For years I have been fascinated and enthralled by the love story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is not a typical one, not one that would set most young hearts a flutter, but I’ve always found it beautiful. When they met for the first time in person in 1952, Lewis was already in his mid-fifties, a confirmed bachelor with no intention to marry, an established professor at Oxford, and a world-famous Christian author. Joy Davidman Gresham was a Jewish American, fifteen years younger than Lewis, former Communist, Christian convert, who was (unhappily) married, with two young sons. She was a poet and accomplished writer in her own right, though life circumstances perhaps prevented her from achieving the full potential of her intellect. Lewis and Joy had begun a correspondence when Joy and her first husband, Bill Gresham, converted to Christianity and were seeking guidance. This relationship in letters allowed for a depth of communication on an intellectual level that both Joy and Lewis must have been craving their entire lives, a matching of wits of two unique and brilliant minds.
To severely abbreviate a story with many complicated motivations and circumstances: just a few months after returning from her first trip to England, in 1953 Joy moved to England permanently with her two boys, and it wasn’t long after that she obtained a divorce from her first husband, partly so that he could marry Joy’s cousin with whom he had been having an affair during Joy’s first trip abroad. Lewis and Joy by then had established a genuine friendship, having found in each other true intellectual equals. When Joy was facing deportation back to America, the two entered into a civil marriage so that she and her sons would be able to remain in England. However, when Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after that, it did not take Lewis long to realize exactly what she had come to mean to him. Almost a year after their civil marriage, they were married sacramentally by a priest at Joy’s hospital bed.
At this time, Joy’s body was riddled by cancer, mostly in her bones. She was unable to move or leave her hospital bed; she was not expected to live more than a few months. Lewis prayed. As they had become one flesh in sacramental marriage, he begged God that he be allowed to take Joy’s suffering on himself. Miraculously, Joy’s cancer went into remission and she was able to leave the hospital and move into Lewis’ home, known as the Kilns. At the same time that the cancer in Joy’s bones was arrested, Lewis suddenly developed osteoporosis; as his bones became weaker, hers became stronger. God had heard Lewis’ prayers, and the lovers were given a reprieve of nearly three years together.
I have been a C.S. Lewis enthusiast for years. I grew up on the stories of Narnia, of course, but after becoming a Christian in my mid-20s is when I really started to dive into the rest of his work. I’ve read the Narnia books a number of times as an adult now, I’ve read his science-fiction Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and most of his non-fiction Christian apologetic books and essays. I have several collections of his letters. I even managed to track down a copy of Boxen, the animal stories that he had written as a young child.
So yeah, I am a bit of a Lewis fangirl.
However, it’s only in the last few years that I have become increasingly curious about the woman who captured his mind and heart so completely. Though, if I am being honest, it was really the influence that she had on some of my favorites of Lewis’ books that began to draw me to her. Till We Have Faces is one of Lewis’ lesser known books, and yet I personally think it is one of his best. A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, it’s unlike any of his other work, whether fiction or non-fiction, and according to several sources close to Lewis at the time, Joy should probably have been given a co-author credit. The book has depth and nuances and an understanding of the female mind that simply aren’t found in Lewis’ other work. The themes of all the different aspects of love, possessive and ugly as well as selfless and beautiful, are so rich and varied, and it’s only as I’ve come to know more about Joy and her life that I can fully appreciate the influence she must have had on Lewis, not only on his work but on his life. He would also write his book The Four Loves after Joy was firmly ensconced in his life and in his mind.
Reading the biography Joy by Abigail Santamaria was an interesting experience. Joy Davidman was not a particularly lovable person on the surface. She seems to have been universally described by those who met her as egotistical, abrasive, physically unattractive, and rude. In fact, she was greatly disliked by the majority of Lewis’ social circle, with the notable exception of his brother, Warnie, who from his letters and diary seems to have doted on her and loved her easily as his own sister. Reading in the biography about Joy’s atheist and Communist days, how she was taken in by one of L. Ron Hubbard’s (the creator of Scientology) schemes, her rather neglectful attitude towards mothering, her general lack of prudence or forethought, at times it was very difficult for me to find anything appealing or very sympathetic about her. But I kept reading, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became by her. She was a complicated woman, in her life and in her very soul. There is no doubt that she was exceptionally brilliant, described as a child prodigy, but suffered a dearth of familial support and affection for the majority of her life, which must have left a great many emotional wounds and insecurities. She was not perfect, but then neither was Lewis. In his book A Grief Observed, which he published under a pseudonym from his journaling after Joy’s death, he readily admits they were, “A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients not yet cured.” Neither of them had many illusions about the world by they time they came together, nor would they have had many illusions about each other. Their marriage began with death hanging on the doorstep; there was no point in pretense or false faces at that point, and there certainly wouldn’t have been any energy for it. They were both all in and, though there was a great deal more sickness than health, they managed to make more good times than bad.
Reading Lewis’ firsthand account of his own grief after her death, there can be no doubt of the strength and sincerity of their love. Seeing her through his eyes, it becomes easy to love Joy as he did. Especially in those final years, where every moment must have felt like it was stolen from death, they seem to have reveled and marveled at each other and the bliss of that marital love.
We are often impatient waiting for the things that we want most in life: love, marriage, family, a fulfilling career and meaningful life purpose. We make our own plans and get frustrated if they don’t out the way that we wanted or expected. Lewis had to wait over half a century to meet the love of his life, and even then was only given a handful of years with her, but I think he was okay with that deal and would have taken that over never having met her at all. We don’t always know or understand God’s plans for our lives, but the story He writes for each of us will still be infinitely better than what we might attempt to write for ourselves. We just have to remember to give Him the pen.