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Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, ed. by Don W. King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009)

out of my boneI’ve spent the better part of my career as a historian and a writer, reading personal letters, memoirs, and autobiographies. I count it among one of the greatest pleasures in this life to be able to do so. A certain friendship and kinship usually takes place when reading the thoughts of another. Over the past quarter-century, I believe I’ve gotten fairly good at judging people, at least according to the ways they judged themselves and others. My own judgment isn’t perfect, of course. A figure I spent two years studying in graduate school, for example, still eludes me. I just could never quite get into his mind or his motivations despite the near-pure absorption his personal papers offered me. Of the figures I’ve spent the most time with, I found myself understanding and admiring J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk. Of those I’ve written about extensively, I never quite got founding father Charles Carroll of Carrollton or drummer Neil Peart, though I admire each immensely. I find others such as Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More (especially!), and Dorothy Day very attractive, though I’ve not had time to delve too deeply into each when it comes to book-length projects. More’s the pity! 

When I recently picked up the collected letters of Joy Davidman, best remembered as C.S. Lewis’s wife, I expected to find a kindred soul, a perky intellect, and a wonderful human being. After all, Debra Winger made her abrasive—but in an eccentric and kindly way—in the 1994 movie, Shadowlands. Besides, I count C.S. Lewis as one of the single greatest figures of the twentieth century and, even, of world history. How could a man as great as Lewis ever befriend a repulsive human being, much less actually marry such a person? Impossible, I thought.

Sadly, every presumption I had about Joy Davidman from Shadowlands and from my knowledge of Lewis proved false. Not only did I find Joy Davidman an unsympathetic figure, but I came away from Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman not only repulsed by her but actually questioning the very judgment and goodness of C.S. Lewis. Even a week after reading the book, it’s hard for me to think clearly about Lewis.

Let me note two things before going on. First, my criticisms of Davidman have absolutely nothing to do with the actual, physical quality of the book itself. The editor, Don W. King, has done a fabulous job with the material, the footnotes, and the context of each letter. The book—as a tangible object—is a thing of beauty, and King deserves nothing but praise for his work editing this book. The same is equally true of the press, Eerdmans.

Second, love is clearly a mystery, and why one person falls for another is one of the single greatest mysteries and profound beauties of this whirligig of a world. I’m sure there were a million, nuanced factors involved in the Lewis-Davidman affair that I will never understand nor, frankly, have the right to understand. Still, I’m shaken, and one of my heroes has fallen several notches.

If you’ve seen Shadowlands or if you know even the most basic facts about C.S. Lewis’ life, you know that Lewis began to correspond with an American science-fiction writer and poetess, Joy Davidman, in 1950. Prior to 1947, Davidman had been a Communist. After reading some books by Lewis, she left Communism and converted to Christianity. Two years after beginning her correspondence with Lewis, she left her husband (from whom she was becoming seriously estranged), and her two sons and traveled to England to meet Lewis in person. They met for the first time and enjoyed a lunch together on September 24, 1952. Joy remained in England through the fall and early winter, spending Christmas with Jack (C.S. Lewis) and his brother, Warnie.

Returning to the States in early 1953, she broke up her marriage, joined the Episcopal Church, and, the following November, moved back to England with her two sons. Joy spent yet another Christmas with Jack and Warnie, this time including her two boys as well. Over the next two years, Jack and Joy not only got to know one another well, but they also decided to marry in April, 1956. Only a civil wedding, it remains unclear just exactly how much the two loved one another. They finally made a public pronouncement of their marriage on Christmas Eve 1956, and the two had a sacramental wedding in March 1957.

Between the civil and the sacramental marriage, Joy discovered she had a rather ravenous form of cancer. Though she experienced bouts of energy during the last several years of her life, she spent much of 1957 until her death in May 1960 fighting, rather stoically, the cancer. By all accounts, Joy and Jack loved each other as true man and wife during these few years together. After Joy’s death, Jack wrote one of his most famous books, A Grief Observed.

Clearly, from the appearances of it all, there’s a fairy-tale quality to the story, and, whatever I might think of Joy as a person, it would be impossible not to recognize her own nobility and dignity in fighting the illness that eventually consumed her.

So, then, what exactly was it that turned me off so much in her letters?

First, she’s just incredibly “loud.” 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. There’s no thought or filter and no nuance or imagination. Rather, it’s as though every point must be made so straight, that it must thrust and jab at every moving object. I suspect this is the lingering ideological shadow of her former Communism, but I make this only as a guess. Russell Kirk once noted that no person ever fully leaves Communism, no matter how blatantly they reject it. He seems correct, at least when it comes to Davidman.

