When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford professor and the beloved writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters.
Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, found a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.
In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.
At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.
Praise for Becoming Mrs. Lewis:
“Becoming Mrs. Lewis deftly explores the life and work of Joy Davidman, a bold and brilliant woman who is long overdue her time in the spotlight. Carefully researched. Beautifully written. Deeply romantic. Fiercely intelligent. It is both a meditation on marriage and a whopping grand adventure. Touching, tender, and triumphant, this is a love story for the ages.” —Ariel Lawhon, New York Times bestselling author of I Was Anastasia
“Patti Callahan Henry breathes wondrous fresh life into one of the greatest literary love stories of all time . . . The result is a deeply moving story about love and loss that is transformative and magical.” —Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Orphan’s Tale
“It's novel. And it's a very good one. . . extraordinarily accurate. . . more accurate than most biographical essays that have been written about my mother.” —Douglas Gresham, son of Joy Davidman, wife of C.S. Lewis
- Full-length historical novel about the wife of C.S. Lewis
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)|
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Begin again, must I begin again Who have begun so many loves in fire
"Sonnet I ," Joy Davidman
1946 Ossining, New York
There are countless ways to fall in love, and I'd begun my ash-destined affairs in myriad manners. This time, it was marriage.
The world, it changes in an instant. I've seen it over and over, the way in which people forge through the days believing they have it all figured out, protected inside a safe life. Yet there is no figuring life out, or not in any way that protects us from the tragedies of the heart. I should have known this by now; I should have been prepared.
"Joy." Bill's voice through the telephone line came in a voice so shaky I thought he might have been in a car wreck or worse. "I'm coming undone again and I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go."
"Bill." I hugged the black plastic phone against my ear and shoulder, the thick cord dangling, as I bounced our baby son, Douglas, against my chest. "Take a deep breath. You're fine. It's just the old fear. You're not in the war. You're safe."
"I'm not fine, Joy. I can't take it anymore." Panic broke his voice into fragments, but I understood. I could talk him off this ledge as I had other nights. He might get drunk as hell before it was all over, but I could calm him.
"Come home, Poogle. Come on home." I used the nickname we had for each other and our children, like a birdcall.
"I'm not coming home, Joy. I'm not sure I ever will."
"Bill!" I thought he might have hung up, but then I heard his labored breathing, in and out as if someone were squeezing the life out of him. And then the long, shrill, disconnected buzz vibrated like a tuning fork in my ear and down to my heart, where my own fear sat coiled and ready to strike.
"No!" I shouted into the empty line.
I knew Bill's office number by heart and I called him back again and again, but it rang endlessly while I mumbled a mantra: "Answer answer answer." As if I had any control from where I stood in our kitchen, my back pressed against the lime-green linoleum counter. Finally I gave up. There was nothing left for me to do. I couldn't leave our babies and go look for him. He'd taken the car and I didn't have help. I had no idea where he might be other than a bar, and in New York City there were hundreds.
Isolated, I had only myself to blame. I was the one who'd pushed for a move from the city to this banished and awful place far from my literary friends and publishing contacts. I'd begun to believe that I'd never been a poet, or a novelist, a friend or lover, never existed as anything other than wife and mother. Moving here had been my meager attempt to whisk Bill away from an affair with a blonde in Manhattan. Desperation fuels one to believe idiocy is insight.
Was he with another woman and merely feigning a breakdown? This didn't seem too farfetched, and yet even his lunacy had its limits.
Or maybe it didn't.
Our house in the Hudson Valley at the far edge of the suburb of Ossining, New York, was a small wooden abode we called Maple Lodge. It had a sloping roof and creaked with every movement our little family made: Bill; Davy, a toddler who was much like a runaway atom bomb; and Douglas, a baby. It often felt as if the foundation itself was coming undone with our restlessness. I was thirty-one years old, surrounded by books, two cats, and two sons, and I felt as ancient as the house itself.
I missed my friends, the hustle and bustle of the city, the publishing parties and literary gossip. I missed my neighbors. I missed myself.
Night surrounded my sons and me, darkness pressing in on the windowpanes with an ominous weight. Douglas, with his mass of brown curls and apple cheeks, dozed with a warm bottle of milk dangling from his mouth while Davy dragged toy trucks across the hardwood floors, oblivious to the scratches they dug.
Panic coursed through me as I roamed the house, waiting for word from Bill. I cursed. I ranted. I banged my fist into the soft cushions of our tattered couch. Once I'd fed and bathed the boys, I rang my parents and a couple of friends — they hadn't heard from him. How long would he be gone? What if we ran out of food? We were miles from the store.
"Calm down," I told myself over and over. "He's had breakdowns before." This was true, and the specter of another always hung over our home. I hadn't been there for his worst one, after a stint in the Spanish Civil War before we met, when he'd attempted what I was frightened of now — suicide. The leftover traumas of war rattling and snaking through his psyche had become too much to bear.
