“The Chronicles of Narnia” may be C.S. Lewis’s most famous work, but another one of his beloved and important books is “A Grief Observed.” Lewis wrote this meditation on love, death, loss and shaken faith shortly after the tragic passing of his wife, Joy Davidman, from metastatic carcinoma.
New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan has written a new novel, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” about the remarkable woman that inspired, influenced, and loved C.S. Lewis, but who has been largely forgotten by history. “All of my novels in one way or another deal with love and degrees of love,” says Callahan. “I just became very curious about how these two possibly came together — these two completely opposite people.”
Callahan will present her book and process at 4 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Jepson-Neises Audiorium.
C.S. and Joy's unusual relationship and marriage was the subject of the play “Shadowlands,” which was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger in 1993. “When I started doing my research, that was part of my shock, that ‘Shadowlands’ was told completely from C.S. Lewis’s point of view,” says Callahan. “That movie is about how her death affected him.
"It’s a beautiful movie, but that’s what it’s about. It’s not about her journey, it’s not from her point of view, it’s not about the changes she had to make in her life to even get to England, much less fall in love with him ... I try to tell it in the key of empathy, so I tell it in the first person completely from her point of view — from the seed of her heart. I made a very deliberate choice when I first started writing the book that I no longer wanted to hear about her, that I wanted to hear from her.”
Joy Davidman was was an American poet and writer who published her best known work, “Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments,” in 1954 with a preface by C.S. Lewis. Davidman was born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York City and was a child prodigy who earned a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University when she was 19.
Her first collection of poems won the Yale Young Writers Competition. She was also an atheist and a member of the Communist Party, but when her first marriage began to fall apart, she had a religious epiphany and converted to Christianity. During this period, Davidman struck up a two-year correspondence with C.S. Lewis in which time they became close friends. She eventually moved to Oxford, England, with her two sons and engaged in civil union with Lewis — to the shock and dismay of his friends and colleagues — so that she could remain in the country.
“Her life was just so fascinating and I’d never heard anyone talk about it,” says Callahan. “It kind of made me a little mad, that her story had been buried behind his and that she was always cast as the dying wife of C.S. Lewis and the woman behind the man. So, I wanted to dust her off and bring her out. I felt like she had a lot to say to us today and the story is really about conquering societal expectations.”
Callahan had not read any of Joy Davidman’s work until she began researching the book, but she grew to love her poetry, novels and letters. When Callahan makes appearances at bookstores, she loves seeing book sellers place Davidman’s books alongside hers. “That thrills me because I want people reading her work, I want people to know who she is and rediscover her,” says Callahan.
Callahan is the author of 15 novels, but this is her first foray into historical fiction. “This was totally out of my comfort zone,” says Callahan. “I spent a long while making sure the skeleton of it is true, that the facts are true, and that took a really long while to do because they are two very well known real people who had books that were published, and dates they were born and died, and had children, ... the facts had to be right, I couldn’t make them up. It was a completely different experience and one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had writing a book, by far.”