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. Elaine Hurst says:

    “Surprised by joy.” The very sound, and feeling of it rolling around in my head seems to make me feel good. I wasn’t sure why, or what is was that created that feeling. But now, after reading a bit more of everyone’s comments, and what Louise Penny has to say, I am beginning to understand. I am a painter, and sitting her just now, I realized that when I paint, I am constantly “surprised by joy”. A piece goes from rubbish, to something I’m proud of. At least that is what I am constantly wishing for. The phrase is one of those things you want to carry with you, and feel like you almost understand, and that almost understanding is enough.

  2. Elaine Davis says:

    Thank you to Louise & to you all……..your shared experiences will help us all in difficult times.
    I am surprised by joy every time I turn the corner from my holiday flat & see the sea in Weymouth, Dorset.
    Louise, your wisdom & compassion shines through your writing, I feel I have a friend, & I’m so looking forward to revisiting 3 Pines in your company.

  3. Ann Hager says:

    It is not a particularly joyous time in America right now so we must take our joy anyplace we find it. God bless a Canadian for helping us out. I am going downstairs and bringing Still life to put by the sofa in front of the fire. (Spring has still not come to upstate NY). Perhaps Ruth will join me?

  4. edie scher says:

    I adore all your books, and Bury Your Dead makes me want to visit Quebec, but not in the winter. Will you please tell me what the fractured French the librarian uses in the novel means. I understand Bunny Day, but the night and strawberries leaves me confused.
    Thank you, Edie

  5. Ann says:

    Like Linda Dye (now Larose – she got married), I too found one of LP’s books for $2.99 at a Salvation Army second hand store. The book had just been published, was a hard cover and in mint condition. I told the young clerk the store was charging far too little for the book as LP was one of Canada’s best authors and her books were selling like hotcakes. The clerk told me she had no authority to change the price so I gave her an extra donation for the Salvation Army. I can’t wait for the library copy so, with the exception of that one book, I pay in full as soon as the book is published. I also feel supporting our local writers is worth the money. Thanks Louise for many happy hours at Three Pines with Armand Gamache and all the others. Looking forward to seeing you at the Writer’s Festival in Ottawa this year.

  6. Karen Brennan says:

    I am on my second read of the series waiting for the next paperback. I love hard cover books but can’t read them in bed. So I wait. It will be worth it. I have now retained so much more in the second read. Thanks for Inspector Gamache. I wish he ran for president of the U.S. At least we have some sane individuals that lead the resistance like Bernie Sanders (he would have been a great president too). He and Gamache would have worked nicely together.

  7. Wendy E. Savage says:

    I am on my third re-reading of your wonderful books. They don’t just feature the main characters,we also get to know all the villagers. Who could live without Ruth or the two lovely chaps running the Bistro.
    I think I shall offer myself for a session on Mastermind (do you have that in Canada) with the novels of Louise Penny as my specialist subject .

    I an awaiting The Great Reckoning to come out in paperback, next month I am told. I think Clara and Mirna prefer paperbacks too.

  8. Louisa (Lisa Ann) Shampine says:

    I wanted to share this here, since it was inspired by Louise, this entry and her books in general. Last week, my closest friend Libby passed away after living with liver cancer for a year. Like me, she was a friend of Bill W.s. She had 27 years of sobriety. I shared this at her memorial service. Thanks, Louise, for sharing the phrase “Surprised by Joy” with me, and giving me a way to describe Libby. (thanks too, for making the link between “Surprised by Joy” and “How the Light gets in” – I never would have linked them otherwise!)

    Libby and I shared the love of a good phrase. There was one that I recently ran across that I didn’t get a chance to talk to her about, but I knew immediately she’d get. It was “surprised by joy”. Libby knew what it was like to be surprised by joy, especially in this last year. It was a gift she shared with me. I think she shared it with all of us. Her chemo socks. Singing in the car. Playing with Hazel. Libby was surprised by joy a lot.

    Another phrase that keeps going through my head is a verse from Leonard Cohen that will also always remind me of Libby, and what she taught me about love. “Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” Libby was full of light and love. She knew that perfection wasn’t possible, or even desirable. Keep trying, keep loving, keep singing, keep dancing. Keep being surprised by joy.

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