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C.S. Lewis eventually finds joy

Letters shed new light on two authors in love

Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. Don W. King, editor. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 387 pages. Hardbound. $28. 2009.
Fans of the play and movie Shadowlands will welcome the opportunity to get better acquainted with Joy Davidman, the American divorcee who became the wife of the influential English author and Christian writer C.S. Lewis. Davidman, the heroine of those productions, comes through in this collection of her letters as a woman of substantial intellect and a gifted writer. And, while there are no letters of consequence between her and Lewis, this collection does shed light on their relationship.
In 1936, at the age of 21, Davidman already held both B.A. and M.A degrees and was active in literary circles in New York City. In the initial letters of this collection, the youthful writer receives encouragement for her poetry from the distinguished American author, Stephen Vincent Benet. In 1938 her volume of poetry, Letter to a Comrade, was published and won both the Yale Younger Poets Award and a major national award for poetry given by the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
As the title of her first work indicates, Davidman had joined some other young intellectuals during the Great Depression years in becoming a member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. From 1938 to 1946, she served as an associate editor of the party’s magazine New Masses. In that capacity she served as poetry editor; contributed her own poetry; and reviewed books, movies, and theater productions.
In correspondence with potential contributors to the magazine and in her own reviews, Davidman exhibited both an incisive mind and a sharp tongue. She consistently advised would-be poets to keep their writing “simple” and accessible to the working classes, and she assailed leading poets of the day, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, for being obscure. She referred to Pound as “the disgusting idiot” and “Mussolini’s kept poet.”
The letters chronicle what editor Don W. King describes as her “religious, philosophical and intellectual journey from secular Judaism to atheism to Communism to Christianity.”
A slow transformation
By the mid-1940s, Davidman’s love affair with communism had come to an end. During a crisis in her married life, she had what she described in a letter to writer William Rose Benet in 1948 as a “direct and shattering experience of God.”
In her subsequent in-depth study of Vladimir Lenin’s Materialism, she told Benet, she discovered that “Marxism was philosophically nonsensical, logically unsound, historically arbitrary, and scientifically half fake from the start and the other half overthrown by Einstein’s first work.”
Davidman had begun reading books by Lewis in 1947 and, in an autobiographical essay published in 1951 and reprinted in the current collection of letters, she said she went back to him “and learned from him, slowly, how I had gone wrong. Without his works, I wonder if I and many others might still be infants ‘crying in the night.’”
In her study of religions at this time, Davidman wrote, “… only one of them had a complete understanding of the grace and repentance and charity that had come to me from God. And the Redeemer who had made himself known, whose personality I would have recognized among ten thousand — well, when I read the New Testament, I recognized him. He was Jesus.”
The converted Christian began corresponding with Lewis in 1950, and arranged to have lunch with him and some of his friends when she made a trip to London in 1952. The lunch marked the beginning of personal contacts that led to the marriage of Joy and “Jack” (as C.S. Lewis was known to his friends) and ended only with her death in 1960.
Davidman returned from the 1952 visit to England to find that her husband, Bill Gresham, had been having an affair with her cousin, Renee Rodriguez. After obtaining a divorce, she decided to move to London with her two young sons, believing it would be less expensive to raise them there.
The connection with Lewis, who was teaching at Oxford and later at Cambridge, was re-established; and the letters show that as the relationship developed, the two became collaborators on each other’s writing projects. In an April 1954 letter to her former husband, Davidman reported that Lewis had done “a perfectly lovely preface” for the English edition of her book Smoke on the Mountain, an interpretation of the Ten Commandments.
Several months later, Joy wrote that she was reading the manuscript of Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. In another letter to her former husband the following year, Davidman wrote: “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. Though I can’t write one-tenth as well as Jack, I can tell him how to write more like himself! … He says he finds my advice indispensable.”
Jack and Joy
In April 1956 Davidman and Lewis were married in a private civil ceremony, ostensibly to extend British citizenship to her so she could remain in the country. They continued to live apart because for Lewis to have sexual relations with a divorced person would constitute adultery under Anglican dogma at the time.
In October 1956 Joy was diagnosed with cancer, and, in a letter to friends on the faculty at Beloit College, she said that “Jack’s love and strength are carrying me through this bad time miraculously.”
A few months later, after a period of apparent recovery, Joy wrote to her former husband, “All I really care about is having a bit of life with Jack and getting adequately on my feet for it. He has been growing more attached to me steadily … is now, I think, even more madly in love with me than I with him, which is saying plenty.”
A relapse put Joy back in the hospital in March 1957, and it was then that the couple got an Anglican clergyman who had been a pupil of Lewis’ to come to her bedside, marry them, lay his hands on Joy, and pray for her healing. Joy did recover a degree of health, and for the better part of the next two-and-a-half years she and Jack experienced real happiness, according to editor King. That period included delightful trips to Ireland in May 1958 and Greece in April 1960.
A month after their return from Greece her cancer returned with a vengeance. She was hospitalized again and died on July 13, 1960. King quotes a letter Lewis later wrote to a friend: “I never expected to have, in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties.”
King says he believes the Davidman letters “help correct what I believe has become a mistaken view of her: the perception that she was predatory in her pursuit of and eventual marriage to Lewis. … I believe we need to take a more gracious view of Joy than has been granted in the past, seeing her as the woman Lewis loved willingly, completely, and passionately.”
King, a professor of English at Montreat College in North Carolina, said he also hopes that publishing Joy’s letters “will bring her more critical acclaim than she currently enjoys. She was a gifted writer in many regards, and her letters are articulate, insightful, and fascinating.”

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