"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].")
McGrath acknowledges that he never contacted Gresham to ask him to clarify or expand on his words. Indeed, he avoided talking to anyone who knew Lewis, in the interest of trying to achieve "critical distance" from his subject. But according to Gresham himself, all McGrath managed to achieve in this case was inaccuracy.
McGrath also claims, "Davidman's intention to seduce Lewis is confirmed by…forty-five sonnets, written by Davidman for Lewis over the period 1951–1954. . . . These sonnets deal with Davidman's intentions of returning to England after her initial meeting with Lewis and forging a closer relationship with him."
It's hard to believe that a scholar of McGrath's caliber would take poetry as confirmation of anyone's intentions about anything. Creative writing is for expressing feeling, not hatching a battle plan. One might just as well say that Lewis's Narnia books confirmed his intention to go hunting through his wardrobe for an alternate universe.
But even supposing that we could take Joy's poems as the confirmation McGrath says they are, "forging a closer relationship" is not the same thing as seducing. In fact, McGrath's frequent use of that word is disturbing. It's true that he didn't originate it, but picked it up from the Observer article. But he repeats it to the point where one begins to wonder exactly what his intentions are.
The echo of a troubling stereotype sounds throughout these passages: the well-intentioned but naïve man pounced on by the predatory woman. McGrath goes so far as to say, "In reality, Lewis had become—to put it bluntly, yet accurately—'an American divorcée's sugar daddy.'" The original quote is from Alan Jacobs of Baylor University.
To reduce Lewis and Joy's mature and complex relationship to this is to treat them both, especially Joy, with deep unfairness. For one thing, the word seduce bears the connotation of sexual sin, and there is absolutely no evidence that these two committed Christians engaged in such a sin. (Previous Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson claimed that Douglas Gresham had said they did, but his claim was debunked.)
Also, as McGrath admits, Joy was an intellectual giant in her own right—she had written novels and theological works as well as award-winning poetry—and a great help with Lewis's own writing. Theirs was a relationship of equals. And many readers have observed that their marriage brought him a greater understanding of and sensitivity to women, noticeable in such books as The Four Loves and Till We Have Faces. Could the hardened gold-digger that McGrath portrays really have had such an effect on this wise and devout Christian man?
Finally, though Joy did accept financial support from Lewis before their marriage, her own letters show that she did it only because Bill Gresham was perpetually behind on child support, and she and the children were nearly destitute. Her letters also mention that she earned money as a typesetter while in England, despite McGrath's contention that as a resident alien, she was not allowed to earn anything.
There is no doubt that Joy Davidman was a forthright, direct woman—even a brash one—and that she was very interested in C. S. Lewis, first intellectually and later romantically. Her personality put off several of Lewis's friends, who would not have been accustomed to such un-British behavior, especially from a lady. But the takeaway should be, I think, that Lewis saw past what some found unappealing, and recognized her "splendid" soul—that because she pursued him, they found great happiness together. Like he did, we should praise God for people like Joy Davidman Lewis.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog and a regular writer for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics. Her work has appeared in Guideposts, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, and newspapers around the country.