C.S. Lewis is best known for writing The Chronicles of Narnia and for his classic texts on Christianity, but few realize he was married to a woman with literary heft of her own. Patti Callahan Henry sheds light on the life and love of Joy Davidman, who was married to Lewis from 1956 until her death from cancer in 1960, in Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis (Thomas Nelson, Oct.)
This is your first work of historical fiction. How did it happen?
I’ve been a Lewis reader all of my life—I’ve always been fascinated with him—and this woman nearly broke his faith, so I wanted to know her. It wasn’t as much, “I’m going to write historical fiction or abandon contemporary fiction,” but, “I’m going to write about an inspiring, brilliant woman whose story is told in a narrative that allows us to see beyond what’s already been told about her.” She’s always portrayed as the dying wife of Lewis or the brassy New Yorker who inserted herself into his life, and she’s neither. She’s complicated.
Who was Joy Davidman, and what made her such a complex woman?
She was a prodigy, assertive, and outspoken; she graduated from college at 19 years old. She was a famous poet in her day—she won the Yale Younger Poets Award. She was roommates with Bel Kaufman, who later wrote Up the Down Staircase. She was a critic and a Hollywood screenwriter, and she wrote two novels with Macmillan. She was an atheist and a communist for a while. Her first husband, Bill Gresham, was a novelist. And she had an experience where she found herself on her knees praying, that she didn’t know what to do with—she didn’t understand it. She wrote to Lewis and asked, “What is this?” And they started a correspondence.
Why write about her?
Shadowlands is a beautiful movie, but told from only Lewis’s point of view and only covers the moment they meet to the moment she dies. The backstory is now the backbone of this book: who she was, why she was the way she was, and how they met.
What do you think will surprise readers the most about Davidman?
People will be surprised by what an interesting, well-read woman she was. Also, I think people would be surprised at how much influence she had on Lewis’s work. That is given very little due. People always say it’s the stories of the women behind the men, but I say no—it’s the story of the women beside the men. Joy cowrote Till We Have Faces, she helped edit Surprised by Joy, and she helped type some of Narnia. She was with him in all of it.
What is the most important thing you want readers to learn from the book?
I want people to take from the book whatever hits them in the solar plexus, whatever matters to them. There are many themes in this book, but the biggest one for me when I was writing it was about the true self—not only following that but trusting it and having the bravery and courage to break society’s expectations and go on a transformational quest for the truth. That was Joy’s struggle her whole life. She never felt good enough until she realized she was who she was made to be, and then it happened—she found true love with herself, and then with Clive.