“My Mistress”: Joy Davidman (Lewis)

Week Seven of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Joy Davidman (Lewis)

Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

For a good wife contains so many persons in herself. What was [Joy] not to me? 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…There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them.  It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ But also what poor warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible.  Marriage heals this.  Jointly the two become fully human. ‘In the image of God created He them. Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.  – 455-456  A Grief Observed

In 1950, a poet from New York added her name to a long roster of Lewis’s female correspondents.  She was a recent convert, a former Communist, who had come to Christ through personal revelations assisted by works of Lewis and his Inkling friend Charles Williams. Helen Joy Davidman (called “Joy”) had travelled a long, laborious, and labyrinthine journey to arrive on the margins of Christianity.  Like Lewis, Joy professed atheism after straying from her Jewish roots.  She, like Lewis, paused and considered the intellectual implications of faith early in her journey.

As Lyle Dorsett writes in his work chronicling Joy’s life, And God Came In, Joy came of age in the heterogeneous turbulence of New York City in the 1920s.  Her mother Jeanette descended from affluent Jewish merchants who had abandoned their home in the Ukraine , migrating like thousands of others to the “promised land” of America.   Jeanette, essentially, was historically Jewish.  However, her husband Joseph Davidman was an atheist who restrained his untraditional views to ensure peace in his household; Dorsett identifies it as a “tepid indifference” to Judaism.  As educators and voracious readers, Joy’s parents fostered an appetite for knowledge into Joy and her younger brother Howard.  During the summer, it was not uncommon for Joy and Howard to visit the library nearly every day, although her parents maintained an impressive library in their home.

However, Joy’s early life was extremely difficult.  Her father was cantankerous and overbearing.  Some family members recall Joseph blowing a whistle to summon his children “in the fashion of trained dogs”.  Joy, forever the doting daughter, attempted to win her father’s affection.  A bright, receptive student, Joy excelled in academics. Although she suffered from a crooked spine, Graves Disease and hyperthyroidism, which contributed to excessive school absences, her grades were largely unaffected. She was soon recognized as a poet with the publication of her poem “Resurrection” (a poem shaped by religious themes, although Joy described it as a “private argument with Jesus”). In addition to a demanding father and nagging illnesses, Joy and her brother Howard endured the “demons of anti-Semitism” which plagued them nearly everywhere they went, even when they travelled throughout the United States on holidays and vacations.

Joy eventually matriculated to Hunter’s College, a tuition-free women’s college located in the Bronx.  Joy thrived there; she quickly found her youthful love of books had matured into an abiding love of literature and language.  Joy was already “proficient” in German and Latin, learned French in college, and taught herself Greek in her spare time.  She also began crucial friendships with other students of the literary persuasion, including novelist Bel Kaufman.  While at Hunter’s, Joy served as associate editor of the literary magazine Echo while participating in the English club and Sigma Tau Delta,the national English studies honorary society.  Joy published a story in Echo titled “Apostate” in which a young Jewish woman elopes with a Christian to avoid an arranged marriage to a “weak man”. The woman is baptized into the Christian faith so she may wed, but the wedding is disrupted by her family who violently beat her as her “husband” looks on and the pastor escapes. The story won the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize that year. After graduation, she obtained employment as an English teacher at Walton High School.  She also decided to pursue a Master’s degree in English at Columbia University.

Photo courtesy of cslewis.drzeus.net

Her towering academic achievements were unfortunately overshadowed by major cultural shifts.  The Great Depression ravaged the overcrowded, unemployed residents of New York.  Some predicted a slow, yet steady pace of national rehabilitation, but the hopelessness, for some, was too much to bear.  One afternoon before her graduation in 1934, Joy watched in horror as a young woman on an adjoining building plunged to her death. The girl had leapt to her demise after struggling unsuccessfully with depression and hunger. Joy interpreted this as a byproduct of the growing capitalistic society upon which many staked the precarious recovery of the American economy.  Although Joy had never experienced the pangs of hunger and poverty, she felt a deep compassion stirring for those less fortunate: “…her anger grew increasingly at the insanity and callousness of a society that dumped potatoes in the ocean, burned wheat, and poured lime on oranges, while millions of people were unemployed, malnourished, and forced to stand in soup lines and sort through refuse in garbage cans for sustenance” (Dorsett 21). These images, coupled with her increasing animosity toward greedy corporations, eventually led Joy to join the Communist party.

