Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman.
The tale of the Jew's daughter Who sat in a box of bone, Windowless, lightless, deaf and blind, Spinning the silk of her spider mind Into a net to catch the wind; Christ came to the Jew's daughter In her dark mind alone. (219)
So begins an autobiographical ballad that Joy Davidman wrote in 1954, some years before she married the man who was to make her a household name. Regrettably, many know little more of Davidman than that she became "Mrs C. S. Lewis" but this volume is the first of three books that will hopefully correct that impression. A comprehensive biographical treatment by Abigail Santamaria is to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011 (building on the brief 1983 account by Lyle Dorsett, And God Came In). And Don King is planning to release a critical study of Davidman's poetry, to be called Yet One More Spring. In the meantime, we have his Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, which gives a fascinating insight into a remarkable life.
This "Jew's daughter," born in 1915, had a troubled relationship with her father, a "perfectionist" (xiv) who subjected her to "unrelenting pressure" (xv). She strove to please him and, as far as academic success went, succeeded. She entered Hunter College in New York City at fourteen, got her MA from Columbia in her twentieth year and was publishing her work in Poetry by the age of 21. A couple of years later and a notable writing career looked all but inevitable: she won the Yale Younger Poet Competition (for Letter to a Comrade) and the Russell Loines Memorial Award for poetry given by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a prize which had gone to Robert Frost a few years previously.
But this Jew's daughter "sat in a box of bone." Whereas Frost developed into one of the greatest American voices of the century, Davidman's promise in early adulthood began to ossify. She became an editor for New Masses, the magazine of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., a move which, even in pre-McCarthyite days, entailed a severe restriction on her professional prospects. Marriage to a troubled man, Bill Gresham, and in due course motherhood brought further constraints (40f).
Then "Christ came to the Jew's daughter." Davidman's conversion from the atheism of her father to Christianity was brought about largely through reading a British writer of Christian fiction and apologetics who was making quite a stir in the 1940s, C. S. Lewis. She wrote to him and, although that letter is not extant, it was--from one point of view--the most important piece of writing she ever did. Her poetry, her Communist articles, her two novels (Anya, 1940; Weeping Bay, 1950), though successes of a kind, were as nothing compared with the eventual impact on her literary reputation of this single missive. In 1950 she received a reply from Lewis: their correspondence was under way.
As everyone knows, correspondence led to a meeting. Meeting led to friendship. Friendship led (following Davidman's divorce from Gresham) to an extraordinary secret wedding. Her collapse with bone cancer, her second (public) wedding to Lewis, and their brief marriage completed her allotted span. After her death, Lewis wrote, pseudonymously, an account of his bereavement, titled A Grief Observed, which in turn, some decades later, inspired William Nicholson to write his Shadowlands dramas (for TV, stage, cinema, and radio). Because of A Grief Observed and Shadowlands, millions of people have heard of Joy Davidman who have never read a word of her own work, and these letters constitute a most welcome opportunity to correct that situation.
Don King in his introduction recognizes that the chance to hear Davidman's own voice, unfiltered, is the first of the reasons why these letters are worth reading. Her voice, he says rightly, is "clear and unique ... arresting, provocative, and sharply penetrating" (xiv). One can understand why her letters to Lewis stood out from the thousands he received; unfortunately, however, none of them has survived, owing to Lewis' habit of throwing away nearly all his correspondence. But although that omission means this volume is the epistolary equivalent of Hamlet without the Prince, there is still plenty of enjoyment and interest to be had from following her interactions with the less well-known figures in her life (her advice to would-be writers is especially readable). Through all these exchanges Davidman's voice continues to sound "earnest, serious, determined, not suffering fools lightly, confrontational, zealot-like" (xiv). The editor's odd decision to remove her use of ellipsis where she wished to "to suggest a trailing off of thought" (x) accentuates these qualities.
The second major reason for reading these letters, according to King, is the insight they offer into Davidman's religious and political development. Her Communist beliefs show only faintly in the correspondence presented. That is partly because Davidman's role for New Masses was as a reviewer of books, plays, and movies, rather than as a lead writer. Her interest in Communism seems to have played round its ethical and aesthetic edges rather than in its political and economic centre, and one wonders whether the whole thing was not so much a seriously held philosophy as a pose deliberately struck by a blue-stocking enfant terrible who enjoyed signing off with the Russian phrase "dosvedanye tovarishch" (21)--"farewell, comrade" About the only solid political position she unequivocally takes is opposition to America's entry into the Second World War (30). The remainder is mostly self-flagellating gush about bourgeois capitalist values. By her early thirties she had outgrown it. In fact she writes more about Communism after she has given it up than during the years she embraced it and at that point come one or two thought-provoking statements, such as her description of capitalism and communism as "different phases of the same sin" (118) and her claim that "it is not an accident that Communism had a Jewish origin" (121). She also privately confesses that "the Party serves as a voluntary and unpaid Russian agency" (101). Looking back on those years and her former comrades, she admits "the majority of us were just well-meaning half-educated schlemiels, and none a bigger schlemiel than I" (79-80).
