The Search for C.S. Lewis's Unlikely Wife
Joy Davidman is best known today for her brief and tragic marriage to C. S. Lewis, a story immortalized in the Academy Award-winning film Shadowlands and the Broadway play of the same title. As ably portrayed by Debra Winger in her Oscar-nominated performance, Joy was a feisty Jewish divorced single mother from the Bronx. Lewis, 17 years her senior, was a lifelong confirmed bachelor, contentedly uninterested in romance until Joy toppled his emotional ramparts and won the heart of the Oxford don who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia and was arguably the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century. They exchanged vows at her hospital bedside after a devastating diagnosis of metastasized breast cancer. Joy spent her final days dying in the arms of her most unlikely husband.
Shadowlands was all I knew about Joy until, as a New Yorker rocked by the events of September 11, 2001, I found myself struggling to reconcile God and suffering. Having benefited from Lewis’s spiritual wisdom in the past, I again turned to him for insight. I picked up A Grief Observed, his raw, deeply personal confession of anguish and crisis of faith in the weeks following his wife’s death. Lewis’s profound esteem for Joy intrigued me and moved me enormously. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he writes. “Passion, tenderness, and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure . . . of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as [Joy’s] lover.” She had filled every nook, said Lewis, of his heart, body, and mind.
What stunned me most, however, was his brokenness. I had recently read Lewis’s Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, two nonfiction books in which he builds masterful cases for Christian tenets and dissects the purposes of pain without letting emotion muddle principle. Rife with logic and certainty, these texts speak to the parts of us that desire reason to override feelings. In contrast, the author of A Grief Observed is shattered, gripped by the power and primacy of emotion. I drew solace from the fact that this man whose faith I profoundly admired had responded to tragedy with the same reasonable questions: Where was God? And how could He? Like Lewis, I was skirting a danger more disturbing to me than ceasing to believe in God. “The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’” he explains, “but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’” Without compromising his Christianity, Lewis laments like a modern psalmist, keening in prose, shaking his fist in outrage at God.
Who was this woman whose loss so ravaged the man whom I, and millions of others, admire for his rock-solid faith? What were the forces that shaped her intellect and personality, driving these two disparate characters together? A basic search made me hungrier to know more. I learned that Joy was born during the Great War and came of age during the Great Depression. She joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) during the turbulent 1930s and wrote her way into the red-hot spotlight of New York City’s literary left. As the nation tumbled toward a second world war, she made a name for herself fighting fascism on the page, participating in rallies and symposiums alongside some of the most eminent voices of the century.
I wanted to know more about her career, and about her troubled first marriage to the charismatic war veteran William Lindsay Gresham; about how she captivated the heart of C. S. Lewis; and about her influence on several of his finest books—Surprised by Joy, Till We Have Faces, The Four Loves. Contrary to what many assume, Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is not about the woman who edited its final draft and would become his wife two years after its publication. But it still has everything to do with what brought them together. Both Joy and Lewis longed, all their lives, for a spiritual realm that transcended both the beauty and the quotidian sting of earthly existence. I was intrigued by the spiritual journey that led this daughter of eastern European Jewish immigrants on a journey through Marxism and agnosticism, culminating in Christianity.
Everything I read about Joy left me wishing for a more thorough look at her pre-Lewis years, and a more balanced treatment of her story. Most accounts of her life seemed glazed with a kind of hero worship, perhaps meant to counterbalance disparaging characterizations by many of Lewis’s Oxford friends. But Lewis, a Christian for whom humility was a way of life, would have eschewed the rose-colored-glasses approach. “[Joy] was a splendid thing,” he writes in A Grief Observed, “a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured.” I was intensely curious about the authentic human struggles behind the popular romanticization.
When I contacted Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, he put me in touch with a cousin, Susan Davidman Cleveland, Joy’s niece and the daughter of Joy’s only brother, Howard. Susan graciously invited me to Massachusetts to view and photocopy boxes of family papers, including a trove of Joy’s childhood photos, and letters written to and from her, her parents, and her brother. No one outside the family had ever seen this material. It was a biographer’s bliss. Susan connected me with her mother, Howard’s first wife, Ruth. She had known Joy well, often spending weekends during the war with Joy and Bill Gresham while Howard was stationed overseas. When we first spoke, Ruth expressed hesitation about being interviewed. On the one hand, no one had ever interviewed her, and she was eager to “set the record straight” about a certain defining period of Joy’s life. On the other hand, she was concerned that I wouldn’t believe her.
The account Ruth disputed is presented consistently across Lewis biographies and Shadowlands. The salient segment goes like this: fleeing her abusive marriage to the philandering, alcoholic Bill Gresham, Joy moved her two small sons to England, where postwar living was cheaper. This version is consistent with what Joy herself told Lewis, his brother Warnie, and their friends Chad and Eva Walsh. But it’s not exactly true, Ruth said.
Ruth wanted to know if I was another C. S. Lewis fan out to perpetuate the “myth.” I assured her that my sole objective was to write a fair, accurate portrait of Joy based on reliable evidence; that I did not intend to idealize or demonize anyone; that I would be profoundly grateful to hear her memories; and that I would listen with an open mind. Ruth agreed to meet with me, and I began visiting regularly with my tape recorder and a few slices from the pizzeria around the corner.
