I recently had the deep misfortune to come across the Imaginative Conservative’s review of Don King’s compilation of Joy Davidman’s letters. Joy Davidman, as you might know, was C.S. Lewis’ wife. A talented writer in her own right, she is finally starting to get more examination and critical study by scholars. Her compilation of letters, entitled “Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman” was published in 2009 and is a fascinating insight into who Joy was as a person. The letters are Joy in her rawest form, unfiltered and vibrant.
I’ll admit the Imaginative Conservative’s dampening thoughts on the compilation more than surprised me. Indeed, him calling her “repulsive”, actually angered me–possibly because I read this compilation two years ago and it positively delighted me. I felt a kinship with Joy’s boisterousness and wit. Her struggles with her divorce, her abusive first husband, and her eventual conversion–she felt terribly real to me and I was inspired by her resilience.
I’ll fully admit that I have a personal bias towards Joy Davidman. I absolutely adore her both as a person and a writer. Given that, I can understand why others might dislike her. She had a very abrasive personality. She wasn’t particularly friendly towards other women in Lewis’ life (though I might point out that your first husband cheating on you with your cousin could perhaps make you a tad irrational on that score). She was a woman with strong opinions. She was very fond of her shotgun, which she used to dissuade poachers from entering Lewis’ garden. But after reviewing IC’s criticism about her, I felt there were several complaints that were unfair.
His first complaint of Joy is that she is nothing like Debra Winger’s portrayal in the 1994 film Shadowlands. There’s nothing I can really say to that. I’m often disappointed that the real Henry VIII looks nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Furthermore, I am positively outraged that Ronald Reagan does not look like Alan Rickman and that no matter how much I love Daveed Diggs, Thomas Jefferson looks nothing like him. (It’s also come to my attention that despite what Hamilton led me to believe, Congressional disputes are NOT solved through intense rap battles.) I’m grievously disappointed that television and Broadway led me astray on these points. Truly, it has shaken my understanding of the world. Honestly, for someone who spends a great deal of time talking about how much they love immersing themselves in memoirs and letters or as any sort of research background, should Joy Davidman’s difference from her film counterpart be really that surprising to him?
IC’s next criticism of Joy is that she’s “loud”.
This complaint is petulant. There’s no other word for it. Not only is it infantile, it holds Joy to a really odd standard, considering her contemporaries. IC claims she “yells” in every letter, or actually “shrieks”. He writes, “I felt as though she yelled through every letter she wrote. And, maybe not just yelled, but actually shrieked. She’s clearly intelligent, but it’s an obnoxious and somewhat bullying kind of intelligence.”
It’s this complaint that angered me the most. There is something about the word “shriek” that genders itself, paints Joy as a shrewish harpy rather than an outspoken woman. Was Joy opinionated? Absolutely. Was she wrongheaded about her opinions? Often. Did she talk a great deal? From what I’ve gathered, absolutely. Did she put her foot in her mouth? Many, many times. But this isn’t unique to Joy. IC seems to forget someone else who was also “loud”.
I’d like to refer to George Watson, one of Lewis’ former students. He describes a meeting between him and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis:
“His love for his American wife, Joy Davidman, in his last years was touching; but when he invited me to lunch in Cambridge, on one of her rare visits, it was not quite as I had expected. I have lived in New York among Jewish intellectuals, and there is a stereotypical instance of one in the film just made about their marriage called “Shadowlands”. What I met was a frail, distinguished, soft-spoken being, supporting herself on two sticks–above all a woman of letters. There was nothing brash about her. In fact, Lewis was noisier than she by far. Perhaps I too was surprised by Joy, on the only occasion that I met her. I am certainly surprised by what filmmakers have made of her.”
Alastair Fowler (another former student) described Lewis as “combative. He wrote:
“He had almost no small talk; he was courteous but dialectical and sometimes combative…He generally followed the adversarial system, and not always quietly. Exulting in victory, he argued closely on until his adversary was crushed or ridiculous.” Fowler stresses that while Lewis was a fierce debater and that even though some believed this method “bullying” (or obnoxious, I’d hazard a guess), Lewis was a good deal gentler than some of his other fellow teachers.
Furthermore, the collective Inklings themselves were a rowdy group. Their meetings were described as “brutally frank”, “boisterous”, and “bawdy”. (The Oxford Encylopedia of British Literature) This is to be expected, they were critiquing each others work, drinking heavily, and staying up at all hours in various pubs across Oxford. But somehow, Lewis’ loud personality and loud friends aren’t brought up in IC’s complaints of Joy.
