Friends and Fiction
May 19, 2021
Welcome to our new Parade.com weekly essay series in partnership with Friends & Fiction, an online community hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe. Every Wednesday, you’ll get a new life lessons essay from one of the writers, as well as the chance to discuss the themes of it later that night on Facebook Live!
Today, Patti Callahan opens up about how we can start truly listening to those around us.
Ten years ago, in a dusty closet in the countryside of Oxford, England, a woman named Jean Wakeman found an out-of-sight box. She was packing up and moving out of her small country home, one she’d lived in for most of her life. Wondering what it could possibly be, she opened the box to discover that it was jammed full of old, yellowing papers that belonged to her dearest friend, Joy Davidman, a famous poet and the wife of legendary author C. S. Lewis. Davidman had passed away 20 years before and her son, Douglas had come to live with Jean for a bit in 1963.
This sounds like an imagined story—a hidden box in a closet in the countryside of Oxford. But it was very real—and very musty. Astoundingly, inside the box were 300 unpublished poems by Joy Davidman, among other personal papers, short stories, passports and a marriage certificate to Lewis. What else was in the box? A folder, on the front of which “Courage” was written. And inside the folder? Forty-five love sonnets. And not just love sonnets, but 45 lost-to-time love sonnets dedicated to Lewis with a cover letter telling him, “The verse may be a joke; the love is not.”
It’s here in these lost poems that Joy Davidman, in sonnet form, had expressed her deepest heart and most profound love for the man we know as C. S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia, but who she knew simply as Jack—and eventually as her husband.
For those who knew the oft-told story of Lewis’s marriage to the American poet, it was but a veiled and incomplete story until this poetry was found. The story of their improbable love had been told in movies and biographies, but then a woman found a box in her closet and everything changed. Perspectives shifted, books were written and the world finally took a closer look at Davidman, who had changed not only Lewis’s life and heart, but also his work.
I was one of those people who thought I knew the true story of Jack and Joy; I had it all figured out. You know the drill: Women falls in love with a man, meets cute woman through letters, and then through trials and tribulations, they fall in love and marry.
I planned on writing an updated version of that story about Lewis and Davidman when I sat down to write a novel called Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
I wanted to expand on the beautiful movie called Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger. In that movie, Davidman shows up in England, Lewis falls in love with her and it’s a heartbreaker of a story. But all of it’s told from his point of view.
Related: Patti Callahan Henry Talks Fate
I wanted her point of view. How many times in history have women like her—like me, like you—been overlooked?
I began my research with the poems, and I discovered a much different love story than the one I thought I knew. I balked; this is not how I thought the narrative would go! I already had my ideas, solid and sure. But Davidman, it seems, had been in love with Lewis for a long while. And by the way, she was married, had two sons (not one) and had visited England twice (not once). Nothing was quite what it had all seemed on first glance.
Is anything what it seems at first glance? Do we quickly accept the commonly held stories of ourselves, our families, our communities and our heroes? Is it easier to listen and tell the same story over and over? These were questions that my research made me ask, and I hope you’ll feel inspired to ask them, too, about the tales in your own life you thought you knew.
For me, it began with an ancestry search to discover that although my Dad, a Callahan, claimed to be fully Irish, it was actually my mom with the greater Irish lineage. My ideas of my family’s heritage were altered and I wanted to know more, dig deeper. There was the time during my research for my novel Surviving Savannah that I found out that although the city of Savannah was founded with the proud ideal of “no slavery,” it was actually built by enslaved men and women from Charleston, which made me rethink the mythology of our cities and towns. What else do we accept without looking closer?
I bet there are parts of your own story that are unknown—even to you. Or parts of your family stories. Or pieces of your loved ones’ stories. Each new box found in the closet, each new fact we hear, each ancestry link, and each exposed secret changes our perspective if we open our minds and hearts to allow our old stories to crack, to grow, and to shift.
As my research for the novel continued, as I read more about this astounding woman who had won the Yale Younger Poets Award, and as I studied her influence on Lewis, I began to see her fingerprints all over the last decade of his work (most notably his novel Till We Have Faces). I began to see the edges of a new kind of Lewis. He came off the pedestal of a quotable legend and grew for me into a flesh-and-blood man who had loved and lost, who had struggled with human-heart wounds.
It took me longer than I’d like me to admit to allow my already-formed story to crack open, to see the profound influence Davidman had on Lewis and his work. Why? It wasn’t because I didn’t think she was brilliant—I knew she was—but because the same old story had been told over and over again until it had calcified my thinking. Not only did the story need an adjustment, but so did my psyche.
My understanding of Jack and Joy’s love story—which turned into my novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis—began to transform with that box in a closet, a hidden piece of history, and a lost collection of poems.
Can’t that power of transformation through discovery be the same with our lives if we let it? We might not all find a box in the corner of the closet that opens our hearts and minds to the stories we thought we knew. But what shifts in perspective can we make by listening—truly listening—to those we love? By looking closer at our collective ideas of history? By asking the questions that let us see the story from another angle? By changing our point of view? By truly listening to those whose voices typically haven’t been centered previously? And being open to the idea that our firm ideas about “the truth” and prized beliefs might not always be as rock-solid as we might think?
It can feel pretty humbling when you discover your sure footing around a favored subject wasn’t as solid as you thought—but it can be pretty transformational and exciting. And isn’t that what life’s about?
Our brains are storytelling machines. All 86 billion cells are trying to make sense and meaning out of our confusing world. And whenever something new or different makes its way into our consciousness we sit up and take notice. But what if we do more than take notice? What if we open the box and become willing to discover what one small thing might change everything?
I’m ready to try, to ask the hard questions, to go deeper. Are you?
Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and Globe and Mail bestselling novelist of 15 novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah out now and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19th, 2021. A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the co-founder and co-host of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and on her website www.patticallahanhenry.com.
Patti Callahan's Historical Fiction
Friends and Fiction is an online community, weekly live web show, and podcast founded and hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe, who have written more than 90 novels between them and are published in more than 30 languages. Catch them and their incredible author guests live every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on the Friends & Fiction Facebook group page or their YouTube Channel. Follow them on Instagram and, for weekly updates, subscribe to their newsletter.