As if I could cure the panic from this distance, I imagined Bill as I met him — the passionate young man who sauntered into the League of American Writers with his lanky frame and the wide smile hooded by a thick moustache. I'd immediately been drawn to his bravery and idealism, a man who'd volunteered and fought where needed in a faraway and torn country. Later I fell deeper in love with the same charming man I heard playing the guitar at music haunts in Greenwich Village.
Our passion overwhelmed me, stunned me in its immediacy as our bodies and minds found each other. Although he was married when we met, he had reassured me: "It was never anything real. It's nothing like you and me." We married at the MacDowell artists colony three days after his divorce was final — symbolizing our bond and dedication to our craft. Two writers. One marriage. One life. Now it was that very passion and idealism that tore at him, unhinging his mind and driving him back to the bottle.
Near midnight I stood over the crib of our baby, my heart hammering in my chest. There was nothing, not one thing I could do to save my husband. My bravado crumbled; my ego crashed.
I took in what was quite possibly the first humble breath of my life and dropped to my knees with such force that the hardwood floor sent a jolt of pain up my legs. I bowed my head, tears running into the corners of my mouth as I prayed for help.
I was praying! To God?
I didn't believe in God. I was an atheist.
But there I was on my knees.
In a crack of my soul, during the untethered fear while calling for help, the sneaky Lion saw his chance, and God came in; he entered the fissures of my heart as if he'd been waiting a long time to find an opening. Warmth fell over me, a river of peace passed through me. For the first time in all my life, I felt fully known and loved. There was a solid sense that he was with me, had always been with me.
The revelation lasted not long, less than a minute, but also forever; time didn't exist as a moment-to-moment metronome, but as eternity. I lost the borders between my body and the air, between my heart and my soul, between fear and peace. Everything in me thrummed with loving presence.
My heart slowed and the tears stopped. I bent forward and rested my wet cheek on the floor. "Why have you waited so long? Why have I?" I rested in the silence and then asked, "Now what?"
He didn't answer. It wasn't like that — there wasn't a voice, but I did find the strength to stand, to gaze at my children with gratitude, to wait for what might come next.
God didn't fix anything in that moment, but that wasn't the point of it all. Still I didn't know where Bill was, and still I was scared for his life, but Someone, my Creator it seemed, was there with me in all of it. This Someone was as real as my sons in their beds, as the storm battering the window frames, as my knees on the hardwood floors.
Finally, after wandering the streets and drinking himself into a stupor, Bill stumbled into a cab that brought him back to us just before dawn. When he walked through the front door, I held his face in my hands, smelled the rancid liquor, and told him that I loved him and that I now knew there was a God who loved us both, and I promised him that we would find our way together.
* * *
As the years passed, our coffee table became littered with history and philosophy books, with religious texts and pamphlets, but still we didn't know how to make sense of an experience I knew had been as real as my heartbeat. If there was a God, and I was straight sure that there was, how did he appear in the world? How was I to approach him, if at all? Or was the experience nothing more than a flicker of understanding that didn't change anything? This wasn't a religious conversion at all; it was merely an understanding that something greater existed. I wanted to know more. And more.
One spring afternoon, after we'd moved to a rambling farmhouse in Staatsburg, New York, a three-year-old 1946 Atlantic Monthly magazine was facedown on the kitchen table and being used as a coaster for Bill's coffee mug. I slid the mug to the side and flipped through the magazine as our sons napped. The pages flopped open to an article by a Beloit College professor named Chad Walsh. The piece was titled "Apostle to the Skeptics" and was an in-depth study of an Oxford fellow in England, a man named C. S. Lewis who was a converted atheist. Of course I'd heard of the author, had even read his Pilgrim's Regress and The Great Divorce — both of them holding a whispered truth I was merely beginning to see. I began to peruse the article, and it was only Douglas calling my name that startled me from the story of this author and teacher who'd reached American readers with his clear and lucid writing, his logic and intellectualism.
Soon I'd read everything Lewis had written — more than a dozen books, including a thin novel of such searing satire that I found myself drawn again and again to its wisdom hidden in story: The Screwtape Letters.
"Bill." I held up Lewis's book I was rereading, The Great Divorce, over dinner one night, as the boys twirled their spaghetti. "Here is a man who might help us with some of our questions."
"Could be," he mumbled, lighting a cigarette before dinner was over, leaning back in his chair to stare at me through his rimless spectacles. "Although, Poogle, I'm not sure anyone has the answers we need."
Bill was cold hard correct — believing in a god hadn't been as simple as all that. Every philosophy and religion had a take on the deity I hadn't been able to grasp. I was set to give up the search, shove the shattering God-experience into my big box of mistakes. That is, until I contacted Professor Walsh, the writer of the article, and said, "Tell me about C. S. Lewis."
Professor Walsh had visited Lewis in Oxford and spent time with him. He was turning his articles into a book with the same title and he replied to me. "Write to Mr. Lewis," he suggested. "He's an avid letter writer and loves debate."
There Bill and I were — three years after my blinding night of humbleness, three years of reading and study, of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and debate, of joining the Presbyterian church, when an idea was born: we would write a letter to C. S. Lewis, a letter full of our questions, our ponderings, and our doubts about the Christ he apparently believed in.
Open your door, lest the belated heart Die in the bitter night; open your door
"Sonnet XLIV," Joy Davidman
Didn't most everything begin with words? In the beginning was the word — even the Bible touted that truth. So it was with my friendship with Lewis.
I descended from my second-story office in our farmhouse into the frigid January day to grab the mail. Two separate trains of thought ran along the tracks of my mind: What would I cook the family for dinner? And how would my second novel, Weeping Bay, be received into the world in a few months?
Frosted grass crunched under my boots as I strode to the mailbox and opened it. As I flipped through the pile, my heart beat in double time. On top of the pile of bills, correspondence, and a Presbyterian Life magazine was a letter from Oxford, England. I held the white envelope with the airmail stamp of a young King George in profile, his crown hovering over his head, in my hand. In slanted, tight cursive handwriting the return address stated C. S. Lewis across the top left corner.
He'd finally written a reply. I ran my gloved finger across his name, and hope rose like an early spring flower in my chest. I needed his advice — my life felt unhinged from the new beliefs I'd thought would save me, and C. S. Lewis knew the Truth. Or I hoped he did.
I slammed shut the metal box, icicles crackling to the ground, and slipped the mail into my coat pocket to navigate the icy walkway. My sons' quarrelling voices made me glance at our white farmhouse and the porch that stretched across the front — an oasis before entering. Green shutters, like eye shadow on a pale woman, opened to reveal the soul of the house, once pure but now clouded with anger and frustration.
The front door was open, and four-year-old Douglas came running out with Davy, age six, chasing close behind.
"It's mine. Give it back." Davy, only an inch taller than his little brother, brown hair tangled from the day's wrestling and playing, yelled and pushed at Douglas until they both caught sight of me and stopped short, as if I'd appeared out of nowhere.
"Mommy." Douglas ran to me, wrapping his arms around my soft hips and burying his face in the folds of my coat. "Davy kicked me in the shin," he wailed. "Then he pushed me on the ground and sat on me. He sat on me too hard."
Oh, how God loved to make a variety of boys.
I leaned down and brushed back Douglas's hair to kiss his round cheek. In moments like this my heart throbbed with love for the boys Bill and I had made. Davy's lithe body and frenetic energy were from Bill, but Douglas's sensitivity to mean-spiritedness was mine. He'd not yet learned to cover it as I had.
"This is all nonsense." I rustled Davy's hair and took Douglas's hand in mine. "Let's go inside and make hot chocolate."
"Yes," Davy said with gusto and ran for the house.
All the while the letter burned in my pocket. Wait, I told myself. Wait. Expectancy always the thrill before having.
Davy flew through the front door, but not before riling Topsy, who now barked as if to warn us of a monstrous intruder.
"Be quiet, you fluffy mongrel," I called out, "or you'll make me sorry I ever rescued you." I stepped over a pile of toy trucks in the foyer with Topsy fast at my heels. By this time in our lives we'd gathered a menagerie of animals — four cats, two dogs, a bird, and now Davy wanted a snake.
Bill was in his refurbished attic office, typing as fast as his fingers knew how, working on his second novel to pay the bills, which were piling as high as the snow would soon be. The shouting and barking and bedlam must have stirred him from his typewriter, for suddenly there he stood at the bottom of the stairwell.
Douglas cowered, and I reached for his hand. "Don't worry," I said softly. "Daddy won't yell. He's feeling better."
Bill's hands were limp at his side in a posture of defeat. At six foot three inches, my husband often gave me the impression of a reedy tree. His thick, dark hair was swept to the left side like an undulating wave that had collapsed. He was sober now, and his verbal lashings had subsided. AA was doing its job with the Twelve Steps, spiritual sayings, and group accountability.
He pointed at the spilled basket of library books beside the door, then pushed up on his rimless glasses. "You could pick all of that up, you know."
"I know, sweetie. I will."
I darted a glance at him. His blue button-down shirt was wrinkled and misbuttoned by one. His blue jeans were loose on him; he'd lost weight over the past months of stress. I meanwhile had gained — so much for life being fair.
"I was trying to write, Joy. To get something done in a house so full of disarray I can scarcely focus."
"Dogs. Kids." I tried to smile at him. "What a combination." I walked into the kitchen. I wanted to defuse any anger — the argument that could ensue would be a repeat of a thousand other quarrels, and I wasn't in the mood. I had a letter, a glimmer of hope in my pocket.
Davy climbed onto a chair and sat at the splintered wooden table and folded his hands to wait. I shook off my coat and draped it on a hook by the door, placing the mail on the kitchen table. Except for the letter. I wanted to read it first. Wanted something to be just mine if only for a small while. I slipped off my gloves and shoved them into the pockets to conceal it. With bare hands I dug into the dirty dishes piled in the sink — another reminder of my inadequacies as a housekeeper — and found the saucepan, crusted with tomato soup from the night before.
Excerpted from "Becoming Mrs. Lewis"
Copyright © 2018 Patti Callahan.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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