Joy resigned from her teaching position in 1937 to devote more time to writing. Earlier, in 1936, some of Joy’s poems were published in Poetry magazine.  This connection would eventually lead her to a friendship with celebrated novelist and poet Stephen Vincent Benet.  Benet headed the Younger Poet Series for Yale University Press. When Joy submitted nearly fifty poems for the competition, she won a quick admirer in Benet. These works were published by Yale University Press as Letters to a Comrade in 1938. During this time, at the behest of Benet, Joy spent time at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.  This colony utilized the concept of collaboration and encouragement among writers and artists to produce and refine good art.  It served as an artistic catalyst as well as a retreat from the tumultuous society surrounding them.  Much like the Romantics of the nineteenth century, repose and restoration through nature were viewed as anodynes for the treacherous stranglehold of modern life. Former members of MacDowell include author Willa Cather and poet Sara Teasdale.  If writers and artists were chosen for the colony, they were expected to pay their own expenses, although impoverished ones could still attend with the assistance of philanthropic donations provided by wealthy businessmen and politicians such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and President Grover Cleveland. Ironically, Joy used her time at MacDowell to rail against the evils of capitalism (although she was not a sworn Communist yet) while some of her associates attended only through the sponsorship of corporations!  MacDowell Colony proved to be artistically beneficial for Joy.  She published a novel, Anya, in 1938.

Joy soon became a sworn communist and spent much creative energy contributing to the communist publication New Masses; she also worked a stint in Hollywood writing scripts. Joy eventually met and married fellow writer William Lindsay Gresham.

William (Bill) Lindsay Gresham

Photo courtesy of www.thewaythefutureblogs.com

The couple lived in utter poverty, struggling to make ends meet through their literary endeavors. Joy had two sons, but William’s alcoholism and unfaithfulness were wearing on Joy. With no coping mechanism for the increasing strain on his family and finances, Bill Gresham began to spiral out of control.  One fateful night, Bill called Joy exclaiming that he was having a “nervous breakdown”.  He  “couldn’t stay where he was” but “couldn’t bring himself to come home”.  Then he hung up the phone.  Joy was frantic.  She calmly put her boys to bed, then spent the evening on the phone attempting to locate Bill to no avail. She writes in her essay “The Longest Way Round”:

By nightfall there was nothing left to do but wait and see if he turned up, alive or dead. I put the babies to sleep and waited.  For the first time in my life I felt helpless; for the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, “the master of my own fate” and “the captain of my soul”. All my defenses – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I hid from God – went down momentarily.  And God came in.  – From Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman (Ed. Don W. King).

Joy writes that she felt “a Person” in the room with her that night. She also admits that, a year or so prior to this occurrence, she had begun reading fantasy works which had led her to C.S. Lewis; Joy specifically cites The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, and The Great Divorce as particularly influential. These works provided Joy not only with entertainment, but with intellectual stimulation in a curious, new direction – the rational argument for faith, a faith she had previously dismissed and eschewed.  That night, overwhelmed by the lack of control over her family life, Joy felt the philosophical foundation shifting beneath her feet.  The fortifications of her atheism were collapsing, and the origin of her wanderlust was being revealed to her. The towering presence of Truth was educating her at this moment.   She could no longer deny that God didn’t exist. After several days, William returned home and found a new woman. Joy renounced atheism and began attending church. She indulged her interests in religious philosophy and Christian dogma, seeing it not as a complicated enigma teeming with restrictions and empty litanies uttered to concrete gods, but as an unnamed pulse of life surging through mankind offering liberation and a renewed appreciation for beauty. She befriended professor Chad Walsh, who maintained a robust correspondence with none other than C.S. Lewis.  Fascinated and grateful to Lewis, Joy began a correspondence with him in 1950Joy mentions in “The Longest Way Round”: “I went back to C.S. Lewis and learned from him, slowly, how I had gone wrong. Without his works, I wonder if I and many others might not still be infants “crying in the night'” (95).  The experience influenced her next novel, Weeping Bay.  Although Joy was ecstatic over the spiritual changes occurring within her, it did little to repair her marriage.  William was still drinking and began to dapple in Buddhism while Joy was exploring and practicing orthodox Christianity. In August 1952, she sailed to England “to consult one of the clearest thinkers of our time for help”. She stayed with a friend, Phyllis Williams, while in London and arranged to meet Lewis in Oxford at the Eastgate Hotel.  The visit was a rousing good time.  George Sayer recalls this meeting in his biography Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis:

The party was a decided success. Joy was of medium height, with a good figure, dark hair, and rather sharp features. She was an amusingly abrasive New Yorker, and Jack was delighted by her bluntness and her anti-American views. Everything she saw in England seemed to her far better than what she had left behind. Thus, of the single glass of sherry we had before the meal, she said: ‘I call this civilized. In the States, they give you so much hard stuff that you start the meal drunk and end with a hangover.’ She was anti-urban and talked vividly about the inhumanity of the skyscraper and of the new technology and of life in New York City…She attacked modern American Literature…’Mind you, I wrote that sort of bunk myself when I was young..’ Small farm life was the only good life, she said. Jack spoke up then, saying that, on his father’s wise, he came from farming stock. “I felt that,’ she said. ‘Where else could you get the vitality?’

