The Real Life Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence “Larry”, the eldest of the Durrell siblings, is portrayed in MASTERPIECE’S The Durrell’s in Corfu, as a struggling writer, his every mood dictated, often hilariously so, by the associated highs and lows of his chosen trade. Self-important and more than a little pompous, he has an affinity for Bohemianism, as well as a budding friendship with Henry Miller.
While he partakes in his fair share of the family squabbles, he can be a source of comfort and counsel for his widowed, often frazzled mother, Louisa. But who was the real person behind this character, the man who went on to become one of Britain’s eminent 20th century writers?
Formative Years: From Shangri-La to “The English Death”
It might seem eccentric to pick up one’s family on a whim and move to a Greek Island. The decision appears less capricious, perhaps, if you know that the Durrells had, just seven years earlier, relocated to England from India. Both parents and their children had been born in India and lived there during the period of Crown rule known as The British Raj.
Lawrence George Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Jalandhar. He always recalled his early years in India as idyllic, a time of “nursey-rhyme happiness.” He had fond recollections of his first school but his father, an engineer who’d always felt self-conscious about his own lack of ‘proper English schooling’, insisted that Lawrence be formally educated in England.
Far from home and only 11 years old, Lawrence struggled to adjust as a boarder at St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. He found England to be stifling and dreary, dubbing his time there “The English Death.” He rebelled at school and went on to fail his University entrance exams.
Corresponding years later with his friend, the writer Henry Miller, Durrell laments: “I was born in India. Went to school there—under the Himalayas. The most wonderful memories, a brief dream of Tibet until I was eleven. Then that mean, shabby little island up there wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me.” 1
In 1928, five years after Lawrence left India, his father died of a suspected brain hemorrhage. He was only 43. Heartbroken, Louisa returned to England, where she settled in Bournemouth with Lawrence’s siblings Leslie, Margot, and Gerald.
Lawrence, meanwhile, had been turned down several times by Cambridge University, and embarked instead on a jumble of career paths, including a stint as a piano player in a nightclub, and as an estate agent collecting rents. He settled for a time in Paris, and it was his exposure to the continent that led him to convince his mother that the whole family would be much better off in Corfu. It wasn’t too much of a hard sell; none of the Durrells felt particularly at home in England. The little island in the Ionian Sea was less oppressive, less expensive, and had much better weather.
The Poet and Author
Though it was Gerald Durrell who penned My Family and Other Animals, the first of the ‘Corfu Trilogy’ that inspired MASTERPIECE’s The Durrell’s in Corfu, it was his older brother Lawrence who really solidified a literary reputation. Lawrence claimed that “sheer ineptitude” drove him to become a writer, which seems modest for someone who’d been writing poetry and prose, “scribbling” as he put it, since the age of eight. His first collection of poems, Quaint Fragments, was published in 1931, when he was just 19 years old. His first novel Pied Piper of Lovers followed, in 1935.
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer had been published in Paris in 1934, and banned as obscene in Britain and the US. This iconoclastic novel made a huge impression on Lawrence, and he began a correspondence with the American author that developed into a lifelong friendship. His next book, Panic Spring (a follow up to Pied Piper of Lovers) was heavily influenced by Miller’s writing, as was The Black Book (1938).
Like Gerald, Lawrence also wrote a fictionalized account of the family’s Corfu years, his 1945 novel Prospero’s Cell. Yet, other than brief mentions of his brother Leslie, Lawrence’s family members are conspicuously absent in his narrative. In another departure from Gerald’s version of events, brought to life in The Durrells in Corfu, Lawrence did not actually live with the family, but rather with his wife Nancy, an art student he’d met and married in London shortly before the move to Corfu.
Throughout his life, Lawrence wrote incessantly: books, plays, prose, poetry, and travelogues, but he was to gain international fame for his series of four novels The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960). His 1957 travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus won him the Duff Cooper Prize, while the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet (1974-1985) earned him the James Tait Black Memorial and a Booker Prize nomination. Caesar’s Vast Ghost was his last published work in 1990.
The Family Man
While Lawrence Durrell’s command of the written word may be unchallenged, it seems his expertise in matters of the heart was less clear cut. On Corfu, Lawrence and his first wife Nancy pursued a bohemian lifestyle full of friends, swimming, and sunshine. They had one child together, Penelope (born in 1940). But, as friends who observed them together have attested, Lawrence also had a cruel side; he could be a misogynistic bully, and Nancy was often the target of his wrath. To complicate things, the Durrells were not impervious to the encroaching war that was upending lives everywhere. By 1941, Greece was fully occupied by the Nazis. Lawrence and Nancy had fled to Egypt (Alexandria), but by this time, the marriage was crumbling and the move gave Nancy impetus to reclaim her life. In 1942, she left Lawrence for good, taking Penelope with her.
Lawrence went on to marry another three times. His second marriage, to native Alexandrian Yvette (Eve) Cohen in 1947, produced a daughter, Sappho, named after the Greek poet. Eve was Durrell’s muse for Justine, the heroine of the first book in The Alexandria Quartet. Throughout their marriage, Eve battled depression and mental illness. Lawrence and Eve divorced in 1957. He lost his third wife, Claude-Marie Vincendon, to cancer in 1961, and married for the fourth and last time in 1973, to Ghislaine de Boysson, a French ex-model. They divorced in 1979. Claude-Marie’s death had devastated Lawrence, and his life was to be shattered again when his daughter Sappho took her own life, in 1985.
After moving from Corfu to Egypt during World War II, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British Embassies in both Cairo and Alexandria. In 1945, he was posted to Rhodes, but in 1947 moved again, this time to Argentina, as director of the British Council Institute in Córdoba. Starting in 1948, he spent four years in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, still working for the British diplomatic corps, a job he disliked, but which supported his writing. In 1952, he relocated to Cyprus where he taught English Literature, and moved again to the South of France in the late ’50s, finally settling in Sommières, a small village in Languedoc.
Britain has always claimed Lawrence Durrell as her own, yet the author spent remarkably little time in England. Though he never did return to India, he always remembered with a longing wistfulness the country of his childhood. Later in life, he was to write in a letter: “Some part of India has always been at the core of my being, and now, at the age of seventy-one, I seem to have spent my life trying to get back to my roots…India has always been in my heart…” 2 Throughout his poems and novels, themes of separation and loss are evident.
A longtime smoker, Lawrence Durrell died of an emphysema-related stroke in 1990, at his house in Sommières.
1 Ian S. Macniven, Editor, The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-80, New Directions, New York, 1988. p. 51.
2 Ray Morrison, A Smile in His Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell, ©University of Toronto Press, Inc. 2005, Toronto. p 12.