by Abigail Santamaria
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. 413 pages
For fans of C. S. Lewis, Abigail Santamaria’s biography of Joy Davidman, Lewis’ wife, will be a welcome addition to Lewis scholarship. For the first time, it gives readers a full biography of Davidman while correcting much of the romanticized view of her presented in the book, play and movie “Shadowlands.” The memorable 1993 movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, presents the couple as star-crossed lovers. Lewis is seen as a brilliant Oxford don, but somewhat out of touch with the real world and his own emotions. Davidman, in contrast, is a brash American divorcee who intrudes on Lewis’s stayed existence, bringing new life and vitality, but also tragedy when she develops cancer and dies. The story is a tearjerker reminiscent of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” but is it true?
Well, yes, it is true, as far as it goes, but it also distorts by its omissions. Lewis, who deeply loved Davidman, saw her more clearly than the writers of “Shadowlands.” Santamaria quotes Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” to make the point. For Lewis, Davidman was “a sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured.”
Santamaria set out to write an unsentimental biography of Davidman that would both correct the Lewis-Davidman “myth” and provide a well-rounded view of this fascinating — if sometimes off-putting — woman. Santamaria meticulously researched her subject, visiting archives and conducting numerous interviews. She also had the good fortune to discover a trove of Davidman’s papers, including love poems written to Lewis but probably never given to him.
The conventional account of Davidman’s life presents her husband, Bill Gresham, as a violent alcoholic who tyrannized her and their two children, shot a rifle through the ceiling, kept a mistress in their home and was improvident. All of this is true, but it is only part of the picture. The Greshams’ marriage was often an open one, and Davidman seems to have given tacit approval to the mistress in their home and may have orchestrated the affair so that she would have grounds for divorce. Also, that she decided to leave her children alone for five months with Gresham — supposedly a raging drunkard — so that she could travel to England to seduce Lewis does not suggest that she was entirely the helpless victim. Finally, Gresham’s financial fecklessness has to be set beside Davidman’s own irresponsible spending sprees.
Lewis knew all of this but loved her anyway. And, surprisingly, she was good for him. Santamaria writes, “Of all Jack’s friends, Joy alone was able to see beyond every bluff, to wholly set apart the man from the persona, and to challenge Jack by bluntly naming his behavior, moving him into deeper self-awareness.” She would have a decisive influence on a number of his books, especially “Till We Have Faces.”
Aside from the interest this biography will have for Lewis fans, Santamaria has written of an engaging woman in her own right, one who passed through secular Judaism, atheism, communism and Dianetics (a therapy associated with the Church of Scientology) to arrive at Christianity. Her life was marred by overly stern parents, an unstable husband and her own unremitting bumptiousness, but it ended, remarkably, with love and spiritual maturity.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.