Joy Davidman (1915-1960). Courtesy University of Delaware Library.

Helen Joy Davidman (18 April 1915 - 13 July 1960) was an American poet and writer. She was an atheist and a member of the American Communist Party until her conversion to Christianity.



Davidman was born into a secular middle class Jewish family in New York City, of Polish and Ukrainian background. She was a child prodigy who read H.G. Wells's Outline of History at the age of 8 and entered Hunter College in New York City at the age of 15, earning a degree at 19.

In 1935, she received a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University in 3 semesters, while also teaching at Roosevelt High School.[1][2][3]

During the Great Depression, several incidents, including witnessing the suicide of a hungry orphan jumping off a roof at Hunter College, are said to have caused her to question the fairness of capitalism and the American economic system. She joined the American Communist Party in 1938.[4]

Her poems were published in Poetry by the time she had reached the age of 21. She won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for Letters to a Comrade in 1938; the book was chosen by Stephen Vincent Benet, who commended Davidman for her "varied command of forms and a bold power."[1] In 1939, the book won the Russell Loines Award for Poetry.

Her first novel Anya was published in 1940.[5] She was employed as a book reviewer and poetry editor for The New Masses, and published in many of the issues between 1941 and 1943.[6]

William Lindsay GreshamEdit

She married her 1st husband, William Lindsay Gresham on 24 August 1942, after becoming acquainted with him through their mutual interest in communism. They had two sons, David Lindsay Gresham (born 27 March 1944) and Douglas Howard Gresham (born 10 November 1945).[2][3]

The marriage was marred by difficulties that included her husband's alcoholism and infidelity. She recounted how after her husband had telephoned her one evening in spring 1946 that he was having a nervous breakdown and didn't know when he would return home, she suffered from a defeated emotional state.[5] She then had an experience that she described as: "for the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, 'the master of my fate'. . . All my defenses - all the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God - went down momentarily - and God came in."[3] Following Davidman's conversion to Christianity and Gresham's developing an interest in Dianetics, tarot cards and the I Ching, the couple became even more estranged.[1] [4]

Her 2nd novel, Weeping Bay was published in 1950.

C.S. LewisEdit

She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more.

- C.S. Lewis [7]

Davidman first met writer C.S. Lewis in 1952 when she made a trip to England after a two-year correspondence with him. Her cousin Renée Rodriguez, moved in to keep house for the family while she was away. She returned home the next winter to discover that Gresham and her cousin were having an affair. When the ensuing divorce became final two years later, Gresham married Rodriguez and Davidman moved to England with her two sons.[8]

Lewis originally regarded Davidman only as an agreeable intellectual companion and personal friend. His brother, Warren Lewis wrote: "For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met ... who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun." [1]

Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the UK, telling a friend that "the marriage was a pure matter of friendship and expediency." The civil marriage took place in St Giles', Oxford in April 1956.[9] Davidman was then diagnosed with incurable 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 and Anglican priest, Rev. Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at Davidman's hospital bed on 21 March 1957.[10]

The marriage did not win wide approval among Lewis's social circle, and some of his friends and colleagues avoided the new couple.[11] Joy encouraged Lewis, known to his intimates as "Jack", to write and inspired his work. She enjoyed a remission from the cancer for 3 years, but it returned in a terminal form in October 1959. Davidman died on 13 July 1960, aged 45.[2]

As a widower, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed to describe his feelings and pay tribute to his wife. In the book he recounts his initial loss of faith due to the immense grief he suffered after Davidman's death, and his struggle to regain his faith. After developing a heart condition 2 years later, Lewis went into a coma from which he recovered but then died a year later, 3 years after his wife.[12]

Writing Edit

Although much of her work during the 1930s reflected her politics as a member of the Communist Party, Letters to a Comrade was much more than implied by the title. It contained 45 poems, written in both formal and free verse, that were related to serious topics of the time such as the Spanish Civil War, the inequalities of class structure, and male-female relationship issues. Davidman's style in these poems showed the influence of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.[4]

Her best known work was Smoke on the Mountain: An interpretation of the ten commandments, published in 1956 with a preface by C.S. Lewis.[5]


Shadowlands The Stunning Drama of C

Shadowlands The Stunning Drama of C.S Lewis

Shadowlands, a dramatized version of Davidson's life with Lewis by William Nicholson, has twice been filmed. In 1985, a television version was made by the BBC One starring Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Davidman. The BBC production won BAFTA awards for best play and best actress in 1986.[13] Nicholson's work, in part drawing on Douglas Gresham's book, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and CS 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.[14] A cinema film version was released in 1993, with Anthony Hopkins as Jack (C. S. Lewis) and Debra Winger as Joy.[15]


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.[16]

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.

Publications Edit



  • Anya. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
  • Weeping Bay. New York: MacMillan, 1950.


  • Smoke on the Mountain: An interpretation of the ten commandments in terms of today (foreword by C.S. Lewis). Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954


  • 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. New York: Dial Press, 1943.


  • Out of My Bone: Letters (edited by Don King). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Haven, Cynthia (1 January 2006). "Lost in the shadow of C.S. Lewis' fame". Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "JOY DAVIDMAN PAPERS 1926-1964". Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dorsett, Lyle W. "Joy Davidman". cslewisinstitute. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Allego, Donna M.. "Joy Davidman Biography". Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 King, Don. "Joy Davidman Project". Retrieved 7 December 2011. 
  6. Tonning, J. E.. "Don King (ed.), Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman,Review by J.E. Tonning". Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  7. Person Jr., James E (16 August 2009). "BOOKS: 'Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman'". The Washington Times. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  8. Prendergast, Alan (May/Summer 2006). "One Man's Nightmare: The Noir Journey of William Lindsay Gresham". The Writer's Chronicle. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  9. Hooper, Walter (1996). C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. London: HarperCollins. p. 79. Retrieved 3 December 2011. 
  10. Edwards, Bruce L. (2007). C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy. Westport, CT: Praeger. p. 287. Retrieved 3 December 2011. 
  11. Lyle W. Dorsett (editor). The Essential C.S. Lewis. Simon & Schuster (1988). p. 13. ISBN 0-684-82374-8. 
  12. "The Question of God: C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed". PBS. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  13. "Shadowlands". BBC One. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  14. Billington, Michael (9 October 2007). "Shadowlands, Wyndham's London". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  15. Maslin, Janet (29 December 1993). "Movie Review:Shadowlands". New York Times. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  16. "Helen Joy Davidman Lewis". Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  17. Search results = au:Joy Davidman, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, June 28, 2014.

External linksEdit

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