IC further claims she has no imagination or creativity in her writing. This of course, is all a matter of taste. However, it’s hard for me to believe that Joy Davidman had no creativity and imagination when I read things like:
“Incessant rooftops to the sky
Spatter their insensate cry
Where the planets circling sing;
There on evanescent wing
Miracles of silver and steel
Over cloud and under sun
Till the yellow day is gone.
Then the moon alight and thin,
Fish with an enchanted fin,
Swims into a starry mesh,
Luring soul and loosing flesh…”
“My lord, the key to a fairy hill,
Fernseed that makes invisible,
Twenty spells in a silver box,
A hand of glory to open locks,
A phoenix on its nest, a rune
That might call down the lady-moon
To light upon your window-ledge
And make round eyes at you; the hedge
That fenced the Sleeping Beauty in
To keep your garden safe; a jinn
Shut in a bottle, a flying dragon,
The Water of Life in a diamond flagon,
Aladdin’s lamp and Solomon’s ring
And any other magic thing
I would have brought, I would indeed;
But you have all the magic you need…”
IC then complains that Joy Davidman is “repulsively bigoted” about everything. He then uses a very strange quote to bolster this point, where Joy is discussing various types of Christianity and Hindu thought’s influence on medieval Christianity. I’m a little confused on this point–I won’t deny that Joy says her fair share of problematic things in the letters, but this doesn’t necessarily seem bigoted. She has sharp criticisms for the Catholic church (her novel “Weeping Bay” is basically one long criticism of the Catholic church). But it seems a stretch to call this bigoted.
He also criticizes her thoughts on Judaism, apparently forgetting that Joy Davidman IS Jewish and is within her rights to criticize it. He apparently has issues with her pointing out that Communism had a Jewish origin–but I don’t think Joy was necessarily saying this as a negative. Remember, she was once a communist. And while it’s tempting to believe Communism = Evil, her brand of communism came from a fervent desire to help those in poverty. Misguided? Probably. Naive? She admits this herself. Calling her commentary on Judaism “bigoted” is to ignore her own family history and connection to New York Jewish culture.
Finally, he brings up a valid point (it does take him long enough) about some unsavory comments about black people in the south–though once again, he chooses a quote where she stereotypes, but the quote itself isn’t particularly insulting. She…says “the future is with the Negoes”…this is frankly progressive for a white Jewish woman in the 1950’s.
Furthermore, I’d like to counter with this letter from 1943, which called for a protest and boycott of a racist film:
“Hollywood’s treatment of the Negro has usually been ill-informed and ill-natured to an outrageous extent. Captive Wild Woman, however, out-Herods Herod. Among the more brutal and unprincipled exponents of southern lynch law there used to be a theory that the Negroes were the mythical Missing Link. Possible only to minds of the ultimate degree of illiteracy, this idea was used as a sort of warped justification of the bestialities inflicted upon helpless Negroes. But it was too grotesque to survive long except among the most virulent poll taxers.
“It is a shock, therefore, to discover that Universal Studios is planning to resurrect the Missing Link idea, in conformance with Nazi racial theories by which only that non-existent animal, the Aryan, is quite human. In Captive Wild Woman, apparently a horror quickie of even more incoherence than usual, the inevitable Mad Doctor decides to turn a female gorilla into a human being. By itself this would be merely silly; but someone had the idea of making that human being into a Negro girl! Lest you should conceivably miss Dr. Goebbels’ point, the final script leads the girl up to a mirror while she is giving way to her “lower emotions”–namely jealousy. As the emotions get lower, her skin grows darker, until she relapses through stages of subhumanity into the gorilla again! Sheer illiteracy, though it explains some Hollywood phenomena, can hardly be the sole cause of this piece of fascist propaganda.”
Interesting. A letter where Joy Davidman hears about an extremely racist and bigoted film, writes an angry letter, calling for people to boycott and protest it. Strange that I don’t see this letter referenced in IC’s review. Despite his snide comment that her views are unattractive…I find them extremely attractive. Not to say that Joy never said anything unproblematic, but for her time, she was extremely progressive.
I can understand disliking Joy. She was abrasive, she was raw, she was real. But if Joy’s letters somehow “ruined” IC’s view of C.S. Lewis, I’d say I’m glad it happened sooner rather than later. As much as we adore these writers, study their words, ponder their thoughts, and let their books be lampposts leading us into Narnia to God–let us not forget they were human. Let us not forget that they lost their tempers, that they said foolish things, that they were brilliant and fallible.
“Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman” edited and annotated by Don W. King
“C.S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends, and Colleagues” edited by Harry Lee Poe & Rebecca Whitten Poe
“A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis and Other Poets” by Joy Davidman, compiled and edited by Don W. King