Spotlight on Joy Davidman

Graphic by Caitlin Schwartz

She was quick. She was profound. She had a vibrancy once described as “exuding an uninhibited nature, bordering on disorderly” by a fellow Christian writer. She was the feisty intellectual companion and competitor of C.S Lewis with a hunger for politics, activism and adventure. She was Jewish. She was an atheist and then a Christian. And above all else, she possessed a talent that embodied the true artistry and ambition of a poet. To express the thoughts, emotions and cognitions we feel no other soul has ever known; to be able to capture a feeling in tangible language, place it before someone and have them say ‘that’s mine’, is a form of emotional empowerment few strangers can offer each other.

Indeed, never has the saying “behind every great man there is an even greater woman” been more certain to me than in the case of Joy Davidman – the phenomenal American poet who mesmerised and delighted the mind and soul of the ever-beloved Christian writer, C.S Lewis. She was his muse, his spiritual comrade, his mistress, but at the same time “all that any friend has ever been to me.” Throughout their short yet joyous marriage, she edited and shaped many of her husband’s manuscripts and novels, including (quite ironically) his cherished work, Surprised by Joy. Lewis regarded Davidman as the only woman – indeed individual – who could simultaneously challenge and nourish him intellectually. Reflecting on her brilliance after her death, he describes her once more as a “splendid thing; a soul straight, bright and tempered like a sword”. Leave it to one literary master to express the inspiration and splendour of another with justice.

However, her attachment to Lewis and tragic death do not define Davidman. It is in her humble beginnings where her label as a feminist literary icon can recognised and largely earned. Before many of us have any direction for our future, Davidman was already hungering after knowledge, impressing academics with her boundless intellect, artful with her words and achieving a Bachelor’s degree before 19. Her momentum only continued. By the age of 23 she received the most prestigious award a new poet can receive – the Yale Younger Poets Series Award. Her first poems are celebrated as artistically unflawed, expressive and in possession of prominent feminist undertones. In her poem ‘Amulet’ she writes:

“I am a serpent that will suck your blood,

Sting your bare eyes, or pleasurably drain

Sweet fiery thought and honey from your brain”

Her early literacy success was followed by a newfound commitment to politics, specifically the Communist Party. It is at this moment that society caught the first glimpse of Davidman’s bold power and impatience with injustice. She frequently protested in favour of socialism in a time where such actions were dangerous to an individual’s reputation and wellbeing. Furthermore, she published acclaimed opinion pieces, poems and memoirs for the Communist newspaper New Masses. Yet, she progressively became disenchanted with the movement, discovering it to be too simple and “the people, frankly boring.” She recognised a deep, soulful emptiness that couldn’t be satisfied by the triviality of politics nor her success as a writer.

Davidman regarded human emotion, and the tentative parallels of identity we find with other individuals, as the only subject that could sustain her thoughts and energy to the degree needed for her to find any satisfaction in life. Perhaps this hunger and deep palate for life is what produced her grim view of politics and, thus, led to her pursuit of a new hobby – love. Marriage had never appeared to be an aspiration of Davidman’s before she met William Lindsay Gresham. However, their initial passion for each other and the love she once held in such high prize soon deteriorated into infidelity and alcoholism, which inevitably destroyed their marriage. Although during their brief love story the two entered Christianity together, Joy claimed that faith as her own following the divorce and conquered her defeated emotional state and heartbreak with the books and works of none other than C.S Lewis.

Despite her expertise as a writer, Davidman’s greatest accomplishment was the independence of her faith. In a religious community often defined by the authority of men, she refused to allow her religious identity and pursuit of God be defined by the male figures in her life; be that her male companions, lovers or teachers. When she was ensnared in an abusive relationship, Davidman sought the divine support and assurance she needed on her own accord, describing herself as being “more alive than I have ever been” in the wake of her individual spiritual enlightenment. Despite her rich affinity with C.S Lewis, she maintained that their religious identities always be separate. On the subject of Christianity they were merely correspondents or, even more so, accomplices in discovering God’s will for their lives alone and their lives together. Faith was not an object with which she would be fickle. She respected how self-reliant and private we sometimes must be with the thoughts and obedience which grow from our spiritual cores into the trunks and forests our religious identity. That conviction, Davidman decided, would come from her commitment alone. It is through this separate spiritual journey that she once more embraces and demonstrates the boldness and independence that so defined her earlier achievements and work.

In Lewis’ final statements about his joyful and brilliant wife he concludes he “will salute her with a laugh”. Just “the impression of her mind momentarily facing” could allow him to discard his doubts and appreciate the excellence of their romance over the tragedy of her death. Although her career has since become somewhat overshadowed by the prominence of her husband, Davidman should be remembered as a vivid storyteller and a powerful writer who had nothing but an innate hunger for joy and life.