By Sam Prickett
Joy Davidman may have died nearly 60 years ago, but for Mountain Brook author Patti Callahan Henry, she’s begun to take on “a life of her own” again.
Davidman’s 10-year relationship with author and theologian C.S. Lewis is the subject of Henry’s latest novel, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” which was published by HarperCollins in October. Though the book is billed as a historical romance, it’s also about spirituality and self-actualization, as Davidman, at first an atheist, undergoes a “mystical experience” that shakes her world-view and leads her to seek out Lewis, a well-known Christian apologist known for books such as “The Screwtape Letters” and “Mere Christianity.”
“When she first had this experience, she started searching for something that would not just satisfy this mystical experience, but would satisfy her logic and her intellect (too),” Henry said. “She thought (Lewis) was the only person she’d read smart enough to answer her questions, so she wrote to him and they started an almost 3-year pen friendship.”
Much of the book’s characterization of Davidman and Lewis comes from those letters and other writings, which Henry said she spent years reading in order to understand, and, in a way, to be able to revive, the couple as living, breathing characters.
“Luckily, we have loads (of writing) from both of them,” she said. “I listened to their cadence of language, listened to what they talked about, listened to how they expressed themselves, and then went off and did the best I could on this side of the grave.”
According to those who knew Davidman, Henry was successful. Douglas Gresham, Davidman’s son, called the book “extraordinarily accurate … more accurate than most biographical essays that have been written about my mother.”
Henry said she was drawn to explore Davidman’s life because Davidman is often eclipsed by her more famous husband. Even her death – in 1960, at age 45, of cancer – is usually understood through the lens of Lewis’ “A Grief Observed,” a series of essays exploring his bereavement at her loss.
“I’ve always been a huge C.S. Lewis reader, so I’ve always known about her,” Henry said. “But the most I knew about her was that she was his dying wife … And part of me was curious to know, who was this woman whom he loved so much? Once I started doing the research, I realized that they’d had a decade-long relationship. It had been portrayed as this quick, short romance when in fact it had been this twisty-turvy, improbable relationship. I was like, ‘Wait a minute! We’ve only been told the smallest piece of this story!”
At first glance, the historical romance of “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” appears to represent a departure for Henry, whose previous nov- els, such as 2009’s “Driftwood Summer” or 2017’s “The Bookshop at Water’s End,” are typically dramas set in the present day. But it fits neatly into her oeuvre as a document of a woman coming to terms with, and moving on from, her troubled past – a common theme throughout Henry’s work.
“I’m very interested in how the events that happen to us in the past form who we are,” she said. “How do we break free of that to become who we’re meant to be? I write quite a bit about breaking free of old patterns and old believes to become who we want to be.”
Henry’s next book, “The Favorite Daughter,” is slated to be published in June, and it focuses on a woman who returns home from New York to care for her ailing father, who has Alzheimer’s, and finds herself forced to confront both her strained relationship with her sister and her father’s secret past.
“That one is very much about the role memory plays in our lives,” Henry said.
“When we lose our memories, we lose who we are. And then when someone we love is losing their memories, do we lose them? They’re still there, right?”
In its own way, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” is also about the power of memory, giving depth and life to an often-forgotten corner of our collective cultural memory.
“One of the reasons I wrote about (Davidman) – and some of the reasons that a lot of these women are being dusted off and written about – is because they still have something to say to us today, because their voices were squelched in the past,” Henry said. “If we can let them have their voices today and show the woman, not behind the man, but beside the man, it’s really interesting. C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written in the way that he wrote the last 13 years of his life without her influence. I think it’s important to bring back these people from the past who have had an incredible impact that we don’t understand and let them talk to us today.”
Patti Callahan Henry will be one of the featured authors at the Hoover Public Library’s Southern Voices conference Feb. 22 and 23. The conference will also feature Bryan Stevenson, Rick Bragg, Gin Phillips and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit hooverlibrary.org/sv.