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.

white house, green water

This Unimportant Morning

This unimportant morning
Something goes singing where
The capes turn over on their sides
And the warm Adriatic rides
Her blue and sun washing
At the edge of the world and its brilliant cliffs.

Day rings in the higher airs
Pure with cicadas, and slowing
Like a pulse to smoke from farms,

Extinguished in the exhausted earth,
Unclenching like a fist and going.

Trees fume, cool, pour – and overflowing
Unstretch the feathers of birds and shake
Carpets from windows, brush with dew
The up-and-doing: and young lovers now
Their little resurrections make.

And now lightly to kiss all whom sleep
Stitched up – and wake, my darling, wake.
The impatient Boatman has been waiting
Under the house, his long oars folded up
Like wings in waiting on the darkling lake.

(published in Cities, Plains and People, Durrell’s second book of poetry for Faber)

This Unimportant Morning condenses all that is wonderful about Durrell’s experience on Corfu. The island is a living being, awaking from slumber, unfurling, shaking itself awake. The house is the White House, the villa in the tiny village of Kalami where Durrell and Nancy lived for most of their time on the island; the boat with its long oars is the Van Norden, which Nancy bought as a gift for Durrell.

the white house, kalami bay

“I have bought us a twenty foot cutter, carvel built and Bermuda rigged,” she wrote in a letter, which Durrell included in Prospero’s Cell. “I am terribly excited – the whole world seems to be open before us.”

Themes of water and waking are important to Durrell; not least in his writings about Corfu. “It is a sophism,” he wrote in Prospero’s Cell, “to imagine there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N. and I for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us.”

According to Theodore Stephanides, Durrell and Nancy chose to move from the Daffodil Yellow villa to Kalami after visiting a friend in the north of Corfu and admiring the natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere there; both were looking for a place where they could create. “A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water” is how Durrell described the fisherman’s house they rented; the water in the bay was “a milky ferocious green when the north wind curdles it.” In this bay, Durrell and Nancy swam naked, dived for cherries dropped into the water, and sailed.

Green water and the white house are among Durrell’s last memories of Corfu.

The day war was declared we stood on the balcony of the white house in a green rain falling straight down out of heaven on to the glassy floor of the lagoon…In April of 1941, as I lay on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete, I found myself thinking back to that green rain on a white balcony in the shadow of Albania…

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....

the colossus of maroussi

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery as viewed...

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery


The 'White House' in Kalami, now available for rent as a holiday home, and inaccurately dubbed 'the Corfu residence of Authors Gerald and Lawrence Durrell'

In 1939, Henry Miller visited Lawrence and Nancy Durrell in Corfu, and stayed with them in the ‘White House’ at Kalami (oddly, the house today is erroneously billed as the place where Gerald Durrell wrote My Family and Other Animals). In 1941, he published a book about his travels, The Colossus of Maroussi, in which he mentions Lawrence and Nancy frequently, offering some interesting glimpses into Nancy and Lawrence’s relationship and life on Corfu:

Durrell, and Nancy his wife, were like a couple of dolphins; they practically lived in the water.

(In Prospero’s Cell, Durrell describes Nancy as being like “an otter”, another water animal).

And later, during a trip to the Greek mainland, Miller records an exchange between the couple when their car breaks down, stranding them:

“Why don’t you try to do something?’ said Nancy. Durrell was saying, as he usually did when Nancy proffered her advice, ‘Why don’t you shut up?”

Miller also remarks on some of the Durrell family‘s friends familiar to readers of Gerald’s autobiographies – notably Spiro Amerikanos (Miller mentions Spiro’s son, Lillis – Gerald does not mention Spiro’s family at all) and Theodore Stephanides, both of whom seem to have made quite an impression on Miller.

Here Miller quotes from a letter Lillis wrote about the dying Spiro:

There was one other person whose presence I missed and that was Spiro of Corfu. I didn’t realize it then, but Spiro was getting ready to die. Only the other day I received a letter from his son telling me that Spiro’s last words were: “New York! New York! I want to find Henry Miller’s house!”. Here is how Lillis, his son, put it in his letter: “My poor father died with your name in his mouth which closed forever. The last day he lost his logic and pronounced a lot of words in English…He died as poor as he always was. He did not realize his dream to be rich.’

At the time of Miller’s wartime visit to Corfu, the rest of the Durrell family had already left the island – apart from Margaret Durrell, Lawrence’s younger sister, who had made up her mind to “sit out” the war with her Greek friends. When Lawrence and Nancy left for Athens, Miller stayed alone on Corfu and Margaret was charged with looking after him. She recalls (in an interview with Sue and Ian MacNiven recorded in Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World edited by Anna Lillios):

Henry was up in the north with Lawrence, and Henry stayed on after Lawrence went to Athens, and Lawrence asked me to look after him and he said ‘Don’t let anybody swindle him,’ which I thought was a typical Lawrence remark at that point.

Durrell and Miller, many years after Miller’s visit to Corfu.

Amateurs in Eden

20110511-104115.jpg

(Louisa Durrell, Nancy Myers Durrell (second from left) with Lawrence, Gerald and Margo on Corfu on the veranda of the 'Daffodil Yellow villa' near Kontoali, 1935)

Virago will publish a new biography of Nancy Isobel Myers Durrell, Lawrence Durrell’s first wife, next February, to coincide with the centenary of Lawrence Durrell’s birth. The biography, titled Amateurs in Eden, is written by Joanna Hodgkin, Nancy’s daughter by her second husband, Edward Hodgkin, whom Nancy met and married in Jerusalem in 1948. Hodgkin, who has written several novels under a different name, received a grant from the UK’s Arts Council to write the biography.

Lawrence and Nancy, an artist, married in London in January 1935, and a couple of months later, they left for Corfu, closely followed by the rest of Lawrence’s family.

When war broke out, the Durrell family left for England, but Lawrence and Nancy stayed behind. They escaped Corfu for Alexandria, Egypt in 1940. The marriage broke down, and the pair split up in 1942. In 1947, Lawrence remarried an Alexandrian woman, Eve (Yvette) Cohen.

Remarkably little is known about Nancy, who must have been such an important figure in the lives of the Durrells on Corfu and presumably influenced Lawrence Durrell during the most important years of his development as a writer. Durrell does mention Nancy in his travel memoir about Corfu, Prospero’s Cell. Henry Miller, who visited the Durrells on Corfu in 1939, makes several mentions of Nancy in The Colossus of Maroussi, his record of that trip.

Who was Nancy? Anais Nin described her as a woman of silences, “I think often of Nancy’s most eloquent silences, Nancy talking with her fingers, her hair, her cheeks, a wonderful gift. Music again.'”

According to Lawrence’s sister Margaret Durrell, Nancy was a gentle and quiet woman loved by the family. In a conversation with Ian and Sue MacNiven, Margaret says of Nancy that “We used to stay with her and Larry in the White House at Kalami and we all loved her very much; she was very gentle, a lovely person.”1

Nancy, however, is omitted entirely from Gerald Durrell’s famous memoir of the family’s Corfu years, My Family and Other Animals. Perhaps this is for narrative simplicity, since much of the book’s humour comes from the interactions between “brother Larry”, whom Gerald portrays as living with the rest of the family for the duration of their sojourn on the island.

Hodgkin’s new biography of her mother purports to shed light onto Nancy’s life, including of course what happened to her after her split from Durrell, when she lived in Jerusalem.

1 Margaret mentions Nancy again in her own memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo?, written about her adventures as a landlady in the late 1940s; but it seems she confuses Nancy with Lawrence’s second wife, Eve Cohen. Margo refers to a risque painting that ‘Lawrence and Nancy left behind [in Margo’s house in Bournemouth], you know, the one Nancy did an embroidery from when she was here and expecting?’. Nancy’s only daughter with Lawrence was born in 1940 in Greece; the couple later split up in 1942, and did not visit the Durrells in England.