on 16 February 2012
A daughter writes about her own mother with love and understanding instead of taking revenge, and with candour that does not lead to betrayal. The subject of the book - Lawrence Durrell's first wife - is fascinating even to a reader who is quite uninterested in Lawrence Durrell himself, or any of his writing.In effect, this is a most unusual biography.I recommend it highly.
on 14 February 2012
I read this memoir having heard the author interviewed on 'Woman's Hour' and it is one of the most interesting and moving books I have read for a long time. Nancy Myers, the author's mother, was married to Lawrence Durrell, the writer who was read by everyone in the 1950s and 60s but who has recently fallen out of fashion. You don't have to be familiar with his work to enjoy this book - it is a book about a marriage and a relationship - between a brilliant, needy, controlling man and a dreamy, beautiful art student who managed to escape a miserable childhood to shine in the pre-war London centred around the Slade. Early in their marriage they left London for an idyllic life in Corfu, familiar to anyone who has loved Lawrence's younger brother Gerald's 'My Family and Other Animals'. As Lawrence achieved success as a writer, so his domination of Nancy grew but her efforts to establish herself other than as a silent muse were crushed by her husband. They escaped Corfu in a dramatic escape when the Germans arrived and landed in Cairo, where they finally parted and Nancy spent the war as single mother in wartime Palestine before meeting and marrying her second husband (the author's father). She was supposed to marry someone else but letters were not delivered and she fell for his gesture of decorating a lampost with his Old Etonian tie....
That is the arc of the story but it doesn't properly convey the charm of the writing, the entertaining way it is told or the evocation of life in 1930s London and Corfu. It is a wise, warm-hearted book and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about real lives written with perception and style
on 4 April 2012
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.
on 18 March 2013
This is a fascinating story. It is not precisely what its subtitle claims in that the focus is on Nancy Durrell's (née Myers) early life and her experience of marriage rather than an even-handed account of Nancy and Lawrence Durrell's marriage. I don't mean by that that it is especially partisan, just that its primary point of reference is Nancy's memories. In fact, the author - Nancy's daughter by her second marriage - is fairly non-judgmental about what would appear to have been Lawrence's unpleasant, and possibly violent, behaviour towards her mother. Indeed what is remarkable about this book is the way Hodgkin combines both intimacy and reflective distance in writing about her mother.
As I read it, I kept thinking of Olivia Manning, perhaps partly because I have just read (and reviewed on Amazon) Deirdre David's recent biography, which is mentioned in the appendix to this book. Olivia and Nancy were born within a few years of each other (1908 and 1912 respectively); both had unhappy, socially and financially insecure, childhoods; both escaped to `bohemian' London in the 1920s and 1930s; both left that London, and Britain, in the first flush of marriage; both were married to flamboyant, charismatic and yet selfish husbands; both nurtured artistic ambitions (that Nancy, unlike her husband, only very partially realised but Olivia, unlike her husband, did). So it was almost a thrill to learn that the Durrells were friends with Manning and her husband Reggie Smith in wartime Egypt, and that Nancy lived with Manning and Smith when she left Lawrence and was provided with radio work in Palestine by Smith. (Checking back in David's biography of Manning, which is littered with errors, I found that another error is in this story: David refers to Lawrence as having left Nancy for Eva Cohen (and makes no reference to Nancy having stayed with Manning); whereas according to Hodgkin, Nancy left Lawrence who only later formed a relationship with Cohen. It is unlikely that Hodgkin would have got this key point in her mother's story wrong).
This comparison is not simply a coincidence of my reading: it reflects an underlying issue of the lives of English women from socially ambivalent backgrounds in the period, both in terms of the difficulties of escaping such backgrounds and their lasting psychological effects. Hodgkin brings these issues to life in an engaging and evocative way, paring through the confused, contradictory and at times dishonest stories told by family members. In the end, though, Nancy remains the enigma that she was often described as being - to her daughter and to readers of this book. Her motivations for staying with Durrell for so long are unclear, as is the precise reason for her leaving him, as is her true reason for marrying Hodgkin's father. Yet that is not necessarily a weakness: one of the book's messages is the inscrutability of the lives of others, perhaps especially those we know best and love most.
on 14 May 2015
Interesting in a way. It does go on a bit too much about Nancy, but then it was written by her daughter, so I suppose that's to be expected. I never knew Lawrence Durrell was a misogynist - at least, he treated Nancy like a piece of dirt which has quite put me off him. Anyhow, it's basically the story of Nancy's life, before and during her marriage to Durrell. I wouldn't rush out to buy the book, but it's OK.