Category Archives: Real-life Romance

Real-life Romance: Joy Surprises Him

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:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

J.R.R. Tolkien

Martin Luther


Filed under Real-life Romance

Real-life Romance: A Monk and a Nun Get Married

Just as I was about to post this, my internet went on the fritz and I was not able to get this post up till now – technically it is still Friday for me, but it might be rather late for those of you looking for a Friday post. Apologies!

Real-life Romance: A Monk and a Nun Get Married

Who is the next subject of our Real-life Romance series? Well, this might surprise you, but it is Martin Luther. Whoa… what can be romantic about the outspoken and fiery man who spent every other moment insulting the Roman Catholic Church? Well, we all know romance plots are based on getting unlikely people to fall in love (and a good initial dislike of each other at first doesn’t hurt either). Now, what’s more unlikely than a monk and a nun getting married? Since, you know, the very definition of such things is that they vowed to NEVER marry, or really think about the opposite sex much at all.

(Just as a note – clearly Martin Luther is somewhat of a controversial figure, and clearly this post is going to touch slightly on the topic of religion – I’ll just say straight up that I am a Protestant, so I see more good sides to Martin Luther than maybe a Catholic would.)

Let’s start at the beginning. Martin Luther was a scholar who was convinced he would never marry – at first, because he’d become a monk and made a vow of celibacy, and later on, because it was just too dangerous to ask anyone to marry him. You see, at some point he began to argue that being a monk or being celibate didn’t necessarily make anyone more holy than anyone else, and that the this requirement of being a monk was just an unnecessary rule not mentioned in the Bible. But by this point, he’d also made a lot of enemies by, among other things, nailing to a church door a list of ninety-five things wrong with the way the church made money off ‘forgiving sins’, writing numerous incendiary pamphlets about what was wrong the pope and how the church at the time abused their power, and refusing to take back any of the insults he’d given. You know, just in general starting off the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church at this time did have a lot of power, and making several of the higher-ups in it very mad at you was not a way to guarantee a safe life. He himself wrote, “I shall never take a wife, as I feel at present. Not that I am insensible to my flesh or sex (for I am neither wood nor stone); but my mind is averse to wedlock because I daily expect the death of a heretic.”

Add into this the fact that Luther was a typical bachelor – apparently he wrote without shame that he once did not air his straw bed out for a year – and it doesn’t seem likely this man would marry at all.

But then there was Katharina von Bora, a nun, as we mentioned before. Except she wasn’t really a happy nun, since her father had stuck her in the convent because her mother had died and he’d wanted to remarry. Now, a lot of nuns had started leaving nunneries after hearing Luther disagreed with pressuring people into singleness (it was different, Luther thought, if they were one of the few who truly believed God had called them to be single – he disagreed with external pressure to be celibate), and the nuns in the convent Katharina lived at asked Luther for help in leaving. Luther helped twelve of them sneak out, and find their families or get married once they were out (since women didn’t have a ton of options at the time, they needed to have some way to survive). Except he couldn’t get rid of Katharina, once he’d got her out. Her family didn’t want her back. She refused to marry the man Luther tried to set her up with. Luther apparently didn’t like her very much, calling her proud and snobbish.

Of course, an initial strong dislike in any self-respecting romance plot doesn’t mean they will hate each other forever. In fact, it almost guarantees they will change their minds. And that’s exactly what happened – Katharina admitted to another Luther’s friend that Luther was the only one she’d consider marrying. And Luther came around enough to write, “I urge matrimony on others with so many arguments that I am myself almost moved to marry….” Somehow his dislike faded away. Finally he decided the threat of danger wasn’t enough to keep them apart any more. “If I can manage it, before I die, I will still marry my Katie to spite the devil.”

So they did get married, surprising many people who thought Luther would be a bachelor forever.  They lived together harmoniously – or about as harmoniously as you can imagine two strong-willed people to live – for just over twenty years. Despite the unlikelihood of the two getting together, they somehow did. And that’s another real-life romance.

