his BBC radio broadcasts (later published as Mere Christianity). While she was brought up in a nominal Christian family, her own faith only became energized after hearing Lewis on the radio. …

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