|Publication Date: 4 Aug 2015|
|Publisher: SPCK Publishing|
|Author: Abigail Santamaria|
|ISBN-13: 9780281074273, 9780281074280, 9780281074297|
A poet and radical, Davidman was a frequent contributor to the communist vehicle New Masses and an active member of New York literary circles in the 1930s and 40s. After growing up Jewish in the Bronx, she was an atheist, then a practitioner of Dianetics; she converted to Christianity after experiencing a moment of transcendent grace. A mother, a novelist, a vibrant and difficult and intelligent woman, she set off for England in 1952, determined to captivate the man whose work had changed her life.
Davidman became the intellectual and spiritual partner Lewis never expected but cherished. She helped him refine his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and to write his novel Till We Have Faces. Their relationship—begun when Joy wrote to Lewis as a religious guide—grew from a dialogue about faith, writing, and poetry into a deep friendship and a timeless love story.
A superb researcher, Santamaria has gathered a vast array of previously unmined resources that illuminate the complexity of Joy’s character and help deepen our appreciation of what drew her to Lewis—and Lewis to her.’
Born a Jew but jolted into full Christianity by a soul-shattering vision . . . . Davidman was manipulative, endearing, brilliant and obsessive – and Lewis, one of the most influential and beloved spiritual writers of the 20th century, fell in love with all of it. Davidman's search for meaning and her final arrival at love will resonate deeply long after the reader has closed Santamaria's masterful biography
What mainly drove me to read Joy was a desire to figure out what drove Lewis to Joy. What was that “something” that attracted him to her? I anticipated her searching and wandering culminating in some destination where her refined side would come out, and then I’d know exactly why Lewis loved her.
That did not happen.
Santamaria could’ve made Joy someone extraordinary. She could’ve painted her as a feminist martyr—a victim of an alcoholic husband, a woman trapped in the home-versus-career grip. She could’ve painted her as a heroine portrait—a virtuous fighter in the name of love, art, and truth. She could’ve painted her as the romantic convert, turning from the land of lostness to godliness and marriage, in the style of Ruth or a Francine Rivers novel. That would’ve been redeeming and simple.
Instead, she includes Joy’s ego and narcissism, her lying to Lewis about Bill in order to cast him in a bad light, her overspending habits, and her negligence of her children. Even after Joy appears to have found Christ and have “peace with God” in her final hours, her faith is never carved firmly enough in stone for me to be sure what she actually believed. All facets are included, which is confusing and somewhat frustrating. But this just points to the beauty of Joy’s complexity, which is often the best way to describe anything good and true.
The complexity with which Santamaria conveys Joy’s life, love, and faith, as well as her refusal to put Joy in a box, leaves her story unresolved. I’m still wondering who Joy really was and what made Lewis love her. But it’s also what makes me appreciate this biography as a believable portrait. Humans are complex, and Santamaria has the guts to sacrifice simplicity and resolution to expose that truth.
Joy is a story about longing and searching, hope and heartache. Every now and then, it’s about seeing. More than anything else, then, Santamaria’s portrait of Joy showed me the complexity of faith. It’s a tough complexity, but a beautiful one nonetheless.
MORE than 50 years after his death, C S Lewis is still regarded by many as the outstanding Christian apologist of the 20th century. With uncompromising scholastic rig - our and daring honesty, he popularised Christian truth in a way that was accessible and plausible for non-church people, many of whom found their way to faith through his writings, while millions of children and young people have been, and still are, gripped by his fiction and the stories of Narnia.
He and J R Tolkien were good friends, sharing a mutual interest in science fiction and the more elusive questions about the human condition and what our true identity is meant to be. Though I gather that, together with a close circle of academic friends, including the woman who was to become Lewis’ wife, these lively discussions didn't take place only in the common room or lecture hall, but also in the local pub, where they met one night a week. It would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall to witness that!
J R Tolkien never really approved of Joy Davidman, the woman Lewis married later in life and the subject of Joy by Abigail Santamaria (SPCK, £19.99). Nor did some of Lewis’ Oxbridge friends, who were bemused by his choice of partner. She didn’t fit into the cloistered, elite and terribly English world of academe. To them she was a feisty and loud New Yorker. Brash, opinionated, confrontational, undoubtedly intelligent, but temperamentally everything that they and C S Lewis were not. Tolkien was confused and embarrassed by her and kept his distance.
