Quote of the Day: A Grief Observed

 

“I will not, if I can help it, shin up either the feathery or the prickly tree. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forbode. But the other, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’” — C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (embedded quote from Julian of Norwich)

A couple of weeks ago, I watched, for the umpteenth time, one of my favorite movies. It’s Shadowlands, the somewhat fictionalized account of C.S. Lewis’s romance with, and marriage to, Joy Davidman Gresham, the divorced, former Communist, Jewish then atheist then Christian, American poet he married “in a matter of friendship and expediency,” (so that she could stay in the UK, sort of a British version of a “green card” marriage in the US) in April 1956, and then again, in the eyes of God, and for real, in March 1957.

By that time, Joy had been diagnosed with cancer, and the marriage took place at her hospital bedside. By that time, in addition to the marriage being “for real,” both of them had realized that the relationship was “for real,” as well.

Joy’s next three years were largely cancer-free, but she suffered a relapse in 1960, and in July of that year, after suffering the torments of the “treatments” of the time, she died at home, surrounded by her devoted husband and her two sons from her earlier marriage to American author William Gresham.

I love this movie. I know it’s romanticized and oversimplified, but the fine, nuanced performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger are just wonderful. The young actor who plays Douglas Gresham (only one son is featured in the film) is also very good. Much of it was filmed in my home territory of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, and it’s beautiful and speaks of home to me. And, I think its treatment of its subjects is sensitive and real.

A day or two after seeing the film again, I decided to tackle A Grief Observed. This is one of Lewis’s last works (published in 1961; he died two years later), and I recently described it to a friend as what happens when all of C.S. Lewis’s marvelous intellectual ideas “collide with reality.” The grief. The pain. The healing. The place of God in our lives.

It’s a series of reflections on the death of a beloved wife. Some have speculated that Lewis wasn’t really “feeling” what’s described in the book (which is quite short), but that he was imagining this grief and writing it to “help,” others through the process as an intellectual exercise. I disagree, mostly for two reasons.

First, he initially published the book under a pseudonym, that of “N.W. Clerk,”* and I’m not sure what the point of that would be of that sort of posturing, unless he wanted to separate his academic self from his grief-stricken self.

Second (and this is why I’m glad I waited so long to read this, until I had (considerable) experience of both grief and joy (lower case “J”), myself. I recognize such passion, such rawness, such feeling in what he writes, about both his physical and spiritual connection to “H” (the only name he gives to his wife, and the initial for her first name, which she didn’t use — Helen), that I can’t quite believe it’s not coming from his heart.

I’ve always admired C.S. Lewis. His fiction. His non-fiction. His clear writing. His humanity. His common sense. His morality. But I’ve always (pace, serious Lewis devotees) thought of him as an academic, and of his non-fiction work especially, as a bit dry.

This little book rocked my world.

I highly recommend it.

* Possibly a pun on the Old English phrase for “I know not what author (or scholar),” “Nat Whilk (sometimes “Hwilc“) Clerc.” Sorry. I know this is probably TMI. So, sue me.

There are 32 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A fine explanation, She. I never knew this story. Thanks for a humane and empathetic post.

    • #1
  2. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    Beautiful post, moving film…I can’t watch it without tissues nearby.  The book is pure CSL; the more understated the prose, the more overwhelming the experience.  A book that is on my Kindle app now, because the paper one wore out. Thanks, @she!

    • #2
  3. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    A fine explanation, She. I never knew this story. Thanks for a humane and empathetic post.

    Thanks, Gary.  It’s an incredible story.  The sort of thing you couldn’t possibly make up.

    • #3
  4. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    She: I love this movie. I know it’s romanticized and oversimplified, but the fine, nuanced performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger are just wonderful.

    I agree! From my limited knowledge of C. S. Lewis (just finished his biography) and listening to a few religious broadcasts from 1941-1943, Anthony seemed to get Lewis’s character. Debra Winger, a fine actress, was chosen to be the American in this movie, but had a harder time playing Joy, as most British women generally didn’t like her.


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    • #4
  5. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    You remind me that I need to read it again. I recall it being three chapters of Lewis painfully asking why?! followed by a fourth chapter, more calmly wondering why am I asking why?

    • #5
  6. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Beautiful post, moving film…I can’t watch it without tissues nearby. The book is pure CSL; the more understated the prose, the more overwhelming the experience. A book that is on my Kindle app now, because the paper one wore out. Thanks, @she!

    Thanks @nandapanjandrum.  As usual, you “get it.”

     

    • #6
  7. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):
    You remind me that I need to read it again. I recall it being three chapters of Lewis painfully asking why?! followed by a fourth chapter, more calmly wondering why am I asking why?

    That’s one way to put it!

    • #7
  8. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    She: I love this movie. I know it’s romanticized and oversimplified, but the fine, nuanced performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger are just wonderful.