Joy made quite an impression on the bachelor don.  He invited Joy to dine with him at Magdalen College along with his brother Warnie, who had been absent during the initial meeting at the Eastgate Hotel.  Warnie loved Joy – her quick wit, her boundless sense of humor, her keen intellect.  Joy returned to stay at The Kilns during Christmas. The Lewis men immensely enjoyed Joy’s visit.  Joy and Lewis discuss her upcoming book Smoke on the Mountain. That Christmas, Lewis gave Joy a copy of George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul with an initial inscription from George MacDonald, followed by “Later: from C.S. Lewis to Joy Davidman, Christmas 1952”.**  Joy had a rapturous time at The Kilns, but the tone changed significantly when a letter arrived from Bill. Joy’s cousin Renee was looking after her sons during her voyage and English holiday.  Bill admitted that he had fallen in love with Renee and recommended that he and Joy file for divorce. Distressed and confused, Joy asked Lewis for guidance; Lewis ultimately agreed with Bill and suggested a divorce.

Lewis with David and Douglas Gresham – 1957

Photo courtesy of adventuresofabeautyqueen.com

In late November, Joy moved, with her sons in tow, to England.  Her marriage was dissolving but Joy was happy to be “a transplant”. She struggled to provide for her family, as Bill’s child support checks were insufficient and often unpredictable. She maintained her friendship with Lewis, even later obtaining a residence in Headington, near The Kilns. Lewis would visit “every day”  with many visits lasting “until eleven at night”.  Although many maintain that Joy “forced herself” on Lewis because she needed financial assistance, these visits were prompted by Lewis, not by Joy. In the summer of 1955, Chad and Eva Walsh visited Lewis and Joy and “smelled marriage in the air”. However, Lewis endorsed the Church of England edict which claims that marriages are holy unions and cannot be dissolved, and thus remarriage was impossible.

Nonetheless, Lewis eventually fell in love with Joy.  Some of his friends disapproved of the union, partially because of the Church’s views concerning divorce and partly because Joy was known to have an explosive temper. George Sayer recalls one afternoon during which he had business in town and left his wife Moira to read at The Kilns until he was finished. Lewis excused himself to take a nap and when Joy returned with Lewis’s laundry to find a woman at The Kilns, she was infuriated: “Who the hell are you and what the bloody hell are you doing in this house?”  Moira had previously met Joy and attempted to unsuccessfully jog Joy’s memory, ‘We have met before and I have been invited here by Mr. Lewis”.  Livid, Joy stamped out.

Photo courtesy of thoughtsonbookss.blogspot.com

Despite her temper, it was obvious that Joy was passionately in love and that Lewis was developing mutual feelings for Joy.  Although I am not at liberty to discuss them, I read all of Joy’s now famous and controversial love sonnets while conducting research at the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois last month.  These sonnets were most likely written in 1953, during her initial visit to England.  If you would like more information on these sonnets, please read Don W. King’s recent article “A Naked Tree: Joy Davidman’s Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis” in the latest edition of SEVEN, published by the Marion E. Wade Center. In this article, King summarizes the sonnets and provides excellent literary analysis on their origin and meaning.  Comically, Lewis at first puts Joy off by claiming that he prefers blondes. Perhaps it was the humor of an old bachelor, but Joy is deeply affected by this dismissal. The theme emerges in several of the sonnets.

As many now know, thanks to the romantic yet hyperbolic film Shadowlands, Joy’s residential permit was not renewed by the British Home Office.  To extend his British citizenship, Lewis generously married Joy in a civil ceremony on 23 April 1956.  Lewis kept the affair quiet, fearing criticism and disapproval from his colleagues and friends. Joy was then diagnosed with cancer (originating from radium treatments for her thyroid condition when she was young).  She began evasive cancer treatments.  The illness proved to be a turning point for Lewis; he realized that he truly did love Joy.  Furthermore, he wanted to seal a commitment before God.  In the spring of 1957, Lewis’s friend, the Reverend Peter W. Bide, arrived at the hospital to pray for Joy’s recovery. Bide eventually agreed to marry the couple, and did so on 21 March 1957.  After this, Joy experienced a period of brief but wonderful convalescence. They honeymooned in Wales and Ireland.  Later they spent twelve glorious days in Greece with the Greens (Roger and June).

But unfortunately the shadow of cancer returned. Joy was in a wheelchair, but still gregarious and lively, playing Scrabble and chatting frequently with Lewis. Despite all of the optimism, all knew, including Joy herself, that the time was at hand.

Photo courtesy of www.awesomestories.com

Joy passed away on 13 July 1960. Although their marriage had been brief, it was an experience which made Lewis incandescently happy. The loss shook him to his very core.  His reflections on Joy’s death were later published as A Grief Observed.

The Controversy of Joy

In many academic circles, Joy is portrayed as a sassy, impertinent shrew who exploited a kind, overly generous bachelor for citizenship, tuition for her children, a home, and eventually two marriages. Many prominent scholars have chosen to diminish, if not altogether ignore, Joy’s contribution to Lewis’s bibliography (Til We Have Faces is dedicated to her – Lewis believed it was his best work) as well as her personal/emotional impact on Lewis. It is perplexing that so many scholars dismiss Joy’s influence because they felt she intruded on Lewis’s good nature.  The love sonnets reveal that she was passionately in love with Lewis.  Initially, it was an intellectual attraction which matured into a sexual one.  They shared many aspects of their interests and their faith, including a similar conversion experience (Joy and Lewis admit to being “on their knees” in search of God), the mutual love of language, a thirst for knowledge and truth, and the strong desire to serve God with their literary talents.

