"H. was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword," C. S. Lewis wrote of his wife, Joy, in his powerful little book A Grief Observed.
Throughout this memoir of a short but intensely happy marriage, he recalls Joy—referred to as "H."—as a woman whose strength, faith, honesty, humor, and loyalty made her the best of companions, and brought out the best in him.
That's why I found Alister McGrath's new biography of C. S. Lewis rather jarring. For anyone familiar with Lewis's loving portrait of her—or the other portraits we have from her friends, her son, and her biographers—the Joy Davidman Lewis of McGrath's book is virtually unrecognizable.
McGrath objects to what he sees as our culture's "romanticised reading" of Lewis's marriage, spurred by the 1993 movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. McGrath seems intent on debunking that image—even though, according to those who knew them closely, the marriage was romantic before Hollywood ever got hold of it. McGrath finds the circumstances of Lewis's marriage not quite to his taste, but it's not Lewis himself that he blames for them.
McGrath is not the first to feel this way. As Don W. King, in the introduction to Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, puts it: "For some time now I have been surprised at the negative attitude otherwise compassionate Lewis devotees adopt with regard to Joy; perhaps they are suspicious of her Communist background, embarrassed by her New York brashness, or upset by her winning Lewis's heart."
Whatever the reason, McGrath's attitude toward her is very negative indeed. He admits that she brought Lewis great happiness, but anyone who had known nothing of her before reading his portrayal would have trouble understanding why. McGrath paints her as an unlikable, determined seducer and money-grubber.
To provide some background: Joy Davidman Gresham was a former atheist who converted to Christianity in the 1940s. She and her first husband, Bill, became deeply interested in Lewis's writings. But the marriage was unraveling, as Bill Gresham was abusive, an alcoholic, and a serial adulterer. A direct woman with a strong personality, Joy began writing to Lewis for counsel, and they became friends.
Joy eventually visited England to meet Lewis in person. While she was there, Bill wrote to her that he had fallen in love with her cousin Renée, and wanted a divorce. With Lewis offering to help her financially—something he did for many of his friends and acquaintances—Joy decided to move to England permanently and raise her sons there. Lewis eventually married her in a civil ceremony to allow her to stay in the country, and then, when he grew to love her, they held a religious marriage ceremony as well.
In his biography, after writing about Joy's conversion to Christianity and her discovery of Lewis's writings, McGrath tells us: "In a series of newspaper reports in 1998, marking the centenary of Lewis's birth, Davidman's younger son, Douglas Gresham, declared that his mother had gone to England with one specific intention: 'to seduce C. S. Lewis.'"
But that is not what Gresham said. If we look at the newspaper reports that McGrath cites, we find this quote from him: "She was not above telling nosy friends that she was going to England to seduce C. S. Lewis." The tone of the remark, as others have pointed out, rather suggests a joke—just the kind of joke that the blunt Davidman was fond of making. But in any case, Gresham did not directly state that this is what his mother went to do. (Davidman herself, in a letter to her friend Chad Walsh, explained her intentions as follows: "I had hoped that my vacation in England would soothe my shattered nerves and give me strength to go on [with the marriage to Bill].")