Surprisingly, it seems that I've not previously published a post on Susan, and more specifically the passage in The Last Battle on which so many people hang their own issues with Lewis:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“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 now-a-days 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.”So a few thoughts here.
First, these are the thoughts and reflections of other human characters -- neither Aslan himself nor an omniscient narrator. They can be taken with a grain of salt, as they are filtered through the characters' ordinary human knowledge and perceptions. I would also note that the three who share their opinions are not Susan's siblings, who presumably know her best, since they have known her the longest and actually traveled to Narnia with her.*
Second, we are not told Susan's fate -- not by the narrator, not by Aslan, not even guessingly by her siblings and friends or anyone else. As far as we know, she is still alive when Lewis draws the Chronicles of Narnia to an end. We have no reason to assume she is damned. Indeed, Lewis's other works suggest that we cannot possibly know if someone who is still alive is or will be damned.
For example, in parts IV-VI of chapter 16 of That Hideous Strength, we see the final moments of Wither, Feverstone, and Frost, each of whom are damned. Yet Lewis makes clear this is a moral choice, even though it may seem inexorable at the moment of choosing. Thus, in chapter 16, part IV:
[Wither] had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.And then in part VI, Frost (who has deliberately rejected free will and all of reality as an illusion) finds himself going to a garage and locking himself in irrevocably with "all the inflammables he could think of." His bodily fate is sealed, but even now, at the bitterest of ends, he is given awareness of moral choice and a chance of salvation:
That tiresome illusion, his consciousness, was screaming in protest: his body, even had he wished, had no power to attend to those screams. Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul--nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was hardly fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes trolls and turns them into unchangeable stone.Nor is this an anomaly in Lewis's writings; we see him explore similar ideas in The Great Divorce.
Third, the core concern about Susan's non-friendship with Narnia, as explained by Eustace, is clearly her dismissal and outright denial of something she knows, from personal experience, to be factually true. Although she has been there many times, she now pretends it was just "funny games" and quite literally child's play. She even claims -- by praising the others' "wonderful memories" -- to barely remember it. All this, even though she has personally spoken with Aslan and received counsel from him, has personally seen Aslan voluntarily suffer humiliation, torture, and death to save her treacherous brother Edmund, and has rejoiced and romped with him in his glorious resurrection and triumph over forces of evil.
Now we can see that the comments of Jill and Polly, which follow, explain their view of why Susan has turned away from Narnia.
People often take Jill's reference to "nylons and lipstick" (in conjunction with the reference to Susan being "too keen on being grown-up") as code for adult female sexuality; a form of metonymy, if you will. Such readers or critics apparently assume that being grown-up and a sexual female results in Susan being cast out of Narnia.** Of course, as we have already seen, Susan has chosen -- at this time -- to turn away from Narnia, but we do not know her ultimate fate.
(a) Is Sex Bad?
But we might still ask: does Lewis have a problem with sex and/or sexually active females? Here, I think it's helpful to notice how sexuality takes center stage in That Hideous Strength. Among the good guys, in chapter 14, part II, Jane Studdock and Margaret Dimble prepare the marital bed for two spouses who will soon be reunited, and we see the scene from Jane's modern, non-Christian*** perspective:
In Mrs. Dimble's hands the task of airing the little house and making the bed for Ivy Maggs and her jail-bird husband became something between a game and a ritual. It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamions--age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth. It was an atmosphere extraordinarily alien to that in which she had grown up. A few weeks ago she would have disliked it. Was there not something absurd about that stiff, twinkling archaic world--the mixture of prudery and sensuality, the stylised ardours of the groom and the conventional bashfulness of the bride, the religious sanction, the permitted salacities of fescennine song, and the suggestion that everyone except the principals might be expected to be rather tipsy? How had the human race ever come to imprison in such a ceremony the most unceremonious thing in the world? But she was no longer sure of her reaction. What she was sure of was the dividing line that included Mother Dimble in that world and left her outside. Mother Dimble, for all her nineteenth-century propriety, or perhaps because of it, struck her this afternoon as being herself an archaic person. At every moment she seemed to join hands with some solemn yet roguish company of busy old women who had been tucking young lovers into beds since the world began with an incongruous mixture of nods and winks and blessings and tears--quite impossible old women in ruffs or wimples who would be making Shakespearean jokes about codpieces and cuckoldry at one moment and kneeling devoutly at altars the next. It was very odd: for, of course, as far as their conversation was concerned the difference between them was reversed. Jane, in a literary argument, could have talked about codpieces with great sang-froid, while Mother Dimble was an Edwardian lady who would simply have ignored such a subject out of existence if any modernised booby had been so unfortunate as to raise it in her presence.In Chapter 16, part VI, the humans comment as bears, jackdaws, horses, and other animals start to pair off. It is the agnostic bachelor MacPhee -- rather than the married Christian Mrs. Dimble or the bachelor Christian Ransom -- who is least comfortable with the increasingly inescapable signs of the animals' mating urges:
"Another love affair," said Mrs. Dimble. "It sounds as if Jack had found a Jill. . . . What a delicious night!" [...] "This," said MacPhee with great emphasis, "is becoming indecent!"
