Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sheldon Vanauken & the 'Severe Mercy' of unwanted pregnancy

Some of you will know the name of Sheldon Vanauken, the Virginia historian and former Oxford grad who was converted through the influence of his wife and, among others, C.S. Lewis at Oxford. Those of you who have read his autobiographical love story, A Severe Mercy, will know what I mean when I call it one of the most poignant and hear-rending Christian love stories of the twentieth-century. Containing as it does, many previously unpublished letters of C.S. Lewis in the correspondence between Vanauken and Lewis, it makes for a story that is not only deeply personal but deeply theological.

Not everyone who has read the more popular love story, however, has read the less-known sequel, Under the Mercy, written after Vanauken's subsequent conversion to the Catholic Faith. His account of his Catholic conversion is briefly but powerfully sketched in Ch. IX, entitled "The English Channel," a chapter that is reprinted in an anthology of conversion stories edited by Dan O'Neill, called The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories, of which I have written a brief review article ("Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories").

Still fewer are acquainted with the poitnant story of the daughter his wife Jean Davis ('Davy') had out of wedlock before they were married, and gave up for adoption, and who later found Sheldon Vanauken after the tragically premature death of Davy. The story was initially published by Vanauken in a 1990 article entitled "Discovery: Finding that Long-Lost Someone," published by the New Oxford Review where he served as a contributing editor. It was subsequently republished in The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies (1996).

On January 21st of this year, The Charlotte Observer ran a column by the Charlotte Catholic Lawyer, Thomas J. Ashcraft entitled "'Wholeness of Vision' on Abortion." The story picks up the thread of this latter story from Vanauken's article about meeting his long-lost step-daughter. Here's what Ashcraft wrote:
It will take more than windbag senators and coy judicial nominees to determine what the settled law on abortion should be. A just answer will only be found by listening to people who have passed through this life and learned how to deal wisely with pregnancy when it arrives as unwelcome news.

Sheldon Vanauken (1914-1996) taught history and literature for years at Lynchburg College in Virginia. He is best known for his book "A Severe Mercy," first published in 1977 and still in print.

It tells the story of Vanauken's love for his wife Jean Davis, known as Davy, their experience together at Oxford University where they became friends of C.S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity, and Davy's early death from a mysterious liver ailment in 1955. A lyrical and deeply touching book, it is impossible to read with dry eyes.

Although full of details about the couple and their life together, "A Severe Mercy" omitted a major event from Davy's youth. Vanauken related it in a 1990 article entitled "Discovery: Finding that Long-Lost Someone," published by the New Oxford Review where he served as a contributing editor (

Two years after the death of her minister father when she was 14 years old, Davy, as Vanauken tells it, "running a bit wild . . . found herself pregnant. There was nothing to do but tell her mother, who, along with her older sister, stood by her. All this, of course, is an old, old tale among womankind."

Davy had the baby, whom she called "Marion" and always remembered as blue-eyed and beautiful, and gave her up for adoption. Davy was then "sent to a good prep school for girls." During her marriage to Vanauken, "Davy continued to remember her daughter with love, her daughter growing up -- somewhere."

After Davy's death and the publication of "A Severe Mercy," Vanauken wondered about "little lost Marion" and how much she would learn about her mother by reading the book. He began to search for her but encountered the usual hurdles in the adoption world.

In 1988, however, the adoption agency finally consented to tell "Marion" (her adoptive parents had given her a different name) of Vanauken and his book about Davy. While Vanauken was trying to decide how to contact Marion, Marion dialed him up on the phone "wild with excitement."

"Found at last," Marion later wrote. "Incredible, choking joy! Thanksgiving. Yet sadness also -- sadness that I could not touch her, hold her, and be held."

On "A Severe Mercy," Marion wrote to Vanauken: "At once thrilling and scary! My heart pounding. Almost breathless with discovery, unable to sleep till I'd read every word. Excited beyond belief, sobbing, my pillow wet with tears. Seeing my mother as a young woman loving the things I loved -- beauty, dogs, sails in the wind, music. I had been starving for this -- and now the book. I loved her love for you and your sharing and the incredibly wise things you did to protect your love. And the piercing beauty of Christ coming into your lives."

After high school Marion had become a nurse. She later met and married a physician. They had three children and lived in the San Francisco area. One daughter had Davy's smile.

Having experienced the loss of his wife and discovering much later his wife's grown daughter and her own family, Vanauken acquired a unique understanding of what is meant by those asserting the "right to choose."

"To see abortion right-side-up I must see," he wrote, "not only the frightened 14-year-old Davy with a likely candidate for abortion in her belly but also the warmly alive Marion and her family. This has been shown to me. Having seen, how could I now say: 'What a pity she couldn't have an abortion in those benighted days!'

"To kill Marion now would be unthinkable, but it was Marion -- no one else -- when Davy was 14 and scared. I can sympathetically feel for Davy then, but I know Marion and her children, too. Surely both must be known or imagined for wholeness of vision."

Vanauken concluded: "John Donne, hearing the tolling of the passing bell, recognized that the bell tolled for him, for the death of any man diminished him. Davy had only the poignant memory of the little lost Marion, yet she would have been diminished if abortion had deprived her of that memory. . . . It seems to me that just this one abortion would have left a hole in Creation."

And what of 33 years of Roe v. Wade?
[Acknowledgements: A tip of the hat to Tom Ashcraft, who did me the courtesy of emailing me his article. Write him at]

Related reading:
"Sheldon Vanauken, R.I.P.", by Jack Taylor (Catholic Answers)


Jayson & Nicole' said...

To the Author of this Blog, Just now stumbled upon you entry from 2006, concerning A Severe Mercy, and wanted to comment that I appreciate your refresher on Van & Jean's story! What a wonderful story with so many life lessons, for anybody whether married or unmarried. Also, Under the Mercy is a great follow-up...Thanks you!

Stuart Buck said...

FYI, I have 9 letters from Sheldon Vanauken that I posted here:

Pertinacious Papist said...

Mr. Buck,

Thanks very much for the link -- a great gift.