    I agree! From my limited knowledge of C. S. Lewis (just finished his biography) and listening to a few religious broadcasts from 1941-1943, Anthony seemed to get Lewis’s character. Debra Winger, a fine actress, was chosen to be the American in this movie, but had a harder time playing Joy, as most British women generally didn’t like her.

    She was not popular in the area, during the time that they were filming, I can attest to that.  She was viewed as  peremptory, overbearing, and demanding, in short, as a “typical” American.  But I think her performance is lovely.  Whatever fits she was giving the locals, she doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with looking her age, or the fact that she presents as rather dowdy and maternal.  That, in and of itself, is refreshing.

    Also, she’s about as old as I am, and seems to have the appropriate amount of wrinkles and lines on her face to indicate that she’s fairly happy with her age.  And, she took a break from acting and lived, seemingly happily, on a farm for about 20 years.  Like that.  In short, I’m inclined to cut her some slack.  Not sure that most  “British women” would generally like me at this point in my life, either.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    What a lovely way to enter the Sabbath. Such sweetness and sadness to reflect on. Thanks, @she.

    • #9
  10. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    She: Some have speculated that Lewis wasn’t really “feeling” what’s described in the book (which is quite short)

    It’s my opinion that this speculation originated primarily from Walter Hooper, Lewis’ private secretary for a short time. After Lewis’ death he devoted himself to Lewis’ memory and was appointed literary executor by Lewis’ brother.  I heard him speak in Atlanta in the early 70’s. He was very dismissive of the idea that Lewis had loved Joy Davidman,  “Of course, that absolutely wasn’t the case. She was only a friend that he was trying to help.  There was no question of this being a romance.”

    Hooper was a confirmed bachelor and (my opinion) didn’t care for the idea of his idol having had an earthly love for Davidman.

    • #10
  11. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    EB, the scene in the film depicting their first night of married life at home: “You do all the things you usually do; and when you come back, I’ll be here…”. says a lot, very economically.  I think Joy taught Jack how to be a man, rather than an aging boy or a sequestered academic; in literature, life, and death.

    • #11
  12. ST Member
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    Shadowlands?  Is it any good?

    • #12
  13. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Yes, it’s well done and is very moving.

    • #13
  14. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Is a pisco sour good?  Is ceviche good? Is Velveeta mac-and-cheese-from-scratch good? YUP…This movie is home-cooking for the heart and spirit…Just sayin’. :-)

    • #14
  15. ST Member
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Is a pisco sour good? Is ceviche good? Is Velveeta mac-and-cheese-from-scratch good? YUP…This movie is home-cooking for the heart and spirit…Just sayin’. :-)

    give me funny.

    • #15
  16. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    EB (View Comment):

    She: Some have speculated that Lewis wasn’t really “feeling” what’s described in the book (which is quite short)

    It’s my opinion that this speculation originated primarily from Walter Hooper, Lewis’ private secretary for a short time. After Lewis’ death he devoted himself to Lewis’ memory and was appointed literary executor by Lewis’ brother. I heard him speak in Atlanta in the early 70’s. He was very dismissive of the idea that Lewis had loved Joy Davidman, “Of course, that absolutely wasn’t the case. She was only a friend that he was trying to help. There was no question of this being a romance.”

    Hooper was a confirmed bachelor and (my opinion) didn’t care for the idea of his idol having had an earthly love for Davidman.

    I’ve found a lot of what Hooper says about Lewis to be Questionable At Best.

    • #16
  17. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Is a pisco sour good? Is ceviche good? Is Velveeta mac-and-cheese-from-scratch good? YUP…This movie is home-cooking for the heart and spirit…Just sayin’. :-)

    There’s the version with Anthony Hopkins, and also an earlier version done by the BBC. I seem to recall liking the BBC one better in some aspects.

    • #17
  18. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Is a pisco sour good? Is ceviche good? Is Velveeta mac-and-cheese-from-scratch good? YUP…This movie is home-cooking for the heart and spirit…Just sayin’. :-)

    There’s the version with Anthony Hopkins, and also an earlier version done by the BBC. I seem to recall liking the BBC one better in some aspects.

    Joss Ackland/Claire Bloom, @drewinwisconsin? Bought it, just now…Recall it being more internally-focused/psychological; a good counterpart to Anthony Hopkins/Debra Winger, for certain; but the Hollywood film might be more approachable for some.

    • #18
  19. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    Is a pisco sour good? Is ceviche good? Is Velveeta mac-and-cheese-from-scratch good? YUP…This movie is home-cooking for the heart and spirit…Just sayin’. :-)

    There’s the version with Anthony Hopkins, and also an earlier version done by the BBC. I seem to recall liking the BBC one better in some aspects.