I am indebted to Wikipedia and Love and Marriage: Luther Style (by Justin Taylor) for much of this info.


More in Real-life Romance:

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Scholarly Professor and Edith

C.S. Lewis: Joy Surprises Him

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: From Recluse to Romance



Filed under Real-life Romance

Real-life Romance: The Scholarly Professor and Edith

The young J.R.R. Tolkien. Doesn’t he just ooze romance?

Real life is better than fiction sometimes. More unbelievable than fiction too, but that’s another topic. This post is the second of four to mesh two of my favourite blog topics: romance and history. ‘Cuz I realized, when I thought about it, that I knew at least four stories from history that were eventful enough to be a romance novel on their own. May I present the second Person Whose Life Could’ve Been the Plot of a Romance Novel… J.R.R. Tolkien!

(The first post, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: From Recluse to Romance,” can be found here)

You might not be surprised to see Tolkien on this list, because I wrote about his thoughts on true love before. Clearly, the man had thought about love at least once in his life – a departure from his usual ruminations on rune-making and language inventing, I’m sure – if he wrote about it to his son. And his does mention love once or twice in his epic Lord of the Rings, even if he does banish Arwen and Aragorn’s romance to the appendix. But the actual story of his falling in love with Edith – well, it might be more like a romance novel than you’d expect from a scholarly-looking professor who smoked pipes.

Tolkien starts off telling his love story to his son by saying, “My own history is so exceptional, so wrong and imprudent in nearly every point that it makes it difficult to counsel prudence.” Clearly, the reason he wrote it down for Christopher was to teach him something, but feels, like many parents, that his own life was not a particularly good example for his children to follow. He’s talking about how to have a good marriage, and be happy in love, but he’s afraid his way is not really the best way to go about that, even if it did turn out very well in the end.

First of all, Tolkien falls in love at eighteen with a Protestant. Tolkien was a Catholic. Now, some people might be confused at what the problem is here, but at the time everyone knew there was an ocean of difference between Protestants and Catholics, even if they both called themselves Christians (the Reformation, and some of the wars and violence that came out of that, might have something to do with that). Even today, Catholics and Protestants might hesitate to get involved with each other. But anyway, Tolkien and Edith Mary Bratt fell in love over their shared interest of visiting teashops with balconies, and using the sugar lumps on the tables to toss into the hats of people walking below. Picture the serious college professor doing that! And, once in love, ran straight into the disapproval of Tolkien’s mentor, who viewed Edith as not only a dreadful Protestant, but also a distraction to Tolkien’s studies. Straight off, this mentor forbade Tolkien to see her. (See? Romantic plot elements 1 & 2.) Except Tolkien, instead of doing the Romeo and Juliet thing, listened to his mentor and stayed away from Edith.

So there is Tolkien, miserably working his way through school and whiling away the time till he is twenty-one and able to talk to Edith again (you know, once he’s graduated school and everything). And Edith – well, she meets someone else and gets engaged. (Romantic plot element 3).  Tolkien doesn’t blame her, as he says, “She was perfectly free and under no vow to me, and I should have had no just complaint (except according to the unreal romantic code) if she had got married to someone else.” But the minute he turns twenty-one he wastes no time writing her and telling her how he feels, to her absolute astonishment. She thought, since she hadn’t heard a peep from him for years, that he had forgotten all about her.

The two of them had a romantic reunion under a railway viaduct, apparently, and Edith returned her engagement ring to the other guy. Tolkien clearly feels inadequate upon his marriage, telling his son, Christopher, “Think of your mother! … I was a young fellow, with a moderate degree, and apt to write verse, a few dwindling pounds, and no prospects, a Second Lieut. on 7/6 a day in the infantry where the chances of survival were against you heavily (as a subaltern).” I don’t know what the other guy’s qualifications were, but Edith obviously preferred Tolkien despite all of this. And, according to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, it was a happy marriage despite the rocky start: “Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents’; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author.” (p. 158)

As Tolkien tells his son, “the greatest of these [romantic] tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation.” Fortunately for him, that part of the romantic story did not come true. He and Edith were married for fifty-five years, and died within twenty-one months of each other. And as I mentioned before, Edith was Tolkien’s inspiration for the beautiful Lúthien Tinúviel in The Silmarillion.

