Joy Davidman: Poet, Seeker



  Abigail Santamaria 

SPCK,  2015, £19.99, Hardback, 413p.,  ISBN 978-0281074273.

The story of Joy Davidman Gresham, the woman with terminal cancer who married C.S. Lewis, is already well known from biographies of Lewis and from the various stage and screen versions of Shadowlands.  This new biography, however, draws on recently discovered letters and papers and tells Joy’s story in much greater detail than before.

Born in 1915 to a non-practising Jewish family, Joy experienced a troubled relationship with her parents before embarking on academic studies in New York educational establishments.    The realities of the 1930s  Depression era caused Joy to embrace Communism at an early stage.  After a brief career as a school teacher she  became a writer  and activist with  left wing  organisations,  For a brief period she left New York to work as an apprentice screenwriter in Hollywood but enjoyed little success.

Joy’s disillusionment with the Marxist creed began when Stalin signed  a pact with Hitler, but some years were to pass before her final departure from the Communist Party.   Her eventual conversion to Christianity arose  partly from  reading books by C.S. Lewis, and partly from a spiritual  experience during a time of personal crisis.

The biography yields a number of facts that may not be familiar to readers of earlier accounts of Joy’s life.   Joy’s first husband, Bill Gresham, worked variously as a writer, stage magician and Greenwich Village folk  singer who met the young Pete Seeger and shared a concert stage with Woody Guthrie.    For some years after her conversion Joy was a practitioner of Dianetics, a pseudo-scientific technique pioneered by the founder of the Scientology movement, but eventually abandoned the practice.

The biography documents Joy’s difficult first  marriage to an alcoholic husband and the financial difficulties that often  plagued their relationship.  The author does not hesitate to highlight some of the morally questionable aspects of Joy’s story.   There is clear evidence that  she  became infatuated with Lewis after reading his  books, and that she  made her first visit to England with the intention of winning his affections, even though she was still  married to Gresham  at the time.

Joy’s outspoken nature and abrasive personality did not always endear her to Lewis’ friends, and J.R.R. Tolkien is said to have been “almost disgusted” when first meeting her.

Joy  will make fascinating reading  for  Lewis enthusiasts and deserves its place on the shortlist  for the 2016 UK Christian Book Awards.   Less committed  readers  may feel that the book provides more information about Joy’s life than they really want to know, but the book repays a careful reading.

Graham Hedges, Hon. FCLIP, MCLIP, is Secretary of Christians in Library and Information Services.