Joy thoroughly loved Lewis as Lewis thoroughly loved Joy.  She truly made him happy.  One cannot simply erase her from Lewis’s narrative simply because she seemed abrasive. Many of Lewis’s friends did not agree with his marriage, but in the end, Lewis enjoyed a wonderful love affair with his wife, who provided creative collaboration, served as an artistic influence, and showed him a love which surpassed his already vivid imagination. A Grief Observed was not written for Lewis’s mother or Mrs. Moore – it was an outstanding record of Lewis’s deep, undying love for his wife, whom he refers to throughout as his “lover”.  The love sonnets reveal that Joy fostered this same love for Lewis much earlier, but the feelings expressed were no less substantial.

Consider these passages from A Grief Observed:

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call [Joy] to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipedreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed  to crawl back – to be sucked back – into it? (447)

You tell me, ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle, touching my circle on the plane of Nature. But I know this is impossible. (449).

This, to me, is resonant of Song of Solomon, chapter three:

On my bed by night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not.

I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.

I sought him, but found him not.

The watchmen found me

as they went about in the city.

“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

In the Biblical account of the bride’s dream, she eventually discovers “the one whom her soul loves”.  But Lewis realizes that he will not, in this life, encounter Joy again.

Lord, are these your real terms? Can I meet [Joy] again only if I learn to love you so much that I don’t care whether I meet her or not? Consider, Lord, how it looks to us. What would anyone think of me if I said to the boys, ‘No toffee now. But when you’ve grown up and don’t really want toffee you shall have as much of it as you choose? If I knew that to be eternally divided from [Joy] and eternally forgotten by her would add greater joy and splendor to her being, of course I’d say, ‘Fire Ahead.’ Just as if, on earth, I could have cured her cancer by never seeing her again.  I’d have had to. (460)

In the conclusion, Lewis writes,

How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi is torno all’ eternal fonta [Then unto the eternal fountain she turned].

For Joy’s epithet, Lewis wrote,

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

Lewis describes her as “the whole world…Reflected in a single mind”.  What beautiful and poignant words devoted to a fascinating woman. Yes, Joy Lewis was flawed, as we all are.  But to tarnish her legacy with misconception and doubts, to excuse her contributions as manufactured chivalry extended by a benevolent bachelor to a lonely and divorced mother, to characterize her as a “gold digger”, is simply inaccurate.  As researchers, we exhaustively explore to uncover the truth.  After reading the love sonnets, my humble impression is that Joy Davidman adored C.S. Lewis. She loved him as deeply and as wholeheartedly as a woman can love a man, no matter how coy and resistant he was. As illustrated in the opening quote, Lewis reciprocated these passionate feelings. She was his helpmate, his lover, his wife.  And the evidence strongly suggests that she was proud and grateful to be called “Mrs. Lewis”.

Joy, I argue, will also help Lewis shape and more sharply define his female characters. She radically alters his feminine preconceptions and ultimately his portrayals of women. Next week, we will begin our literary analysis of these characters with his first fictional work A Pilgrim’s Regress.  Join me!

**I actually held this exact copy on my visit to the Wade Center last month, where many Lewis possessions are currently stored.  Some furniture, such as Lewis’s desk and wardrobe, are on display for visitors, scholars, and enthusiasts  – http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter.

Hunting the Unicorn: Lewis and Ruth Pitter

Week Six of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Ruth Pitter

Photo Courtesy of www.poetryarchive.org

An interesting subject, Jack’s views on women. His perceptions were very numinous here as elsewhere. I have thought that losing his mother (cruel loss at age 8, and horribly emphasized by circumstances) must have seemed a black betrayal.  If he was mistrustful of women, it was not hatred, but a burnt child’s dread of fire. There was something else later on, I believe, in early manhood – some further ghastly let-down.  There is such a thing as being ill-fated in one respect or another. It is a pity that he made his first (and perhaps biggest) impact with Screwtape, in which some women are only too well portrayed in their horrors, rather like Milton’s Satan – it is this perhaps that has made people think he hated us? But even here, the insight is prodigious: and in the strength of the 3 romances, and the children’s books, I would say he was a great and very perspicacious lover of women, from poor little things right up to the “Lady” in Perelandra. I think he touched innumerable women to the heart here – I know he did me – one could sort of “home on” his love & understanding like an aircraft on a beam. As for Screwtape, I have wondered whether his experience with the “mother” he adopted [Mrs. Janie Moore] did not find a steam-vent here. The pressure once let off, and the success of the book being so great, the steam could be put to work less violently. Surely the shoals of letters he got from women (as he told me) must show how great was his appeal to them: nobody’s going to tell me these were hate-letters.  – Ruth Pitter in a letter to Walter Hooper, 13 January 1969

This week, the introduction for Ruth Pitter is written by the erudite and insightful Don W. King.  King has authored several books on Lewis, including C.S. Lewis, Poet, which I believe was a significant work in assisting Lewis’s induction into the Poet’s Corner this fall, as well as editing the letters of Joy Davidman  (Out of My Bone).  He has authored the only critical biography on poet Ruth Pitter (Hunting the Unicorn) who served as a mentor for Lewis’s poetry.  Most recently, several of King’s collected writings have been published by Abilene Christian University Press as Plain to the Inward Eye. At the end of this post, I will provide links to purchase King’s books – an excellent investment!  His research has single-handedly shaped my perception of Lewis’s relationships with women, as he has completed major research studies on two major females in Lewis’s life.  His voice is unbiased, unaffected by passions and circumstance, illustrating clarity in his depiction of Lewis and his female companions.  He, along with Hal Poe, created the Inklings Fellowship, which hosts regional meetings at Montreat College and conferences in Oxford — http://www.uu.edu/societies/inklings/.

Although Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) is not well known, her credentials as a poet are extensive, and in England from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1970’s she maintained a modest yet loyal readership. In total she produced eighteen volumes of new and collected verse. Her A Trophy of Arms (1936) won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937, and in 1954 she was awarded the William E. Heinemann Award for The Ermine (1953). Most notably, perhaps, she became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955. Furthermore, from 1946 to 1972 she was often a guest on BBC radio and television programs, In 1974 The Royal Society of Literature elected her to its highest honor, a Companion of Literature, and in 1979 she received her last national award when she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire.

Critical evaluations of her poetry have always been favorable. In the “Preface” to Pitter’s First and Second Poems, Hilaire Belloc praises her poetry as “an exceptional reappearance of the classical spirit amongst us.” He likens her verse to a strong stone building and argues really good verse “contrasted with the general run of that in the midst of which it appears, seems to me to have a certain quality of hardness; so that, in the long run, it will be discovered, as a gem is discovered in mud.” In her poetry he finds “beauty and right order.” Belloc also writes in the “Preface” to her A Mad Lady’s Garland that Pitter has two peculiar poetic gifts: “A perfect ear and exact epithet. How those two ever get combined is incomprehensible—one would think it was never possible—but when the combination does appear then you have verse of that classic sort which is founded and secure of its own future.” Rudolph Gilbert calls Pitter “the poet of purity” and notes “what the poetry reader values most in Pitter’s poems is her eloquence . . . In Pitter one almost looks through the language, as through air, discerning the exact form of the objects which stand there, and every part and shade of meaning is brought out by the sunny light resting upon them.” Later he adds: “She has a first-rate intuitive gift of observation, a control of poetic language and magical perception that is always to found in great poetry.” C. S. Lewis, who carried on an extensive correspondence with Pitter about poetry, often lavished praise on her verse. For example, he writes: “Trophy of Arms [1936] is enough for one letter for it has most deeply delighted me. I was prepared for the more definitely mystical poems, but not for this cool, classical quality. You do it time after time—create a silence and vacancy and awe all round the poem. If the Lady in Comus had written poetry one imagines it wd. have been rather like this” (July 19, 1946).

Pitter was also a voluminous letter writer. Her friends and correspondents read like a “Who’s Who” of twentieth-century British literary luminaries, including AE (George Russell), A. R. Orage, Hiliare Belloc, Walter de la Mare, Julian Huxley, John Masefield, Phillip and Ottoline Morrell, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, James Stephens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Siegfried Sassoon, Virginia Sackville-West, Dorothy Wellesley, Lord David Cecil, John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, John Wain, Kathleen Raine, and May Sarton. Stylistically Pitter’s letters are marked by crisp prose, precise imagery, and elegant simplicity reflecting a well-read and vigorous mind—lithe, curious, penetrating, analytical, and perceptive. Readers would do well to spend time with the poetry and letters of this remarkable woman.

Don W. King

Professor of English

Editor, Christian Scholar’s Review


Photo courtesy of www.montreat.edu

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Ruth Pitter in my post on Lewis’s female correspondents. In that post, I mentioned that George Sayer recalls a conversation he had with Lewis after picking him up from Pitter’s home.  Lewis stated that, “…if he were not a confirmed bachelor, Ruth Pitter would be the woman he would like to marry”.  Sayer remarks that it was not too late, to which Lewis replies, “Oh yes it is…I’ve burnt my boats” (Sayer).