Nevertheless, I was skeptical about Ruth’s version. Certainly I couldn’t accept the word of one person over a scholarly historical consensus. But as my research mounted, a pattern began to emerge: the majority of people I interviewed agreed with Ruth’s account. Some of these people had been interviewed in the past, but the parts of their stories that didn’t jibe with traditional accounts had not been reported. Over and over, I found myself repeating the promises I’d made to Ruth.
In the end it was Joy herself who cleared things up. One early December morning several years into my research, I was on my way out the door when the phone rang. On the other end was the now familiar baritone of Joy’s son Douglas Gresham. “Are you sitting down?” he asked with urgency.
Douglas was in the Oxford home of Jean Wakeman, Joy’s closest friend in England. Jean had spent many convivial evenings with Joy and Jack (as Lewis was known to friends) during Joy’s last years. In the decades following Lewis’s death in 1963, scholars had flocked to interview Jean. By the time I came around, Jean had decisively stopped speaking publicly, declining even Douglas’s petition on my behalf. She was frail, her memory slipping, and she felt she’d said all there was to say.
One of the questions I wanted to ask had been posed to her for more years than I had been alive: Did she have any of Joy’s papers? Documents, manuscript drafts, letters? The Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, a research collection of materials by and about seven British authors including Lewis, held a few letters from Joy to friends, plus hundreds of letters between her and Bill Gresham, nearly all of which were written after their separation. Letters from the intense correspondence Joy initiated with Lewis three years before leaving Bill have never been found. My scouring of other archival repositories across the country unearthed many letters Joy wrote to friends and colleagues. But I hoped to find more. I desperately wanted not only additional information but also material that would guide me through Joy’s internal world, especially the spiritual journey that defined her life.
Some speculated that Joy’s papers had been consigned to a pyre that Lewis’s brother built on their estate, the Kilns. Drunk and despondent in the wake of his brother’s death, Warnie instructed the Kilns’ caretaker, Fred Paxford, to burn manuscripts, diaries, and unknown other treasures. Lewis’s secretary, Walter Hooper, managed to rescue enough to fill two suitcases just hours before they were to be destroyed, but Joy’s things were not among them.
Reliable sources told me that Jean once claimed to have saved boxes of Joy’s papers but had thrown them out after they got wet and moldy in a flood. I suspected she knew more than she let on, and I hoped someday to earn her trust. But in the months before Douglas’s phone call, Jean’s health rapidly declined. When it became clear that she would never live alone again, he took on the task of cleaning out her house—which is what he was doing when he rang me that December morning.
“I am now looking at a cardboard box filled to the brim with my mother’s papers. Hundreds of poems, dozens of short stories, her oath of allegiance to the queen. A letter . . .” He began to read from one: “Dear Jack, here are some sonnets you may care to read.”
Douglas told me that he would carry the papers back to his home in Malta, where I could see them. Three weeks later I was on a plane. I spent most of my four days in Malta hovering over a copy machine in the cramped stockroom of an office supply shop, delicately peeling rusted paper clips off crumbling sheets and photocopying over 1,500 precious pages. No treasure trove of letters to or from Lewis emerged, but other materials were invaluable. There were college essays and unpublished short stories dating to 1927, when Joy was twelve; her marriage certificate to Lewis; her checkbook from her dying years, with “Wingfield Hospital” and the word “Help!” poignantly scrawled in a memo line.
The copying was so time-consuming that I didn’t have a chance to pause and read. One night, though, I couldn’t sleep. The heat had stopped working, and I shivered under my blankets, tossing and turning for hours. Eventually I got up, padded barefoot across the cold tiled floor, selected a bulging beige file folder from the cardboard box, and brought it back to bed. That file in particular had intrigued me; across its cover, in capital letters, Joy had written the word Courage. Inside were dozens of poems dating from the mid 1930s through 1956, four years before her death; some were drafts of published work I’d seen, but others were new to me—including passionate sonnets, fraught with infatuation and unrequited love. Many were dated during the final miserable years of her marriage to Bill, though he didn’t seem to be the man she referred to in her verses as “Sir” and “my lord.” My heart beat faster as I turned the pages. There was a reference to Oxford. Joy expressed heartbreak over rejection. And finally, the object of her desire became clear. “You have my heart, he has my bed,” Joy typed in one poem; and in the margin, in her handwriting, “In a moment of insight, for CSL.”
As I read on, I found further confirmation in an acrostic for Clive Staples Lewis, and mentions of “Jack.” The dates and content of the poems made it clear that she had fallen in love with Lewis during her first marriage and went to England to pursue him. A new batch of letters between Joy and Bill confirmed that although Bill was no innocent victim, history has indeed judged him too harshly. Though Joy’s feelings for Jack evolved into an indisputably mutual and profoundly rich love, her crusade to win his heart was clearly a more convoluted venture than has previously been acknowledged.
And then, huddled under my blankets, I came across a prediction Joy made: “I have wrenched sonnets out of my great pain . . . / For unknown followers to find . . . / Some woman who is cold / In bed may use my words to keep her warm / Some future night, and so recall my name.” I was no longer freezing, but I shivered. I had not set out to unearth the particular realities I discovered behind the Shadowlands tale; they were imparted to me, first in the memories of those I interviewed, and finally in Joy’s own words. She left them to be found: she was giving me her blessing.