The true value of many things can only be seen in retrospect. Indeed, Sheldon Vanauken probably would not have called what he went through 'a severe mercy' at the time. As it was, he didn't write this book until many, many years after it occurred. The autobiographical story covers the years in Van's life from 1937 to 1955; A Severe Mercy wasn't published until 1977.
In fact, A Severe Mercy can almost be called a foreshadowing of A Grief Observed,* the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis's famous tribute to his own wife, Joy's death or how he discovered and dealt with the silence of God. But of course that is only from our perspective looking back on the four lives involved.
Sheldon Vanauken wrote A Severe Mercy about the love of his life, Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis. It's a beautiful love story, one of the most idyllic I've ever read, perhaps too idyllic, but poignant and breathtaking all the same. The book traces their relationship from courtship through the early pagan (the author's term) years of marriage to the meeting and eventual friendship with C. S. Lewis who was instrumental in their eventual conversion to Christianity. It is therefore no small irony that Vanauken and Lewis became friends, were both college dons, converted to Protestantism and lost their beloved spouses, first the former and then the latter, both eventually writing best-selling books on the subject.
While I enjoyed A Severe Mercy very much, as a woman and a mother, I did constantly wonder—as I read it—at their decision not to have children. The author announces this fact early on in their pagan years which the couple dubbed, "The Shining Barrier", presumably a barrier of love which they erected around themselves to protect themselves from the outside world. Later, however, when they converted to Christianity, there was no mention they ever revisited this decision. Davy was still young enough at the time to bear children. I couldn't help thinking and wondering if – as time went by – the desire to become a mother didn't occasionally tug at her heart. Vanauken never mentions it and at the end of the book he describes burning her diaries.
In an interesting aside however, Lewis does chastize his friend, and very severely too, for the couple's decision to exclude children from their marriage, but only some time after Davy's death.
Two of the many delights in this book are numerous beautiful poems the author wrote to his beloved bride and a large collection of letters from C.S. Lewis.
An excellent autobiography of Love. Beautifully written tribute to Davy as well; I only wish I heard more of her voice.
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* I regret not having a more current review of this book to offer, but I plan to reread it soon and update this.