On Telling People’s Stories: Thoughts with Abigail Santamaria on “Joy”

Joy_Davidman.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.

C.S.Lewis and Joy Davidman GreshamInstead, the children were to live with a pair of old men in a dim, smoke-filled house an ocean away from the father who had cared for them for the first decade of their lives.

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.

Edebra winger wonder womanven 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.

debra winger shadowlands wineThis 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….”

SHADOWLANDS, Debra Winger, Anthony Hopkins, 1993, (c) Savoy Pictures

SHADOWLANDS, Debra Winger, Anthony Hopkins, 1993, (c) Savoy Pictures

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?

Shadowlands Debra Winger Anthony Hopkins oxfordEnter 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.

Abigail Santamaria joyIn 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.

Abigail SantamariaWhile 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.

SHADOWLANDS, Debra Winger, Anthony Hopkins, 1993, (c) Savoy Pictures

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.

Abigail Santamaria joy stack

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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29 Responses to On Telling People’s Stories: Thoughts with Abigail Santamaria on “Joy”

  1. jubilare says:

    “One the one hand,” you have been victimized by an extraneous “e!”

    “never consummated their marriage” …people are weird. There are times when I feel like other people are reading a completely different book/writer from me that just happen to share the same title/name. Given what Lewis says about sexuality, and even about his own sexuality, I simply can’t see how anyone could think this… and though I haven’t read many of his letters, I remember a passage in Letters to Malcom where Lewis specifically talks about remembering making love to his wife.

    Anyway, I want to read this biography. I’ve been curious about Joy for a while now. The little I know about her speaks of a life that was anything but boring!

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    • Thanks for the note. I wrote this very quickly and threw it up on the blog.
      I realize as I reread this that people might think that I assume that everyone who suggested Lewis & Joy were never physically intimate does so because they are protecting the C.S. Lewis in their mind–the saint. It is possible that someone has evidence of some sort. I just haven’t seen it.
      Other than that, I find all of this a little weird. Certainly it is part of biographical work. But I find virgin obsession as problematic as sex obsession. Perhaps they are two sides of the same slice of toast.
      Do read this bio. There is an audiobook and Amazon ebook as well as a hardback.

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      • jubilare says:

        Not that I’ve done any research, but in my casual reading, all evidence seems to suggest that Lewis was not celibate prior to his conversion, or during his marriage. Being celibate, myself, I obviously don’t have anything against the idea. It just doesn’t seem to be the case.

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        • No, he wasn’t a virgin. Could not have caught a unicorn, C.S. Lewis.
          And I hope that I didn’t communicate anything anti-celibate. Where would we get our unicorns, after all!

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Clyde Kilby writes in C.S. Lewis: Images of His World (Eerdmans, 1977 rpt. of 1973 ed.) that at Cherbourg House (“Chartres” in SBJ) from January 1911, Lewis ” ceased to be a Christian,’ learned to wear flashy clothes and practice fornication” (p. 9). I’ve often wondered what both the exact scope of this “practice fornication” was and the source for this datum, but never thought to ask Dr. Kilby when I had the opportunity.

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          • jubilare says:

            Lol! No, you didn’t say anything anti-celibate.
            However, while I could catch unicorns, I refuse to do so on ethical grounds. That and I’d rather not anger something with an impaling weapon attached to its head. I have a feeling that modern rainbow-and-sparkle unicorns are sheer propaganda obfuscating a harsher reality. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Which version or versions of Andrew Wilson’s biography have you read? There was an account in the English hardback ed. 1 of (as I remember it) Douglas catching them in bed together before their marriage which Douglas publicly contested on the grounds that he had never related it as it had never happened – after which the next edition silently replaced the passage with something different, with no suggestion anywhere that it was a corrected, revised edition. (I collated those, and other passages, at the time, as I recall: when I was revisiting The Kilns on Hallowe’en, I was glad to see the the copy of the first edition which Dr.Clive Tolley and I annotated was still on the shelf, there.)

        The evidence I have heard (again, as I remember it) as to non-consummation was predicated on the assumption that Lewis would not have consummated it after the civil marriage, and that, by the time of the marriage performed by Peter Bide, he had a urethral catheter in place all the time.

        As to whether, or when, Christians or courteous folk of any sort should concern themselves with other folks’ ‘plumbing’ and how they may use it, I’m probably too sloppy-modern-easy-going about it, but it can be important. (I assume it had a long history in the investigation of causes for beatification and canonization from the time Sixtus V established the office of Promotor Fidei (the so-called ‘Advocatus Diaboli’, or ‘Devil’s Advocate’) in 1587 until John Paul II made significant changes in it in 1983.)

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        • Are there multiple AN Wilson versions? I have a green cover at work, and a newer black version at home. I’m reading the green version at work. I thought they were the same!
          Now that you tell the story, I remember it discussed elsewhere.
          I suspect that urethral catheters aren’t very sexy. I’m not sure, though, that after marriage sex should affect Lewis’ beatification!

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            There are – I am not sure how many! – and I think it discourteous of the publishers and presumably of Andrew Wilson not to have given any indication that the text had been revised – and corrected! – when it was reissued. (I think I collated the first UK paperback with the UK hardback ed. 1.: I probably have notes somewhere….) I don’t know if the publishers ever anywhere ‘got round’ to indicating accurately the fact of a revised and corrected edition, or if subsequent editions included yet further emendations. (The life of the analytical and descriptive bibliographer and text critic can be a quietly exciting one, in which information provided by the publisher within the volume can never be simply assumed to be complete, accurate, or (sometimes, even merely) honest – we had fun with Leviathan forgeries in my class at Harvard!)

            A good first test to begin to see if the two copies you have are textually identical is to look up and compare all the June Flewett references. When she revisited The Kilns in my time, she told us there were some 20 inaccuracies with reference to her in the first edition, which she had called upon them to correct – and there were certainly a number of alterations between the first and later edition when I compared them on this point.

            In his postscript to his article on the biography (added in 2009 and ” slightly revised August 2015″), Arend Smilde writes, ” What would help is a long, dull, exhaustive and, for God’s sake, accu­rate book in which he offers detailed recantations of the sweetly-poi­son­ous non­sense he has been pub­lishing to gratify modern main­stream secular­­ism.”

            I haven’t been in contact with Andrew Wilson for years, but I would hope his return to Christianity would move him to revise and correct, or even thoroughly rewrite, the Lewis biography, or, at the least publish some comprehensive recantations somewhere (say, after the examples of St. Augustine and Chaucer). And I hope his prestige is sufficient that he could get his publishers to go along with it. (And, if all else failed, he could always start a ‘recantations’ blog.) Given that the sentence quoted above is still in Arend’s article, I presume six years have passed since his return without his yet doing so:

            http://lewisiana.nl/definitivebiography/index.htm

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            • I’ve gotten myself into trouble lately with both publishers and authors–I don’t know who ultimately is responsible for how these things roll out.
              Lindskoog had an extensive errata for AN Wilson’s bio somewhere on the web.
              That’s a sharp response from Arend. To be honest, I was not impressed with Wilson’s Paul bio. I felt like he was playing–like he could tinker this way or that and it wouldn’t matter. Yet I felt with both Lewis & Paul (and my glance at Tolstoy), there was core respect for the men.
              Sam Joeckel reconsiders Wilson in his “C.S. Lewis Phenomenon.” Worth a read.
              I think, though, it wasn’t just inaccuracies that bugged Lewis lovers: the whole psychological approach people didn’t like.

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  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Really interesting! I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about Lewis’ marriage, I mean, I suppose it was all quite shocking to his friends when all was said and done. I agree with you about the sexism angle, though, by all accounts Joy was a very intelligent and no-nonense type of woman. Rather threatening to the male intelligensia she worked among, I suppose. I actually find it kind of delightful that Lewis fell in love with her, I think that shows us a lot about him, as well. I will admit I loved the portrayal of Joy in Shadowlands, that film has certainly coloured my perception of her as well. I will be very interested to read this – another book to add to my long list! Final question – is there any existing letters or writings from Lewis’ brother as to what he thought about Joy specifically and about Joy and Lewis’ marriage in general?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      As to Warren Lewis, see the selection from his diaries, Brothers and Friends (1982). His entry on her death ends, “God rest her soul, I miss her to a degree which I would not have imagined possible.”

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it is true that Joy rocked the relationships that had shaped. He expected them all to leave their wives at home, but he brought Joy into their circle. The idea of “couples” was new. I think it caused a rift between the Sayers and Lewis–they had some problems with Joy, I believe.
      And who can account for love? I cannot.
      See David’s note: Warren Lewis kept a diary, and shares of his concern, love, and loss with regard to Joy.

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  3. I pre-ordered this book because I anticipated a woman’s honest search for the woman Lewis loved. Loving him as I do, I couldn’t imagine rightly what she ‘looked’ like. I imagined a giantess of intellect. Indeed she was, and she was human. Somehow I wanted to know that and not by brief account. Lewis’s words of her gave me such a deep sense of the love he felt for her, and being so curious of intense love that can exist between two people, I was eager to know of it. I was not in anyway disappointed by Abigail’s book. I do hope she reads your review. You have said much of what I would want her to know about her very fine book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sdorman2014 says:

    reads wonderfully well. can’t wait to pick it up again tonight. (interlibrary loan.) her technique is very “story” oriented. i’m disappointed with unsupported phrases directing the reader’s take. for instance, “they let slip.” –with regard to her parents telling Joy of their savings. this doesn’t appear as a direct quotation, rather the author extending a view. nowhere does Santamaria say on what her authorial phrase is based. might they have just plainly told her, “we have 25,000 in savings,” instead of “let slip?” (PG.283, note on p. 382) there are places where the view is so directed…a good thing in a novel, not so good in nonfiction?

    i’m not a scholar but think of this from a crafting POV. a well-told engaging story.

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    • My note above of the 1000 different interpretive moments came down to exactly the kind of thing you said. She made interpretive choices both on sheer fact of chronology or event, but also made choices for narrative or stylistic reasons. As a reader, I was pleased she did, but there is probably an historical awareness the reader needs to negotiate those moments.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this – it makes me earnestly, rather than just generally, keen to catch up with this book!

    When Douglas Gresham spoke at the Oxford Lewis Society on 27 October, and Peter Cousin asked him about Abigail Santamaria’s biography, he spoke well of her, her scholarship, and the book generally, but – thought she had in some cases not taken sufficient account of the possible self-interest in what some sources told her, and how they did so. (For example, cousin Renée (about whom Douglas also spoke in generally friendly terms), whose ‘taking up’ with Bill Gresham while Joy was in England in 1952-53 led to both Renée and her husband and Bill and Joy divorcing, and Bill and Renée marrying on the same day as his divorce.)

    I think it was the late Christopher Derrick whom I particularly remember talking in terms of Lewis having been ‘taken in’ twice, first by Charles Williams and second by Joy. I think it is probably true that Lewis was ‘taken in’ by Williams in the sense that he probably never had any idea that Williams was rubbing a magic sword on the bottoms of young (married) women as ‘necessary’ for the production of the Arthurian poetry Lewis so admired. But I can imagine there was a deep, candid conversational intimacy and penitence and forgiveness within which Lewis might well have known about such things as the length of her involvement with Dianetics and the matter John Christopher recounts in his article about her.

    I variously enjoyed the three Shadowlands Joys I’ve seen – Claire Bloom, Jane Laportaire, and Debra Winger – but none of them had the vitality I imagine Joy had, on the basis of having read Smoke on the Mountain and Lyle Dorsett’s biography (1983): I wish the late Anne Bancroft could have played her! (By the way, Nell Berners-Price, who affectionately knew Joy, David, and Douglas, from their staying at her hotel with Lewis, thought Nigel Hawthorne very like Lewis in the stage version of Shadowlands: I wonder if anyone filmed or recorded it?)

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    • I don’t know any sufficiently objective way to weigh sources and bias. It is true that there is a bias. If ti is a religious or or revenge or love bias, that testimony is often discounted. Yet there could be value there too. Now that she has done the job, somoene can come behind Santamaria and check each of those choices. A new picture may emerge, or one with different shading, or one with greater clarity or depth or doubt.
      I have some doubts about CSL’s knowledge of Williams’ sexual ethics. I don’t know that Dianetics requires the same kind of repentance to make one self-consistent, though, to be fair, I’ve never felt any temptation to Hubbardology.
      I never saw the staged version. I would love to see a pirated copy!

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Well said!

        I liked the stage version best of all (as I did where Amadeus was concerned) – gorgeous as the film photography was, and good as Debra Winger was – she brought out that ‘quick answer’ aspect the best of the three I’ve seen (a lot of any weakness, here, may be mostly attributable to the script – I want a Joy with the wisecracks and ardour of my wonderful high school English teacher, Mrs. Cohen). There were wonderful stage devises – the repeated “God’s megaphone” quotation, for example – which were, alas, brought clunkily to the screen. And Nigel Hawthorne had so much more humour and tenderness than Ackland or Hopkins – and what force, in his standing silent on stage, with tears streaming down his cheeks!

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  6. loritischler says:

    Fantastic review, Brenton! You have convinced me to read this book, a decision finally made (which even close Lewis/Joy-loving friends of mine were unable to force upon me).

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