How Joy Davidman Altered My View of C. S. Lewis

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A new biography of C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy, has altered my perception of Lewis himself.

This is not the first time that my view of someone has shifted based on the story of their spouse. A. W. Tozer’s wife’s comments about her husband made me wonder how a man so passionately devoted to God would be so cold and distant to his wife. Read enough about G. K. Chesterton’s wife, and you come to realize that Gilbert’s brilliant mind was set loose while he lived almost like a child dependent upon Frances.

The relationship between C. S. Lewis and Joy has always been a fascinating story, as the movie Shadowlands realized, even if that portrayal was inaccurate at various points. But until recently, I’ve never read a biography on the life and legacy of Joy Davidman in her own right, apart from her husband. Abigail Santamaria’s well-researched volume shines light on their relationship. I spent some time talking about Joy in This Is Our Time, because I found her journey so fascinating.

First, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Joy’s life was just as exciting as Lewis’s. Here was a woman who pursued truth, a woman willing to go anywhere and do anything to find love and fulfillment. Her journey begins with her Jewish roots, moves into depression-era urban life, where she saw economic destruction wreak havoc on families, which led to her full-blown captivation with Communism (Soviet-style), and eventually atheism. Her tumultuous marriage to Bill Gresham endured his numerous infidelities and the barely-scraping-by lifestyle of two talented, but not always in-demand writers. Just as Joy fell for Communism, she also fell for Ron Hubbard’s cult of Dianetics that became Scientology, a flirtation with Hubbard’s followers that persisted well past her conversion to Christianity. Lyle Dorsett’s And God Came In tells her story based on first-person testimony from those who knew her well.

Knowing what I knew of Joy from biographies of C. S. Lewis, I expected to find a woman who jumped headfirst into any and every belief she had. But Santamaria’s biography shows that Joy’s fascination with Lewis began well before her marriage to Gresham had ended. In fact, through recently discovered letters and poems and writings, we get the impression that Joy drove the final nails in the coffin of her marriage in order to free herself up for Lewis romantically. How else do you explain Joy’s decision to go by herself to England while leaving her husband in the same house with another woman? Joy was not only maneuvering a way into Lewis’s life; she seemed intent on making sure there would be a woman in her husband’s life as well.

The plan backfired. Even though there was no accidental meeting, and even though Joy was a strong-willed woman who carefully manipulated situations in order to maximize the possibility that she would win the heart of this bachelor writer with whom she had found such an affinity, the plan failed. Joy lost her marriage well before she won Lewis’s heart.

For his part, Lewis enjoyed Joy’s company. But he saw her as a sparring partner, not as a lover. Never is there a hint of impropriety, and even when Lewis arranged to marry Joy in a civil ceremony to keep her sons in England, there is no indication that the two acted indecently. Just how much Lewis knew of Joy’s machinations is impossible to surmise, but it is clear that there were indeed machinations to know of!

Strikingly, when Lewis later wrote Joy’s ex-husband about the past, he did not take Joy’s side. Instead, he claimed that he could not adjudicate between the two regarding whose fault the divorce was. This is surprising, considering that Lewis was deeply in love with Joy at this time and surely knew of Gresham’s infidelities and abusive language. But love, at least at this point, was not blind. Lewis knew Joy well enough to see that her portrayal of life with Gresham was one-sided and not always accurate.

The final days of Joy’s life—her battle with cancer, her brief year of remission, before the cancer returned with a vengeance— are the days most familiar to Lewis fans. We know from A Grief Observed how devastated Lewis was by her death. We know from biographies of Lewis how strong their love was toward the end. But it’s those early days, those years leading up to Lewis’s falling for Joy, that were unknown to me.

And now, I have an altered view of Lewis. I still see him as something akin to a wise patron saint of thoughtful evangelicals. But now I also see him as a quirky bachelor whose profundity of thought did not prevent a certain naïveté in personal relationship. That he did not see or fully understand the extent of Joy’s movement toward him stands out to me. One cannot fault him for not knowing all of her intentions, but one wonders how he could be oblivious to how Joy was using him. Even more, the new biography helps me see that the objections of his friends were not ill-founded complaints from grumpy old men who didn’t want the intrusion of this woman into their exclusive club. Instead, they likely saw the situation as it really was and resented Joy for taking Lewis on a ride he didn’t know he was on, at least at first.

Still, God brought good out of this partnership. One can hardly imagine Lewis’s later output, including his masterpiece Till We Have Faces, without Joy’s influence. Santamaria’s portrayal of Joy helps us understand how God used even a woman’s schemes and a man’s naïveté to bring about lasting repentance, true hope, and literary excellence.

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