A few more snippets about Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife, ahead of the publication of a new biography about her by her daughter, Joanna Hodgkin.
According to Durrell’s friend Alan G Thomas, Durrell met Nancy after he moved to London from Dorset in the 1930s; the young Durrell wanted to live a ‘Bohemian life’ and had a number of odd jobs in London including as a pianist in a jazz club called the Blue Peter. Nancy was an art student at the Slade, and for a while the young couple ran a photography studio together.
In a 1962 memoir (cited in Spirit of Place), Durrell had this to say about his early life with Nancy:
I had moved to London at the behest of my mother who, tired of my antics, said one day: “You can be as Bohemian as you like, but not in the house. I think you had better go somewhere where it doesn’t show as much.” So I left Bournemouth to study Bohemianism at first hand. I had some help in my researches from a young and beautiful student at the Slade School whom I married, but while we weren’t actually starving money was short, so she went on the stage as a temporary measure.
According to Thomas, Nancy was indeed a beautiful and striking young woman:
>Nancy was a striking and beautiful girl, very tall and slim, with a clear white complexion and light blonde hair; more than once I have heard people in the street call out as we passed: “Look – Garbo.”
But Nancy did not get to tell her own story; she is merely ‘N’ in Durrell’s Corfu memoir Prospero’s Cell – as poet Derrek Hines so beautifully puts it in his 1996 poem Van Norden, written after a week’s sojourn at the White House in Kalami (with Joanna Hodgkin and her half-sister Penelope, Durrell’s daughter with Nancy):
Because she never brought herself free of the island with her own version of their stay, Nancy remains, trapped in the strong sun of those years, casting no shadow.
Van Norden was the name of the boat that nancy bought on Corfu for Lawrence, and which the couple sailed frequently. Hines uses the boat as a metaphor for the Durrells’ marriage. Like the couple, it was moored at the White House, and was a symbol of freedom, yet by the time war was declared and Durrell and Nancy fled Corfu, the marriage was on the rocks. The Van Norden was scuppered when the Germans invaded the island, and Nancy left Durrell, taking her small daughter Penelope with her.
Take this, Van Norden's mooring, the iron wedding ring that joined sea to garrigue. Salt jealousies, wordless divorces of rust, have gnawed away the marriage to a stain....