Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age

Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age: A Biography. Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Forest Row, Sussex: Temple Lodge, 2006. 352 pp. $45.00. ISBN-10: 1 902636 77 5; ISBN-13: 978 1902636 77 1.

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Reviewed by John D. Rateliff

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 161–64.]

This, the first full-length biography of the most neglected of the four major Inklings, is both welcome and a milestone long overdue. It’s been more than thirty years since the first major Lewis biography, by Green & Hooper, appeared [1974], since followed by Wilson [1990] and Sayer [1988], and almost as long since Carpenter’s authorized biography of Tolkien [1977]. A full-length biography of Charles Williams appeared almost a half-century ago [1959], although since superseded by Hadfield’s later book [1983], to which Lang-Sims’s memoir [1989] should be added to fill out the picture. Yet through all this we’ve been limited when it comes to Barfield-probably the most brilliant of all the Inklings and certainly the deepest thinker among them-either to passing references in works devoted to other topics, like Carpenter’s The Inklings [1979], or to brief autobiographical accounts by Barfield himself. Fortunately, with the publication of Simon Blaxland-de Lange’s Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age, this is no longer the case.

Blaxland-de Lange’s qualifications for undertaking the task are twofold. First, he was Barfield’s own choice as the person to write his biography, entrusted by Barfield with a mass of correspondence and other papers to which no previous writer has had access. Second, he is a fellow Anthroposophist, who can thus shine light on the dominant influence on Barfield’s life and thought, the massive impact of Rudolf Steiner, in ways impossible for any biographer who approached Barfield from an outsider’s perspective-it is as if Lewis for the first time were to be written about by someone who took his Christianity seriously. Furthermore, all previous books on Barfield have been from an Inklings-centric point of view. This has produced some excellent books, such as Leon Adey’s C.S. Lewis’s ‘Great War’ with Owen Barfield [1979] (on Barfield’s influence on Lewis) and Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light [1983] (on Barfield’s possible influence on Tolkien), but at the cost of looking at him as an ‘influence’ rather than in his own right-which is rather like writing about Coleridge only as a friend of Wordsworth, ignoring his own poetry and thought.

By contrast with such previous treatments, Blaxland-de Lange’s account emphasizes just how different Barfield was from his fellow Inklings, thus serving as a good reminder of the great diversity within that group that all too often gets glossed over in accounts that naturally focus on their commonalities. In fact, there comes a point mid-way through the book (at the end of Chapter 9; cf. pages 183-184) where Blaxland-de Lange explicitly advises those reading only because of an interest in Lewis et al. to stop, while beckoning those interested in Barfield himself to continue on. Although it’s good to have fair warning, readers who ignore this advice and read the whole of the book will be rewarded, since those chapters which follow contain much on Barfield worth knowing, including a detailed (forty-page) synopsis of his major work of fiction, the still-unpublished novel English People [circa 1930].

The book’s most surprising revelations, perhaps, are threefold. The first is the centrality of Anthroposophism (an early twentieth-century offshoot of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophism) in Barfield’s life. Barfield himself kept insisting on this, of course, but it has been so under-emphasized by previous writers that the degree to which it dominated his work and thought has been obscured. It would be fair to say that Anthroposophism and its teachings on the evolution of consciousness were just as important to Barfield’s life as his legendarium and invented languages were to Tolkien’s. The second is Blaxland-de Lange’s drawing attention to the sudden abrupt shifts in focus that marked Barfield’s career-from his early emphasis on poetry and literature, to his embracing of (and advocacy for) Anthroposophy, to a study of the law as he decided to make a career as a solicitor, to a mid-career immersion in economics, to his return to academia in retirement and second career in his later years as a visiting professor at American universities. Previous studies of Barfield have always stressed the continuity of his career; in contrast, Blaxland-de Lange points out the sudden breaks and shifts of focus where Barfield spent considerable time mastering a field only to more or less abandon it when his interests shifted. Third and most startling is Blaxland-de Lange’s account of the early breakdown of Barfield’s marriage, and the degree to which his conversion to Anthroposophy shortly after his marriage to Maud Douie permanently blighted their relationship. As Blaxland-de Lange tells the story, Maud seems to have considered that the brilliant poet and scholar she had just married was throwing his talent away and ruining his career in order to devote himself full-time to propagating the weird cult he had just joined, for which she had no sympathy whatsoever. If this is true, then it explains and gives poignancy to the loving yet bitterly estranged couples that appear again and again in Barfield’s work (e.g. The Mother of Pegasus, English People, Eager Spring). And just as surprising are the biographer’s revelation of two serious affairs, with Josephine Spence and Marguerite Lundgren (later Mrs. Cecil Harwood), which nearly led to second (or even third) marriages midway through Barfield’s long life.

Although it does provide a great deal of information never before available, and is worth reading for that reason alone, Blaxland-de Lange’s book does have its shortcomings. First and foremost, the book includes no Timeline, so the reader is often left in doubt about the exact date when events took place and their relation to other things going on in Barfield’s life at the time. Also, there is its eccentric organization. Rather than tell the story chronologically, Blaxland-de Lange begins with a long transcript from autobiographical interviews he conducted with Barfield in the latter’s extreme old age (he was ninety-seven at the time). The rest of the book is made up of a series of thematic chapters, each devoted to different topic-for example, one on Barfield’s friendship with Saul Bellows and another on that with C.S. Lewis; a third on his interest in Coleridge and another on Steiner’s teachings. The self-contained nature of each chapter allows the biographer to focus in on specific subjects, but also means that no unified picture of Barfield’s life is given by the biographer; the reader must construct one for himself or herself out of the materials provided. This being the case, readers should feel free to embrace this participatory concept and ignore Blaxland-de Lange’s sequence, reading the chapters in any order they please.

I must also say that Blaxland-de Lange’s portrayal of Barfield’s personality as stern, doctrinaire, and uncompromising (e.g. page 65) does not accord well with my personal memories of the man, either from our correspondence or our four meetings spread over a little more than a decade, nor with Barfield’s self-portrait and self-evaluation in the final chapter of This Ever-Diverse Pair, nor with Barfield as he appears in the various letters Blaxland-de Lange quotes in the course of his book. I should have said instead that he was courteous, indeed almost diffident in his eagerness to avoid confrontation or giving offense (cf. for example the letter to Saul Bellows on page 60). Finally, Blaxland-de Lange is no Tolkien or Inklings expert; his book twice refers to JRRT as “J.J.R. Tolkien” (pages 323 & 327) and once as “Tolkein” (page 352), and leaves the impression that the Inklings were co-founded by Barfield and Lewis in 1922, with Laurence Harwood as a member, and met until 1945 (pages x & 34)-dates that do not agree with the preponderance of evidence from other sources.

In conclusion, this is not the definitive authoritative authorized biography we have been waiting for, and it seems unlikely to add appreciably to the number of Barfield’s admirers. But all future work on Barfield will have to take Blaxland-de Lange’s book into account, not least because of the never-before-published material he draws upon. The “fit audience, though few” who already admire Barfield will find much of interest here, making this a welcome addition to the relatively small number of books about Barfield, worthy to stand on same shelf with Adey and Flieger.

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