How strange that we cannot love time. It spoils our loveliest moments. Nothing quite comes up to expectations because of it. We alone: animals, so far as we can see, are unaware of time, untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense that it is not ours?
To be honest, Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy was a book I had avoided for a long time. There’s a few reasons, though first and foremost is the C. S. Lewis connection: almost ever edition of the book trumpets the fact that it contains letters by C. S. Lewis, and while I am fond of Lewis’s work, I grew up a bit too close to the panting fandom that often surrounds him. Needless to say, Vanauken’s book (with its eighteen letters from C. S. Lewis!) often gets pulled into that. I might never have gotten around to reading it if one of the local book clubs I’m in hadn’t picked it as January’s read.
Even setting that aside, A Severe Mercy is a tricky book to review. It’s a memoir of Vanauken’s marriage to his wife, Jean “Davy” Palmer Davis, whom he met and married while still in college; the peripatetic, bohemian days of their early marriage; their conversion to Christianity while Vanauken completed his PhD at Oxford; and then Davy’s tragically early death in 1954 after their return to the States, due to a virus that attacked her liver. Their courtship and early marriage is depicted as an intense business, in which they mutually agreed to share everything: the books they read, the music they listened to, and total agreement on how to live their shared life together. They called this agreement “The Shining Barrier,” which nothing should be allowed to breach lest it risk their love.
We raised the Shining Barrier against creeping separateness, which was, in the last analysis, self. We also raised it against a world of indecencies and decaying standards, the decline of courtesy, the whispering mockers of love. We would have our own standards. And, above all, we would be us-centered, not self-centered.
Their conversion to Christianity, of course, introduced a crack of sorts: it’s rather a prerequisite of the faith that you do not place anything, not even your beloved, before God. But convert they did, in part from the influence of C. S. Lewis, whom they met while in Oxford. But the real breach to the Shining Barrier was Davy’s death, which Vanauken struggled to understand; Lewis suggested to him gently, after the fact, that perhaps the devastating event was a sort of severe mercy, in that Davy being taken away prevented Vanauken from either idolizing her or letting her apparently more faithful commitment to their faith become something he resented.
There are parts of the story that are stunningly beautiful, such as the occasion early in their relationship when Vanauken, an aspiring pilot, takes Davy up in a little propeller plane; the image of her, in the forward seat, holding up a lilac blossom, and the wind blowing the individual blooms back toward Vanauken, remains utterly enchanting. And their days of proto-hippy wandering along the eastern seaboard in a tiny yacht sounds idyllic.
But I felt, throughout, the lack of Davy’s voice; we read letters between Vanauken and Lewis, but rarely anything Davy wrote; we scarcely even get many descriptions of her painting, though art was her passion, and at times, a way she made a living (she and Vanauken met at a photographer’s studio where she hand-tinted photographs). Vanauken seems to soften off any sharp, spiky, interesting edges from his beloved, and she speaks only through him for most of the text. And while it’s understandable that he portrayed her as flatteringly as possible, learning after the fact that Davy had gotten pregnant at fourteen years old after her father’s death and given up the baby girl for adoption casts a whole new light over the couple’s decision never to have children (which the women in my book club largely read as selfish, and looks more like trauma with this snippet of knowledge). Vanauken also never really acknowledges the considerable privilege from which he and Davy came, which enabled such things as pilot lessons and the purchase, as newlyweds, of a yacht (however small). It makes one wonder what else Vanauken left out.
And also, it’s easy to misread his consideration of the severe mercy of Davy’s death as God killing his beloved so that Vanauken doesn’t fall into sin. This is not what he means–neither Vanauken nor Lewis really believed in such a punitive deity–but it’s just nebulous enough to potentially lead readers into a painful theological error. As Vanauken himself acknowledges, “Signs must be read with caution. The history of Christendom is replete with instances of people who misread the signs.”
The book was a smash when it was published, winning the National Book Award, and after reading it, I respect it, but I don’t really love it. I understand some of my friends a little better, in some ways, but I’m not sure how quick I’d be to recommend this one.