Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Book Review: Joy: Poet, Seeker and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis

When I returned from Rome in May I received a surprise package of books (a great way to start the summer!). Among the titles was an ample biography of Joy Davidman, better known as Joy Gresham or (as the subtitle notes) “the Woman Who Capitivated C. S. Lewis.” My previous awareness of her was through the movie Shadowlands and through Lewis' heart-rending A Grief Observed written after her untimely death. My impression of her from these sources couldn't have been farther from the truth—but, as I learned from the biography, that impression had in some ways been carefully crafted by Joy herself.

The woman who would marry the presumedly confirmed bachelor would not have been on anyone's short list of prospects for Lewis. He was born into a Christian culture; her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, children who grew up in New York slums. He was a professor in the most established of establishments: the tradition-bound Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; she, though quite well-educated (able read Greek and deeply familiar with the ancient classics) was a radical sometime Communist Party member. He was a (presumably) contented bachelor; she was the mother of two, who, frustrated in her marriage, would set off for England with the express aim of making Lewis her husband. (It would take long enough that the pair enjoyed only a scant three—or four, if you count their civil ceremony—years of married life before Joy died of cancer.)

And yet Joy Davidman was truly a match for C. S. Lewis. Their correspondence began, in fact, after Joy and her first husband, Bill Gresham, became convinced of the truth of Christianity in part because of Lewis' books. (Joy and her sons were baptized sometime around 1948; she was 33.) The pair's first letter (in 1949) made an impression on Lewis and by January mention of Joy's letters show up in the diary of Lewis' brother and housemate Warnie: “she stood out … by her amusing and well-written letters.”

Lewis was delighted to meet an intellectual sparring partner equal to the role. After she had been in England for some time, he invited her (more likely she offered) to assist him in the editorial work of book-writing, and suddenly a stubborn case of writer's block was overcome . A new series of books came pouring out: Surprised by Joy (this "Joy" is not his newfound helpmate; the title is from Wordsworth); The Four Loves; Till We Have Faces. Lewis began bringing Joy to the gatherings of The Inklings, little noticing that the writers in his circle did not appreciate the brash American female as much as he himself did. I found myself wondering: was it Lewis' dawning infatuation with her that blinded him, or was he introducing Joy as a worthy “Inkling” in her own right? (Probably both!)

There is no need for me to tell you the whole story. Until she finally “Captivated the Heart of C. S. Lewis,” Joy seems to have lived an erratic search, compromised by a lack of self-restraint and of appreciation for virtue. She was calculating and could be abrasive, and put herself and her immediate needs or desires in first place. Yet she was also honest, unashamed to admit her mistakes — for example, about her blind enthusiasm for the Soviet Union or her adoption of Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics." She  followed the truth when she managed to recognize it. Suffice it to say that Joy Davidman was, as the subtitle of the book says, a “Seeker.”

Despite the uncomfortable incidents of "TMI" in some of the selections from Joy's letters concerning her personal life, I recommend this book to any who are interested in the life and writings of C. S. Lewis or American literary life in the first part of the 20th century.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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