It’s more than 20 years ago now since Richard Attenborough's film “Shadowlands”, the story of C S Lewis’ encounter with Joy Davidman and their mutual love for each other, was a box office hit. It was sensitively made, without any of the Hollywood glitz and bling, but a lot of it was guess-work. How could it have been otherwise? Who would have known for certain what happened between two people at the intimate points of their life together? Especially years after they had died?
Nevertheless, some people imagine they know the story, simply having watched the film. Abigail Santamaria sets the record straight in her forensically researched biography. The index and notes at the back of the book number more than 50 papers. So this is no cheap kiss-and-tell story. It’s a very readable, informative account of the life of a woman who has lived in the shadows for too long. She had more influence on C S Lewis than any other person. She was his intellectual and spiritual partner and the love of his life in every sense. And nobody was more surprised than he was that this should have been so. His book “Surprised by Joy” was a joint effort, with a double meaning.
Joy was brought up in a tightly controlled Jewish family, in the Bronx, New York. From her earliest years pressure was placed upon her to succeed, almost obsessively so by her father. There didn't seem to be much light and shade in her childhood years, and she was kept on a tight rein by ambitious parents. Her few friends were carefully vetted. University provided a limited release from parental control, but she had few social skills, because she had been shaped by that limiting environment.
Her journey took her through conversion to Communism. She was a paid-up, active member of the party. Along with her first husband, Bill, who was a writer like herself, she became a disciple of Dianetics (a sort of scientific theory of mind over matter). By the time she was the mother of two boys, she began a journey of faith. Both she and Bill became members of the Presbyterian Church – though she was a very argumentative one and could turn a church coffee evening into a confrontational slanging match. But it was at this time she was introduced to the writings of C S Lewis. These had a profound effect on her, because by then she had become a writer and poet, respected within the intelligentsia circles of New York.
It was at this time that her marriage was in some difficulty. Not simply because her husband was a recovering alcoholic, but because she herself was facing a crisis of identity as well. Through a friend, she decided that she would write to the great man himself – C S Lewis. It seems that Lewis, who received hundreds of letters, was diligent in replying to many of them. Especially the intelligent inquirer, which Joy Davidman certainly seemed to be.
Over a period of about two years, there began a regular correspondence between the two of them. Purely at a literary and theological level, as far as Lewis was concerned. But for Joy it became something more, though Lewis knew none of this at the time. Perhaps he found it unusually challenging, because she wasn’t afraid to argue with him. But, unbeknown to him, she had begun to develop an almost obsessive need to see him personally.
Surprisingly, her husband agreed to her making a trip to England. Partly because they both agreed it might help her career as a writer and also because she might be able to fix an interview with C S Lewis. A domestic arrangement was made that her sister, who was having a difficult time with her marriage because of an abusive husband, would come and stay with Bill and look after him and the children till Joy returned. It seemed an amicable arrangement, but was to prove something very different in the end.
Not only was Joy emotionally vulnerable at this time, but also, unbeknown to her, so was Lewis. He had never really got over the death of his mother, to whom he’d been very close. And for 30 years he’d had a prolonged relationship with a woman much older than himself, who at one time had been his landlady.
Nobody seem to be very sure about the true nature of the relationship, though many assume it was sexual. She certainly had a hold upon him until she died. But as far as his friends were concerned, immediately before he met Joy he seemed well content with his life as an Oxford don and marriage was about the furthest thought from his mind.
Abigail Santamaria has with skill and authenticity given us an insight into the woman who captivated C S Lewis’ heart and mind, and was to transform his life for ever. Her sources have been unique, not least her ability to talk with Joy’s two sons who remember it all so vividly as young boys.
Walter Hooper, personal secretary to C S Lewis and editor of “The collected Letters of C S Lewis”, describes the book as: “A brilliantly researched biography which has changed me for good. Until I read this book, I could never take Joy Davidman to my heart; she now stands before me as real and believable as anyone I know ... no wonder C S Lewis loved her so much.”
Joy will make fascinating reading for Lewis enthusiasts and deserves its place on the shortlist for the 2016 UK Christian Book Awards. Less committed readers may feel that the book provides more information about Joy's life than they really wanted to know, but the book repays a careful reading.
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