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. Mary Fischer says:

    “Surprised by Joy” is the experience I’ve had when I am weak, fragile, helpless and powerless. It is then that I turn everything over to my Higher Power. I am always surprised by the people who come into my life, and those already in my life, by their support, caring, love and the gifts they bring just by being themselves. I just wish I didn’t wait so long to turn everything over to my Higher Power. Im a work in progress!

  2. Sue Ellen Reardon says:

    Thank you so.

  3. Carol Daeley says:

    The poem is not, for me, a positive vision except that it comforts me to know that my own experience is not unique. To lose someone deeply loved, to suddenly feel joy, only to have a sharper grief because you have been able, however briefly, to “forget” your grief and turn to share the joy with someone no longer there, ever again–this poem, though it’s pretty bleak, has helped me through grief in its honesty. I’m not sure, however, that in alluding to the poem Lewis was concerned with the whole experience described in it. He seems to focus more on the unexpectedness of joy and its relationship to his Christianity. I haven’t read Still Life for a long time but I’m going back to it because I remember liking the connection between the various meanings of the title and Wordsworth’s–or Lewis’s–three words. I don’t want to get too personal, but Lewis and LP both found, and lost much too soon, unexpected joy, in his Joy and her Michael.

  4. Marilyn McAllister says:

    I find joy in actually feeling the characters in all of the books. The people stay with you as they are so “real” in my mind and I look forward to visiting with them again soon.

  5. sue clark says:

    I, too, was surprised by the joyousness and ease of going into my recovery and a 12 step program. 10 1/2 years later I’m still joyous happy and free, but know that this does not guarantee a perfect and happy life. I simply have the tools to deal with what comes my way, now. One of the joys of my new life is being able to read more, and I got Still Life in the first few months of my recovery. Just another lovely blessing to have the series of books. Thank you, Louise, from a fellow trudger.

  6. Pamela Mains says:

    Now I understand the depth of your empathy for other people. Hitting bottom at some point in our life opens our hearts to recognizing another’s capability of going to the deeper, darker places in their own life. Now I must go back to ‘Still Life’ to remind myself of Jane’s story to actually answer this prompt!

  7. Fay Bright says:

    I was surprised by joy when I read “Still Life.” It had been far too long since I had encountered such richly developed characters and mysterious environments. The book was shared with every reader I knew.
    For each of my husband’s 37 years of sobriety, we celebrate on his anniversity date because I am so very grateful.

  8. Kathy says:

    These comments are all great. Have always had a question about Still Life. What happens to Jane’s house? I think I have watched for it in all the other books, but if you tell us I missed it. I always hope the walls are preserved. I know each book can stand alone, but we do get a few flashbacks. Am hoping this could be one!

  9. Janet F says:

    I read ‘Surprised by Joy’ so long ago it doesn’t bear thinking about so this idea not only brought back the joy of past reads from your Gamache Series, Louise, but also of other books that make reading such a joy. Thank you and I look forward to getting even more insight into the ‘world of Gamache and Three Pines’.
    Joy: It is a beautiful word, so powerful and yet so small. It puts a smile on my lips and a warm glow in my heart. It is a word I love and love to use because it conveys so much and yet is so simple. And therefore may I wish you all great joy.

  10. Barbara Bole says:

    Now I need to go back and re-read Still Life! Although I impatiently wait for the next Gamache story, I recognize the amount of research and depth of thought and insight that goes into Loouise’s writing. So worth the wait!

  11. Barbara Bole says:

    Oops! I don’t like misspelling words, and in my post I misspelled Louise!

  12. Melody Johnson says:

    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?

    This is especially poignant because Joy was the name of the American woman C S Lewis fell deeply in love with–and who died much too soon….

  13. Marilyn Quinton says:

    Speaking of “Surprised by Joy”, one my very favourite books throughout the years. I was surprised with great joy at reading your your news letter with your idea of going over your wonderful books and explaining some of your characters comments. Bravo, a fantastic idea for sure. Your stories in your twelve interesting books have brought much joy to me and my love of reading. I enjoyed your ‘cookbook’ and its Three Pines recipes and my guests were pleased as well Louise , thank you for sharing your newsletters with us, thank you for sharing your travels with us, thank you for sharing your awards and recognitions with us. For me personally, thank you for sharing your God-given talents and abilities, thank you for sharing your intimate experiences and feelings, and especially, thank you for your authenticity. Counting the moments until August 29th when I can escape into “Glass Houses”. May you be surrounded with joy and kindness each new day. Blessings.

  14. Corilee Sanders says:

    I rarely find a series I love as much as this one. Louise Penney…fabulous, intelligent, loving, kind, beautiful author…so much, so many layers, such a joy to read and to anticipate another book! Thank you so much, and thank you for this column and opportunity to look deeper into the books and read the impressions of other readers.

  15. Marilyn Quinton says:

    Oops, I was so excited I wrote ‘your’ twice. Excuse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *