C.S. Lewis's wife & their marriage were amazing.
This week marks the 61st anniversary of author C.S. Lewis marriage to poet/novelist Helen Joy Davidman. The story of their wedding and subsequent marriage has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and even a Hollywood movie (the 1993 film, Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins).
The couple’s union was a deathbed marriage, at the time, Joy had bone cancer and wasn’t expected to live; miraculously, they had three years together before she finally succumbed to cancer at age 45. What is it about this extraordinary man and woman and their marriage that continues to fascinate people all these years later?
Born in 1915, it was obvious early on that Joy was intellectually a child prodigy. She finished high school at 14 and had a master’s degree by age 19. Though ethnically Jewish, she was brought up to be an atheist. In the late 1930s, she joined the Communist Party and devoted all of her efforts for the next decade to the cause of Marxism. She married Bill Gresham, also a novelist, and by the mid 40s, they had two sons.
As a Jewish woman in American, Joy said it’s difficult for Gentiles to comprehend the understandable fear many Jews have of Christianity. Her identity as an ethnic minority gave her poignant insight into the plight of southern blacks. As integration starts happening in the 50s, and is met with violence, Joy once said that Negroes are the only ones in the south who still have any dignity or wisdom.
Joy’s journey to Christ
In 1951, Joy’s testimony, titled, “The Longest Way Round”, was published in a collection called These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity (The Westminster Press). Joy says that growing up in a secular, atheistic environment, she learned to explain away anything of a spiritual nature that seemed to beckon her. In the mid 40s, she happened to come upon two books written by C.S. Lewis—The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Davidman said these books “stirred an unused part of my brain to momentary sluggish life.”
Though Lewis’ books were compelling, Davidman encountered obstacles to the faith that Lewis himself didn’t have to deal with; her Jewish background made coming to Christ even harder. What pushed her over the edge was a crisis moment in which her husband appeared to be having a nervous breakdown.
He’d spoken to her in desperation on the phone, not at all making it clear whether he intended to come home, and Davidman stayed up all night frantic about what was going to happen to him: “For the first time in my life I felt helpless; for the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, the ‘master of my fate’ and the ‘captain of my soul.’ All my defenses… went down momentarily. And God came in.”
Davidman made it clear that this moment, itself, was not a coming to Christ; it was merely an abandonment of atheism. Shortly thereafter, she began studying world religions and reading more and more of C.S. Lewis’ writings. Her journey to Christ was a gradual one. Her presupposition had been that all religions are essentially the same, but she said when she began studying them, she discovered how untrue that is.
Though there was much to be commended in many of them, Davidman said, “Only one of them had complete understanding of the grace and repentance and charity that had come to me from God. And the Redeemer who 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.”
Joy’s marriage to C.S. Lewis
Around the same time, 1948, Bill also converted to Christianity, even becoming an elder in the Presbyterian Church, but unlike Joy, his conversion proved temporary. In the years that followed, her marriage to Bill deteriorated; he was habitually unfaithful to her, at times abusive, and by the early 50s, he wanted to divorce her so that he could marry his cousin, Renee.
Coinciding with the dissolution of her marriage, Davidman relocated to England with her two sons where she soon became friends with C.S. Lewis, the man whose writings had been so influential in her own journey to Christ. At this point, she identified herself, no longer as a Presbyterian, but as an Anglican.
A few years later, for reasons that are still unclear, the British government decided not to renew her work visa, leaving her in a quandary about what to do. Returning to America just after she’d finally settled in to England and helped her sons settle in seemed impractical. In April of 1956, C.S. Lewis came to her rescue by agreeing to marry her in a civil ceremony. Neither of them regarded it as a “real” marriage; it was merely a legal arrangement to enable Davidman to become a British citizen. Lewis continued to live in Oxford as a bachelor and Davidman continued to live as a single mother in London.
Later in 1956, Davidman fell ill with what was later to be diagnosed as bone cancer. In the end, Lewis’ heart’s desire was to have a “real” marriage to Joy, one blessed by the church, so that the two of them could live together as man and wife. A hospital bedside wedding was performed on March 21, 1957 and though she was essentially released from the hospital in order to die at home, the cancer went in to remission, much to everyone’s surprise. Lewis, in his late 50s, was experiencing the bliss of married love that he had long assumed had bypassed him for good.
Joy’s Amazing Fortitude
If one reads the letters Joy wrote from late 1956 until her death in 1960, one sees all the ups and downs one would expect from a person battling cancer. In December 1956, right after receiving the diagnosis, she said, "All of this has strengthened my faith and brought me very close to God—as if I at last knew all the answers."
By February 1957, she said, "I am trying very hard to hold on to my faith, but I find it difficult; there seems such a gratuitous and merciless cruelty in this. I hope that all we have believed is true." Within a week, her outlook brightened: "My prayers for grace have been answered. I feel now that I can I bear not too unhappily what is to come, and the problem of pain just doesn't loom so large. I'm not at all sure I didn't deserve it after all, and I'm pretty sure that in some way I need it... I'll get up, by the aid of will-power and sweat and grace; and if God will let me, I shall walk."
Her optimism and honesty are refreshing; she doesn't pretend that as a Christian she has to grin and bear it without admitting it hurts, but she also recognizes that God will use the pain to bring about some good. In a particularly moving letter, written two months before her death, Joy talked of the "mundane" problems of living with cancer: "how to scheme for each step I take, how to sit down in the john and worse yet manage to get up again, how to run a house when I can't so much as get to the telephone--how to keep going with a grin in spite of pain, and not make myself a dreary nuisance to everyone else. Anybody can die with fine theological sentiments... it's the daily living that hurts."
The remission was temporary, and by the summer of 1960, Davidman’s body finally succumbed to the cancer. The loss devastated C.S. Lewis (as one can tell by reading A Grief Observed, one of his most heart-wrenching, personal books). Perhaps the biggest lesson one can take away from the love between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman was their willingness to love each other, however risky, however unsafe it may be. Lewis expressed grief, shock, and dismay over his wife’s death, but he never expressed regret over marrying her, never wished that he had taken the “safe” way.
Lewis summed this up beautifully in his poem, As the Ruin Falls:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you. I never had a selfless thought since I was born. I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through: I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn. Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek, I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin: I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek-- But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin. Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack. I see the chasm. And everything you are was making My heart into a bridge by which I might get back From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking. For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains You give me are more precious than all other gains.