Joanna Hodgkin

Amateurs in Eden

Welcome to the Amateurs in Eden page. The book tells the story of Lawrence Durrell’s first wife Nancy, who was my mother, and the title is taken from one of his poems, The Prayer Wheel:

Cross the threshold of the circle
Turning in its mesmerism
On the fulcrum of the Breath:
Learn the lovely mannerism
Of a perfect art-in-death
Think: two amateurs in Eden,
Spaces in the voiceless garden,
Ancestors whose haunted faces
Met upon the apple’s bruises,
Broke the lovely spell of pardon.

‘Frank and captivating … never sentimental, rich in charm and pathos …Hodgkin has done both Nancy and herself proud with this fresh portrait of a marriage we thought we knew, and of a woman we have never known well enough.’ – Miranda Seymour in the Sunday Times

‘A cracking story’ – The Guardian

‘This is not just a memoir of her mother. This is the history of a literary wife. On both counts, Hodgkin succeeds brilliantly. Nancy’s story is not a footnote; it is absolutely central.’ – The Independent

Amateurs in Eden
November 9, 2023Where did the troops stationed in Egypt during the Second World War chose to spend their leave?  Where did ‘men fresh from sandy months in Egypt’  find ‘fresh greenness a welcome change’? . Where did they go for its ‘sunny Mediterranean atmosphere, its smart modern towns, its abundance of gay night haunts and restaurants’? Answer: Palestine.  Nancy escaped to Jerusalem when it looked as though the Germans were going to occupy Cairo in 1942, and she stayed there for the next five years. Some of that time she was working in a refugee camp in Gaza – the refugees were Greeks who had escaped from the Nazi invasion and the famine that followed. She spoke enough Greek to be useful there.  Parade, the Picture Post type magazine for troops in the Middle East, painted an idyllic picture of the country that had been under British control since 1918.        Gaza is described as ‘one of the oldest Arab towns of Palestine, with a history going back hundreds of years.’ A place of tranquillity and rest. Everything in those images must now be rubble. How Gaza got from there to here … one watches and weeps [...] Read more...
May 24, 2017In March 2016 I wrote an article about The Durrells on TV for The Times – which you can read here Perhaps it’s just as well that when my mother Nancy set sail with her new husband Lawrence in March 1935 they had no inkling of the legacy, literary and cinematic, that their journey would inspire. They were both 23, naive and full of enthusiasm as they headed for Corfu, an island that will be for ever linked with Lawrence and his younger brother, Gerald. There have been several books, a couple of TV adaptations and now, more than 80 years later, The Durrells, a gentle ITV six-parter, loosely — very loosely, for in fairness the producers have been honest about their intention to reinvent the originals — based on Gerald’s Corfu trilogy.          My Family and Other Animals is the reason. It’s a gloriously funny and evocative book that imprints the Durrell clan on its readers: vague, embattled Mother, caustic Larry (Lawrence), gun-toting Leslie, spotty Margo and animal-obsessed Gerry (Gerald). Plus a host of colourful neighbours and visitors. It was a work of fiction from the beginning. For one thing, Gerry deleted every female consort from the story, starting with his sister-in-law, my mother, Nancy, She did not mind her obliteration in the least. She relished the book and said that though the incidents were all made up, the essence of the family she had adored was preserved in their speech and escapades. She cited one incident in particular: Larry, in a drunken stupor, sets fire to his bedroom. While the fire burns and his family race around trying to put it out, he roars instructions from the bed, contributing nothing, but claims all the credit when the job is done. “If it hadn’t been for me you would probably all have been burnt in your beds.”          What she would have made of the various screen adaptations I’ve no idea; she died in 1983, long before the first one. She loved talking about her time in Corfu and the ebullient family she had married into and would probably have welcomed any excuse to remember it all again. And you can see why TV producers keep coming back to it: vivid, memorable characters, a fabulous landscape, passages of laugh-out-loud hilarity and a small zoo’s worth of winsome wildlife. With all that going for it, how could it fail? Well…             Earlier versions have remained fairly faithful to the original, focusing on Gerry and his animals, keeping his perspective and sticking pretty much to the original book. So, faithftil to a fiction, at least. Even if for me they never quite came off. With The Durrells the saga has drifted so far from its original moorings as to be almost unrecognisable. The spotlight has swivelled from Gerry (brilliantly played by Milo Parker) to his mother, Louisa, played by Keeley Hawes. She’s still the hard-pressed matriarch, but now ten years younger and much easier for contemporary women to identify with. Her sons could never say of this Louisa, “She’s really not much good as a mother, you know,” as her older sons do in the book, or address her as, “you stupid woman,” which Larry did the first time Louisa and Nancy met. This version of Mother Durrell is capable and fierce, almost a modern-day tiger mum.         Hawes’s new, feisty Louisa makes the “brave” decision to move to Corfu to try to heal her fatherless brood, (though it is not spelt out, the actual Mr Durrell died of a brain tumour in 1928). The 1935 reality was that Larry and Nancy decided to follow friends to an island paradise of cheapness where he could write and she could paint. When Mrs Durrell discovered this she announced that she was coming too. She had only lived in England for six years, had moved frequently and had no particular attachments there. According to Nancy, she said: “What do you expect me to do on my own with all these children?” Larry refused to travel with his family, going on ahead with “the lamppost” as he called Nancy, who was several inches taller than him. Once in Corfu he mostly chose to live apart from his family, only returning when the need for warmth and baths became overwhelming.     At first it seems as if The Durrells is making a move back towards what passed for reality in that pre-war household. In the opening scene Louise sneaks a furtive cup of gin before heading off to rescue Gerry from his appalling school. In real life she was a dedicated gin slugger. Again in the series, thus fortified, she subjects the headmaster to a tongue-lashing before removing her son for good. In reality, Louisa endured daily wrestling bouts with Gerry to drag him to school while he clung to the railings and shrieked. Often he won and they both retired home with headaches and mild fevers. The new Louisa, however much gin she has, remains sober and composed.       Still in Bournemouth, a romantically inclined neighbour recommends boarding school for her unruly youngsters and Louisa makes a little face: she’s clearly not the kind of slipshod mother who would consign her adolescent children to the care of strangers.        Yet, like most parents living in India in the 1920s, this is precisely what the Durrells had done. Larry went to boarding school in Darjeeling at 9 and when he was 12 he was left in England for two miserable years while his family returned to India. Leslie boarded only for a year, but with even more disastrous results: various fights and beatings left him with a permanently damaged eardrum. Even Margo did her time in Cheltenham.           Would Nancy have recognised her husband and his family from this new incarnation? My hunch is that she might well have put a tick next to Callum Woodhouse, who plays Leslie, though it’s a softer, less troubled version of the young man she knew. Too often the real Leslie played stooge to his older brother’s vicious put-downs, which drove him into helpless rage, but he adored Nancy and hated it when she suffered a similar fate. Occasionally Leslie would rush in, aim his gun at Larry and roar that he would murder him if he didn’t stop. “And,” said Nancy, “sometimes I really thought he would.”           Yet Larry, as scripted for the actor Josh O’Connor? Surely not. The of Gerald’s book — the Larry who in reality was beginning a lifetime correspondence with Henry Miller and grappling to find his authorial voice in The Black Book — this Larry is nowhere to be seen. In The Durrells Larry is portrayed as a bumptious adolescent who might just possibly be aiming for a dim pass in A-level English.            We know he’s a writer because he tells us he is and occasionally bashes away at a manual typewriter, but there’s no sign of the real Lawrence’s inspired verbal extravaganzas, no hint of the man whose only passion was literature, not a glimpse of the writer whose Alexandria Quartet astonished a whole generation. This Larry couldn’t tell Tropic of Cancer from Club Tropicana.         Does it matter? Not really. The series makes no claim to be accurate, and everyone who reads the books is of course free to make their own interpretation. If it entertains and helps to point a new swathe of readers back to the books and to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, then all is well.       The postwar Nancy I knew was a far from impartial critic, but I’m sure she would have been pleased to see how the family refuse to lie down and be forgotten. So long as you weren’t too closely involved, they were a wonderfully life-enhancing bunch, She remembered all the Durrells with great affection — apart from her former husband, whom she left in Cairo in 1942.         One of the reasons for the collapse of their marriage was probably that after war broke out she no longer had his mother and siblings up for her and poke fun at his excesses.       Still, there is something extraordinary in the unstoppable afterlife of the Durrells’ brief stay Greek island. We’ve had the books, the TV adaptations and six-part series. The family must appeal to some fundamental need we all have for there to been a time when Corfu bathed in perpetual summer sunshine, the English were regarded by a benign peasantry “little lords” and eccentricity had free reign. What next? musical, perhaps?  Those two young newlyweds, hopeful and unknown, who boarded the SS Oronsay in March 1935, would surely have been utterly amazed. [...] Read more...