"On the contrary," said Ransom, "decent, in the old sense, decens, fitting, is just what she is. Venus herself is over St. Anne's."Indeed, Ransom soon blesses not only the new ursine mates, but also the humans, as Ivy Maggs is finally reunited with her husband:
"[...] Now, Ivy, you want to go and talk to Tom. Mother Dimble has put you both in the little room half-way up the stairs, not in the lodge, after all."
"Oh, sir," said Ivy, and stopped. The Director leaned forward and laid his hand on her head. "Of course you want to go," he said. "Why, he's hardly had time to see you in your new dress yet. Have you no kisses to give him?" he said, and kissed her. "Then give him mine, which are not mine but by derivation. Don't cry. You are a good woman. Go and heal this man. Urendi Maleldil--we shall meet again."So Ransom strongly hints here that the healing Ivy will offer Tom is both sexual in nature -- he will admire her new dress and receive kisses from her -- and most emphatically good.
Soon, there is a tremendous tumult outside -- "an ear-splitting noise from beyond the window" -- as a pair of elephants begin their courtship. Again, it is MacPhee who is uncomfortable with this and wishes to draw the curtains as "there are ladies present." Grace Ironwood sharply contradicts him:
"No," said Grace Ironwood in a voice as strong as his, "there will be nothing unfit for anyone to see. Draw them wider.[...]"Likewise, birds, bats, mice, and hedgehogs are all apparently driven to copulate, and Ransom implicitly blesses them. As his time on earth is waning, Jane asks if she may stay with him "to the very end." He instead gently tells her she should not stay because she is being "waited for":
"Me, sir?"Indeed, That Hideous Strength ends with Jane and Mark about to reunite, and with the hint that things will be very different between them -- that they, too, will find the eros and love that has formerly somehow eluded them.
"Yes. Your husband is waiting for you in the lodge. It was your own marriage chamber that you prepared. Should you not go to him?"
"Must I go now?"
"If you leave the decision with me, it is now that I would send you."
"Then I will go, sir. But--but--am I a bear or a hedgehog?"
"More. But not less. Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead. Urendi Maleldil."
There is nothing here to suggest a view that sex is bad, unwholesome, or in any way associated with evil. Indeed, it is one of the evil-aligned characters, Professor Filostrato, who speaks against sex, and explains his opposition (ch. 8, part III):
"What are you driving at, Professor?" said Gould. "After all we are organisms ourselves."
"I grant it. That is the point. In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. [...] We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course; slowly we learn how. [...] Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation."
"I don't think that would be much fun," said Winter.
"My friend, you have already separated the Fun, as you call it, from the fertility. The Fun itself begins to pass away. Bah! I know that is not what you think. But look at your English women. Six out of ten are frigid are they not? You see? Nature herself begins to throw away the anachronism. When she has quite thrown it away, then real civilisation becomes possible. You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable."So there is something about the sexual impulse which, in the bad guys' view, makes humans "ungovernable," resistant to outside control or domination.
Again, I think these views toward sex are consistent with what we see in The Great Divorce. I'm thinking in particular of the episode involving the tormenting "little red lizard" of lust which is – with the Ghost's very reluctant and agonized permission – killed, and immediately resurrected into "the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold." MacDonald, as teacher and guide, characterizes this stallion as the "richness and energy of desire."
