Helen Joy Davidman (April 18, 1915 – July 13, 1960), also known as Joy Gresham, was an American poet and writer, a radical communist, and an atheist until her conversion to Christianity in the late 1940s. Her first husband was the writer William Lindsay Gresham (a divorcé). They had two children together: David and Douglas. Her second marriage was to the writer and Oxford don, C. S. Lewis.
Davidman was a Polish and Ukrainian-American child prodigy who read H. G. Wells's The Outline of History at eight and entered Hunter College in New York City aged fourteen. Her poems were published in Poetry by the age of 21. For her collection Letters to a Comrade she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition; in 1938 she shared with Robert Frost the Russell Loines Memorial Prize. Much of her work during this period reflected her politics; she was a member of the American Communist Party.
Davidman entered into a storied romance with C.S. Lewis, whom she met on a trip to England after a lengthy correspondence. Her first marriage had been damaged by a confluence of circumstances that included Gresham's battle with alcoholism. After divorcing Gresham, Davidman moved to England with her two sons, David and Douglas Gresham. Lewis at first regarded her as an agreeable intellectual companion and personal friend, and it was at least overtly on this level that he agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the UK. It then became clear that she had terminal bone cancer, and the relationship developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage. Since she was divorced, this was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time, but a friend, the Rev. Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at Davidman's hospital bed on March 21, 1956.
The marriage did not win wide approval and many of Lewis's friends and colleagues avoided the new couple. Joy encouraged Jack to write and inspired his work. She recovered briefly, but eventually succumbed to bone cancer on July 13, 1960, aged 45. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed in response to her death.
A comprehensive biography of Joy Davidman, her life and works, is currently being written by New York City based writer Abigail Santamaria; the book will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring, 2011.
Out of My Bone published in 2009 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, contains many of Davidman’s never-before-seen personal and professional letters, as well as her autobiographical essay, “The Longest Way Round.”
Shadowlands, a dramatized version of her life with Lewis by William Nicholson, has twice been filmed. In 1985, a television version was made by the BBC starring Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Gresham. A cinema film version was released in 1993, with Anthony Hopkins as Jack (C. S. Lewis) and Debra Winger as Joy. Both are available on DVD.
Nicholson's work, in part drawing on Douglas Gresham's book Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C S Lewis (Macmillan USA 1988, HarperCollins, 1989), was also performed in London as an award-winning stage play in 1989-90. The play transferred successfully to Broadway in 1990-91 and was revived in London in 2007.
- Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
- And field, and forest, as they were
- Reflected in a single mind)
- Like cast off clothes was left behind
- In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
- Re-born from holy poverty,
- In lenten lands, hereafter may
- Resume them on her Easter Day.
This epitaph by C. S. Lewis was originally written on the death of Charles Williams; he later adapted it to place on his wife's grave.
Books (as Joy Davidman)
Letter to a Comrade. Yale University Press, 1938.
Anya. The Macmillan Company, 1940.
War Poems of the United Nations: The Songs and Battle Cries of a World at War. Three Hundred Poems. One Hundred and Fifty Poets from Twenty Countries. Joy Davidman, editor. Dial Press, 1943.
Weeping Bay. MacMillan, 1950.
Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments in Terms of Today. Foreword by C. S. Lewis. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954.
Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman'. Don W. King, editor. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.