(Somewhat Belated) Review: Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Michael Haag’s book, published last year to coincide with the very popular ITV TV series The Durrells, but life got in the way. Today, I came across Kathryn Hughes’ rather vitriolic review in The Guardian, posted almost a year ago, so I thought that by way of my own review I would simply address some of the points that Kathryn raises in her piece.

First, some background on Michael Haag (which if you are a fan of Gerald’s and particularly Lawrence’s work, you will already know). Here is his author page on his publisher, Harper Collins’ site, and here is his own website where you can find details of his work.

That aside, you should really visit his blog, where he has reviewed episodes of The Durrells and points out where the series departs from fact (I have only seen Season One, where the fictionalized and rather bizarre storyline of Louisa’s crush on Sven put me off watching the rest, I’m sorry to say, though apart from that I did enjoy it).

Anyway, back to The Durrells of Corfu. Kathryn opens her review (after the usual description of how My Family and Other Animals was immediately popular) by describing Haag’s book as “pointless.”

Previous biographers of the Durrells (Douglas Botting on Gerald, Ian MacNiven on Lawrence, Joanna Hodgkin on Lawrence’s first wife, Nancy) have already pointed out the confabulations and elisions that make My Family such an unreliable guide. We know what actually happened between 1935 and 1939, when Anglo-Indian widow Louisa Durrell and her four children set up home in a series of ice-cream colour villas along the eastern coastline of Corfu. That doesn’t stop Haag, though, embarking on the time-honoured task of pointing out those places where My Family departs most egregiously from what might optimistically be called the documentary record

Well, sure. It’s true that Botting, MacNiven and Hodgkin do discuss the fact that Gerald omitted to mention that Lawrence’s then-wife, Nancy, was not only present on Corfu but that for most of the time, Lawrence (and Nancy) were living apart from the rest of the family. Botting also reveals that while Gerald “gave the impression they [the entire family] traveled overland across France, Switzerland and Italy..In fact Mother, Leslie, Margaret, Gerald and Roger the dog sailed from Tilbury.” However, Botting to a large extent goes along with the narrative of My Family, recalling for example that Gerald “claimed to have got” his gull, Alecko, “from a convicted murderer on a weekend’s leave from gaol” Haag points out — though oddly, only at the end of his book and not while he is relating the incident earlier on — that this story actually happened to Leslie, not Gerry, and Gerry simply appropriated it:

Gerry paid Leslie the compliment of stealing at least one of his stories for inclusion in My Family…It was not, in fact, Gerry who encountered and was befriended by Kosti the convict and murderer. That story was Leslie’s.

Haag also points out that Lawrence, too, stole a couple of Leslie’s stories, including one in which he was made to drink warm blood from a freshly-killed chicken.

In this, Haag offers us fresh insight into the relationship between the brothers, and also into Leslie’s character. The book also provides more examples of how Gerry rearranged his autobiographical narratives to omit key individuals, noting for example that “Gerry’s stories of his time in Dulwich overlook the existence of his siblings.”

Haag also provides interesting evidence from a primary source (evidence that I certainly had not seen before) suggesting that another of Gerry’s famous stories from My Family was exaggerated — that of the drama over Leslie finding some water snakes in a bath. A woman, Vivian Iris Raymond, who had been a small girl on Corfu when the Durrells were there, and whose family visited them, recalled that during a party, “a ruckus broke out when someone emptied a kitchen bowl of water into the garden.”

It had contained Gerald’s tadpoles. Many years later in his book, My Family, Gerald described this scene in fabulously exaggerated terms; the tadpoles had become snakes, flung far and wide amid shrieks of horror…

Again, this is a new and fresh insight into how Gerald created one of the memorable tales of My Family, and perhaps also into how his mind (and memory) worked. But Hughes appears to have missed this.

Determined to find more fault, Hughes goes on to complain that:

Nor does Haag probe deeply into why the Durrells were so thoroughly disliked on the island. It wasn’t just the Anglophile gentry of Corfu Town who thought there was something vulgar and cartoonish about them. When Lawrence and Nancy, together with their stream of guests, insisted on swimming naked in the sea the local peasants pelted them with rocks and daubed angry graffiti near their house.

I find this rather odd, actually. Haag is the only biographer to have explored at all the fact that some people on Corfu did not like the Durrells. I am not sure where Hughes even got the idea that “the Durrells were so thoroughly disliked” on Corfu. Were they? Haag provides one primary source, again Vivian Raymond, who recalls that the (upper class) British community on the island were disapproving of some of the Durrells’ eccentric and un-British behavior. Raymond recalled that:

The established British community was not comfortable with the Durrell’s Bohemian lifestyle

Raymond puts this down to the fact that the Durrells did not fit into the British (upper) class system on the island, and as such did not “associate with the peasants and villagers” in a way that was consistent with the established British hierarchical way of doing so. In other words, they upset the existing order, or as Raymond puts it:

the Durrells did not understand these conventions. They did not fit….the Durrells were ill-disciplined, with pretensions but without the sensitivity or upbringing to participate in the ancient settled culture of Corfu.

Raymond is describing how a small number of British residents on the island felt uncomfortable with the Durrells. Her recollections are fascinating. What has been missing from the biographical works on Gerald so far is this sort of primary source material from outside the family circle. But it is hardly possible to extrapolate from the recollections of one person, aged around 10 at the time, that the Durrells were “thoroughly disliked” by everyone on Corfu. In this context, it is interesting to note that the Raymonds evidently visited the Durrells and attended at least one of their parties. So the Durrells were hardly shunned by the “ancient settled culture” of Corfu, they merely raised eyebrows for their eccentric behavior. It would be odd, indeed, if they (at least Lawrence and Nancy, with their obvious “Bohemian” lifestyle) did not. But this is not, as Hughes would have it, being “thoroughly disliked” by all and her comment that the “Anglophile gentry” viewed them as “cartoonish” seems to be her own invention (Raymond objected to Gerald’s portrayal of the Greeks as “clowns” when it seemed to her that the Durrells were the “clowns” — actually, Gerald portrays pretty much everyone in My Family as an eccentric caricature, not just Spiro and other Greek characters).

I think this actually reveals Hughes’ main problem with The Durrells of Corfu: her main objection is not to Haag’s biography but to the Durrells themselves, whom she sees as having an “épater les bourgeois attitude” that “didn’t stop the Durrells coming over all blimpish when it suited them.” Haag is referring to the incident after family returned from Corfu, when Leslie got Maria, the Corfiot maid whom the family brought back with them to England, pregnant and the family were not welcoming to the child. Haag offers some insight into this rather bleak incident, showing that Margo did look after Maria after the baby was born and remained her official next of kin until her death.

All in all, I would recommend The Durrells of Corfu both to those who have already read the existing biographical material on Gerald and Lawrence, and to those who have not waded through Botting’s lengthy biography. There are new insights here, and (as even Hughes deigns to admit) new photographs; there are new sources, and for those whose first encounter with the Durrells is the ITV series, it is a well-written and interesting companion that can be seen as a springboard to learning more about the family in general and Gerald and Lawrence in particular.

7 thoughts on “(Somewhat Belated) Review: Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu

  1. Thank you for this more balanced review of Haag’s book, What shook me most in Hughes’ assessment was the sentence “Lawrence and Gerald insisted that he” (=Leslie) “couldn’t possibly marry the girl”. I admit that times were different, perhaps more so in British society. I was young in the fities and sixties, in Switzerland – but even so, I have come across attitudes of the day (in my own country) that went so completely against the grain, also with a view to my parents’ opinions as I remember them, that “my hair stood on end”.

    Still… I am very glad to read that Margo “did look after Maria after the baby was born” and remained some sort contact between them and the Durrells.

    • Google the article “The Durrells in Durwich” by Nick Breeze (Margo’s grandson) if you haven’t come across it already.

  2. I’ve just read Michael Haag’s book and thought it was very entertaining and appreciated the black and white photos of the Durrell’s and their houses. I’ve also just finished series one on Netflix. The book also led me to your website which is going to take some time to read. Thank you for doing such a good job of giving us a never ending supply of the Durrell’s.

    • Surely it’s too much of a stretch to say the snakes incident was pure fabrication because a 10 year old recalls an incident with a bowl containing tadpoles. How can Haag possibly be sure it was the same incident when all the details are different?

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