As King points out in Hunting the Unicorn, Lewis and Pitter met through a mutual acquaintance, David Cecil. In a letter to Lewis following their first meeting, she is beaming with respect and admiration: “My visit to you has discountenanced all the gypsy’s warnings of people who say ‘never meet you favorite authors. they are so disappointing’ 17 July 1946

However, both were already mutual admirers of the other’s work.  Lewis, always the aspiring poet, found a mentor in Ruth Pitter.  Pitter, in the same vein, found a spiritual mentor in Lewis. Pitter admits that Lewis was a significant influence on her eventual conversion to Christianity.  Her early poems illustrate the darkness and confusion associated with spiritual ambivalence.  However, as World War II progressed, Pitter reassessed the source of her unending despair.  She found hope by simply turning on the radio and listening to Lewis’s wartime broadcasts which would later become Mere Christianity:

There were air raids at night. The factory was dark and dirty. And I remember thinking – well – I must find somebody or something because like this I cannot go on. I stopped in the middle of Battersea Bridge one dreadful March night when it was cold, and the wind was howling over the bridge, and it was a s dark as the pit, and I stood and leaned against the parapet and thought – like this I cannot go on. And it didn’t come to me at once but some time afterwards I heard the broadcast talks of C.S. Lewis, and I at once grappled them to my soul, as Shakespeare says.  And I used to assemble the family to hear because I thought that they were so good that even from the point of view of enjoyment people shouldn’t miss them, and I got every word of his that I could, and I could see by hard argument there was only the one way for it. I had to be intellectually satisfied as well as emotionally because at that time of life one doesn’t just fall into it in adolescent emotion, and I was satisfied at every point that it was the one way and the hard way to do things. (Hunting the Unicorn 118)

The poems from this period  were published as The Bridge: Poems 1939-1944. The inspiration stems partly from the bridge Pitter travelled over on her commute from Chelsea to Battersea.  Also, King illuminates, the bridge represents the movement of her thoughts between the ideal and the real.

Photo courtesy of www.todayinliterature.com

 This continual search, a wanderlust to fulfill an unnamed desire, is what drove Pitter to continually find hope in the utter hopelessness of war and death and rationing and factory work. Lewis had helped her uncover the origin of her restlessness; for this, Pitter was grateful. She went on to become a dedicated Anglican parishioner. Lewis often sent Pitter verses and asked for complete honesty in her assessment. He feared that her adoration of his works would encourage a cautious modesty, that her admiration would prevent her from giving an accurate critique.  However, Pitter provided excellent feedback.  In her journal, Pitter reflects on Lewis’s verse (September 29):

“The peaks of poetry are shiftingly veiled, and different readers catch different glimpses of the transcendental”. I would like to know more about the actual process of conception in his case. Did his great learning, & really staggering skill in verse inhibit the poetry? Did he ever (like most of us) catch some floating bit of emotional thistledown & go on from that, or did he plan on a subject like an architect? (Producing perhaps short epics?) He had a great stock of the makings of a strong poet: strong visual memory, strong recollections of childhood: desperately strong yearnings for lost Paradise & Hoped Heaven (“sweet desire”): not least a strong primitive intuition of the diabolical (not merely the horrific). In fact, his whole life was oriented & motivated by an almost-uniquely persisting child’s sense of glory and of nightmare.  The adult events were received into a medium still as pliable as wax, wide open to the glory, and equally vulnerable, with a man’s strength to feel it all, and a great scholar’s & writer’s stills to express and to interpret.  It is almost as though the adult disciplines, notably the technique of his verse, had largely inhibited his poetry, which is perhaps, after all, most evident in his prose. I think he wanted to be a poet more than anything. Time will show. But if it was magic he was after, he achieved this sufficiently elsewhere.

After seven years of corresponding, Lewis and Pitter agreed to use “Christian names” when addressing one another in letters. This undoubtedly proves the increased intimacy between Lewis and Pitter.  They would sometimes eat lunch together and maintained a healthy correspondence for some time.  Although Pitter never married, there is a strong possibility that she had romantic feelings for Lewis. Her nephew, Mark Pitter, admits that his aunt harbored strong feelings for Lewis, but was also steadfastly traditional in her beliefs surrounding relationships. For example, Pitter would have never suggested the possibility of a relationship to Lewis: women should never be sexually aggressive, becoming “the hunter”. Such behavior was unladylike and illustrated, for some, the desperation of a woman vying for attention and companionship.

This is why a relationship between Lewis and Pitter never graduated past a fond friendship. Ruth was far too romantically reserved to pursue Lewis.  On the other hand, another poetess, a brassy, former communist named Joy Davidman, was also stirred by Lewis’s words.  She, in contrast to Pitter, knew exactly what she wanted and went after it.  She began a correspondence which would climax into TWO marriages with Lewis.  Lewis was a rather coy lover, enjoying intellectual intimacy with women, but always resisting any emotional investment. However, Joy was able to melt the “great glacier” around Lewis’s heart. Did Joy’s entrance stifle Pitter and Lewis’s friendship?  To an extent, yes. Lewis wished that the two would become fast friends, but her outspoken aggressiveness proved intolerable for many of Lewis’s friends. Pitter admits to writing to Joy, with no reply.  Perhaps Joy felt threatened.  Pitter had dined with Davidman and Lewis, but the correspondence slows during this period, as Lewis takes care of his ailing wife.

Could Pitter and Lewis have become lovers? One cannot rule it out.  However, Pitter’s cool avoidance of romance eliminated any chance of a relationship. Joy pursued Lewis with everything she had, Pitter would not.  Pitter’s next volume of poetry was titled Still By ChoiceHow ironic are these words when considering her reluctance to engage Lewis for a deeper relationship.  While Joy blindly forged ahead, Pitter was still.   Still by her own admonition.

Ruth enjoyed a successful career as a poet, even though she often obtained other employment for financial stability.  She won many awards, including the Gold Medal for Poetry, a recognition she accepted from the Queen herself (since Ruth was the first female to be honored with the award, the Queen insisted that she present it personally).   Ruth also did several broadcasts on the BBC and appeared on a show called Brain Trust.  She died in 1992, leaving behind a wealth of poetry, a rich and extravagant legacy of language.

In my next installment , we will investigate a very controversial, yet significant woman in Lewis’s life.  She was his wife (twice!); her death was the impetus for the masterpiece A Grief Observed.

Next week we explore the enigma that is Joy Davidman (Lewis).

For more information on Pitter’s relationship with other writers, including a VERY intriguing entanglement with George Orwell, check out Don W. King’s Hunting the Unicorn: http://www.amazon.com/Hunting-Unicorn-Critical-Biography-Pitter/dp/0873389476/ref=sr_1_30?ie=UTF8&qid=1374026635&sr=8-30&keywords=don+w+king

Also don’t forget to pick up some of Don’s other great works: C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse  http://www.amazon.com/C-S-Lewis-Poet-Legacy-Impulse/dp/0873386817/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374026842&sr=1-1&keywords=cs+lewis+poet

Plain to the Inward Eye: http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Inward-Eye-Selected-Essays/dp/0891123903/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374026813&sr=8-1&keywords=plain+to+the+inward+eye

Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman http://www.amazon.com/Out-My-Bone-Letters-Davidman/dp/080286399X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374026870&sr=1-1&keywords=out+of+my+bone

Iron Sharpens Iron: Elizabeth Anscombe

Week Five of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Elizabeth Anscombe

Photo Courtesy of www.theologyethics.com

The lady is quite right to refute what she things bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist ought she not to succeed me?  – letter to Stella Aldwinckle 12 June 1950

In his preface to the first Socratic Digest, C.S. Lewis explains that the genesis of the Oxford Socratic Club began with an inquiry by a female chaplain, Stella Aldwinckle.  Aldwinckle asked Lewis if they could establish club where both sides of the debate over God’s existence (as well as facets of faith) could meet, discuss, and be welcomed. Lewis, intrigued by the idea, continues:

It is a little remarkable that, to the best of my knowledge, no society had ever before been formed for such a purpose.  There had been plenty of organizations that were explicitly Christian – the S.C.M. [Student Christian Movement], the Ark [Oxford Christian Society], the O.U.C.H. [Oxford University Church Union], the O.I.C.C.U. [Oxford Intercollegiate  Christian Union]- and there had been plenty of others, scientific and political, which were, if not explicitly, yet profoundly anti-Christian in outlook.  The questions about Christianity arose, no doubt, often enough in private conversation, and cast its shadow over the aesthetic or philosophical debates in many societies: but an arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christian and unbeliever was a novelty.  It’s value from a merely cultural point of view is very great. In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.  The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and difference of opinion are embittered by group hostility.  Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other group can say.  In the Socratic all this was changed. Here a man could get the case for Christianity without all the paraphernalia of pietism and the case against it without the irrelevant sansculottisme of our common anti-God weeklies.  At the very least we helped to civilize one another; sometimes we ventured to hope that if our Athenian patron were allowed to be present, unseen, at our meetings he might not have found the atmosphere wholly alien  (386-387)

And so began the Oxford Socratic Club.  Lewis was enthusiastic about the idea, and served as president until he accepted a post at Cambridge University in 1954.  The club provided an opportunity to discuss intellectual concepts of belief and unbelief without all the “hostility” that usually ensues from differences in opinion.  Here, students presented papers which provided insight into various facets of spirituality.  Lewis was taking quite a gamble; this club could easily have stirred passions to the point where students were no longer receptive, thus increasing strife and encouraging a culture of misunderstanding. However, under Lewis’s direction, the club thrived.

One important aspect to note is that the club started after an inquiry from a female chaplain.  Adlwinckle was the Pastorate’s chaplain for women students, and noticed that scientific arguments were affecting modern belief. She had previously hosted a series of discussions “for agnostics and atheists at Somerville College” and wished to “establish such a forum across the university as a whole” (McGrath). Equally as important is a composition of the club.  McGrath remarks that its members were primarily women.  In 1944, records indicated 164 members, 109 of which were students hailing from Oxford’s five all-women colleges.

