‘Joy,’ by Abigail Santamaria

J. R. R. Tolkien never warmed to Joy Davidman, the woman his friend C. S. Lewis fell in love with and married. Looking at it from his point of view, it’s not hard to see why.

For decades, he’d watched “Jack” Lewis live almost a slavish life, working long hours as an instructor at Oxford, then going home to wait hand and foot on a selfish, small-minded old woman, Mrs. Moore, whom he’d promised a friend, her son, he’d take care of in case of his death in World War I.

But now, in the late 1950s, Jack’s indenture was over. The old woman had died. Tolkien had improved the situation by calling in personal favors to get Jack offered the chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, a position that would give him three times the salary, and half the work, of his old job at Oxford. Tolkien was confident that with all this new freedom, the pent-up energy of all those years of servitude would gush forth in a flood of scholarship and creativity. Jack would finally get the recognition he truly deserved.

Instead, like an earthquake, Joy Davidman happened. She brought with her complicated domestic troubles, financial woes, two nice but active young boys, and a hint of scandal. Then, to cap it all, she brought cancer, the disease that had already scarred Jack as a young boy, when he lost his beloved mother.

Joy was unquestionably a difficult woman, as we quickly learn in Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, by Abigail Santamaria. Born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York City, she was off-the-charts intelligent (her demanding father, an educator, was delighted with her IQ test results, but ridiculed her brother for scoring a “mere” 149). Accelerated through school, she never socialized well. She made few friends, and was considered pushy and unattractive. Unlike Jack, she never learned the art of being the smartest person in the room without making herself obnoxious. She sublimated her spiritual longings into devotion to Communism, and was recognized as one of the country’s best young poets. Along the way she met a fellow Communist, William Gresham, and married him. His production of a bestselling novel, Nightmare Alley, quickly made into a movie, gave them an illusion of prosperity and allowed them to move into an upstate home they couldn’t really afford.

Along the way they grew disillusioned with Communism. Their spiritual searching led them (permanently in Joy’s case, temporarily in Bill’s) to Christianity. Particularly convincing to them were the books of C. S. Lewis. Joy grew obsessed with the English writer, and found an excuse to take a long trip to England, purposely (as author Santamaria documents) to “seduce” him. (Though convinced of Christianity, she was still a little vague on Christian morality. It’s also jarring to learn that she and Bill were active in Scientology, and she was still making a small side income doing Dianetics “audits” for people at the same time she was getting acquainted with Jack).

But it appears (and Tolkien never understood this) that a kind of a miracle happened between Jack and Joy. These two people, so different in background, completed and complemented each other. Jack loved her for her intellect, and her willingness to argue like his male friends. She gave him the female love he had been denied so long, while he seems to have somewhat stabilized her volatile personality (though not enough to make her acceptable to some of his Oxford and Cambridge friends).

Abigail Santamaria has done a remarkable job of writing a balanced, sympathetic portrait of a difficult, complex woman. She does not romanticize her – one of the accomplishments of this book is to rehabilitate William Gresham to a degree. Not that he was guiltless, but Joy had her own sins, and some of his most often reported misdeeds may have been invented by her in the heat of the divorce contest. At the same time, Santamaria waxes positively lyrical about what their marriage meant to Jack and Joy, two people who found happiness together for a time, against all hope. “Shadowlands” was a romanticized version of their story, but the romance was genuine.

Joy is a moving, challenging, sometimes iconoclastic, but ultimately inspiring biography. Highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “‘Joy,’ by Abigail Santamaria”

  1. I had my university library buy this… now it sounds like maybe I should even read it. Thanks for that review, Lars.

    Btw I hope the biographer goes into some detail about Joy’s connections with science fiction and fantasy. In the US she was on the edge, as I understand it, of Fletcher Pratt’s circle, and he at least wrote some fantasy and sf. In England she seems to have connected with sf people — certainly including John Christopher (Tripods trilogy for young readers, and other books), and Arthur C. Clarke if I’m not mistaken. Lewis really did like sf and I suspect there was some kind of shared interest in it with Joy. The catalog of Lewis’s books made in 1969 includes some fantasy/horror/sf books that are surprising as books Lewis would have got hold of, e.g. an Arkham House edition of Robert Bloch’s early stories, but that make sense as Joy’s if she was a fan of such writing.

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