    Yes, the story traveled to the big screen in an odd way, starting out on the BBC as a television “play,” with Joss Ackland and the lovely Claire Bloom. In a reversal of the usual direction, it then went to London’s West End and to Broadway, where Nigel Hawthorne played Jack Lewis, and Jane Alexander was cast as Joy.  It was Tony-nominated for best play that year, and the movie was made a couple of years later.

    • #19
  20. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    EB (View Comment):

    She: Some have speculated that Lewis wasn’t really “feeling” what’s described in the book (which is quite short)

    It’s my opinion that this speculation originated primarily from Walter Hooper, Lewis’ private secretary for a short time. After Lewis’ death he devoted himself to Lewis’ memory and was appointed literary executor by Lewis’ brother. I heard him speak in Atlanta in the early 70’s. He was very dismissive of the idea that Lewis had loved Joy Davidman, “Of course, that absolutely wasn’t the case. She was only a friend that he was trying to help. There was no question of this being a romance.”

    Hooper was a confirmed bachelor and (my opinion) didn’t care for the idea of his idol having had an earthly love for Davidman.

    This is fascinating.  I had no idea.  I just don’t see how anyone could read this book and come to that conclusion.  What a dolt.  (Or, perhaps you are right, and there was some other reason).

    • #20
  21. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    I much prefer the BBC 1985 Shadowlands to the 1993 Hopkins version. The Hollywood version makes it look like Lewis had no idea about pain and suffering before he married Joy Davidman. Come on, he served in World War I.

    • #21
  22. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    I much prefer the BBC 1985 Shadowlands to the 1993 Hopkins version. The Hollywood version makes it look like Lewis had no idea about pain and suffering before he married Joy Davidman. Come on, he served in World War I.

    Interesting perspective. His service in the war was short, but brutal and distinguished.

    I didn’t get the same impression from the movie that you did, though.

    • #22
  23. Larry Koler Member
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    I love both movie versions — they each have something to offer.

    It’s a strange story this business of getting married for convenience. It seems unlikely that someone so upright as Lewis could be talked into this unless he really was smitten with her. I don’t doubt that he didn’t see it as a romantic involvement at first but he may well have been so taken with her as a personality type that things just progressed into a normal human relationship.

    • #23
  24. Larry Koler Member
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Digression Alert:

    This discussion made me think of the two versions of one of my favorite movies: “The Browning Version.” I recommend watching the newer 1994 version with Albert Finney first because it tells the whole story and maybe a little better. But, the Michael Redgrave 1951 version is simply superb, too.

    • #24
  25. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Larry Koler (View Comment):
    Digression Alert:

    This discussion made me think of the two versions of one of my favorite movies: “The Browning Version.” I recommend watching the newer 1994 version with Albert Finney first because it tells the whole story and maybe a little better. But, the Michael Redgrave 1951 version is simply superb, too.

    I also thought they were both very good.  It’s been done numerous times on BBC radio (showing my age), and I think there was a TV version at some point as well.

    • #25
  26. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    I much prefer the BBC 1985 Shadowlands to the 1993 Hopkins version. The Hollywood version makes it look like Lewis had no idea about pain and suffering before he married Joy Davidman. Come on, he served in World War I.

    One’s own suffering – even in war – is, perhaps, different because the society (for the Lewis brothers) shared it.  A loved one’s suffering that cannot be cured – so must be endured – about which one feels angry/betrayed/helpless, is qualitatively different.  As well, I got no inkling of Lewis’s prior experience of suffering that would’ve been easily detected (without prior familiarity) from either film.  Perhaps that was neither production’s intent.

    • #26
  27. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @nandapanjandrum

    [Edit created a duplicate comment. Oopsie.]

     

    • #27
  28. Nicegrizzly Member
    Nicegrizzly
    @Nicegrizzly

    ST (View Comment):
    Shadowlands? Is it any good?

    It’s wonderful. One of my favorites.

    • #28
  29. Hypatia Member
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    I don’t think I ever saw a picture of Joy before.  She’s beautiful!   Lewis was emotionally enslaved to the horrible Mrs. Moore most of his life.  It must have been a sweetness he had never experienced,  to have this lovely woman devoted to him.  And I read somehere, maybe in Surprised by Joy,  that he absolutely reveled in his sexual and emotional relationship,with her.  He was so besotted he brought her along to the Inkling sessions, which totally turned off JRR and the others..a woman! An American! A Jew!   Yes, and ALL  of those elements were exactly what Jack, formerly rather a dull boy, so desperately needed without even knowing it…..

    May they be together now, eternally having the drinks and the laughs he missed so much when she died!

    • #29
  30. Hammer, The Member
    Hammer, The
    @RyanM

    The only problem with that movie is that now, of course, I cannot really watch Anthony Hopkins in any role other than that of a kindly old man who I admire.

     

    • #30

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