Last time we met a monk who looked like he’d remain a bachelor for his whole life (see Real-life Romance: A Monk and a Nun Get Married). This week, we have another old bachelor, the straight-spoken and well-known professor, C.S. Lewis. Rumours had flown his relationship with the mother of his war-time buddy was rather a bit closer than usual (whatever the fact he’d sworn to his buddy to take care of her, and called her his “second mother”), but other than those rumours the evidence was clear that C.S. Lewis was fifty-four years old and still a bachelor.
If you know a bit about C.S. Lewis, you know he was a professor at Oxford, a friend of Tolkien’s, and a writer of many books (including the well-known The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), many of which had to do with his conversion to Christianity. So he was quite well-known already by this point in his life. And at this point, Joy Davidman Gresham began writing letters back-and-forth with him. Hmmm, there really must be something in this letter-writing business, because this is the second couple we’ve met who technically began their acquaintance through letters! Joy Davidman was also a writer, and a Jew who had converted to Christianity, so she and Lewis had enough to talk about. The “Gresham” part of her name, though, comes from the fact she was married – rather miserably, to an alcoholic philanderer.
She took a trip to England, where she met C.S. Lewis personally. Her trip, however, was cut short when she got a letter from her husband stating he was having an affair with her cousin, and wanted a divorce. Joy went back to try and save their marriage, but without succeeding – they divorced in 1954. After that, Joy decided she had enjoyed England enough that she wanted to go back there with her two sons to live there. C.S. Lewis helped her get established and find schools for her sons, and when her ex-husband stopped sending her child support, he helped her out a bit with money. But as yet, there was no indication he was in love with her. He clearly found her intellectually stimulating, and enjoyed her company, but that was all. She, on the other hand – well, there are certainly claims her feelings may’ve kicked in earlier.
Then came the news that Joy was going to be kicked out of England, because the Home Office wouldn’t renew her visa. She’d worked so hard to re-establish her life after her disastrous first marriage, and now she’d have to do it all over again? That was a bit much. With a twist only previously seen in the plots of romantic comedies, the solution to this situation was for C.S. Lewis to marry her. Yes, at fifty-eight the old bachelor quickly eloped with Joy to ensure she could stay in the country.
Yet he still wasn’t in love with her, or if he was, he didn’t admit it. They lived apart, and life went on just as before – as if they hadn’t both signed a little piece of paper that said they were legally married. Then Joy found out she had bone cancer. And C.S. Lewis discovered he did care very much if he’d lose her, after all.
He’d fallen in love with her. As he wrote after learning about her cancer diagnosis, “new beauty and new tragedy have entered my life. You would be surprised (or perhaps you would not?) to know how much of a strange sort of happiness and even gaiety there is between us.”
While Joy was undergoing treatment, the two of them decided to get married in the Church of England, since their previous marriage had merely been a civil/legal one. Since Joy was divorced, this was a bit difficult, but they managed it. Then Joy recovered enough to live for three more years with Lewis, helping him with his writing and redecorating his house. (Hmm, wonder how much the bachelor’s house needed it?) She died in 1960, after discovering the cancer, which had been in remission, had come back.
When she died, C.S. Lewis wrote a book about grief in order to help himself cope with the loss. Except he didn’t want to broadcast his feelings to the whole world, so he published A Grief Observed under a pen-name, N.W. Clerk. But to his surprise, his friends began incessantly recommending the very same book to him as a way to deal with his grief. In the end, he had to just throw up his hands and admit to them that he’d been the one to write that book on grief in the first place, and that yes, it was about his late wife. So much for anonymity!
Three years after her, he died as well.
Interestingly enough, Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy, was not about Joy Davidman, fitting though that title might seem. That book was published before he’d married her, and is actually about his conversion to Christianity. Still, it’s easy to see why people sometimes get confused! (And friends of Lewis did like to joke that Lewis truly had been `surprised by Joy`)
So ends my series of four Real-life Romances. Hope you have enjoyed them all so far! While I know not everyone in life is going to have an experience like this one, I find it very encouraging to see these people did find a partner to share their life with, despite ups and downs, and were reasonably happy. As Tolkien said in Letter #43, “only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life… In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world.” For just a glimpse of this vision, isn’t it worth it once and a while to read about such relationships?
Previous Real-life Romances: