The opening line of Christy Award-winning novelist Patti Callahan Henry’s newest book proclaims: “From the very beginning it was the Great Lion who brought us together.” Her book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, tells the unexpected and inspirational love story between C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman–a romance built upon Lewis’ own literary creations and a shared quest to intimately know God. Writing the book provided Henry with her own brush with the “Great Lion,” as she learned more about her own faith and the way women can live into God’s purpose. For the Auburn graduate and Mountain Brook resident, it was a “transformational journey.”
Discovering the “Mrs. Lewis” Love Story. Henry is the author of 15 New York Times bestsellers and was recently honored with the 2020 Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer. The Bookshop at Water’s End (2017) and other prior contemporary Southern novels have gained countless fans; a Library Journal starred review said that “Callahan’s writing is riveting and her characters spring to life to create a magical and literary experience that won’t be soon forgotten.”
Henry was born in New Jersey, grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Florida when she was 12, but moved to Auburn the day she graduated from high school. She went to Auburn for her undergraduate work and then Georgia State for a graduate degree; after living in Atlanta for 25 years, she and her husband Pat moved to Alabama with their three children in 2011
For the prolific Alabama author, Becoming Mrs. Lewis was a departure. The book was the first in her repertoire to be considered an inspirational novel, and it was her first with a Christian publishing house (Harper Collins’ Thomas Nelson imprint). Her agent even won the argument to use “Patti Callahan” as her byline, so as not to confuse authors as to the type of books she writes.
When she began researching the story of Lewis and Davidman, though, Henry knew that it was a book she had to write–whether it was seen as a departure or not. Henry grew up a C.S. Lewis reader, and knew vaguely about his wife. “As the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, I grew up with C.S. Lewis in the house. I read The Screwtape Letters, and then fell down the wardrobe hole of Narnia,” she said. “I always knew he had a wife whose loss broke his heart, but that’s all I knew.” She later watched the movie “Shadowlands,” which showed how Lewis’ wife’s death had devastated him, but again felt drawn to Joy’s story. “It was told from his perspective, but I wanted to know her story,” she said.
Davidman was a renowned poet and novelist herself who was an atheist who converted to Christianity during her first marriage; when the marriage–which was marred by her husband’s alcoholism and infidelities-ended in divorce, she moved to England with her two young boys. On her conversion experience after exploring many religions, Davidman said: “the Redeemer who had made himself known, whose personality I would have recognized among ten thousand–He was Jesus.” Davidman had studied Lewis’ writing and began a correspondence with him in 1950; she moved to England in 1953 and they married in 1956. After her death from cancer in 1960, Lewis wrote what is considered one of the best expositions ever on grief- A Grief Observed.
Henry said that she was drawn to this unlikely relationship. “As I started researching, I asked this one overarching question. How did these two people ever come together? It was a completely improbable love story,” she said. “One was a poet, had been married, had two children, had never left New York. And then here was a man who had never left Ireland. He was a Christian apologist; she had been an atheist.”
“They were completely different faith-wise,” she said. “They literally could not have been more different. But fundamentally they couldn’t have been more perfect for each other.” Henry dug into the research process, reading everything Davidman had written and studying correspondence between the couple. She reread Lewis’ books from their ten years together and the years after Davidman’s death, and then visited Chicago’s Wheaton College which holds a huge collection of Lewis’ and Davidman’s papers. “Then I went to London and Oxford and walked in what I like to call the footsteps of Joy,” she said.
Learning from Joy. Henry has always written intimate tales of Southern women–who they are, what they struggle with, how they find meaning. Southern tales, she said, hold a special appeal because of the “certain wistfulness and melancholy in their storytelling.” With Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Henry said that she discovered a new layer of understanding women, especially in the way they relate to faith.
Davidman, Henry said, had great courage in the face of struggles. She packed a suitcase and moved across the ocean, to be with the man she loved but also to learn more about her relationship to God. That courage was one of two primary faith lessons Henry learned during the writing of the book. “We might not pack a suitcase, grab our kids, and move to another country, but we as women need to pack up the expectations and demands put on us that have nothing to do with the demands that God puts on us,” she said. Christian women, she said, can learn from Davidman’s courage. “She didn’t pack up without fear. She was scared out of her mind,” Henry said. “She packed it up because she had to change.”
Henry said that a second powerful message from the Davidman story is that there is nothing wrong with asking tough questions. “Joy was never afraid to ask the bigger questions,” she said. “She had been a genius intellectual and asked the big questions to understand the mystical experience she had. That’s why she wrote to Lewis in the first place.” Henry likes to call those questions “the beautiful questions”–the ones that “make or unmake a life.”
Winning the Christy Award. Becoming Mrs. Lewis won the 2019 Christy Award for Christian Fiction, an award that acknowledges “the value and impact of novels of faith in contemporary culture.” Henry said that she was “peacock proud” for winning the award. She’d been asked to present a session on C.S. Lewis for the awards ceremony but didn’t think she had a chance of winning the Christy. She didn’t even have a speech and had to make up something on the spot. The award, she said, was especially meaningful because it wasn’t what she set out to write. “I’ve always written about love, family, and women, but to get this for an inspirational book was astounding,” she said. “I was properly stunned and unprepared.”
Henry’s next book will also be a historical novel. Coming out in 2021, it is based on the true story of the Steamship Pulaski wreck. In the meantime, she is treasuring the lessons learned from Becoming Mrs. Lewis. It’s given her opportunities she never imagined beforehand (including a new podcast entitled “Behind the Scenes of Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” which takes the novel a step further and includes interviews with researchers, women in her life, experts on grief, even Lewis family members), and also provided her with an unexpected way to share her own faith story. “I could never write sermons like my father did, and he never wrote books,” she said. “And as an author you never want to be the face of the story. I’m glad I had Joy to help tell the story.”
-Cheryl Sloan Wray
Wray is a freelance writer from Hueytown, Ala. She and her husband have three daughters and six grandchildren. She is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference; learn more at the “Southern Christian Writers Conference” group on Facebook.