A Fresh Look at Joy Davidman


When you are three quarters of the way through Abigail Santamaria’s new book Joy, a biography of the American poet and wife of C.S. Lewis Joy Davidman, you will understand why JRR Tolkien disliked Lewis’s wife so intensely. Though the book is a largely sympathetic portrayal, Santamaria doesn’t shy away from Joy’s flaws—and those flaws were not trivial. One brief example should suffice.

In the spring of 1952, Davidman made plans to visit England for several months in hopes of seducing C.S. Lewis, an author whose books she admired and with whom she had developed an epistolary friendship. In the spring of 1952, she was also still married to an American writer named Bill Gresham and had two young boys that she was about to leave with a man who had long-term struggles with alcoholism and mental health issues.

Prior to leaving, Davidman arranged for her recently divorced cousin Renee to come stay with her husband, who had already been divorced once before, and the kids as a kind of surrogate mother. She almost certainly was trying to sabotage her own marriage in order to give herself grounds for divorce so that she would be free to pursue Lewis. The first part of the plan worked. While she was abroad, Renee and Bill began an affair. Unfortunately for Davidman, Lewis rejected her initial overtures and so she returned home, chastened and perhaps hoping to save a marriage that she herself had helped to damage beyond repair. The attempt failed and the marriage ended a couple years later in divorce.

If your primary knowledge of Davidman prior to reading this book came from the film Shadowlands or reading Lewis’s A Grief Observed, some of these revelations will be quite disturbing. In this book we meet a Joy who could be cruel and selfish, a Joy who seems to take an almost perverse delight in needling and berating Bill for being a poor provider while also going out and spending extravagant amounts of money on unnecessary purchases. We meet a Joy who is sometimes a very poor mother who sees her two sons as obstacles to her literary aspirations. If you do not know much about Davidman beyond the popular portrayal, this will all be quite alarming.

And yet in a way it is not surprising, for Joy is in many ways a female version of Lewis. Like Joy, Lewis had a dark past. Joy probably slept with a college professor while still in her teens; Lewis carried on a long-term affair with his dead best friend’s mother that probably ended shortly after his conversion to Christianity. Joy could be cruel to her husband in letters; Lewis could be the same way to his father. If you ever wish to be relieved of a kind of starry-eyed image of Lewis, you need only read the letters he wrote as a young man to his father.

But the similarities do not stop at the bad. Their redemptions take a similar shape as well. For all their lives, both Davidman and Lewis had a deeply held dream of a place that was idyllic, peaceful, and beautiful. Lewis’s dreams began with Boxen, a kind of precursor to Narnia that he and his brother Warnie imagined as children. For Joy that dream was Fairy Land, a similar world dreamed up when she was a child. (Santamaria was able to speak with one of Joy’s childhood friends so her’s is easily the most thorough account available of Davidman’s often difficult childhood.)

From there, Lewis and Davidman took somewhat different paths. Joy simply changed what she identified with the dream of Fairy Land—first a literary career, then the Communist Party, then Bill, then a brief flirtation with scientology in its early days, and finally Lewis himself and the English ideals he represented to her. (One of the things that becomes quite apparent as you read Davidman’s letters quoted in the book is how desperately Davidman wanted her boys to be English rather than American.) For Lewis those dreams were somewhat buried for a time under his hard materialism, although they lived on in his love for northern European literature, as much as he would have hated to admit it. He would only allow the dreams to fully return after his conversion.

What ultimately began to knit them together was the literary expression of that longing as it was realized in Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces which Santamaria says was almost co-written by Davidman. Indeed, Santamaria’s account of the novel’s coming together is fascinating and, I believe, something that has not been reported before. According to Santamaria, Lewis was going through a literary dry spell in the early 1950s and spoke of that struggle with Joy. He mentioned to her that he had always been fascinated by the myth of Cupid and Psyche, at which point Joy encouraged him to try writing his version of it, something Lewis had himself considered several times. With Joy’s encouragement and help, he began to write and the book came together quickly as both Lewis and Davidman saw themselves in the novel’s protagonist, Orual.

What makes Santamaria’s account so enjoyable is how she demonstrates the way that both Lewis and Davidman were transformed by their relationship, perhaps beginning in their identification with Orual. The transformative effect Davidman had on Lewis is well known, but Lewis’s effect on her has not been discussed as much. According to multiple friends, Lewis had a pacifying effect on his wife. Joy had always been prone to bouts of anger and, though more stable than Bill, had often struggled with her own nervousness and insecurities dating back to her domineering and sometimes physically abusive parents. But after Lewis we meet a calmer Joy, though one still well capable of the “abrasiveness” that Tolkien found so repellant. After her recovery from cancer, “Mrs. Lewis” became notorious around Oxford for using a shotgun to chase off young boys stealing from her gardens. In one particular incident Davidman charged out of the house thus armed, Lewis hot on her heels. Once she stopped, Lewis darted in front of her, prompting Joy to shout “God damn it, Jack. Get out of my line of fire!”

In addition to becoming calmer (relatively speaking), the post-Lewis Joy also became gentler toward Bill and seems to have become less vain in her own literary aspirations. She still wrote, of course, and if Till We Have Faces is any measure of her work she did some of her finest writing after beginning her romance with Lewis. But the sort of ladder-climbing that saw her abandon her children to pass time in London salons largely disappears in her final days. Indeed, in one telling scene Davidman attended Lewis’s inaugural lecture after being appointed to a professorship at Cambridge but was content to sit in the crowd and watch, feeling no need to announce her presence—something that would have been unimaginable for a younger Joy Davidman.

In his book The Four Loves, a book which itself was inspired largely by his marriage to Davidman, Lewis says that in a group of friends losing one friend always means losing more than just the one friend. You also lose the parts of all the other members of the group that only that friend could draw out. That idea perhaps explains the beauty of this book better than any other. The popular picture of Davidman is a badly incomplete one, but then so is our understanding of her exceedingly complex husband who is a far more difficult man to understand than one might imagine based on the hagiographic treatment he often receives. Tolkien himself once told a student of Lewis’s that you would “never get to the bottom” of C.S. Lewis. Santamaria’s book has given us a more complete and faithful picture of Joy Davidman and that is a lovely and helpful thing. But by helping us understand Joy better, the author has also opened up Lewis in new ways. A biography that manages such a feat for one person is remarkable enough, but to do it for two is rare indeed.

[The image, entitled “Psyche’s Wedding,” is courtesy of Edward Burne-Jones via Wikipedia. The image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Wikipedia takes the position that it is in the public domain, and no changes were made to the image. The use of this image does not imply the creator endorses Fare Forward or the image’s use]

Jake Meador

Jake Meador lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and three children. He is an editor at Fare Forward and editor-in-chief and lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy. You can find him on Twitter at @jake_meador.