The Major and the Missionary: The Letters of Warren Hamilton Lewis and Blanche Biggs, edited by Diana Pavlac Glyer

As an inveterate letter writer (my e-mails all too often turn into epistles), I greeted the prospect of this collection from the Rabbit Room Press with great excitement. Not least because it promised a better acquaintance with the elder brother usually portrayed as living in C.S. Lewis’s long shadow.

And indeed, I did learn a great deal about the Major, who also served in WWI. For one, Warren Lewis was an author in his own rite having written a series of books on 17th-century France. An admittedly narrow niche, but Biggs, confessing she had expected to find the subject dry, wrote that Lewis’s treatment proved “excellent reading.”

Biggs, a medical missionary to Papua New Guinea, first wrote to Lewis after reading the collection of C.S. Lewis Letters he had edited. She was weighing possibilities for publishing her own expansive correspondence and solicited Lewis’s advice. This may suggest egocentrism on her part. But Biggs’s letters reveal her to be firm in her convictions, humble in her self-regard. She merely thought her observations throughout twenty years of service in a time of substantial change might hold interest for some.

Editor Glyer’s introduction to the volume so thoroughly summed up the points that most interested me that when it came to reading the letters themselves, I confess to finding them less engaging than they might otherwise have been. No doubt most letters are most treasured by those for whom they were intended.

Nevertheless, the thought of Glyer eagerly reading through the trove of papers in search of glimpses into personalities, individual insights, and personal quirks conjures an appealing image. (Almost sufficiently so to send me out to the garage, where decades’-worth of my mother-in-law’s diaries and correspondence are untidily archived in cardboard boxes.)

Apart from opening windows onto particular lives and places, The Major and the Missionary is a testimony to the gift of correspondence. To think that Biggs and Lewis wrote enough words to one another to constitute a book—or at least, half a book each. And yet they wrote for the sole benefit of the recipient on the other end. Which is not to deny that letter writers themselves benefit from the act of sorting their thoughts and setting them on paper, from burdens shared and bonds strengthened. It’s one of those gifts from which everyone benefits—even “eavesdroppers” removed by half a century or more.  

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