Her movement away from Communism roughly coincided with her conversion to Christianity and around this time we begin to hear in her correspondence a note of genuine personal humility: "I am reveling in my new-found ability to admit my ignorance" (100). That she revels in this and trumpets her revelry, rather than just accepting it, is characteristic, as is the sharpness with which she criticises her fellow Jews (62, 74f, 102, 108, 119, 122). Her youth, she confesses, had been spent "in the passionate conviction that only the extremes made sense," and she knew that, for her, "the golden mean is the trickiest of all tightropes" (99). It would be presumptuous and probably inaccurate to describe her personality as bipolar, but it is hard to read the letters up to this date without feeling that, psychologically, Davidman had an insecure center, that her academic and verbal precocity had left her emotional and spiritual maturity trailing in its wake. One of the special pleasures of this volume is that it reprints her essay "The Longest Way Round" an account she wrote for a book called These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity, in which one can see her new center beginning to take form. She records how reading The Hound of Heaven made her burst into tears ("a new thing; I had seldom previously cried except for rage" 95) and lays bare her debt to Lewis: "Without his works, I wonder if I and many others might not still be infants 'crying in the night'" (95).
The mention of Lewis brings us to the third and fourth reasons King gives for being interested in these letters: they expose the struggles of Davidman's first marriage and the circumstances of her second. Bill Gresham seems also to have had a central insecurity; only in his case it was much more severe and, apparently, never reliably repaired. He comes through these pages as a tragic figure, whose womanising, alcoholism, and desperate devotion to Dianetics (134) all give testimony to a paralyzed, unfed soul and a pathetic inability to find or digest spiritual food. Though he, like Davidman, converted to Christianity, he seems to have sprung up without a root. The gradual collapse of their marriage, related here in bitter detail, gives the real-life background pain to the romanticized drama of Shadowlands. Incidentally, a memorable line from Shadowlands suggests that Gresham once broke a bottle over the head of his younger son (see Lewis' letter to Bill Gresham, 6 April 1957). Although Davidman recounts that Gresham could be violent toward her (on one occasion, she claims, he half-choked her, 141), it would appear, on the basis of this evidence, that he had "always been kind to the children" (141) and that the boys' resentments of him were "not based on physical pain" (155).
Gresham for his own part was utterly "knocked out" when Davidman took the boys to England (200; see also 312ff; 317). It was an excellent decision of King's to include here one or two letters from Gresham so that we can see things from his point of view. There are always two sides to every story, and some of Davidman's perspectives on the deficiencies of her first husband must surely be taken with a pinch of salt. She herself concedes, half-regretfully, after their divorce, that "we were a good team" (205), that "there's more to this one-flesh business than meets the eye" (149), and her tears at the sale of the family Steinway when the house was broken up (157) become a potent synecdoche of the pain of failed marriage.
When Davidman settled in England, she was both recovering from the wreckage of her previous life and starting a new chapter. Lewis-centric accounts of Davidman's life naturally focus on the "new chapter": these letters allow us to see some of the cost of the recovery. In her rented accommodation in London she is so poor that she has to subsist on "short commons" is reduced to "lunches cooked kneeling at a single gas ring" (164), and wears ragged underwear (243). Repeatedly, she writes to Gresham begging him to send more money, and her tone varies widely: now matter-of-fact, now wheedling, now tart, now exhausted.
Notwithstanding this grinding poverty she becomes a "complete Anglomaniac" (139), convinced of "the coherent view of life which makes England tick" (165). The main attraction to be found in England, of course, was a certain bachelor don living in Oxford. King hopes that these letters will correct what he regards as "a mistaken view of her: the perception that she was predatory in her pursuit of and eventual marriage to Lewis" (xxx), but "predatory" is a loaded word. Why shouldn't she have designs on him? She was a determined person, in great need, and in many ways very well-suited to friendship with the man whose writings had helped her so greatly. In fact there is strong evidence that she consciously and assiduously worked her way into Lewis' favor, and there is no need to think that this strategy could not coexist with genuine love for him. One does not need to dichotomize her motives into sincerity on the one hand and deliberation on the other. Her own enthrallment with the story of Madame de Maintenon, morganatic second wife to Louis XIV of France, suggests some intriguing parallels: "born in the workhouse, mysterious childhood visit to America, married as a girl to brilliant paralyzed poet, widowed, gets to be governess to the king's bastards and next thing you know she's reformed the king and married him" 197). Davidman even started writing a biography of her which she believed "ought to be a humdinger" (215), provisionally titled Queen Cinderella (224).
If Davidman herself noted any echoes between her own experience and that of Madame de Maintenon she does not mention them, and, as it happened, the project was never completed because of her sudden downturn in health. The final reason King gives for our interest in these letters is in seeing Davidman confront "the challenge of the cancer that eventually took her life" (xiv). Generally she was extremely feisty in her attitude, though occasionally we get a glimpse of momentary despair. She describes her fate as a "gratuitous and merciless cruelty" and thinks "perhaps it would have been better for him [Lewis] if he'd never known me, though he says not" (306).
Occasionally the sun breaks through, but overall, judging by these letters, there was little gaiety in her life, either at the end or throughout, and there are not many smiles to be had for the reader either, True, it is funny to see Lewis being lectured on the blessings of Prohibition by Davidman pore (222), and Davidman's own opinion of the Narnia Chronicles ("we'll never get rich from those" ) wrings a wry chuckle, as does Lewis' crack against Eliot (351), inspired by a dead rat. In the main, however, and with a sad irony, the signature of this correspondence is not that of joy. The final letter, written less than two weeks before her death, was to her former husband, in which she instructs him not to kiss the boys when he visits: "they are emotionally very reserved" (358). She died on July 13, 1960, aged 45. Dosvedanye tovarishch.
St. Peter's College, Oxford
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
|Previous Article:||The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.|
|Next Article:||Reading Spiritualities: Constructing and Representing the Sacred.|