Takeaway: Real life is usually not like the movies.
Joy Davidman is best known, not for her own work, but as the wife of CS Lewis. The story of their marriage was featured in the movie Shadowlands. It is a good movie, but it seems as much fiction as reality.
I have previously read a short biography by Lyle Dorsett that was the rough basis of Shadowlands and I have read several biographies of Lewis which include discussions of Joy and her life.
This new biography is the first full fledged biography of Joy Davidman and is the product of much new documentation (primarily newly discovered letters) and research. It is hard to think more documentation would become available to warrant another biography.
Santamaria has written a highly readable and interesting biography of a complicated and not always likable woman. Davidman was a child prodigy, a promising young author and poet. But she was swept up with communist fervor, atheism, and her art became primarily focused on her causes.
Davidman was brilliant, but troubled. After strings of affairs, starting as a fairly young awkward teen she started a relationship with Bill Gresham. They were married in August 1942 and had two children. But it was a turbulent marriage. Bill was an alcoholic and likely had other mental health issues. But Joy was an equal partner to the turbulence.
In the midst of their turbulence Joy found the writings of CS Lewis. She has already become disillusioned with communism and together Joy and Bill became Christians in large part because of Lewis’ writing. Although it seems they were likely not discipled much. Soon Bill and Joy were following L Ron Hubbard’s dianetics and eventually Bill started dabbling in Zen Buddhism and other religious practices. Bill also returned to drinking and the couple continued having severe financial problems.
As the marriage declined Joy started plotting how to go to England and meet the man that she has started fantasizing about (part of the new research is a private journal of poetry that appears to confirm that her initial trip to England (while still married to Bill) was definitely to catch Lewis.
The story goes on for years. Bill and Joy’s cousin have an affair while Joy is gone. Eventually there is a divorce, but not before Joy has taken the boys and moved to England. Joy does not fit into English society well. She also loves her children, but is not a great mother, so ships them off to boarding school almost immediately.
If you know anything about Joy, you probably know she ends up with cancer and it is only after she is told she does not have long to live that she and Lewis get a church wedding. Of course, prior to that Lewis marries Joy in a civil ceremony (without consummation) to keep her from being deported.
The love between them appears to have been real and deep. Joy does seem to have been good for Lewis. Several think that she should have co-author credits for Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. And she was significantly involved in several other of his books as well.
Once married in a church service (which was initially denied to them because of Joy’s divorce and was only given against a bishop’s orders when it was thought Joy would never leave the hospital) they lived together for just over 3 years before the cancer returned and Joy died leaving Lewis as guardian of the two boys. Lewis only lived and additional 3 years and died a week before his 65th birthday.
The story of Joy Davidman is fascinating. But this presentation does not mince words or cover up her faults. Joy is here faults and all. The story is a tragedy, but like many tragedies, one with lots of contributions by the main character. Joy Davidman is a good example of a unreliable narrator. There were clearly examples of where she was telling different people different stories of the same events at the same time. This is not uncommon in the real world, people lie to make themselves look better all the time. But we are not all subjects of biographies. Bill’s reputation in this biography is somewhat buttressed. He is still an alcoholic, adulterer, and bad husband. But it is unlikely that he was also physically abusive as Joy claimed to many (including Lewis).
I complained about Alister McGrath’s poor opinion of Joy in his biography of Lewis. I do not know how much access McGrath had to this newly discovered material, but McGrath was probably more right about his presentation of Joy than I initially thought. Many of Lewis’ friends were not fond of Joy, but many did believe that the love was real, even if Joy had been conniving and manipulative at the start of their relationship. And their legal and then church marriage had been undertaken because of immigration issues and then her illness.
If you have been interested in the story of Joy (and I have been) I think this is a book worth reading. If you are a fan of Lewis and wanted to get a different perspective on him, this is probably also a book worth reading. This is also a good book for looking at some of the alternative philosophies that were in vogue in the 1930s to the 1950s. Joy probably dabbled in them at one point or another. While Joy only died 65 years ago, the world really was significantly different and it is useful to remember that.
Human nature, however, is really not fundamentally changed. And I think that is also worth remembering.