A suitable helper:

The story of C.S. Lewis’ wife

Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis
by Abigail Santamari
(Harcourt, 2015)

Much has been written about C.S. Lewis, but far less is known is about his wife. If Christians know anything about Lewis’ marriage, it is that he married late in life, and that his wife died soon after of cancer.

Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis paints a much fuller picture of Joy Davidman, who eventually became C.S. Lewis’ wife. Joy was born to a non-practicing Jewish family in New York. She showed herself to be a child prodigy, with an off-the-charts IQ.

Abigail Santamaria delves into Joy’s correspondence and published work, which shows a headstrong young woman single-mindedly focused on a writing career. At the age of 23, Joy won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Joy was a passionate member of the Communist Party and used her poetry to promote the cause.

Joy married a fellow writer named Bill Gresham, and at first they seemed well-suited. Bill, however, became an alcoholic. One night, when he did not come home at all, Joy’s atheism shattered and, she wrote later, “God came in . . . there was a Person with me in the room.”

Joy’s conversion to Christianity, and later Bill’s, led them to C.S. Lewis’s writing. They struck up a correspondence with Jack, as he was known to family and friends. Before long, Joy recognized that she and Jack shared the same wit and intellectual interests, and she fell into an unrequited love affair with him.

Neither Bill nor Joy Gresham were mature Christians, and their marriage began to break down. Joy suspected that Bill was unfaithful, and their finances were always strained. Joy decided to make a trip to England to seek Jack Lewis’ advice about a book she was working on. Before she left, she told her husband that she was in love with Jack. 

Joy and Jack instantly had a friendly rapport. A few months later, Bill wrote a letter saying he was in love with Joy’s cousin and wanted a divorce. Joy hoped that Jack would accept her romantic advances now that her marriage had ended; but he did not, and Joy returned to the United States, devastated. Jack probably never pictured himself with someone like Joy: not only was she Jewish, a former Communist and 17 years younger than him, but she was also a brash New Yorker who seemed unattractive to Lewis’ literary friends – and she was not yet divorced. 

Joy remained deeply convinced that she and Jack belonged together, however. They continued to correspond, and eventually, Joy moved to England, this time with her two sons. Jack dedicated his book, Till We Have Faces, to Joy after she helped him work on it. Their closeness became so obvious that an observant friend of Jack said, “I smell a marriage in the air.”

Jack did marry Joy, firstly just a civil marriage to give Joy English nationality, and then, when Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, a religious ceremony. After the cancer diagnosis, Jack admitted that he loved her. He prayed to take on Joy’s pain; and mysteriously, Jack was soon afflicted by aches and pains that made it difficult for him to walk. Joy, on the other hand, enjoyed an unexpected remission for about three years, before the cancer returned and claimed her life.

Joy: Poet, Seeker is worth reading for the rich picture it gives of C.S. Lewis’ wife, how their relationship came about, and her motivations for marrying him. It was Joy who recognized their romantic compatibility and pursued Jack, and though Jack was reluctant at first, Joy turned out to be undeniably the right “helper” for him. She had the sharp intelligence to help him work on his books; and after she died, his love for her inspired his book, A Grief Observed, in which he wrote, “Joy was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.”


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