Rivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.
Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.
When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.
The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.
Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.
Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.
I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.