This is a delightful read - the remarkable story of Nancy Myers (1912-1983), the first wife of Lawrence Durrell, as told by her daughter Joanna (the daughter of Nancy and her second husband Edward Hodgkin). Being an ardent genealogist, I love learning about other people's lives and this, combined with the fact that Nancy was born in the same year as my own mother, made Amateurs in Eden irresistible.
The book begins with a wonderfully detailed account of Nancy's childhood. Her mother - as Nancy was constantly reminded - was `the best woman in the world'. At boarding school she was afflicted with `a nervous stomach' - her soiled petticoat being displayed to all as evidence of her `truly awful wickedness'.
But most of the book focuses on Nancy's tumultuous life with Lawrence both before and after he found fame. They were a physically mismatched couple (Nancy a beautiful leggy blond; Durrell a stocky 5'4"). When they met in a pub, Lawrence was an estate agent and Nancy was studying at the Slade. They married in 1935 and moved to Corfu where, at first, despite many fierce arguments, they lived an outwardly idyllic bohemian life.
They also spent time in Paris, where they mixed with the likes of Henry Miller and his lover Anais Nin. This is where their relationship began to fail; the book reveals how Lawrence kept his wife very much in the background (she wasn't even allowed to talk to men taller than her husband and Anais commented on Nancy's `eloquent silences'.)
Shortly before the outbreak of war they moved to Athens and Durrell began working in the information section of the British Embassy. Their daughter, Penelope, was born here in 1940. But in 1941 the family was forced to flee to Cairo and later, with the approach of Rommel, on to Palestine. This was where their marriage finally collapsed. Nancy had become close to a newly married couple and, after seeing their happiness and the fact that they enjoyed each other's company so much, she realised that her own marriage was a sham. A devastated Durrell returned to Cairo, but Nancy and Penelope lived out the rest of the war in Palestine and it was here that Nancy met her second husband.
As the book makes clear, Nancy was a talented artist. It is also clear that in her youth she was lively and high spirited. One of the many interesting aspects of this biography is to see how marriage to Durrell seems to have repressed so much of her joie de vivre.
It was her fate to be airbrushed out of the life of her famous husband. In an attempt to set the records straight, Nancy began writing her own memoirs - but by the time she had reached 1932 she was dying of cancer. The remainder of her memoirs were taped by her second husband, the author's father. By the time Joanna began to write this book, Nancy had been dead for 25 years - but she and her mother had talked incessantly, and this book confirms that she had a wealth of material to draw on. In contrast, Joanna's half-sister Penelope complained that their mother had never discussed anything with her. It was as if they had been brought up by different women.
Joanna has served her mother well with this very entertaining and extremely honest book. She has brought out the personality of someone who was forced to become a shadowy, shy presence in the lives of people who made a great deal more noise than she did. I highly recommend this book.