Author Patti Callahan Henry explores one of the 20th century’s great romances in her new book Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
Fans of Alabama author Patti Callahan Henry know her for her touching novels about love, family and life in the American South. With a release earlier in October, Becoming Mrs. Lewis brings something new to the table by telling the true story of how American poet and writer Joy Davidman came to meet, befriend and fall in love with the famous author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. Joy is a reformed atheist living in New York state with her husband, Bill, when she first writes to C.S. Lewis. Joy wrote to Lewis with spiritual questions, hoping his knowledge of Christianity could offer her some guidance, never expecting a correspondence and, eventually, a friendship to blossom between them.
Soon Joy’s friendship with Lewis (known to her as “Jack”) takes her across the ocean to Oxford, England, where she realizes she’s falling in love with Jack. Joy travels back and forth between America and England, back and forth between a disintegrating marriage and a romance Jack insists can never be.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis is truly a stirring novel that gives life to history as well as the woman in the midst of one of the 20th century’s great romances. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Patti Callahan Henry (writing as Patti Callahan for this novel) about her thoughts on Joy Davidman’s place in history—and the effect her story of seeking independence as a writer, mother and lover have today.
Mariah Hopkins: Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a huge shift in genre and setting for you. Your previous 12 novels are largely set in the present day American South. Did you find the move to historical fiction challenging? What about the move to England as a setting?
Patti Callahan Henry: I found it both challenging and exhilarating. I’ve always loved research, so that part was so engrossing that I felt guilty calling it “work.” The more I researched, the more I saw connections between Joy and Jack that hadn’t been mentioned before. I didn’t find it challenging so much as a shift, and as with any shift or change, there were some bumps. Mostly I was worried about approaching such a revered man as Lewis. The setting in England was a joy (pun intended). I was able to both read about it (in Joy’s letters) and visit it. I stepped into nearly every place in the novel as if I were Joy. I called the trip, ‘In the steps of Joy.”
MH: Most everyone has heard of, if not read, The Chronicles of Narnia books and knows who C.S. Lewis is, but not Joy Davidman. How did you first learn of her? And what was it about Davidman that compelled you to tell her story?
PCH: I don’t recall exactly when I first learned about her, but I knew her as ‘C. S. Lewis’ wife.’ I wanted to know her beyond that label, as more than the woman behind the man. I wanted to know the woman beside the man. And as soon as I started to research her, I knew that her story was as compelling as any I’d read.
MH: Did you see any of yourself in Davidman when you first learned of her?
PCH: In the beginning, I didn’t see much of myself in Joy as we couldn’t appear any more different on paper, but once I came to know her, I came to see that we connected in ways that don’t seem obvious. Our struggle with how to make writing and creativity a priority when raising a family was a challenge for both of us. Also, the need to stretch past societal and familial expectations; the need to please others, and of course the search for faith and living in the mystery.
MH: I was wondering to what extent you would consider Becoming Mrs. Lewis a feminist story? Joy begins the novel as a woman of her time, constricted by the expectations society has placed upon her and believing she needs a man to be happy. But Joy eventually breaks free of those expectations and learns how to be content with herself as she is. Was this plotline something you intentionally threaded through the novel or was it simply congruent with Joy Davidman’s story?
PCH: The themes in this novel that became like bright lights were never intentional. As I began to tell her story, she began to tell me who she was and what she had to teach us today. I now say that she is the bridge of a conversation between the past and the present. We might not need to pack up our kids and move to England, but we just might need to pack up other’s expectations of us and set off on our own quest for the truth. Joy’s difficulties are like many of ours as she tries to conform, please and also fulfill her own destiny and desires. She is us. And we are her.
MH: I was so fascinated when I learned the letters between C.S. Lewis and Davidman that appear throughout the novel are not real excerpts at all! It’s a tragedy that all of the letters between Lewis and Davidman have been destroyed, but such a gift that Davidman’s love sonnets to Lewis have been rediscovered and published. It strikes me as if you fished a narrative out of those sonnets. Is this true? If so, how did you manage to pull the pieces out and put them together?
PCH: I didn’t so much pull a narrative out of the sonnets as I did the entire body of her work. I like to say that I wanted to tell this story from Joy instead of about Joy, and that’s what I did. But, yes, those sonnets were a wild and interesting strike of fate. Their letters are a culmination of all their other letters to others: what they were concerned about, what they thought and how they were living.
MH: Is there any particular work of Joy Davidman’s that you’d like everyone to go out and read? As soon as they finish Becoming Mrs. Lewis of course.
PC: Yes! Read her poetry and collection of letters. Then read Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis—it is a novel that Joy helped him write. Her fingerprints are all over it.
MH: Joy Davidman’s son, Douglas Gresham, is still alive and has historically been very active in preserving his mother and stepfather’s legacy. He’s written books about his childhood and even had a hand in producing Narnia film adaptations. Has he read Becoming Mrs. Lewis? If not, would you like him to?
PC: Douglas was an integral part of this novel—not only as a character, but I met him as I neared the end of the story. He told me stories about his mother and helped me gain permission from the C. S Lewis company to publish the novel with so much of his mother’s real work inside. I would love if he read the novel, not yet sure if he has.
MH: Is historical fiction a genre you would like to return to in the future?
PC: Absolutely. The novel I am working on now is historical—set in 1838. It is titled Surviving Savannah and is slated for 2020.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis is one of our Fall/Winter 2018 reads. View the full reading list here.