In 1947, Lewis published Miracles: A Preliminary Study.  During this term, it was expected the Lewis would bring facets of his argument up for debate at Socratic meetings. One of Lewis’s points was that naturalism is self-refuting. This argument is located in the third chapter of Miracles, originally titled “The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist”.   On 2 February 1948, a young scholar named Elizabeth Anscombe presented an argument titled “A Reply to Mr. C.S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting”.

In this keen, insightful paper, Anscombe basically dismantled Lewis’s argument. Lewis has stated previously, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?”   If our beliefs are products of “environmental factors or evolutionary pressures”, and we cannot trust it when navigating our complex beliefs, then it is also untrustworthy when it attempts to build a case against the existence of God.  Materialist and “naturalist” J.B.S. Haldane wrote:

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true.  They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have to reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.  In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter (“When I am Dead”).

Lewis illuminated that if naturalism results from “rational reflection, then the validity of that process of thought has to be assumed in order to reach this conclusion” (McGrath). Essentially, Lewis states that “No thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes”.  In this way, it negates itself, or is “self-refuting”.  Anscombe, on the other hand, believed that “irrational causes” that supposedly spurn human thoughts could be debated.  In her paper, she claims,

What sorts of thing would one normally call “irrational causes” for human thoughts? – If one is asked this, one immediately thinks of such things as passion, self-interest, wishing only to see the agreeable or disagreeable, obstinate and prejudicial adherence to the views of a party or school with which one is connected, and so on.  Suppose one mentions such things, and then someone says: There are also tumors on the brain, tuberculosis, jaundice, arthritis, and similar things, one would rightly object that these do not belong in the same list as the others. They are not “irrational causes”; they are conditions which we know to go with irrational beliefs or attitudes with sufficient regularity for us to call them causes.

You speak of “irrational causes,” and by that you seem to mean “any cause that is not something rational.” “Something rational” you explain by example: “such as (you say) argument from observed facts.” You contrast the following sentences: (1) “He things that dog dangerous because he has often seen it muzzled and he has noticed that messengers always try to avoid going to that house”; (2) “He thinks that dog dangerous because it is black and ever since he was bitten by a black dog in childhood he has always been afraid of black dogs.” “Both sentences” you say “explain why the man thinks as he does. But the one explanation substantiates the value of his thought and the other discredits it…The difference is that in the first instance the man’s belief is cause by something rational (by argument from observed facts) while in the other it is caused by something irrational (association of ideas).” – Socratic Digest 2012, edited by Joel Heck

Furthermore, Anscombe is also critical of his conclusions based upon faulty reasoning.  In the club notes, she addressed Lewis on his misuse of “cause” and “ground”.  She also accused Lewis of “misunderstanding her” because he did not “distinguish between ‘having reasons’ and ‘having reasoned’ in the causal sense”.  The notes indicate that the group was conflicted: some members sided with Anscombe while others sided with Lewis or at least requested that he clear up ambiguities associated with terms used in his initial argument (Miracles). Lewis notes later that disagreed with the use of the word “valid” and makes several more assertions about his position.

Over the years, many biographers have argued that Lewis was spiritually deflated by this episode.  Alister McGrath points to several authors, A.N. Wilson among them, who have suggested that this “loss” deeply affected Lewis, to the point where he questioned his value as an apologist.  He altered chapter three of Miracles after the debate, retitling it “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”.  The quote from his letter to Aldwinckle, included above, illustrates that he felt defeated, but it does not suggest that Lewis “gave up”. Supposedly, Lewis “abandoned” theological argument and began writing children’s stories and devotional works. In her introduction to Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Anscombe recalls that Dr. Havard had her over for dinner and invited Lewis to perhaps mend fences:

The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis’s part…My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.

What need was there for resentment?  Anscombe obviously respected Lewis and perceived her argument more as an intellectual exercise; it was never an attempt to “one up” a famous professor. She, like Lewis, hailed from Ireland.  She was a devout Catholic, after converting during her first year of studies at Oxford.  She was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a mother of seven children, and author of several celebrated philosophical works including Intention.

Here we see that Lewis is most democratic with the female members of the Socratic Club.  They had equal opportunities to explore (and even dispute, as we see here) various aspects of club topics. Lewis created the club with that very intention in mind, to expand and challenge the minds of others, including himself.  I do not see any evidence that Lewis resented Anscombe.  In fact, according to the quote from his 12 June letter to Aldwinckle, he strongly recommends Anscombe to replace him as Socratic Club president.  Would Lewis have wanted this if he were upset over loosing the debate to Anscombe?  I believe not.  Although we do detect a change in the direction of Lewis’s writing at that time, and would be foolish to completely dismiss Anscombe’s debate as making a significant impression on Lewis, it is not a “defeat”, just simply a new lens which perhaps prompted a new trajectory for Lewis’s writing. The suggestion that Anscombe was the inspiration for the White Witch in preposterous.  Lewis would not stoop to characterizing in such a negative light.

Next weekend, we will explore further an admirer of Lewis’s, poetess Ruth Pitter.

If you desire more information on the Socratic Club, please check out the 2012 version of the Socratic Digest, edited by Joel Heck.