Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

In the bedroom Clara picked up the well-worn book beside Jane’s bed, C.S. Lewis’s, Surprised by Joy. It smelled of Floris. (Still Life, page 242, Trade Paper Edition)

Surprised by Joy by CS LewisOriginally published in 1955, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is C.S. Lewis’s look back on his conversion to Christianity and the idea of what actual “joy” means to him.

The title of Lewis’s memoir comes from William Wordsworth’s 1815 sonnet, “Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind”, which was written in the wake of his three-year old daughter’s death and begins as follows:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

At face value, a strange comparison—joy and death—but the world of Three Pines, as summed up by both readers and reviewers alike, is just that, a place where light contrasts dark, goodness exists with evil, innocence engages experience, and hope flourishes with fear.

Here, Louise describes the significance of Lewis’s tome:

“I came across it early in my sobriety. And that was a magical time, because I thought I was going to die by my own hand. I was thirty-five and I couldn’t see going through another year of life, never mind another forty years. So when I asked for help and got it through a twelve step program, it seemed — and perhaps it was — a miracle. At that time, I was surprised by joy, because I had been so dark and so negative and so afraid. Then, to find happiness and the freedom that comes from not having to drink every day and finding friends, and finding myself, and finding real joy. That’s when I came across the phrase and the book Surprised by Joy.”

And this is from Louise’s January 2009 Blog Post: “At 2 years sober we’re given a medallion by our sponsors and asked what phrase we’d like engraved on it. I thought about that and chose – Surprised by Joy. A phrase I used deliberately, with gratitude, in Still Life. I keep that medallion with me always. To remember.”

Louise also had a bench made and adorned with a “Surprised by Joy” plaque for her husband, Michael’s birthday in 2007 (that’s him reflected with Trudy the dog below!). As she says, “When I met and fell in love with him I was, indeed, surprised by joy. And he was the most joyous person I’d ever met.”

Happy Birthday Michael bench

Sadly, Michael passed away last year and here is a rendition of the plaque that will soon be placed on a bench in New York’s Central Park. The bench sits on an idyllic hill and faces Louise’s apartment.

Surprised by Joy plaque

The quote below from Lewis’s work succinctly sums a theme that continuously runs through the work of Louise Penny.

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

You can almost see Gamache saying those exact same words.

Discussion Question

1. What did Clara mean by having “Surprised by Joy” engraved on Jane Neal’s tombstone?

Discussion on “Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

  1. Pat says:

    I am surprise by joy at least once in every book you write — usually, the discovery or reminder of the beauty of human kindness in the midst of tragedy or just the everyday troubles of the world. A million thanks for the goodness you radiate.

  2. Kit loring says:

    A bit off topic but as I read this I’m considering becoming a friend of bills. I can’t quite make the commitment yet, but I’m pleased to learn that you are in the club. Your such an inspiration!

    • Lois says:

      You only need to make the commitment for the moment it takes to get to a meeting. One day at a time.

    • Julianne Dayton says:

      I have been a friend of Bill W’s for 37 years and as I just reached my 80th birthday, I still know it was the most important decision of my life. I encourage you with love to make the same decision

  3. Bonnie Vanover says:

    I have been surprised by joy by reading these books! They are so much more than I ever expected.

  4. Rebecca Kavanaugh says:

    In the midst of troubled sleep last night, I turned my head and was kissed by moonlight unexpectedly gleaming through the window. One more way to be surprised by joy and blessed when we most need it.

  5. Pat Fields says:

    You & C S Lewis are my favorite authors.

  6. In the midst of so much pain, ugliness and evil, we are still capable of feeling great joy. Many years ago, a survivor of the Holocaust told me how cold frightened and starving in the camp, she found a daisy growing wild along the tree line. That discovery brought her a few moments of great h I y, and a ray of hope that life would go on.

  7. There are layers and depths to these novels that bear repeated readings. Thank you for your honesty and your gifts.

  8. Linda Wright says:

    I am so happy to have a reference for this phrase….and to have more insight into what goes on in these fabulous books. i have loved following along with all the ins and outs of Louise’s life on her news letter….this just adds another dimension.

  9. Dianne Rader says:

    Your insights into human frailties, piccadilloes, and pain so touch a deep place of empathy and tenderness in me that I once again recognize my own human weaknesses and am surprised by joy at His healing strength for me. So grateful you share your gift and talent with us.

  10. Karen I Ford says:

    My joy is to discover the close connection between my two favorite authors, CS Lewis and Louise Penny. Lewis has been a companion for more than fifty years and Penny for the past ten years.
    There are so many hidden aspects in Penny’s books. It is like peeling an onion layer by layer to get to the core. Lewis’s journey of discovery is very much like this.

  11. Elise Wager says:

    I just saw “The Very Reluctant Convert”, the Broadway show about C.L. Lewis’ gradual conversion from atheism to Christianity. Now more than ever, having read “Still Life” twice now, I am awed by the depth of insight into human nature. You’ve always conveyed that with acceptance of the human condition and hope. Claire’s understanding of Jane, as she peels Jane’s layers, is joyous to watch.

  12. Jessica Porterfield says:

    Dear Louise,

    Now I know why I resonate with your writings so much! Will celebrate 36 years this summer. I just want to hug the fact that we both are members of the “same family” that goes around the world. It has been joyful reading your books.

    Sincerely, Jessica

  13. Patricia says:

    Yesterday our entire day was enveloped by a blizzard – the snow blew and windows trembled and it was perfect to sit down beside the living room windows with a big cup of hot tea and a book. It was 1:40 in the afternoon – darkish outside with the almost whiteout conditions – and as I read I notice a movement at the corner of my eye – outside walking down the middle of our still unplowed street (about 15″ deep at that moment) came a doe with an older fawn, I was mesmerized, THEN came another doe with a young fawn and I watched without breathing – AND they were followed by a large male with nubs of horns. As they passed my front lawn and my living room windows they began running and jumping down the street. I felt a burst of joy that I almost couldn’t contain. It is a memory of beauty and joy that I will never forget.

  14. d jimenez says:

    Louise Penny – my deepest ‘thank you’.

  15. Janet Guthrie says:

    I love all the books and intend to reread them so I can be once again, “Surprised by Joy.” What joy I experienced reading your books. WOW!

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