Women of the West: True Femininity in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength
Perhaps one of the most striking things about That Hideous Strength in comparison with the other two books of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy is the large number of female characters. There are none in the first book (excepting poor Harry’s mother) and only the Green Lady in the second. But we have a long list of female characters who appear in the final installment. Jane Studdock, Mrs. Dimble, Camilla Denniston, Ivy Maggs, Grace Ironwood, Fairy Hardcastle-this list is just a few of the more prominent female characters we encounter. Why is this? Is there any significance to the sudden increase in number of women to grace the pages of Lewis’s novels?
One simple reason is that true femininity and true masculinity have both been major themes throughout the entire Trilogy and they both come into greater focus in this final installment. In Out of the Silent Planet, masculinity formed the background and atmosphere of the entire book. Mars, the god of war and quintessential male, gives the first book its setting and donegality1 In Perelandra, we see how the influence of Venus shapes the story. Venus, the goddess of beauty and pleasure, is the epitome of all true womanhood, glorious sweetness and wild fruitfulness. In these two books, we have been presented with striking pictures of true masculinity and femininity, deftly woven into the very fabric of the stories. Now, in the last book, we see how Mark and Jane Studdock are meant to be human versions and embodiments of these very characteristics. Belbury is at war with humanity, with everything that makes men true men and women true women. Is it any wonder that Lewis, in bringing this quarrel to earth, adds a number of women to the cast of characters?
The other way of looking at this theme goes back to Jane’s struggle. She struggles with accepting the biblical picture of femininity and everything that goes along with it. “Submission” and “obedience” in particular are abhorrent words to her, as they are to many women today. In her struggle, she is confronted with a number of examples of godly womanhood as well as examples of where the type of “independence” that she longs for ultimately leads. Lewis has been accused by many modern critics and readers of having misogynistic and sexist tendencies. One need only look more closely at the female characters that he writes in his fiction to clear these charges. But Lewis does not let his characters, male or female, get away with sin. He recognizes that there are certain sins that the different genders are more tempted towards. In an age where saying something like “men and women are different” is considered hate-speech, is it any wonder that someone like Lewis should be called names?
Lewis writes female characters as real people, with real strengths and weaknesses, with sins and successes, with glories and vices. He is adept at picturing what true, free, Christian women should look like, women who believe what the Bible says-about themselves, about the world, and about their place in the world. Mrs. Dimble is one such woman. Jane, in the beginning of the book, likes Mrs. Dimble but considers her with a sort of patronizing superiority. She has such “old-fashioned” notions about things (femininity and marriage in particular). And yet there is something comforting and solid and real about Mrs. Dimble that cannot help but draw Jane in. Mrs. Dimble is sharp, intuitive, and perceptive and she guesses at what plagues Jane before she herself knows it. As with many of the other women in the story, there is more to Mrs. Dimble than meets the eye.
When Jane first meets Camilla Denniston she is struck with an “almost passionate admiration which women, more often than is supposed, feel for other women whose beauty is not of their own type. It would be so nice, Jane thought, to be like that-so straight, so forthright, so valiant, so fit to be mounted on a horse, and so divinely tall.”2 This first impression is striking. Camilla, who we later find has a loving and strong relationship with her husband Arthur, is described in almost Martial terminology. Yet there is nothing more feminine. The softness of Venus is not the same thing as moral or spiritual weakness and physical limitations do not result in lesser worth. Women are, generally, physically weaker than men. This is part of their glory-the glory of being created for fruitfulness, for motherhood, for glory and beauty and an inner strength that surpasses musculature. This does not mean that physical strength cannot be a feminine characteristic, only that it will look different in a woman. Camilla is valiant and forthright, fit to be mounted on a horse. And yet she is very clearly feminine and, perhaps more surprisingly, she has a submissive and obedient attitude towards her husband.
