I just finished And God Came In, a biography of Joy Davidman by Lyle W. Dorsett; first published in 1983, this edition was released by Hendrickson Publishers in June 2009 as part of its Classic Biographies series. Dorsett is recognized as a first-tier Lewis scholar, having been curator of the Marion E. Wade Center from 1983 – 1990, he is also the author of a number of books and articles on Lewis.
Dorsett writes in the Preface to the Hendrickson edition:
“To be sure, this brilliant American novelist, poet, and critic is no longer obscure like she was before And God Came In first appeared more than a quarter century ago. Nevertheless, Joy Davidman, if not unknown, needs to be rescued from the utterly false images of her that have appeared in two Shadowlands films. Both movies relied heavily upon my research and writing, but in both films the producers and screenplay writers distorted important facts for dramatic effect and for purposes of promoting their own biases. Joy, for instance, never begged C.S. Lewis to marry her so that she could remain living in England…In the same fictional vein the motion picture shows C.S. Lewis devastated and nearly robbed of his faith when Joy’s cancer returns…But letters Professor Lewis wrote after Joy’s death, as well as testimony of several of his friends, reveal that his faith and courage survived in robust fashion.”
Helen Joy Davidman grew up in a secular Jewish family whose faith was, to quote Nathan Glazer, “…socialism or rationalism…which oftentimes seemed to the outside world as Jewish as Judaism itself”, (pp. 3 – 4). Joy was ready for college when she was 14, but delayed entry until she was 15; she received her undergraduate degree at 19 and her master’s degree from Columbia University three semesters later.
If the pilgrimage of C.S. Lewis can be primarily traced through his writings and speaking, the pilgrimage of Joy Davidman can be traced both through her writings and actions – for Joy was not only a person of paper and ink and rapier repartee, she was a woman of action – both in her personal life and in the public arena. Social inequities were deeply disturbing to her, having witnessed an orphan who had been hungry for several days commit suicide. Dorsett writes:
“Joy couldn’t forget this tragedy…and her anger grew increasingly at the insanity and callousness of a society that dumped potatoes in the ocean, burned wheat, and poured lime on oranges, while millions of people were unemployed, malnourished, and forced to stand in soup lines and sort through refuse in garbage cans for sustenance.” I can’t help but wonder what Joy would think of the inequities in America today.
I marvel that Joy, who had a harsh parental upbringing, found herself moved by compassion and indignation at the plight of those who couldn’t help themselves. Perhaps she identified with them in terms of her own relative helplessness as a child and adolescent living with her parents?
And God Came In appears to be a straightforward and well-research biography, and it has created an appetite in me to read Joy’s writings. Dorsett writes:
“Perhaps Joy’s greatest legacy is the example of her transformed life. For over thirty years she walked the way of self-indulgence and atheism. Then she turned abruptly around and followed the beckoning of Jesus Christ. If her walk with Him was frequently graceless and faltering, it was also committed, courageous, and faithful.”
As one whose walk is often graceless and faltering, I’m encouraged by Joy Davidman.
Joy Davidman reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers in that as women in a man’s world they more than held their own. Neither Davidman nor Sayers suffered fools gladly, exposing sloppy and lazy thinking, often without giving quarter. Of course while Davidman would find marital bliss with Lewis, and it was bliss; Sayers would never, from all accounts I’ve read, know domestic joy.
A friend of Joy’s, author Bel Kaufman, visited Joy in England during Joy’s illness. Dorsett writes:
“Although they both knew they would not meet again…Bel found Joy to be beautifully serene and happy. ‘She was so peaceful and happy in that bed,’ Ms. Kaufman recalled, and one of the reasons for this was Joy’s being so deeply in love. ‘In spite of the gravity of her illness,’ wrote Kaufman, ‘she said something to me that is memorable; it’s a sentence I have even used in my own last book…[Joy] said, referring to her marriage to Lewis: The movies and the poets are right: it does exist!’”