I have just finished reading a biography on the life of a minor American poet who had an affair with her professor and bullied her way through her first editorial job. She was a radical Marxist who used her film and book reviews as a bully pulpit, scorching those who disagreed with her.
Brash and relentless, yet at heart a romantic, she found herself in one misplaced love after another. Following an affair with her university professor, her love for a distant poet was unrequited. She finally fell for an alcoholic carnie-wannabe and made a home with him.
After what seems a genuine change of heart, this woman profited from the sale of her conversion story and wrote for Christian magazines while practicing Dianetics and writing love sonnets for a man that was not her husband. Unsatisfied with her life, she left her alcoholic husband with her two young children for months on end, even missing Christmas to hunt down a famous author on another continent.
When her first attempt to seduce the man failed, she tried a second time. This time she took her children with her across the ocean, supporting the permanent cut from their desperate, pleading father with clearly exaggerated stories of his violence. Though he was trustworthy to take care of the children when she first left them, she later adjusted her will so that he was cut out from their domestic lives, promising to use stories of his violence to legally prevent him from taking care of them.
This is quite the character.
Readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia might be surprised to hear that this biography is of Joy Davidman, the woman who captured C.S. Lewis’ heart. This woman is the person who inspired Lewis to write the book and radio talks entitled, The Four Loves. And when she dies of cancer, we read of his great sorrow and loss in A Grief Observed.
How do we reconcile the woman pictured in the paragraphs above with the kind of loving, supportive, and transformational person that changed C.S. Lewis’ life forever?
The answer, actually, is a good caution about how to tell people’s stories well.
Even after reading a couple of biographies about Joy Davidman, her Smoke on the Mountain, and most of her published letters, I feel a bit sheepish to admit that Debra Winger still haunts my mental image of Joy. And I haven’t even seen Shadowlands—the film that tells the story of C.S. Lewis loving and losing Joy Davidman—for two decades. When I think about Joy Davidman, I still have Debra Winger in my mind.
I don’t mean looks, exactly. Debra Winger was—is—absolutely gorgeous, and I suspect that Joy Davidman’s chief charms were other than the classical beauty Winger portrays in her Oscar nominated performance. It isn’t Winger’s beauty that reminds me of Joy, but her smile, her quick answer, and a glass of sherry in one hand.
Perhaps it is my Debra Winger-Joy Davidman mental mosaic that has made me uncomfortable with how some C.S. Lewis biographers have portrayed Joy. By some, she is pictured as a desperate poet who hunted Lewis, dislocating him from his friends and bachelor happiness. She seduced him, breaking him down bit by bit until he was finally in her clutches.
This is one of the things that made me uncomfortable with Alister McGrath’s relatively strong biography of C.S. Lewis. It is true that when I read McGrath I am not tempted to see Debra Winger in Shadowlands. He has exorcised that ghost, but not all exorcists are created equal.
Though the Winger image slips away in McGrath, I find the Davidman that emerges to the foreground hardly someone that Lewis might have been able to write A Grief Observed about. McGrath actually uses the term “seduce” to describe Davidman’s approach. Moreover, the person who absolutely transformed C.S. Lewis and helped redefine the last decade of his life is not even given a full chapter. The “Strange Marriage” of Davidman and Lewis is bundled together with Lewis’ Cambridge move.
It isn’t just McGrath, though, who is relatively late as a Lewis biographer and is pretty careful to create a readable biography. I have always been appreciative to Don W. King, who edits Davidman’s letters (Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman). In the introduction he admits that,
“For some time now I have been surprised at the negative attitude otherwise compassionate Lewis devotees adopt with regard to Joy….”
If I am honest, I have always had a triple reaction to these kinds of conversations.
First, I’ve always felt that the accusations of “seduction” have the tang of sexism. I don’t mean that McGrath is sexist, or anyone else in particular, but the fascination with this thesis bothers me. I don’t think we’d have the same attitude to a male poet who tried to woo his beloved.
Second, so what if she tried to seduce him? In what sense is it the biographer’s role to act as the moral judge of a figure of history. Tell the story based on the evidence you have and let the readers work out their own moral judgments.
And, third, what sort of man do we take C.S. Lewis to be? Is he a victim? A man of faint heart and weak morals? Goodness.
There are other weirdnesses in the telling of Joy Davidman’s story. On the one hand, there are some that have suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Lewis never consummated their marriage, trying perhaps to preserve a particular image of St. Jack (e.g., Through Joy and Beyond, 151). And in reaction, A.N. Wilson suggests in his biography that they were having a sexualized affair of sorts (see his euphemized chapter title, “Smoke on the Mountain”).
What are we to make of all of this?
Enter Abigail Santamaria and her stunning biography, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. Based on meticulous research, careful editorial decisions, a responsible reading of lives and texts, and skillful prose, Santamaria has created a gold standard biography of Joy Davidman.
And in so doing, she has demonstrated what great biography writing can look like.
In the first few paragraphs of this blog I carved out some details of Joy Davidman’s life as Santamaria includes them in Joy. As I wondered about Joy’s character from reading McGrath’s biography, you might wonder in reading mine: How did C.S. Lewis fall in love with this woman?
As it turns out, biography writing that reduces a person’s story to a particular set of facts will always fail to capture the woman or man. While all the details I gave above are supported in Santamaria’s research, they are so highly selective that they bend our image of who Joy Davidman was. My picture of an abusive, heartsick, dominatrix who neglected her children for the sake of fame and lust is hardly resonant with Santamaria’s picture.
Nor is it resonant with history. It is a reductionistic biography, lying even as it tells basic truths.
And yet there are complexities in Joy’s life. We would call both her unfounded accusations against her ex-husband and how she primed her son’s discomfort with their father kinds of abuse today. She did take a long time to allow her mystical conversion experience to thoroughly transform her worldview. She was cavalier with relationships, self-deceptive in matters of love and money, and uncomfortably harsh with the man who cared for her children while she fell in love with C.S. Lewis and England.
While many have praised Abigail Santamaria’s rigorous research and beautiful descriptions—both absolutely true—what I find most exciting about her biography is the elegant balance of competing ideas. Santamaria has given me, for the very first time, a full picture of Joy Davidman. While others have created mere caricatures or provided a broad-lined sketch of the woman—or a lovely figure cut upon the silver screen—Santamaria has given me the full sense of Joy’s life.
If Santamaria took less than a decade, hunting down missing letters, lost manuscripts, mouldering photographs, and memories slipping out of time, I would be surprised. Joy bears the weight of a lifetime of work. It is an admirable accomplishment.
Because I don’t know the all critical material, I cannot offer anything like truly critical review. I knew much of Joy’s story already, but I was truly educated in a number of areas. Lyle W. Dorsett’s Surprised by Love (=And God Came In) gave me the details of Davidman’s biography. But Santamaria helped me dive deep into the period of Joy’s education, or her months in Hollywood and her years among the New York literati. Her work in the 1950s was at a depth far beyond anything I have ever seen, and has supported my research in Lewis in many ways.
Of the areas where our expertise overlap, though I saw some tiny details where we differed, I saw nothing problematic that would skew someone’s reading.
Now that Santamaria’s biography is finished, however, the work can begin for others. Abigail Santamaria offers the first critical biography of Joy Davidman, building upon the life sketches that came before. Her interpretation, while I find compelling, can be reconsidered on a thousand tiny points. In this task, Santamaria has done an admirable job in laying the groundwork for future generations of Joy Davidman scholars. For Joy’s story is really worth telling, in its own right—beyond reducing her to C.S. Lewis lover (or seductress).
It is now up to you to take up the biographical task. If this is your task, begin here.