In Grace Ironwood we have another example of a strong woman who has, perhaps, suffered more than we know. She is unmarried and, though there is no reason to suspect that she has romantic feeling towards Ransom, yet she gives him the respect and obedience that she would, in some ways, give to a husband. An interesting thing to note is the similarity in name between Grace Ironwood and Fairy Hardcastle. Both first names are feminine and fluid while their surnames contain something firm and unyielding (“iron” and “hard”) followed by an object (“wood” and “castle”). While not knowing how Lewis intended this similarity to be taken, he could not have been unaware of it. Lewis was a great lover of names and words and I don’t think this similarity could be an accident. Fairy Hardcastle and Grace Ironwood present two contrasting pictures of womanhood. Just as Belbury and St. Anne’s show us two completely different approaches to reality, humanity, and the physical realm, Grace and the Fairy show us how those two worldviews treat women. It can be so easy to see the word “submission” as destructive to women. To think that by emphasizing the differences between the genders we are somehow ranking them in order of importance. But differentiation does not imply superiority or inferiority. To say that this is not that is not the same thing as saying that this is somehow better than that.
Fairy Hardcastle is independent, masculine, brittle, and violent. She is coarse, rough, and unfeeling. The irony is that though she thinks she is in control and that she has the respect of the men around her, she is in fact just a tool in their hands. She is reprimanded when she acts outside her orders. She is kept on a leash, degraded and disrespected, seen only as a handy person to have around to get things done. She is, in reality, despised by even her associates. They don’t like the way she behaves or approve of her sadistic hobbies. Mark is at first impressed with her “devil-may-care” attitude. But it is soon obvious that she is just as much enslaved to the men of Belbury as Mark himself has become. It is not difficult to see how Fairy Hardcastle’s desires could have started out as very similar to Jane’s-to be her own person, to not have to submit to any man or obey any rule but her own. She wanted to be her own woman just as the people of Belbury want to be their own humanity. And, as with Belbury itself, the end result is that her womanly identity is stripped from her. None of the men around her see her as a woman at all. Having rejected her womanly calling, she is only a shell of a woman, a tool, used and discarded and uncared for by the men who really pull the strings.
There is very little that Grace Ironwood shares in common with Fairy Hardcastle. Perhaps the only characteristic is a stern exterior and a core of steel, though the Fairy is not consistent in her serious demeanor, often treating important matters flippantly. But Grace Ironwood has a calm serenity, a patience and inner strength without brittleness, that Hardcastle lacks entirely. Grace is loyal and devoted to Ransom. She respects him and submits to his wishes in the matters of the Company at St. Anne’s. As a result of this, she is respected and given a position of relative importance, being the first one to speak to Jane before she can be admitted to the Director. Grace is not soft where the Fairy is hard or suppressed where the Fairy is free. She is no such opposite and the comparison is much more nuanced. Grace is hard in a different way—in a feminine way. Grace is free, not to be a man, but to be a woman. She is free to be what she is. Fairy Hardcastle thinks she is free to be like a man and in the end all she can really be is a sad, broken, confused woman who has lost all of her humanity. In the end, she despises and rejects both true masculinity and true femininity.
When Jane meets Ransom for the first time, Lewis pulls out all of the stops on Solar imagery-he even uses the word “solar” itself to describe Ransom, in case we might have missed it. But why does he do this? Especially considering that this is a primarily Jovial book and that Ransom is taking up a distinctly Jovial role, why implement all of the Solar language when Jane first sees Ransom? The reason becomes clear when we consider that it is from Jane’s perspective that this language is used and so it is shaped by Jane’s character and struggles. Sol is the “all-worshipped male”-and Jane is struck, primarily, by all of the masculine glory that she had rejected by her wholesale rejection and disdain for everything masculine. She is reminded of the “imagined Arthur of her youth,”3 in a time before she became disillusioned. She is so overwhelmed, that she nearly (against her better judgment) surrenders. But she must learn to surrender and submit to her own husband. Just as, Ransom says, we all must submit to something infinitely more masculine than we can imagine. “The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine is relation to it.”4 Every Christian, man or woman, is part of the Church, the bride of Christ. And every wife submitting to her own husband in obedience to God is a tiny microcosm of this greater, mysterious relationship.
