And now, finally, we come to Susan. Why is it that people have taken a few paragraphs – in a book in which she doesn’t actually appear – to represent not only her entire character, but Lewis’s attitude toward femininity, maturity, and sex? I could say what I think, but it’d probably be rude.
The simple truth is that from the beginning of the books, from the first words she speaks, Lewis makes it clear that she has a false idea of maturity and what it entails. First she says she thinks the Professor is an ‘old dear’ (more the words of a middle aged woman than a girl) and then that it’s time for Edmund to go to bed. He calls her out in both instances for ‘trying to talk like Mother.’ The next day she tells him to stop grumbling, tries to redirect him, tells Lucy to stop being silly after her first trip through the wardrobe, and generally talks as though she thinks she’s their mother. And they call her on it. The clincher is that when the Professor says that Lucy may be telling the truth about Narnia’s existence, Susan ‘had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like’ that. She can’t imagine an adult accepting the possible existence of worlds other than the one she inhabits. She has a very shallow, false idea of what it means to be grown up, and rather than being herself she tries to act that part.
Now, don’t think that I imagine Susan to be a negative character. On the contrary, she has many admirable qualities. She is kind and gentle and thoughtful – Queen Susan the Gentle. She is very sensible and practical, evidenced by her suggestion that they wear the coats from the wardrobe. She shows courage in going with the others even though she’s frightened after they find Tumnus’s wrecked house. She stands by Aslan in his death. She uses her bow and arrow to rescue Trumpkin. But when it comes to Lewisian femininity, she is immature. She allows her fear to keep her from trust – from being open to Aslan and his calling on her life.
When she acts and speaks like their mother, it seems she’s trying to control the situation. It’s war time and they’ve been separated from their parents and sent to a strange place in the country. So she tries to control what she can – trying to keep the other kids in line, keep them from quarrelling, be the mother she’s missing. In Narnia she is initially willing to explore, but when it gets dangerous she wants to go back. As I said, she is courageous; she recognizes what’s right and is willing to go along with the others in spite of her fear. But her first instinct is to shrink from danger. When she hears that Aslan is a lion, she asks if he’s safe. She consistently shrinks from opportunity when it seems dangerous. She clings to safety. And that is the opposite of having open hands.
This clinging to safety and to her own idea of what it means to be grown up is nowhere more clear than in those much-bandied paragraphs in The Last Battle. I’ll go ahead and quote the full text.
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
She’s STILL talking as though she’s the mother and they’re the children – ‘Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’ And according to Jill, she’s only interested in ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations.’ That is Susan’s idea of what it means to be grown up. That’s what Philip Pullman takes as indicating that Lewis was afraid of letting Susan grow up. But is that really what it means to be grown up -by any adult’s estimation? Was that what Pullman thought it takes for a woman to be grown up? Or is it what he thought Lewis thought it meant to be grown up?
I don’t know what he was thinking. Fortunately, however, Lewis was a prolific author and his idea of maturity is evident everywhere. I’ve written before about Ransom’s growth in the trilogy – in accepting God’s will and obeying it, in charity, and in protectiveness. In contrast, I think Susan provides a clear example of what Lewis saw as childishness. That’s why Polly – a truly mature woman – says that she wishes Susan would grow up – and the emphasis is Lewis’s. The whole point of the conversation is to point out that Susan is immature – she is so immature that she doesn’t even know what real maturity is. She is so immature that she thinks wearing lipstick and going to parties is the epitome of grown-up-ness. She thinks that people can’t be grown up and believe in what they can’t see. And Lewis’s point is that she’s wrong. Narnia exists. Truly mature people – Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy – can see it; can accept it with open hands and open hearts, no matter what world they are in currently. Susan’s hands are not open to Aslan and Narnia because she is clinging to her false ideal of mature femininity – to a refusal to believe in what she cannot see, and to a culturally based idea of femininity as ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations.’
Something else I love about Polly’s statement is that her wish for Susan has a good chance of coming true. Susan had been looking forward to the age of lipstick and nylons and invitations and now she is trying to stay there. But tragedy has a way of maturing people. Edmund’s selfish childishness led to his betrayal of his siblings and capture by the White Witch, and that led to his forgiveness and rapid spiritual growth. Susan will stay in her world of parties as long as she can – but she probably won’t be able to stay in that world long after the death of her parents and siblings. She has been exposed to the air of Narnia and we can hope that the tragedy of losing her parents and siblings will be the catalyst that propels her to real growth. A hint of that possibility is given by Peter immediately after the conversation quoted above. He points out fruit trees nearby and suggests that they taste them. As fruitfulness is a key component of Lewisian femininity, this may – emphasis on the may – indicate that Lewis wanted to leave open the possibility that Susan would taste the fruit of feminine growth. I had to go check the letters – as I still haven’t gotten to the time he was writing about Narnia – and I found this! ‘I could not write that story myself. Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country, but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write. But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?’ (letter dated February 19, 1960) So Lewis seems to have imagined that Susan would have eventually entered Aslan’s country – but as she was never to re-enter Narnia, it would have been a contemporary novel rather than children’s fantasy and he had no interest in writing that kind of story. Come to think of it, that’s about the only kind of story he didn’t write! It’s such a lovely comfort to imagine that Susan would have eventually truly grown up. Somebody needs to write that book!
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