The Marriage of C.S Lewis


On Feb 14th 1999 the Sunday Mail celebrated Valentine's Day with a list of the 100 greatest love affairs "of the millennium." The credibility of the exercise was called into question by the fact that Paul and Linda were number 6, but John and Yoko were only 17. In 26th place came--wait for it--C.S Lewis and Joy Davidman, pipping Benjamin Brittan and Peter Pears at the post. The number one spot was, of course, held by Edward and Mrs Simpson.

As a result of the ghastly Shadowlands, this late love affair is probably the most well-known biographical fact about Lewis. But to what extent was the version of events represented in the film a fair reflection of what really happened? In some ways, I feel uncomfortable discussing this: but since it has been written about by many of those closely involved and been the subject of a movie, I guess it is 'in the public domain.'

First, the basic historical facts (based on the Chronology in Walter Hooper's excellent Companion and Guide) are as follows:

Jan 10th -- Lewis receives a letter from Joy Gresham

September - December -- Lewis meets Joy Gresham several times in Oxford.

Joy returns to England and takes up residence in London

4 June -- Lewis accepts Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University
5 August -- Joy divorced from her first husband, William Gresham

August -- Joy moves to Oxford

23rd April -- Lewis and Joy marry in a registry office
19 October -- Joy diagnosed as suffering from cancer

21st March -- Lewis and Joy married by a clergyman at her bedside
April -- Joy moves into Lewis's home

July 13th -- Joy dies

Nov 22nd -- Lewis dies

Now, the "received" understanding of the relationship between Joy and C.S Lewis is that the secular marriage in 1956 was a purely nominal affair. The renewal of Joy's visa to remain in England had been refused, and Lewis, a bachelor, went through the marriage ceremony simply in order to make her a British citizen. They were at this time only friends; the relationship did not turn into love, and a real marriage, until after Lewis knew that she was terminally ill. The Hooper-Green biography describes Lewis as "doing the only thing that a gentleman could have done". This is, of course, the premise of Shadowlands

However, the situation actually seems to have been a good deal more complicated than that.

Lyle Dorset, in his biography of Joy, quotes a friend of Joy's as quoting her as saying in 1956 how happy she was to "hold hands with Jack and walk through the heather." This implies that she was in love with him at this time even if he wasn't with her. George Sayer says that he doesn't believe this, since it would have been out of character for Lewis to hold hands with a woman he didn't think he could marry.

George Sayer knew about the "secret" registry office marriage and reports that Lewis positively stated at this time that he was not in love with Joy. (Indeed, he records a cryptic remark of Lewis's made in 1955 to the effect that he might have considered marrying Ruth Pitter had he not "burned all his bridges behind him".)

Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1955, that a "real" marriage to Joy would, in his view, be adultery, and that the projected "technical" marriage must not be allowed to turn into a "real" one for this reason "an easy resolution when one doesn't in the least want it."

However, Lewis's brother Warren evidently believed that Lewis's was not being entirely honest with himself about the situation, writing in his diary that when Jack told him the marriage was purely formal that "I saw the uselessness of disabusing him."

Douglas Gresham (Joy's son and Lewis's stepson) paints a rather different picture of the events. He reports that Lewis told him in 1956 that the reason he had left Oxford and taken the post in Cambridge was that "when a man is considering getting married...he has to consider things like a better salary with which to support them". This would mean that Lewis had thought of marrying Joy before her English visa had become an issue, indeed (astonishingly) before she was formally divorced from her first husband. He goes on to say that "whatever he may have told his friends and colleagues" Lewis and Joy very rapidly came to regard the registry office wedding as a real marriage; and that they made plans for Joy to move into Lewis's home "long before March 1956."

Finally and controversially, A.N Wilson reports that Lyle Dorsett reports that Douglas Gresham told him (Dorsett) that in 1955 he had walked into his mother's bedroom and found her and Lewis "in a compromising position." This is not referred to in Dorsett's biography of Joy, nor in Douglas Gresham's book about his childhood with C.S Lewis and Joy Davidman. Wilson wonders whether this is because Gresham "distrusts the memory", or because it was simply considered indelicate to repeat it. Douglas Gresham has stated that the story is simply not true, and that he told Wilson this when his (Wilson's) book was being researched.

At any rate, we are left with (at least) three versions of the story to choose from. If we accept the received version of events, which is the one which Hooper and Geroge Sayer seem to follow, then we have a purely platonic registry office marriage which turned into love only when Joy turned out to be ill. (Hooper, of course, maintains or maintained that Lewis's marriage to Joy never became "real" in the sense of being consummated, but that's another can of worms.) If we accept Lyle Dorset's version, then Joy was in love with Jack at the time of the registry office marriage, but Jack had only feelings of friendship to Joy. But if we go along with Douglas Gresham, then they had been in love, or at any rate intending to marry, from a very early stage in their relationship. This would relegate Shadowlands to the realms of pious fiction, which is interesting considering that Douglas has been prepared to endorse the "emotional" truth of the movie.

My take on the matter, for what it is worth? It is not really possible to know about the emotional states of two people 40 years ago. People's feelings, and their memories of those feelings, change over time. Presumably, someone might in good faith tell his brother one thing and his stepson something different--and surely George Sayer is slightly na´ve in his assumption that no man has ever acted "out of character" in the presence of a woman to whom he is attracted.