Second, she’s repulsively bigoted about everything. Here’s just one example:

Of course we cannot go back to feudal Christianity, which was itself a corruption of the original doctrine of revolutionary Christianity which substituted idolatrous worship of Christ the God for the political and economic doctrine of Christ the man. It is this return that the Catholic Church is trying to foist on us, and unless we take Christ away from them they have some chance of making headway. By the way, medieval Christianity cannot be understood without tracing the tremendous influence of Hindu thought; Judaeo-Christianity is quite different from Indo-Christianity.

She’s equally bad about Judaism. “It is not an accident that Communism had a Jewish origin and that almost all of its members in this country are Jews,” she wrote.

Third, while it might not quite be labeled “racism,” Joy certainly had strong views about non-whites. Here, for example, is her take on blacks in the humid parts of the South:

Your Ocala crackers sound like meat for the anthropologist: xenophobia among them alligators. There seems no doubt that the future is with the Negroes, from your description; they have the vitality—and they can stand the climate.

Whatever one wants to label her views, they are singularly unattractive.

And, perhaps tellingly, the last letter recorded in this book has her requesting from her ex-husband two packs of Tarot cards from the States. Whatever kind of Christianity Davidman embraced, it’s certainly not anything that one could easily label orthodox.

Again, this is not an attack on the editor or the book. I learned a great deal about both Lewises, about Tolkien, about T.S. Eliot, and others. This book is a necessary part of scholarship on Lewis.

Out of My Bone is perfect for the mind. Much less so for the soul.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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17 replies to this post
  1. I guess I just don’t see (based on this article, anyways), where the controversy is. Only in our politically correct times would making two (largely accurate) statements about blacks and Jews be considered offensive. If there is controversy here, it is in dumping one husband for another, although I suppose if she married the first one while a Commie and her values later changed radically, perhaps the first marriage was then untenable.

  2. Interesting. Well, I know nothing about her beyond the film, but sometimes we think some one is a certain way because they believe X and so we expect them to become different when they begin to believe Y, but often a person is who they are independent of the ideological or religious garbs they wear. Human psychology often reveals itself in that which remains constant in a person independent of their “opinions.” I never understood the appeal of Communism as Trotsky taught it.

  3. Bradley, you sure are a sensitive sort if those kinds of writings “shook” you. While I also dislike Davidmon, mainly for leaving her husband and such, her writings are a product of her time, and being blunt is no crime. I expected more from your breathless introduction.

  4. Um, so what this boils down to is that a Jewish ex-Communist from New York in the 1940s and ’50s was very blunt, and held some of the attitudes about black people that were very typical of her era. The fact that she WAS a Jew should probably be mentioned in connection with her attitude to other Jews; surely the author knows that DAVIDMAN was not her married name?

  5. I think you failed to take into account that these were letters and likely not meant for public consumption. If people dug up old epistles of mine and published them I doubt I’d fare any better…. I can understand not liking Joy Davidman after reading her letters; I can see no reason given for losing respect for CS Lewis based on this.

  6. I can hardly place blame on Joy for “breaking up” her first marriage, when her husband was a violent, abusive alcoholic who cheated on her regularly. He had converted to Christianity, but left the church shortly thereafter when he became interested in Dianetics, among other things. He abandoned her at least once, though she attempted to reconcile. Things ended for good when he began an affair with her cousin and assaulted Joy when she attempted to work things out. Her husband asked for a divorce. So, no, she didn’t just up and leave her husband.

  7. Would like to read her letters myself to form an opinion – I just finished ‘Smoke on the Mountain’ and was a little surprised in the other direction: she seemed not only sharp, but nice. And I agree with Eric and Mr. DiPippo who point out that her comments – for the time – were not the politically incorrect bombshells they would be if uttered in 2016.

  8. As a former Marxist, I admit that I find Russel Kirk’s statement that one never fully leaves Communism no matter how blatantly one rejects it, more than a trifle discouraging.

    In the Shadowlands film, it is established with a fair amount of clarity that no one in Lewis’s inner circle ,save perhaps his brother Warnie, thought highly of Joy Davidman. Perhaps, this collection of letters helps to explain why. I was intrigued by this article, and look forward to diving into Davidman’s correspondence. There must be a few diamonds in the rough.

  9. Well, I did the modern thing and checked wikipedia :

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_Davidman

    Unsurprisingly , Davidman is Polish-Ukranian, which explains why she was so beautiful and why CS Lewis fell in love with her (it is impossible not to fall in love with women from that part of the world).

