CLOSE
istock (background)
istock (background)

12 Things You Might Not Know About The Screwtape Letters

istock (background)
istock (background)

C.S. Lewis’s most popular non-Narnia novel is a delicious, perceptive treatise on the weaknesses of human nature. Here are 12 little-known facts about The Screwtape Letters, its development, and its enduring impact.    

1. It Took Lewis A Little Over Six Months to Write All 31 Letters.

In July 1940, Lewis came up with the idea of a senior demon named Screwtape mailing trade secrets and frank pointers to his greenhorn nephew, Wormwood, who has been charged with corrupting a human soul. Inspired, the author worked at breakneck speed, frequently knocking out an entire letter in one sit-down session.

2. Originally, These Dispatches Ran as a Serial.

Having already submitted material to a now-defunct Anglican gazette called The Guardian, Lewis was in good standing with its editor, who released the first “Screwtape Letter” on May 2, 1941. Every week, another hellish correspondence would appear, until the last one hit the stands on November 28. Readers devoured them en masse, and before long, publisher Geoffrey Bles converted Lewis’ series into a book

3. The Newspaper Proceeds Helped a Charitable Cause.  

The Guardian offered Lewis two pounds per letter. Refusing payment, he insisted that a fund dedicated to the widows of Church of England clergymen receive this money instead.

4. One of the Human Characters Was Probably Based on a Woman Lewis Lived With.  

Lewis wasn’t the sort who would go back on a promise made to a fallen friend. In WWI, he and a comrade named Paddy Moore agreed that if either man should perish, the other would take care of his surviving parent (both had already lost one—Lewis’s mother succumbed to cancer in 1908). Paddy ultimately died on the French front, leaving Janie King Moore behind. After the war, Lewis moved in with and tended to her.    

The overbearing Mrs. Moore could be a very difficult person. Lewis’ older brother, Warren, was disgusted by her manipulative, “insincere” personality. “She … interfered constantly with his work,” Warren recalled, “and imposed upon him a heavy burden of minor domestic tasks.” In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ fiction clearly borrowed from his reality. Wormwood’s mortal “client” has an exacting mother who’s described as “a positive terror to hostesses and servants.” Almost every C.S. Lewis biographer under the sun believes that she was also, in fact, a caricature of Mrs. Moore. 

5. Some Readers Didn’t Understand That the Letters Were Satirical.  

During their run in The Guardian, one angry clergyman canceled his subscription. Evidently, this fellow mistook Screwtape for an actual (and terrible) theologian doling out sincere spiritual tips. The outraged church official wrote the editor to complain that “much of the advice given in these letters … [seems] not only erroneous but positively diabolical.”

6. The Author Didn’t Enjoy Writing Them.

“Of all my books,” Lewis admitted in a 1963 interview, “there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” He found The Screwtape Letters “dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life and decided to put them in the form ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” 

7. Their Success Prompted Lewis to Hire His Brother as an Aide.  

Screwtape’s newspaper premiere triggered a typhoon of fan mail. Since Lewis couldn’t keep pace with it all, the novelist asked Warren if he’d consider becoming his paid personal assistant. This turned out to be an excellent job for Warren, whose responses to these admirers were so clever and so well-composed that they could easily pass for his sibling’s handiwork. 

8. The Book Version Is Dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien, Who Didn’t Appreciate the Gesture.

Published in 1942, it turned into a runaway bestseller destined for eight reprints before the year’s end. Crack open any copy today, and you’ll find “To J.R.R. Tolkien” inside. But truth be told, Lewis’ longtime friend found the story disturbing. Plus, Tolkien knew just how little his colleague personally thought of it. It should come as no surprise, then, that he was less than thrilled with this particular shout-out.

9. Lewis Considered Writing a Companion Novel from An Angel’s Perspective.

At first, the concept of some new messages detailing “archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel” delighted Lewis. But his standards were too high and that project never took off. “Mere advice would be no good,” Lewis lamented, “every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.”

10. A Brief Sequel Appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. 

Lewis never penned another devilish letter, but when asked to do so by the Post, he did churn out a speech on behalf of his most sinister creation. In 1959's “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the demon gives a mealtime speech at the Tempter's Training College for Young Devils somewhere in Hell. Topics addressed include democracy, education, and—of course—religion. 

11. Multiple Authors Have Written Unofficial Follow-Ups.

A certain fiend opines on everything from gossip to pornography in Screwtape Writes Again (1975) by Martin Walter. Then there’s The Screwtape Email (2006): a self-explanatory postscript courtesy of Arthur H. Williams Jr. But perhaps the best-regarded of all is The Snakebite Letters: Devilishly Devious Secrets for Subverting Society as Taught in Tempter’s Training School  (1998) by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. “I’m sure Lewis wanted such ‘plagiarisms,’” proclaims Kreeft’s introduction. “The Screwtape Letters invented a new genre, a new species; all I’m doing is breeding another specimen.” 

12. Calvin and Hobbes Included a Recurring Player Named After Screwtape’s Nephew.

Bill Watterson has acknowledged that Miss Wormwood (Calvin’s long-suffering teacher) was named for the naïve tempter, “as a few readers have guessed.” Lewis himself probably borrowed the moniker from a Biblical star mentioned in Revelations 8:11.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Smart Shopping
12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
iStock
iStock

Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
Amazon

Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
Amazon

Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

Find It: Amazon

3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

Cover of Its All Relative
Simon & Schuster

What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

Find It: Amazon

5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

Find It: Amazon

6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
Amazon.com

An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
Amazon

At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
Amazon

A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

A book of the month club subscription box with gift trappings nearby
Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
literature
10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


Getty Images

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios