Virago, £25, 335pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Amateurs in Eden, By Joanna Hodgkin

 

Literary biography is haunted by the ghosts of the wives of famous writers, most of whom had a pretty rough ride. Catherine Hogarth (Dickens), Jane Wells, Nora Barnacle (Joyce), Vivienne Eliot: a literary wife's lot was rarely a happy one, and most of the time she went unnoticed. In this account of her mother Nancy's first marriage to novelist and travel writer Lawrence Durrell, Joanna Hodgkin is mindful enough of a history that places wives on the margins. This is not just a memoir of her mother. This is the history of a literary wife.

On both counts, Hodgkin succeeds beautifully. Nancy Myers was born to parents with social aspirations beyond their means. Her father's family had money, and her mother married a man she imagined could keep her in a genteel fashion. Alas, her husband seems to have gambled, and their move from a large home in Eastbourne to the less salubrious Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, damaged her emotionally. Her daughter struggled to please her mother, and had a difficult time at school.

By some miracle, given how opposed her parents were, Nancy managed to get to the Slade school to study art. There, she endured sexist treatment by lecturers and fellow students alike, and found her slight self-confidence easily undermined. She was damaged by two abortive love affairs, one with Old Etonian Roger Pettiward and another with a successful young writer, John Gawsworth.

This was the young woman whom Lawrence Durrell befriended in 1932. He was handsome, blonde and very short; with the tall, graceful, beautiful Nancy Myers, they made an odd but striking couple. Hodgkin accepts that their relationship really took off thanks to Durrell's sexual dexterity, something Nancy wasn't used to. But even her mother would wonder in her proposed memoir, "what was it that made us team up together?"

Hodgkin attempts to provide some of the answers her mother cannot. Durrell's ramshackle family life greatly attracted her, after her repressed home, and his literary ambitions chimed with her artistic ones. His confidence was something she wanted for herself. In the spring of 1935, they found themselves on Corfu, accompanied by Durrell's mother and his siblings (an experience which his brother, Gerald, would immortalise in My Family and Other Animals). Nancy had inherited a substantial sum (kept secret from her by her parents for years). Given the cheapness of living in the Greek islands, they decided they would devote themselves to their art.

Durrell would write and Nancy would paint; only it didn't quite work out like that. In contrast to many literary partnerships, where writers often embolden each other to write more and better, this particular pairing didn't work to the woman's benefit. Nancy busied herself more and more with household tasks instead.

It wasn't until she met Henry Miller that she was encouraged properly. Durrell had been a huge fan of Tropic of Cancer and had stuck up an epistolary friendship with Miller, then living in Paris in a relationship with Anais Nin. He invited the Durrells to visit. The two men hit it off straightaway, but Nancy was always the quiet one, seemingly intimidated by the conversation between three writers. If she tried, Durrell would often shout her down. Only when Miller praised her artistic skills did she have a glimmer of insight into her own gifts.

Alas, it came a little late. The Durrells' marriage ended in Cairo after the beginning of the war. Nancy might have lacked confidence in her art, but she was clearly a strong woman, who didn't balk at living in a strange city during wartime with a child to support. She found work, she found a man who loved her, and she went back to England, her time as one half of a "bohemian marriage" over. For the rest of her life, it seems, she would puzzle over what had happened during those extraordinary ten years. Like many wives of literary men who are not literary themselves, she was attracted to the very aspects of her partner that in the end would damage, but ironically also strengthen, her. Her story is not a footnote; it is absolutely central.

Lesley McDowell's book about literary liaisons, 'Between the Sheets', is published by Duckworth

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