Review: Amateurs in Eden

Finally – a chance to review (well, partially – I would like to write more later) Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother, and Lawrence Durrell’s first wife, Nancy Myers.

I bought the book on Kindle, which saved me the excessive shipping costs, but as with all Kindle books loses out a bit when it comes to viewing the photographs. However, some of the photographs can be seen on Joanna’s fantastic website.

I imagine that many biographers become close to their subjects – if they did not feel an affinity with them before they began to write – but Hodgkin’s book is slightly different in that her biography of Nancy (it’s impossible to call her anything else!) is also very much a journey to understanding her mother. It is also a very touching and deeply loving tribute to a woman who, with almost “Stalinist efficiency”, as Hodgkin puts it, was almost completely airbrushed out of the Durrell family story.

Hodgkin succeeds, I think, in bringing Nancy to life as an individual, an artist, a woman and a complex, contradictory human being and not just a beautiful silent consort to a literary genius, a mysterious figure half-glimpsed through abbreviated allusions to “N”. This is not an academic biography, it’s very personal, a memoir and I do feel like I know Nancy, now!

She argues that Nancy was misunderstood, or at least misrepresented, either during her marriage to Lawrence Durrell or afterwards in memoirs.

It was particularly, Hodgkin says, during the time Nancy and Lawrence spent in Paris in the court of Henry Miller and Anais Nin that “gave rise to most of the misconceptions” about her mother.

“Several people commented on her silences and reserve,” Hodgkin writes, “and Betty Ryan, the young American artist whose flat they first stayed in, even went so far as to say she lacked ‘spark’ and kept herself aloof.”

People assumed Nancy was naturally shy and overshadowed by her vivacious, brilliant husband, Hodgkin adds, whereas the reality was “more complex” (when is it ever not?)

It was Larry, as Hodgkin calls him, who set out from the beginning to dominate the Villa Seurat – and who pushed Nancy back deliberately while fascinating his friends.

Nancy’s early years – particularly her time as a student in London before she met Durrell – are the most amusing section of the book, and show Nancy’s determination and resilience as well as her dawning realization that she is something of a beauty!

For those who read and loved Gerald Durrell’s Corfu books, then later realized ‘Brother Larry’ had a wife, the section of the book dealing with those years provide an interesting perspective – Hodgkin tries (and succeeds as far as possible) to plead her mother’s case and to give Nancy’s perspective. It’s clear that the Corfu years shaped Lawrence Durrell as a writer, and Nancy must have played an important role there.

Surprisingly, despite what Hodgkin calls Nancy’s “passion for honesty” and the fact that Gerald did not mention her at all in the book, Nancy was “charitable” to the memoir, according to Hodgkin.

Not just Nancy, but all women apart from Gerald’s sister Margo are excised from the story, Hodgkin notes.

“George Wilkinson appears as Gerry’s tutor, but there is no Pam [George’s wife]. Theodore is a childless bachelor and Larry never even has a girlfriend,” she writes.

While Gerald portrays his beloved mother as spending hours in the kitchen cooking up delicious, exotic meals for her offspring, Hodglkin tells us that Mrs. Durrell was often joined by Nancy and Pam. Perhaps the omissions are more a reflection on young Gerald’s adoration of his mother, who in his memory must have expanded to include all older women.

Interesting for me, also, that Nancy ended up in Jerusalem!

Anyway, I enjoyed Hodgkin’s writing, and would like to try one of her fiction books.

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whatever happened to nancy – II

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.

Lawrence Durrell with Penelope, his daughter with Nancy Myers (Life)

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....

My Family and Other Animals, 1987

I recently rewatched the 1987 BBC version of My Family and Other Animals, a wonderfully indulgent adaptation of a wonderfully indulgent book. I was an avid viewer of the series when it first came out, which was my introduction to Gerald Durrell‘s books as a child.

Gerald wrote three books in total about the magical five childhood years he spent with his family  on Corfu – and experience which according to his elder brother Lawrence helped shape his future path as an animal collector, zoo owner and conservationist. Gerald’s first and most famous Corfu book, My Family and Other Animals, was written in about two weeks in 1956; he returned to his childhood in Birds, Beasts and Relatives in 1969 and again in Garden of the Gods in 1978. All the books follow a similar pattern – tales of Gerald’s encounters with the local flora and fauna of Corfu interspersed with amusing incidents with his various family members and family friends, particularly Theodore Stephanides.

(1959 Penguin edition of My Family and Other Animals)

The books were very successful – particularly My Family, which has not lost its charm even half a century after it was written. (There were negative consequences to this success though; when Corfu became a popular tourist destination in the 1980s, and thus lost much of its unspoiled charm, Gerald fell into depression, railing in a 1987 newspaper article against what he called the ‘disease of tourism’.)

The BBC series, which also came out in 1987 (perhaps Durrell’s article was written on the back of it?) is excellently done in many ways; the casting and acting  are spot on, particularly the young Darren Redmayne as Gerry. The BBC took great pains to incorporate some of the book’s memorable animal scenes into the filming. The photography shows Corfu as an unspoiled idyll, with plenty of lingering shots of beautiful blue seas, olive groves and crumbling villas. (Quite an achievement in itself.)

The screenplay, interestingly enough, incorporates material from all three of Durrell’s Corfu books, including a dialog from Garden of the Gods in which ‘Mother’ reminisces about the glory days of her life in India, where all four of the Durrell children were born.

In following the books, the screenplay also includes Gerald’s liberal use of artistic license. Lawrence Durrell is depicted as a bachelor (he does not have even a hint of a relationship), who lives with the rest of his family. In reality, he was married to a painter, Nancy Myers, and most of the time lived separately in a villa in Kalami, rather a distance from his mother and siblings.

Though the Durrell family were Anglo Indians who did not really feel a great connection with England,  the TV series portrays them as unswervingly English: the single dialog about Mother’s past in India notwithstanding, the family describe themselves as being ‘from Bournemouth’. While young Gerald is shown learning Greek and befriending locals, the others maintain their aloof Englishness throughout – although according to Gerald’s biographer, Douglas Botting, the whole family joined in enthusiastically with life on the  island.

When Gerald wrote ‘My Family‘ in 1956, he gave  concerns over his education as the main reason for the family’s return to England in 1939. In the other books, he is more overt in mentioning the impending threat of World War II and the family’s growing financial issues. The series also does not mention the War – and since having the entire family remove to England ‘for Gerry’s education’ would be rather implausible, the screenplay also has Lawrence mention the family’s money troubles.  Perhaps a discussion of the war would be too depressing a note on which to end such a delightfully escapist series. In any case, the final episode has the entire family leaving together. (Actually, Margo, depicted by Gerald as a rather scatterbrained young woman, and in the series as a demure and rather insipid young lady, was by all accounts considerably more independent and Bohemian. When Gerald, Leslie and Mother left Corfu in 1939, she had already departed for England alone, but returned a few months later to live with a Greek peasant family; she looked after Henry Miller during his visit to the island, before departing Corfu with a British airforce pilot, Jack Breeze, whom she later married.)

One problem the series has is in depicting the length of time the family live on Corfu; since the young actor playing Gerald appears to be the same age throughout, it is hard to determine the series’ timeframe. It seems that the family spends just a few months on Corfu rather than five years.