Her story has all the makings of a melancholy fairy tale: award-winning poet and brilliant writer caught in a disastrous marriage flees to England and meets the world-renowned author she has been pen-friends with since first reading his books. Following her divorce, they marry and enjoy four years of bliss until her death from cancer in 1960.
C.S. Lewis’s fame has made this story a well-known part of Christian lore, but Joy Davidman’s identity as a writer is less well-known. Lewis scholar Don W. King has honored the literary legacy of Mrs. Lewis in Yet One More Spring in which the spotlight is on Joy’s writing, including a collection of recently discovered manuscripts from the home of a family friend. King’s chronological study of both published and unpublished works chronicles Joy’s journey from secular Judaism to atheism and Communism, and finally to Christianity. It documents her growth as a writer, while also tracking her relationship with C.S. Lewis and her influence upon his writings.
Even as a young atheist, Joy Davidman demonstrated a subconscious interest in religious matters. Injustices that she observed drew her into Communism, eventually writing “proletarian literature” for a magazine and cranking out movie and book reviews with the tone of an Old Testament prophet. She was ahead of her time in calling out the movie industry on its demeaning portrayal of women. Stalin’s World War II alignment with Hitler started Davidman on the path of disillusionment with The Party, which, ironically, was helped along by her reading of the works of Marx and Lenin. Her troubled marriage to Bill Gresham escalated her realization of her need for Christ, and her reading of C.S. Lewis’s books led to the conversion of “the world’s most astonished atheist.”
Development as a Writer
From her earliest days, Joy Davidman wrote with intensity of emotion, often about romantic love:
This is the way to keep your soul from me;
Let the sweet lure and the entangled guile
Crumble before your tolerant clear smile;
And let your cold and lovely honesty
With my semblance made of shallow glass
Read my desires of you as they pass.
Writing poetry for college publications and political diatribes for the Communist Party gave way to a mundane adjustment to rejection slips and the pressure of having to make a living with her words. Her first novel, Anya, was published in 1940 to mixed reviews, but a second novel (published a decade later) seemed to sacrifice art in the interest of propaganda as she attempted to incorporate her new faith into the narrative flow. When Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, unearthed a collection of love sonnets written to C.S. Lewis over a period of years, he brought to light a treasure that demonstrated the full range of her powers as an author.
Relationship with and Literary Influence upon C.S. Lewis
As Lewis’s brother Warnie would later say, Joy “appeared in the mail as just another American fan” on January 10, 1950. It was her amusing and well-written letters that sorted her out from the pile, and it became clear that Joy had fallen for Lewis even before they had met. When her husband’s infidelity put the final nail in the coffin of their already unstable marriage, Joy sailed for England with the idea that the economy there would stretch her child support checks further in the raising of her two boys. Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments was published in 1954 and marked the beginning of literary cross-pollination between C.S.Lewis and Joy. She cites his books nearly a dozen times and he was active in the editing process. Joy’s beautiful prose is on display:
” . . . we are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasure; he is fun and light and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him.”
However, King’s assessment is that the book was likely written more “because of Davidman’s need to make money than because of deep spiritual convictions.”
In fact, King seems to reserve his highest esteem for Joy’s collection of love sonnets, citing them as a “breathtaking” record of the roller coaster of emotion that accompanied her love for and frustration with C.S. Lewis as he was sorting out his own feelings for her.
“There was a man who found a naked tree
Sleeping in winter woods, and brought her home,
And tended her a month in charity
Until she woke, and filled his quiet room
With petals like a storm of sliver light,
Bursting, blazing, blended all of pearl
And moonshine; he, in wonder and delight,
Patted her magic boughs and said: Good girl.
Thereafter, still obedient to the summer,
The tree worked at her trade, until behold
A summer miracle of red and gold,
Apples of the Hesperides upon her,
Sweeter than Eden and its vanished bowers . . .
He said: No, no, I only wanted flowers.”
In huge, sweeping gusts of rage, self-pity, and devotion, Joy adores “the accidental beauty of his face,” while also portraying her future husband in decidedly unflattering terms for his indecisive non-committal air. His ultimate commitment to Joy (in both senses of the word?) may have come as a response to these sonnets for it is almost certain that he saw them at some point prior to their civil marriage, or at least by the time of Joy’s devastating cancer diagnosis.
At this point in Joy’s life, writing gave way to survival, perhaps revealing her truest gift of all, for in brainstorming ideas together with Lewis, she stated: “whatever my talents as an independent writer, my real gift is as a sort of editor-collaborator . . . and I’m happiest when I’m doing something like that.”
And so the happiness of collaboration rolled through some of Lewis’s best-loved works which bore the fingerprints of his wife. By the time Lewis had penned Surprised by Joy, he had read Joy’s essay about her own conversion experience “The Longest Way Round” in which she also comes to faith “kicking and screaming,” cites Invictus, alludes to imagery from “The Hound of Heaven,” and references the writing of George MacDonald. As Joy typed and edited Lewis’s work, the exquisite characterization of Orual in Til We Have Faces (my personal favorite of all Lewis’s books) took on her intensely feminine perspective. Reflections on the Psalms is a treatment of Old Testament literature in a colloquial style that mirrors the approach of Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain.
Ironically, after Joy’s death, Lewis’s memoir of loss, A Grief Observed, comes forth in the raw emotion that characterized Joy’s writing. He describes their marriage as a time that “surpassed in happiness all the rest of my life,” and in a fitting tribute to all the love and the loss, he closes a love poem to Joy with words that would bring joy to the heart of any lover:
“The pains you give me are more precious than all other gain.”
This was Joy Davidman’s gift to C.S. Lewis, and in return, she also found happiness and love — and was introduced to “the eternal Lover who took the initiative and fell in love with us.”
This book was provided by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in exchange for my review. 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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