    Secondly , given her origins it is absolutely no surprise that she noted the intricate ties between Judaism and Communism which are not a matter of historical controversy , but merely social controversy as they make us feel rather uneasy to imply that a certain religious tendency breeds a certain political tendency . But one must recall there were 25 million Jews in this region of the world and they were surrounded by nations vying for statehood and utterly without any prospects for a state of their own. It is not hard to see why an ideology that rejected national identity and required an educated elite of rulers would appeal to educated elites deprived of social recognition within nations that were foreign to them.

    As for the tarot cards and the like…it is not simple disillusionment , but the experience of being utterly lost. This is I think very important to Lewis’s Christianity. Christianity is home to the broken and confused souls who got everything wrong because they did not factor original sin into their view of the world.

    Finally – Communism and Christianity are very intimately linked. Davidman’s views of Catholicism may have been impacted by the fact that in practice, Catholicism in Ukraine at the time meant a terrible conflict between Catholics, Jews and Orthodox . The region was such a cauldrun of hatred (and still is) that it is natural and underdtandable that any moral human being would become a Communist there at the time – the alternative was to join a tribe and hate. There was no conservative alternative to the madness.

    Still a very interesting subject and interesting woman.

  10. “It is not an accident that Communism had a Jewish origin and that almost all of its members in this country are Jews,”

    But this was true in almost every country, especially during the time which she wrote. Marx, Trotsky, Marcuse, Lukacs, Horkheimer, Pollock, Adorno, Löwenthal, Unszlicht, Rosa Luxemburg, Yagoda. More than 50% of the NKVD was Jewish in 1939. Pretty much the only people who were happy about the Soviet invasion of Poland were Polish Jews.

    The history of Marxism and Communism in Europe — especially in Poland, Germany, and Russia — is littered with Jewish names. The Frankfurt School – Institute for Social Research – which effectively invented modern political correctness through Marcuse’s theory of repressive tolerance, was almost entirely Jewish.

    Admitting this very demonstrable historical fact should not be taken as some endorsement of Nazi-esque or Protocols-like conspiracy theory. Indeed it’s far more simple than that. As D’Israeli said, “God treats the nations as the nations treat the Jews.”

    It’s no surprise that the three European countries that were probably the most anti-Semitic — again, Poland, Germany, and Russia — produced the greatest number of Jewish communists wishing to tear down Western civilization.

  11. Interestingly, a few months ago I picked up what’s apparently a first edition of her Smoke on the Mountain. I’ve yet to read it, but I did glance through it just now.

    I’m not sure there’s much difference between the blunt, abrasive Davidman of those letters and her public persona, as illustrated by that book. At times she seems quite ill-tempered in her criticism of others. She’s clearly not the urbane, middle-ground-seeking C. S. Lewis we find in Mere Christianity.

    Maybe their romance was a case of opposites attracting.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis

  12. Mr. Perry’s fingering of Joy Davidman Lewis as “ill-tempered” brings to mind a Voltaire quote: “To succeed in the world, it is not sufficient to be stupid; you must also be well-mannered.”

  13. Possible explanation for why Lewis fell for her: People can be very different in person, than they appear to be in their writing.

    I knew a man in college, who came from near-poverty; very bright, hard-working, engaging, honest, stubborn. He founded a successful company & retired a millionaire. But his writing was atrocious: problems with subject-verb agreement, dangling clauses, all the errors they taught us to avoid in junior high school. I worked for his company several years & would sometimes edit or re-write reports he did for clients. If you judged him by his writing alone, you would think him an ignoramus. He was anything but.

  14. I obtained a copy of the book recently, and found her to be a very likable gal. Among thee is an essay, “The Longest Way Round.” about her journey to Christianity, explaining why she became a Communist”:
    “During the depression my spiritual insurance had lapsed. For one thing, I was getting a little old for the flitting-butterfly stuff; at twenty-two a girl begins to want a serious purpose. For another though I myself was prosperous and secure, my friends were not. To live entirely for my own pleasures, with hungry men selling apples on every street corner, demanded a callousness of which I seemed incapable. Maybe no rational person would worry about the rest of the world; I found myself worrying all the same. And I wanted to do [italicized] something. So I joined the Communist Party.
    “My motives were a mixed lot. Youthful rebelliousness, youthful vanity, youthful contempt of the ‘stupid people’ who seemed to be running society, all these played a part. The world was out of joint, and, goody, goody, who so fit as I to set it right.

    How anyone could read that and not be captivated, I don’t know.
    In a letter from the Kilns, she gives a close-up of Lewis that should delight his readers:

    “Jack’s finished his book on the Psalms and is nearly through a fearsome work of scholarship—something on medieval poetry and philosophy; he goes about muttering bits of Latin and Anglo-Saxon, except when the cat trips him up, when what he says is much more vernacular.”

    And here’s Warren Lewis upon hearing of her death:

    “God rest her soul, I miss her to a degree which I would not have imagined possible.

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