ALMOST ten years ago, Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Among The Bohemians exploded the myths about bohemian living in the 1920s and 1930s, especially for women.
The illusion of artists defying society’s norms to live equally together was undermined when creative, intellectual women were landed with the bulk of the chores while the creative, intellectual menfolk stayed in their rooms, reading Greek.
And aside from any sexual inequalities, bohemianism could be a very hard life. Elizabeth Smart, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys and DH Lawrence often endured sub-standard conditions, and it’s still shocking to read about Mansfield’s pitifully bare flat in London, or Jean Rhys’s dingy rented room in Paris.
For Lawrence and Nancy Durrell (like Robert Graves and Laura Riding, or later, John and Elizabeth Fowles), Greece was the bohemian destination of choice. There they could live cheaply in the sunshine, Lawrence could write his books – and Nancy – well, Nancy could keep house.
A trained artist, she had ambitions for her art. But a lack of confidence, a need to support her husband emotionally and financially, and the distractions of a glittering blue sea under the Corfu sunshine kept those ambitions at bay.
This biography, written by the daughter of Nancy’s second marriage to Edward Hodgkin, is a truly fascinating account of one of those many women, the wives and the girlfriends and the sisters of famous literary men, who have lived a twilight existence in the shadows of the historical canon.
Lawrence Durrell, whose most illustrious work was the Alexandria Quartet, probably isn’t read as much today as his younger brother Gerald, whose My Family And Other Animals is a popular school text. And Nancy Durrell is a footnote in his story, merely the wife who accompanied him to Corfu and who took their daughter, Penelope, when she left him before the end of the Second World War.
And yet Nancy’s story on its own is irresistible. She came from a class-conscious family; her parents had been well-to-do before her father’s financial mismanagement led them into genteel poverty. Her mother never got over it, and Nancy herself grew up wary and self-conscious, finding it difficult to make friends at school. Even when she graduated to the prestigious Slade art school, she found herself alienated.
She had one asset, though – she was a classic beauty, tall, slim and blonde, which made her popular, at least with men. She was naive in her dealings with them, but made some lasting male friends during her art college days. It was while she was nursing her wounds from an abortive romance with an adventure-seeking old Etonian that she met Durrell. They were friends though for a long time before becoming involved with one another.
When they did, marriage followed swiftly, as did the move to Corfu. Hodgkin writes of Nancy’s long-held bohemian dreams, a life apart from the rigid and joyless class-conscious milieu in which she had grown up, and Lawrence’s chaotic, happy, unconventional family (his widowed mother had four children) suited her absolutely.
It was a dream come true. Only once she was there, Nancy found it hard to establish her own artistic path. Too often, she was the drudge, cooking and cleaning and looking after her husband, still searching for the inner confidence she needed to make it as an artist on her own.
That confidence almost came, though, and from a most unlikely source. Nancy often found herself silenced in company by her more buoyant, extrovert partner. Lawrence and Henry Miller had struck up an epistolary friendship, and when they met in Paris, along with Anais Nin, they became great friends.
Nin has commented, along with others, on Nancy’s silence in the group, and the way Lawrence would tell her regularly to shut up. Lawrence would also try to keep her apart from his new literary friends, displaying sexual and artistic jealousy.
It was in fact Henry Miller who really spotted Nancy’s artistic talent, and who tried to encourage her to do more, even suggesting they exhibit their work together (Miller liked to paint too). Alas, though, it was too little too late for her. Her self-confidence had been chipped away over the years, and by the time she and Lawrence had to leave Corfu as the war took hold, she had grown thoroughly disillusioned with him. In Cairo, she found the courage to leave, much to his devastation, and supported herself and her daughter with a series of jobs with the British Council until she met Hodgkin and they returned to England together.
Joanna Hogkin, a writer herself, is ruthless enough to try to establish the truth about her mother and not sentimentalise her. She also wants to understand the kind of woman she was before her life in England with her second husband, a woman whom she readily admits feels like a stranger to her.
This is a particularly rich and honest account, and one which I suspect her mother would greatly appreciate.
Amateurs In Eden: The Story Of A Bohemian Marriage
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