Rejection of the biblical definition of femininity is a rejection of the way that God has created the world and women in particular. This rejection does not lead to freedom, happiness, equality, or respect but is in fact the way of death and destruction. What most modern feminists call “equality” is in fact just “sameness” which is, simply put, impossible. In trying to make women like men, they only succeed in making women ugly and distorted. Fairy Hardcastle may not be representative of every woman who is trying to do this, but she is a picture of where this way of thinking ultimately leads. Women are not called to be men. Women are called to be true women of God, strong, fearless, valiant. Women who are strong enough to submit without fear, to obey our God without hesitation, and to stand firm on the Word of God and everything it has to say about women and true femininity. Women of the west who are unashamed of what God has created them to be.
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Christiana Hale graduated from New Saint Andrew’s College with a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Culture (2015) and with an M.A. in Theology & Letters (2017), and an MFA in Creative Writing (2022). She is the author of Deeper Heaven: A Reader’s Guide to C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, published by Roman Roads Press.
- “Donegality” is a word originally coined by Lewis but given a greater common usage by Dr. Michael Ward in his work in studying Lewis’s writings. It refers to the “atmosphere” of a story, that qualitative sense of place that certain books have and that helps to make one book “feel” different from another. Lewis uses the word in Spenser’s Images of Life: “Re-reading stories is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for…what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere—to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words; and in a similar way the taste for a narrative ‘world’ is difficult to talk about.” See Lewis, Spenser’s Images of Life (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1967), 115. ↩
- C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 61. ↩
- Ibid 140 ↩
- Ibid 313 ↩
Thank you for sharing this!
I enjoyed this essay. I found it via Google. I had mentioned “Diana figures” in Lewis to a former student and she ask who they were. I replied Reason in Pilgrim’s Regress, the early Susan, Orual, and “the other woman, not Jane Studdock in THS.” I had to flip through THS since I haven’t read it in thirty years, but found Camilla. My student approved of Reason and Orual and questioned Camilla. Hence my finding your fine study.
Great essay post. Is your undergrad thesis, The Jovial Pilgrim, available to share? It sounds very interesting.
Great and timely article. I am just finishing this awesome trilogy.
Hello! I am thankful to Christiana Hale for the “Strength” article. I recall having read Lewis’s trilogy as an undergrad in the late 60’s, and must say that of the three fascinating fictional treatises, the final one was, has been, and is in my opinion the most accurate and (on the surface) damning of the present state of humanity. I have a very worldly question (not usually found in literary blogs): Does anyone have a suggestion of how to best acquire multiple inexpensive paperback copies of “That Hideous Strength?” I wish to provide it to as many folks as I can, but (having raised my family, by God’s grace, on my income as a part-time English teacher all these years) my present financial resources are limited, as are those of most of us, blog-followers or not.
Ron, I don’t have a particular lead, but I would try contacting the publishers of one of the paperbacks, and see if you can place a wholesale order.
I’d long regarded Camilla as closely related to another Lewis horsewoman, REASON, in THE PILGRIM’S REGRESS – there was an extra resonance in the name – and of couse she bears the name of a heroic warrior woman in Virgil …
In the context of this superb article, I commend to your consideration “The Theology of Romantic Love: a Study in the Works of Charles Williams”, by Mary McDermot Shideler. Williams was a friend of Lewis and Tolkien. He had no degree, but was a member of the Inklings. A devout Christian, he was also Platonic mystic.
Thanks very much for your insights. Lewis scholars and followers are mounting an excellent defence of their man’s attitude to women. Just a couple of things to note. His friend Dorothy Sayers said he had ‘a complete blank’ when it came to writing women characters – she may well have been thinking of This Hideous Strength. You’ve had a good go at justifying Fairy Hardcastle, but she is a throughly nasty creation and not just in the way CSL intended, He also says in Surprised by Joy that the two things he dreads for his own species are ‘the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective’. He wasn’t a sexist. He did believe men’s primacy was divinely ordained.