The problem of Susan and divergent narratives
“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 you 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.”
I didn’t know there was a name for the absence of Susan Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’s seventh book in the Narnia Series, The Last Battle, until I read Neil Gaiman’s short story, “The Problem of Susan” (1). Gaiman imagines what might have happened to Susan after the events of The Last Battle discussed in the above passage: She lost all of her family and made a life for herself as a professor of literature who specialized in children’s fiction. Professor Hastings (Susan’s surname in the story) discusses her post-Narnia existence with a journalist who was frustrated with Susan’s being left alone: “You know, that used to make me so angry…All the other kids go off to Paradise, and Susan can’t go.”
She seems to be remembering. And then she says, “I doubt there was much opportunity for nylons and lipsticks after her family was killed. There certainly wasn’t for me. A little money—less than one might imagine—from her parents’ estate, to lodge and feed her. No luxuries…”
Narnia readers have pondered what Susan’s life might have looked like and why Lewis left Susan to mourn her family’s death in the train crash alone (2-5). I happened upon E. Jade Lomax’s Tumblr; Hark, the Empty Highways Calling; and loved reading the alternative narrative of “Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia” (6). It’s fascinating how Susan as a character has moved beyond Lewis’s original text, one that essentially writes her out of the narrative through the dialogue of others, to the readers’ minds.
Although he alludes to the traditionally feminine — nylons, lipstick, and invitations — I’m more interested in others’ perceptions of Susan pushing herself to become an adult. What does this mean in the context losing her belief in a literal Narnia? For me, Susan’s story becomes part of a conversation about what we do with doubt and the pressure to conform.
It seems that the women in this conversation diminish the everyday dramas of young women such as Susan. Polly calls Susan silly and thinks she’s wasting her time doing stereotypically feminine activities. Maybe Susan is finally enjoying her post-war girlhood or realized that no one outside her family would believe her Narnian adventures happened. Why is the twenties considered the silliest time of one’s life? Jill is critical of Susan’s behavior as well.
During this dialogue, I was reminded of Aslan’s reminder about respecting others’ internal narratives: “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own” (7). Susan has doubts about her time in Narnia and explains her memories away as childhood fantasies. She chooses to live in a world she can experience and in which she can find pleasure. She probably wanted to fit in with her party-attending, nylon-wearing girlfriends. Lewis wrote to a young reader inquiring about Susan’s fate , “There’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end… in her own way.” But I wonder if Susan could build a life for herself outside of Narnia as she remembers her leadership qualities as a queen in Narnia and enjoy her femininity as well.
Susan had her own story to tell. Maybe if her friends had asked Susan about the parties she’d attended, they could have partaken in her narrative and learned how she was becoming herself. The twenties can be a time for exploring one’s spiritual life as people ponder how childhood belief systems shaped their present thinking.
So dear readers, I’ll conclude this discussion with Lomax’s vision of Ms. Pevensie:
A lion told her to walk away, and she did. He forbade her magic, he forbade her her own kingdom, so she made her own. Susan Pevensie did not lose faith. She found it.
- The Problem of Susan: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/the-problem-of-susan
- For my Narnia-loving feminists: http://groupthink.jezebel.com/for-my-narnia-loving-feminists-1481086667
- In Defense of Susan Pevensie: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/09/in-defense-of-susan-pevensie.html
- Redeeming Susan Pevensie: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/08/13/redeeming-susan-pevensie/
- The Question of Susan: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2012/07/the-question-of-susan.html
- The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis