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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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…

The Durrell villas

England was a painful experience for the young Larry. He told Malcolm Muggeridge that being transported from the Indian jungle to a tidy suburb in East Dulwich had really staggered him– a paralysing trauma. To have exchanged the rich pageant of exotic cultures, the dazzling scenery and sense of freedom and privilege which he had enjoyed in India for the cold, grey, gloomy London, where everyone seemed miserable, was a shock to the system.

Gordon Bowker, Through the Dark Labyrinth, A Biography of Lawrence Durrell

When Lawrence’s great friends George and Pam Wilkinson emigrated to Corfu in 1934, and began to send letters filled with their impressions of the beautiful Ionian landscape, Lawrence began to consider following them. He persuaded his family – who had in any case not put down any real roots in England – to leave behind the grey drabness of Pudding Island for the dazzling beauty of Corfu.

“He headed for Corfu as unerringly as a ruminant to a salt-lick or an ailing hound to grass,” wrote Patrick Fermor.

The Villa Agazini

The first villa the Durrells rented was the Villa Agazini, just above the road from Perama to Benitza on the coast, about 4km south of Corfu Town. This is the house that Gerald named the Strawberry Pink Villa in My Family and Other Animals (Lawrence nicknamed it the Villa Bumtrinket and the Villa Agabumtrinket.)

The Strawberry Pink Villa is still standing, but it has been renovated extensively and enlarged. It’s now available for rent as a holiday villa.

Despite bestowing upon it a silly name, Lawrence was by all accounts delighted by the villa’s beautiful surroundings. In a letter to his friend Alan Thomas, he makes a noticeably Gerald-like remark about the local wildlife: “Yesterday,” he wrote, “I caught a tortoise eavesdropping on us”.

It is in the Villa Agazini that Lawrence and Gerald first became acquainted with Dr Theodore Stephanides, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. According to Stephanides, the villa was ‘somewhat cramped’, and in September 1935, the Durrells decamped to more spacious quarters 8 km further north. (In My Family, Gerald of course blames Lawrence for the move, noting that the family needed a larger residence to accommodate his many house guests.)

The Villa Anemmoyani

The Villa Anemmoyanni, or the Daffodil Yellow Villa as Gerald named it, still stands at Sotiriostissa near Gouvia bay, 4 km north of Corfu Town.

A large Venetian mansion set in its own grounds and overlooking the tiny island of Lazareto, the villa would be home to most of the Durrell family until September 1937.

The Durrells had their own private jetty at the villa, where they moored their boats, including Gerald’s Bootle Bumtrinket (it seems Lawrence really liked that word). In nearby Gouvia bay, Gerald recalls, Theodore enjoyed watching seaplanes landing.

According to a memoir by Theodore Stephanides, Lawrence and Nancy initially occupied a “bright and airy room with two large windows” in the villa, where Lawrence wrote and where Nancy presumably also painted. However, the couple did not live in the villa for long; sometime in early 1936 they moved to Kalami, 30km to the north, for a more peaceful place to work. (Stephanides mentions the move away from the rest of the family might have been also prompted by incidents involving scorpions and medicinal leeches).

The White House, Kalami

Lawrence and Nancy rented a fisherman’s cottage right on the bay at Kalami in northeastern Corfu, a tiny village that in 1936 consisted of about five small cottages. Spiro Amerikanos, the Durrell’s friend and chauffeur, found the house for them, to which they eventually added another floor. Lawrence describes life in the villa in his beautiful Prospero’s Cell and in his poem The Unimportant Morning (the topic of a later post!)

The villa is now a holiday home, is often rather fancifully described by local tour guides as the house that Gerald Durrell lived in and where he wrote my family.

The Villa Cressida

The last villa in which the Durrells resided on Corfu was the Villa Cressida (Gerald’s Snow White Villa) near Lake Halikiopoulou (and the Venetian salt-flats dubbed the ‘Chessboard Fields’ by Gerald). The villa, which is no longer standing, was just south of Corfu Town.

More information about the Durrell Villas can be found here.

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.

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.