(b) What Might "Nylons and Lipstick" Refer To, Then, if Not Female Sexuality?
Initially, we should notice the phrase is "nylons and lipstick and invitations" -- not just nylons and lipstick. The word "invitations" here suggests an interest in being invited to parties where people get dressed up, or at least social events of some kind where one can see and be seen.
Next, we should notice that Jill claims Susan is "interested in nothing now-a-days except" those three things. The problem, then is not necessarily having an interest in those things, but being exclusively interested in those things, at the expense of everything else -- especially the things that matter most. We might also suspect that Jill is exaggerating somewhat; for example, presumably Susan has at least a sufficient interest in eating to keep herself alive. That is, she is really pointing to Susan's over-prioritizing these things; it's question of mistaken priorities.
Is Jill's diagnosis that Susan "always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up" correct? That is, are we to accept that "nylons and lipstick and invitations" necessarily stand for "being grown-up"?
Well, no -- not according to Polly, who stresses Susan's immaturity:
“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.”What is Polly getting at here? She claims Susan "wasted" her childhood wanting to be a young adult, and thus raced on to the "silliest time of one's life." (There is perhaps a subtle implication that this longing may have caused her to neglect her studies and not get as much out of her "school time" as she might.) What is the nature of such adult silliness? Well, for a male-specific version, we might turn to The Magician's Nephew (ch. 6):
Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind. At this moment Uncle Andrew was beginning to be silly in a very grown-up way. [...] "Andrew, my boy," he said to himself as he looked in the glass, "you're a devilish well-preserved fellow for your age. A distinguished-looking man, sir." [¶] You see, the foolish old man was actually beginning to imagine the Witch would fall in love with him. The two drinks probably had something to do with it, and so had his best clothes. But he was, in any case, as vain as a peacock; that was why he had become a Magician.So here, grown-up silliness seems to involve vanity -- a preoccupation with one's physical appearance and attractiveness, and a desire to be admired for these superficial qualities.
All in all, it appears to me that the phase Susan is in, the one that Polly considers "the silliest time of one's life," is young adulthood. I would agree that this phase is characterized by a preoccupation with superficial matters such as one's physical appearance (here, nylons and lipstick) and popularity (here, invitations). And it is not at all unusual for immature young men and women to strive desperately to appear "grown-up" -- perhaps taking up smoking or drinking or other "adult" activities, which mature adults might enjoy in moderation or even do without, since they know their status as grown-ups does not depend on such things.
Would this work for a male character? I say yes. Men too, especially in young adulthood, may be preoccupied with superficial matters such as their physical appearance (perhaps symbolized by pomade and cummerbunds, or close-fitting jeans, or over-attention to curating their facial hair) and popularity (whether invitations, or getting to various "bases" with the ladies). And if they race to that stage and seek to linger there, rather than maturing, I think they should likewise be held up for scorn at their silliness.
But again, I don't think we have to credit Polly's prediction that Susan will "waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age." Who knows what Susan will do and what she will choose, over time? Indeed, the death of her siblings in a train wreck might be quite sobering in and of itself. But even without that, she might well outgrow her focus on transitory and superficial things -- life has a way of doing that, as one learns to balance the siren call of pleasure with the practical necessities of paying bills. Or perhaps she will -- like many men and women in real life -- find deeper meaning in love, a career, children, or intellectual pursuits.
In sum, Susan Pevensie's story is not written, and we will never know what would have happened. It is deliberately left open, like the fate of the Entwives, and I think that those who condemn Lewis for this are not seeing what he wrote, but are instead bringing their own prejudices to bear.
* Then again, Jill and Eustace have actually met Tirian before and had adventures with him over the course of the book. So perhaps it's not surprising they'd speak up.
** Of course, in one sense, everyone is cast out of Narnia in The Last Battle, since Narnia itself comes to an end. But heaven contains all worlds as they should have been, including Narnia. Or, to be more precise, the Narnia they have known "was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world." (ch. 15, Digory speaking)
*** In That Hideous Strength, ch. 15, part IV, we learn "Jane had abandoned Christianity in early childhood, along with her belief in fairies and Santa Claus."