And that’s the story. The whole story, in Tolkien’s words, can be found in Letter #43 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Other sources are Wikipedia and Humphrey Carpenter’s autobiography.

Does this story change your opinion of Tolkien? Any other real-life characters you know of, whose life was absurdly similar to romantic novel clichés?



Filed under Real-life Romance, True Romance

Real-life Romance: Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Elizabeth Barrett Browning {PD}

Real life is better than fiction sometimes. More unbelievable than fiction too, but that’s another topic. This post will be the first of four to mesh two of my favourite blog topics: romance and history. ‘Cuz I realized, when I thought about it, that I knew at least four stories from history that were eventful enough to be a romance novel on their own. And here you thought real life was boring…

You might’ve thought real life was boring too, if you were Elizabeth Barrett. Or, at least, your life was incredibly boring. Plagued by a mysterious illness since you were fifteen, too frail and weak to go anywhere, shut up away from society in your little home, with only an addiction to morphine to dull your pain. Of course, a friend describes you as “a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam,” which sounds very much like a heroine of a romantic novel, but of what use is that if no one ever sees you? The first act of any romantic novel tends to be boy-meets-girl, and that’s not too likely if you only ever see your family.

But Elizabeth Barrett had a hobby to fill all those hours stuck in the house, and this might be why you’re wracking your brains and going, ah, that name is so familiar! Elizabeth Barrett was a poet. And more than that, she was a successful poet, which is a rare thing. She’d been introduced to several of the literary figures of her day, such as William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson (more vaguely remembered names from that long-ago English class!), and she’d published a few popular volumes of poetry. (“Popular volumes of poetry” may sound a bit strange to your ears, but rest assured such things did exist once upon a time.) And her poetry was so good that when Robert Browning read it, he could not resist sending her a fan letter – gushing over the “fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought,” and then adding, “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too…” Oh wow, he wasn’t a shy guy, was he?

And Elizabeth, not too worried about why this guy she’d never met was telling her he loved her, wrote back. Well, it probably was an interesting change from staying home and writing poetry.

So a meeting was arranged, he began to court her, and they fell in love. He was a poet as well, so they at least had common interests to talk about. But she was six years older than him, and an invalid, so she could hardly believe he was interested in her. Her family couldn’t believe it either, and dismissed him as a gold-digger. So the two of them secretly married and went off to live in Italy, where they were, by all accounts, very happy.  (That’s how she became Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you see?)

And she got a whole series of poems out of it! (Life inspires art, what more can a writer ask for?) Not to mention feeling stronger once she got to Italy, and being able to get out more. She even gave birth to a son, though she did have several miscarriages. Her proud husband convinced her that publishing her love sonnets was a good idea, and fortunately (since people’s love poetry all too often are not something that ought to be published), her love sonnets were genuinely good. So she became even more well-known as a poet, and though she was never exactly strong, she did have a far more active social life until she died at fifty-five.

Her love sonnets are entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese*, and the second-last one is probably the most well-known. I think it captures the wild exuberance of love really well, so in case I didn’t do Robert and Elizabeth’s story justice, you can read it below (You can actually read their whole story through the sonnets, but it’s a little more difficult since it’s poetry. It’s very beautiful though):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

What do you think – can real life stories be more entertaining than fiction?

* The reason she called them Sonnets from the Portuguese was because she only decided to publish them as if they were translations of foreign sonnets – in order to be less obvious about the fact she was describing her whole romantic life in them. Robert Browning suggested she choose Portuguese for the language, because his nickname for her was “my little Portuguese.” And now you know.


Filed under On Writing, Real-life Romance