April 3, 2017The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, was released in 2016. It starred Charlie Hunnam as Major Percy Fawcett, with Robert Pattison as a fellow explorer Henry Costin, Tom Holland as Fawcett’s son and Sienna Miller as his wife. Major Fawcett. The film tells the story of Fawcett’s final expedition into the Amazon rainforest in search of the fabled city of El Dorado. All that is known for certain is that he, his son and another companion disappeared. Rumour and speculation have circled round their final weeks ever since – and their probable fate is still being hotly contested.   I was eager to see the film, as the vanished major – missing presumed murdered – had an unlikely connection with my mother.  The first man she ever fell in love with was the flamboyant Roger Pettiward, a fellow art student at the Slade. She was flattered by the attention of this tall, red haired Oxford graduate, who had all the social poise she was so aware she lacked. On their first outing together he arrived dressed in a peacock blue Harris tweet suit, check shirt and neatly folded umbrella. They decorated the Slade walls with extravagant cartoons, and took great delight in behaving outrageously during the dances, roaring up and down the room in a kind of ‘Lancers side step gallop’ and crashing into any hapless dancers not quick enough to get out of their way. The problem for Nancy was that she never knew where she was with him. Their relationship never developed into anything definite, and it was never sexual. Even so, time spent with him was ‘pure, instinctive, joyous release’ – something totally new for her.  It ended when Roger Pettiward agreed to accompany his friend Peter Fleming (brother of the more famous Ian) on an expedition in 1932 to discover what had become of the missing major. Fleming had replied to an advertisement in The Times for ‘two more guns’ for an ‘exploring and sporting expedition’. Pettiward spent a last night in London with Nancy and then disappeared.  His expedition with Fleming was, in the words of Ben Macintyre, ‘just as brave, quixotic and futile as Fawcett’s original quest, and much funnier.’ His account of their journey, Brazilian Adventure, is a glorious celebration of a vanished spirit of derring-do in a rainforest that must have seemed indestructible.  Reality and myth are repeatedly intertwined: Fawcett was friendly with Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard who was inspired by his adventures to write The Lost Word. Fleming and Pettiward had grown up with these novels of lost kingdoms and jungle adventures and used the language of their storybook heroes so that water was always ‘Precious Fluid’ and gunshot ‘the well-known bark of a Mauser’. The links continue: the insouciant James Bond owes much to his creator’s admiration for his older brother. And then, of course, there’s Indiana Jones … It was while Pettiward was enjoying hardship, adventures and laughter in the Amazon that Nancy, who’d had to drop out of the Slade because her funds had dried up, found herself, almost by accident, in a relationship with a young estate agent who wanted to be a poet: Lawrence Durrell. She was dismayed when Pettiward blanked her on his return: he was soon to marry Diana Berners Wilson, a fellow student whose background was similar to his own. In August 1942 Captain Roger Pettiward was killed in the commando raid on Dieppe.  The debate around the disappearance of Fawcett and the others continues. There’s a thorough exploration of the different theories on the Murder is Everywhere blogspot Leighton Gage knew the Brazilian Orlando Villas Bôas who had spent many years living among various Amazonian tribes. A member of the Kalapalos tribe told Bôas that he’d been one of the villagers who had murdered Fawcett and his team because of their taboo-breaking behaviour. One of the group had urinated in the river upstream from the village, an unforgivable outrage; also a child who was being a nuisance was first pushed away, then slapped – another no-no to the villagers. Finally they had refused to share their food, also unacceptable. For these affronts they were murdered. Bôas’s account is challenged by others who say that Fawcett was far too experienced and sensitive a traveller to have allowed these outrages. Far more likely that they simply lost their way and died of starvation and disease. As the centenary of their vanishing approaches, no doubt the debate will resurface.  Another footnote: for a long time it was believed that Fawcett’s search for El Dorado had been doomed because no such city could have existed in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. Now evidence has come to light that shows not only did they exist, but that he was looking in the right place. But for the wrong thing. Extensive ditches and mounds have been discovered that show the outlines of large interconnected cities, the traces of a thriving civilisation that was wiped out by the diseases brought by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. A brief account can be found here And what of the film itself? My opinion when I saw it first was that “If you can divorce it from real life, the film is quite fun – and his side kick is brilliant (turns out it was Robert Pattison, who has been called ‘the sexiest man alive’ – not in this film, just a cracking good actor). But the ending annoyed me. Given that precisely what did happen to them has never been properly explained, a walking off into the unknown, three dots kind of ending (like that brilliant finale to Gods and Men) would have been much more satisfying rather than the obligatory Hollywood father-son schmalz ‘I love you Dad,’ – ‘I love you too, son,’ so now we can all die happy even though we are about to be slaughtered and probably eaten. Also I would merrily have any script writer who lets a mysterious gypsy woman pronounce to our hero, ‘Eet ees your destineee!’ silenced with a poison dart immediately.” Major Fawcett, Roger Pettiward, the brothers Fleming and James Bond, Nancy and the young man who went on to write The Alexandria Quartet and the lost city of Z, or El Dorado – all those unlikely links that touch on a life.  [...] Read more...
September 16, 2012Looking through an old journal just now for some notes I took on a book about memory (and I found them!) I also found a couple of entries written in May 1994, when Penelope and I visited Kalami with our husbands, staying in the White House. I did not read this when I wrote the chapter in Amateurs, but my memory for once seems to have been fairly accurate. None of us had ever been to Corfu. A few bits: “I had not realised how strange this whole thing would be … Trying to unpick the odd bits: now, after so long – 40 years since I first started to hear about it – I have come to the place Mum used to talk about so much, the place I had heard about so much that it began to seem a mythical place. And of course in some ways it is a mythical place still because the Corfu and the Kalami that L described in Prospero’s Cell was always a myth, an idyll but  a blighted one because they fought so much. “It feels like a kind of homecoming, returning to a place I have never visited, but which was part of the landscape of my childhood, … and which is still a kind of paradise. “Four o’clock in the afternoon. A breeze is blowing off the sea, there is some wispy cloud inland. Skin feels sun-warmed and salty. I am on the little boat harbour; about 14 little boats are gently turning about their anchor ropes, water lapping by my feet, sound of the breeze in the olives and the cypresses  … so many magical things we have seen already.” [...] Read more...
February 9, 2012Today is the official launch day – but the party was on Tuesday. It was held at the Wheatsheaf just off Charlotte Street, a small pub with a proper 1930s atmosphere. Apparently it is where Dylan Thomas and Caitlin first met, so it is quite possible that Larry and Nancy met there also. Plus they have a delightful upstairs room. It was the coldest night of the year – what is it that book launches have in common with moving house? They seem to prompt either extreme weather conditions or transport strikes. However, despite Siberian temperatures outside, it was a really great party – a lovely mix of people from all different bits of my life. My fear had been that everyone would stay with who they knew, but in fact there were all sorts of unexpected meetings and links. Lennie Goodings of Virago raised a toast to the book, I gave a speech which lasted all of 30 seconds and was really just to introduce the two actors both of whom Penelope (my half sister, daughter of Lawrence and Nancy) and I had known since the 60s. They read two very short bits of poems: Shirley read the section of the poem The Prayer Wheel which gave me the title for the book, and then Ellis read the poem which Larry wrote after Nancy left him and never published. And they were wonderful – often I find actors too stagey for poetry, but Shirley and Ellis gave the words their full weight – perfect. Meanwhile, Judith and Zoe from Virago, highly professional publicist and editor, turned barmaid to make sure glasses were kept filled. Some guests couldn’t wait to start reading.   Meanwhile Sebastien Sandys of LXV books displayed the copies brilliantly And sold out! After which, the author and her agent were free to relax … [...] Read more...
January 21, 2012Double page extracts from the book in today’s Times’ Review, with the picture of Nancy with the Durrell family at the centre. Larry and Nancy had found a little villa close to the Wilkinsons’ bungalow. It was on the hillside just south of Corfu town, overlooking the sea and Mouse Island. Their first home, which Larry dubbed Villa Bumtrinket, was primitive, “a little hut, really”, said Nancy. A headlong plunge through the olive groves brought them to a shingle beach, mundane by the standards of their later swimming places, but in those first weeks of discovery it seemed miraculous to be able to scamper down to their own private stretch of sea. Soon Larry’s mother and the rest of the family were installed at the nearby Villa Agazini, the strawberry-pink villa of My Family and Other Animals, so that during their first summer they were all within walking distance. Sailing, swimming, soaking up the sun, reading, talking, exploring… that first summer was everything they had hoped for and more. One day Nancy, Larry and the Wilkinsons set off to walk across the island. Nancy was bowled over by the beauty of their route along ancient tracks. As they arrived in one remote village, all the men rushed out with chairs, bowing and gesturing to them to sit down while the women crowded round to examine these exotics who had appeared in their midst.  Nancy was wearing only a little halterneck top in checked cotton, which she had made herself, plus matching shorts, a straw hat and sandals; the women couldn’t make her out at all. “You a boy or a girl?” they asked, pinching her as if to see if her skin offered any clues. Having ascertained her sex, they made them welcome with figs and cheese and drink; for her the whole experience seemed fabulous. When they arrived at the other side of the island, the beach was amazing. It was their first sight of the rugged and dramatic west coast that was to become so important to them over the next few years.  On a fine April morning in 1936 Spiro drove Nancy, Larry and Theodore to visit an acquaintance of Theodore’s who lived in the northeast of the island. The road was bumpy, but the landscape was stunning: Mount Pantokrator rising up on their left; the sparkling Ionian Sea below them on the right; olive trees, cypresses and flowers vibrant in the spring sunshine.  Larry and Nancy were smitten with the area. In Prospero’s Cell “N” is reported as saying, “the quietness alone makes it another country”. Nancy was keen to be in the wildest place she could find, while Larry wanted peace and quiet away from the “pack of brats” — his siblings — so he could work without interruption. As soon as Spiro found suitable lodgings, Nancy and Larry headed north. In 1936 Kalami was just a few little whitewashed houses on a gentle bay, the steep hills behind rising up towards Mount Pantokrator. Nancy and Larry took two rooms in a house built on a flat rock on the southernmost curve of the bay. It belonged to a carpenter called Athenaios and his wife Eleni. Nancy was as intrigued by the clothing of her neighbours as the peasants were by hers. Even in the height of the summer the peasants wore thick woollen vests with long sleeves, believing that to leave them off would mean certain pneumonia. They were horrified to see Nancy and Larry wandering around in shorts and swimming costumes — or worse still, nothing at all. They made an effort to find skinny-dipping spots that were out of sight of the locals, but in their passion for taking their clothes off they probably didn’t always succeed.  Larry had finished Panic Spring the previous December, and all that summer he was working furiously on what was to become The Black Book. Inspired by the example of his friend Henry Miller, he was attempting something that was, for him, entirely new. After a morning of intense work, the boats provided relaxation. Sometimes they’d row across the bay, sometimes they ‘d go exploring in the Van Norden. As their confidence increased they sailed round the top of the island and discovered a deserted beach. They stayed there for a fortnight, sleeping under the stars, doing nothing very much apart from swimming and sailing and lounging about. For Nancy that fortnight was pure delight, combining her great love of simplicity and wildness, and they returned every summer. When she was in her sixties, surrounded by books, furniture, paintings, she commented that she had always imagined ending her days in a cave, owning nothing but a tin mug, plate and spoon: she was remembering those timeless summer days of solitude and freedom on the wild western beaches of Corfu.  Since Anaïs Nin’s death in 1977, and more importantly that of her husband Hugo, much more detail has emerged about her life. Nancy had read and enjoyed her dreamlike House of Incest, but it is unlikely that she was aware that Anaïs had a passionate affair with her own father when they were reunited after an interval of 20 years. In fact, Nancy never got to know Anaïs that well. She was under the impression that the affair between Henry and Anaïs was more or less over by the summer of 1937, but during this time of what her biographer calls “relative sexual stability” Anaïs was limiting her sexual activity to Hugo, Henry and Gonzalo Moré, a Peruvian of Scottish, Spanish and Indian descent. Nancy referred wistfully to the fun she might have had if she’d been able to join Anais with “the Spanish refugees” she was supporting, unaware that helping the Spanish refugees’ was code for Nin’s affair with Gonzalo. Thirty years later, after they had met up again in California, Anaïs wrote to Nancy that it had been pleasant to see her again, before adding the significant qualification, “or rather, to really see you for the first time as 1 did not ready know you in Paris—Henry and Larry were in the limelight”. Their relationship was mediated through their menfolk. In the 1930s, even a woman as groundbreaking as Anaïs was torn between her belief that a woman artist should be the equal of a man, and a residual sense that a woman’s primary role was as a handmaiden to a great man (in her case, Henry). It is hard to imagine now just how difficult it was in the 1930s for women artists to break through in a male-dominated environment, not only in a practical way, but in the far more complex matter of self-belief. Larry had instantly impressed her, but that did not stop Anaïs from noting his public bullying of Nancy. She describes an evening the four of them spent together, which seemed to her like a long voyage because their conversation ranged so widely, a “beautiful flow”. She goes on to describe how Nancy’s “stutterings and stumblings”, and the way she seemed to look to Anaïs to speak for her, reinforced her determination to forge a genuinely female voice, to write “as a woman, in a different way from Henry and Larry”. And a little later she writes, “Poor woman, how difficult it is to make her instinctive knowledge clear!” “Shut up,” says Larry to Nancy, Anaïs writes in her diary. “She looks at me strangely, as if expecting me to defend her, explain her.” Nancy’s inarticulateness inspires Anaïs to speak for all women. “Nancy, 1 won’t shut up,” she insists. “1 have a great deal to say, for June , for you, for other women.” But in the end she couldn’t speak for Nancy, because they did not know each other. Nancy didn’t help the situation either. Anaïs writes that when she asked Nancy her opinion of the diary, Nancy with characteristic honesty, replied that she thought it was marred by “a straining for effect”. After which, Anaïs cooled rapidly.  Larry announced that he was going to spend three or four weeks in London over Christmas. Without her. “I can’t remember what he said he wanted to do, or whether that was really what he wanted to do,” said Nancy, and nor did she care much, so long as she too was free to do her own thing. Most probably she did not inquire too closely, since Larry would only have been able to countenance her freedom if he had another woman in view. The companion he had chosen for the London trip was, unbeknownst to Nancy, a young painter called Buffie Johnson, whom she described dismissively as “just a cheery, rather rotund girl”. Larry told Buffie his marriage was as good as over.  Nancy was looking forward to some uncomplicated fun and decided to go skiing. She kitted herself out with dark blue ski pants arid jacket, and a bright yellow bobbly sweater she’d knitted herself. Henry saw her off at the station. He was troubled by the rift between his friends, and expressed to Larry his dismay at seeing them heading off in different directions. He hoped Larry would soon return and nestle down in their Paris flat, adding gently, “I rather think you’d be better off.”  As Switzerland was the conventional place to go, she thought she’d have more fun in Austria. At the Hotel Goldener Adler in Innsbruck she was told that Mutters was a good place, but Mutters turned out to be a disappointment.  Someone told her of a place that sounded suitably remote. She took a bus part of the way, then proceeded through the snow on foot up the valley to the single hotel at its end, and her bag was conveyed on a sledge. She fell in love with the place at once: a small hotel standing all alone against a backdrop of small hills and mountain slopes. “It was absolutely marvellous,” she said. “Just what I was longing for.” The sun was shining, adding to the effect which made it, she added significantly, “tremendously like Shangri-La”.  There were maybe a dozen young people, most of them novice skiers like herself. Even better, there was a handsome young ski instructor who straight away paid particular attention to the beautiful, solitary girl who had tramped through the snow to join them. The first morning they set off for the nursery slopes and skidded around in the snow, falling down and laughing and generally having a wonderful time before coming in for lunch. In the afternoon they returned to the slopes and in the evening after supper they played games, including “a sort of bar billiards”, said Nancy vaguely. The precise details of the game were unimportant, compared to the sheer fun of it. They sang songs.  The next day the same blissful formula was repeated: sunshine and hilarity on the ski slopes, good humour and easy company over meals and in the evening. The ski instructor was showing definite signs of interest, which Nancy enjoyed, but most important of all she was relaxed and happy, revelling in uncomplicated pleasures almost for the first time in her life. It was “a wonderful release after Paris. Absolute bliss”. On the third night, soon after she had gone to sleep, she was woken by a noise at the door. The light came on, and there in the doorway stood Larry. He was in a foul temper, claiming he’d had to walk from Paris — a slight exaggeration, but he had made the last part of the journey on foot, stumbling up the valley through the snow while someone walked beside him with a lamp. “I don’t think,” said Nancy, “my heart has ever sunk quite as much as it did at the sight of a cross, cold, damp Larry arriving just as I thought I was going to have a most wonderful time in this place.” Then came the inevitable interrogation. What had she been doing? She tried to fend him off with vague statements: “This is an awfully nice place.” But he was having none of it. “Why did you tell me you were not having a good time?” he wanted to know. “You’ve been lying to me again!” The cross-examination lasted most of the night, and when they went down to breakfast the following morning he refused to say good morning her new-found “jolly friends”.  “As soon as you’ve finished breakfast we re off,” he told her. While everyone else went off to enjoy themselves in the sunshine on the ski slopes, she and Larry trudged miserably back to Mutters. They had no money to get back to Paris, and had to wait in the Goldener Adler while Nancy telegraphed the bank for cash. Most of that week was spent cooped up together in the hotel bedroom. The details were vague in Nancy’s memory. “He wanted me to do a drawing of some sort, a woodcut of two animals. He wanted it for a card or something.” Their new-year card survives: an image of a lion and a unicorn, nursery-rhyme creatures famous for their fighting. “The lion beat the unicorn/All around the town.”     And Nancy’s unicorn is most subdued. All Nancy remembered clearly was that it was a “nightmare week”. Writing to Henry, Larry put a mock heroic gloss on the whole dismal business, describing it as his “crazy catapult jump across Europe to join Nancy”, and invoking the spirit of Lost Horizon, the film that was so much a part of their mythology at the time. “I tell you Conway made no more violent attempts to reach Shangri-La than I did to deliver my little Christmas present.” He congratulated himself on the clever detective work which had made it possible for him to run her to earth at four o’clock on Christmas morning, though he did let slip that now they were tearing each other’s hair out. But he ends by addressing Henry as “my dear Conway” and saying blithely “Shangri-La for ever!” As so often, the conventions of their correspondence meant private misery was portrayed as farce. © Joanna Hodgkin 2012. Extracted from Amateurs in Eden; The Story of a Bohemian Marriage; Nancy and Lawrence Durrell – follow this link for permission to reproduce the image! [...] Read more...

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