Abigail Santamaria: An unlikely match
Biographer Santamaria unveils the woman who captured C.S. Lewis’ heart
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Here’s a great “man bites dog” headline from last fall’s Wall Street Journal: “The creator of Aslan and Narnia married a Jewish communist from Manhattan.” Here are edited excerpts from my recent interview with Abigail Santamaria, the author of a new biography, Joy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), that shows how C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman became a couple.
You did excellent detective work, finding some documents in New York City, others in Massachusetts, others on Malta in the Mediterranean. Letters, poems, checkbooks, her marriage certificate to C.S. Lewis, Joy’s parents’ papers … I wanted a subject that hadn’t been done and done and done.
Joy Davidman, born in 1915, became a communist during the Great Depression. Why? She and many others bought into the image that Josef Stalin was creating jobs: Everybody has abundant food and clothing and fresh air. Soviet art exhibits that traveled to reputable museums in the United States had these ruddy-cheeked children and families that were so happy, not like the poverty-stricken, depression-weary people she saw in the streets all around her.
Soviet life in reality: terrible famine, with millions dying or sent to prison camps. Yes, it was the exact opposite of the propaganda, but in 1937-38 Joy had almost a religious conversion to communism. She went to Communist Party rallies at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 attending. People would get up and give testimonials about how the Communist Party changed their lives. They would lay flowers on the stage and sing Soviet songs. There were processions of children. It really was like a religion, and she felt a surge of energy. The Communist Party gave her the community she yearned for.
She became a highly regarded poet and the poetry editor of the New Masses, a communist magazine. She also married Bill Gresham. He was a very talented writer also, and a troubled man. Today he would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after being in the Spanish Civil War. Their marriage started out great and she called him the “mythical perfect husband,” but his depression, anxiety, nightmares, and drinking escalated. At some point he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and was largely sober for the last five years of their marriage.
How did his problems contribute to Joy’s turning to Christ? Bill was drinking heavily. Joy was at home and they had two babies. One night Bill called her from his office, said he was having a nervous breakdown, and hung up. She called back and he didn’t answer. She was terrified that he was killing himself. She was an atheist and had written that there’s only one final beauty, to stand on your feet, and only one ultimate weakness or ugliness, to fall on your knees. She sensed another presence in the room and found herself praying on her knees. Bill returned, but from that point on she believed in God. The question was, who is this God? She had read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and briefly became a Reformed Jew, but then through reading more of Lewis ultimately came to Christ.
‘If Joy hadn’t pursued Lewis and ultimately married him, several of Lewis’ greatest books … would not have been written, or at least not as comprehensively and effectively.’
When did she fall in love with Lewis? People were telling me Joy was in love with C.S. Lewis before she even met him. I was skeptical, but I discovered a collection of love sonnets that Joy wrote for C.S. Lewis beginning before she ever met him. She had dated the poems and his name is in them.
He is in his 50s and never had been married, and she was married. What was Lewis’ reaction? How much she told him of her feelings, and when, is unclear, but he valued her as a pen friend. Her letters stood out from others. She was clearly very well-read, as Lewis was, and she could reference and understand his references to all kinds of literature from every age. She was invited to stay for some time with Lewis and his brother and she asked to stay for longer and he writes about this in several letters to friends. She stayed over Christmas, and he writes about her talking from morning to night—he couldn’t think or breathe or write.
She overstays her welcome, then returns to America, but that’s not the end of the story. By Bill’s account Joy told him she loved Lewis. While she was away, Renee—Joy’s young, beautiful, vulnerable cousin—stayed in their house. Renee and Bill fell in love. They all lived together in a huge farmhouse out in the woods for several months in horrible tension. Joy said, “I’m getting a divorce and taking the boys to move to England because it’s cheaper there.” That obviously wasn’t the reason. Bill said, “No, let’s get back together, let’s do whatever, don’t take the boys away, please.” She moved to England later that year with the two boys. The divorce came in 1954.
Did Lewis know he was being manipulated? I don’t think he understood the extent, but I also think she genuinely loved him and respected him and loved his mind. When she moved back to England in 1953, they got married twice, once for legal purposes in 1956 so she could stay in England and not have to go back to America, and then for real love in 1957. It became the beautiful love story that the Shadowlands movie portrays.
So God can make something beautiful out of all kinds of motives. Exactly. If Joy hadn’t pursued Lewis and ultimately married him, several of Lewis’ greatest books that have had a huge impact on people’s lives and spiritual lives would not have been written, or at least not as comprehensively and effectively.
What was their marriage like? You write that they played Scrabble together, tennis … What else did they do? They did a lot of drinking beer in pubs and took a lot of walks. They gardened together, and sat in the garden and talked. She crocheted and he smoked and they just would talk for hours. They mostly loved talking, whatever they were doing.
Last question: If any of these Patrick Henry students go to graduate school and want to write a thesis on something historical, any advice as to looking for topics, thinking them through, and doing what hasn’t been done before? Be thorough. Go to the original sources as often as you can because a lot of the secondary sources are wrong. Finish: See it through to the end. Writing a big paper, a big thesis, or a book is really hard, and one reason that more people who want to do these things, don’t, is a lack of follow-through. Even if it’s not exactly what we want it to be in the end, see it through.
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