Becoming Mrs. Lewis
by Patti Callahan
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I did not expect to like this book, and I am not sure why. Yes, it is in large measure about a man whose life and work I have studied all my adult life—C. S. Lewis. But it is a novel based on the skimpy evidence of his friendship, romance, and marriage to the American woman whose full name was once Joy Davidman Gresham. But as it turns out, there is a lot more evidence than I thought; and author Patti Callahan knows a lot more about Lewis than I suspected; and most importantly, a long lost trove of papers written by the heroine was found stashed in a closet in 2013. All of which made this a fascinating and entertaining read, one that I recommend to you.
Lewis was the scholar of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England for about 30 years. He died in 1963 at the age of 65; and his wife of four years, the afore mentioned Joy Davidman, died in 1960. She reached out to him by mail while she was married and living in New York; she was married to an alcoholic, and Lewis was living with an alcoholic—his brother, Warnie. Lewis answered that letter and scores more as their friendship grew—for Davidman it grew into something more: a fantasy of soul mates and sex partners.
At least, that is the story created and detailed by Callahan in this narrative. Did she fashion out of her imagination the sexual passion and promiscuity of his lonely woman in New York? This is the first question I hope to put to the author if I can schedule her as a guest on my radio show. The closet box of papers included stacks of sonnets Davidman wrote, secretly, while nurturing this mushrooming fantasy about Lewis; and Callahan uses quotes from these to open many of the 55 chapters in this 400-page book.
Here is another question for Callahan: did Davidman really have the major role you describe in editing and inspiring a string of books published by Lewis? Is there evidence for this or is this your creation? I have read all that Lewis published and thousands of unpublished letters; and I have preached sermons, given lectures, and taught classes on the life and thought of Lewis, and I am not familiar with this piece of Lewis historiography.
I will admit this: everywhere I can cross check this narrative with the facts I do know, Callahan has it right, exactly right, down to the use of the word “soaking”, the scholar’s addiction to tobacco, and the quote from the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.
One piece of this riveting love story, though, makes me wonder. Throughout the book, Callahan creates correspondence between the two friends and lovers. Lewis was a wonderful letter-writer, and thousands of his letters have been published; they constitute, in my judgement, the very best of Lewis the man, the intellectual, the Christian. I have read all of these published letters, perhaps eight books in total and thousands of pages; and the voice of Lewis created by Callahan and presented in these fictional missives back and forth to Davidman do not sound quite right, do not feel quite right.
Another thing I want to ask: did Callahan know the title of the book before she wrote that line on page 366 describing the emotional turmoil wrenching her then-stricken body and long-suffering soul: “Becoming Mrs. Lewis in God’s eyes was a hope that burned as brightly as any light.”
But mostly, what this book gave me was, not questions, but an answer; and I will form that inspiration with this simple sentence: Joy Davidman was the first woman who really loved “Jack” Lewis as a person, a partner, a man. Lewis kept his emotions in check even while his imagination and his reason soared to remarkable heights. Yes, his life was filled with loss, disappointments, and failures, and perhaps that explains the absence of the kinds of feelings that knit a man to a woman. But yes, this book, this historical fiction offers a plausible narrative for explaining how, late in his influential life, Lewis opened up himself (and his body) to a woman who had pursued him across oceans and years. I’m glad she did; and I’m glad she succeeded; and I’m glad Callahan put it on paper; and you will be glad when you also read this surprising and superlative story, a love story if ever there was one. Thanks be to God.