Monday, 17 April 2017

Corfu a Healing Experience for the Durrells

Review in The Express, 17 April 2017, of The Durrells of Corfu

THE Durrell family and their hilariously wild adventures in Corfu have been immortalised in print, most famously in Gerald Durrell’s classic memoir My Family And Other Animals, and on screen, most recently in ITV’s The Durrells. But who were the real-life Durrells? For his new biography, written with the blessing of the family, author Michael Haag gained access to maps, diaries, letters, unpublished autobiographical fragments, letters and unseen photographs.

He reshapes the story of this extraordinary family by unearthing new facts and offering fresh insights into their lives and loves. He starts by exploring the life of matriarch Louisa, portraying a richer, more interesting character than the long-suffering mother living in “happy anarchy” with her brood on the Greek island. Born and bred in British-ruled India, she led a rich and vibrant life as an Anglo-Asian colonialist. She married engineer Samuel Lawrence in 1910 and two years later gave birth to their first son Lawrence, later an award winning author.

Although the death of her second child Margery at four months old cast a shadow over her life, she went on to have another three children, Leslie, Margaret and Gerald. Samuel has always been a footnote to the Durrell family’s story but Haag reveals his incredible achievements such as helping to build a railway which transformed Burma. The family’s period in India is just as fascinating as their lives in Corfu.

Haag vividly evokes the time and the place with sumptuous descriptions, transporting readers to a magical, mystical and exotic bygone era of colonial India under the Raj. However Haag doesn’t shy away from tackling painful subject matter that the Durrells themselves struggled to confront. Louisa was devastated by Samuel’s death in 1928 and, as she mourned her husband “in earnest”, as Larry later put it, grief sadly turned her into an alcoholic.

Then he reveals that in 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown, a hitherto-unknown fact tackled by Gerry in his unfinished, unpublished autobiography. So Haag shatters any illusions that the move to Corfu in 1935 was the whim of a family seeking adventures in warmer climes:

“They laughed and wrote beautifully of their island idyll, but nobody mentioned what had really brought them to the island.” 

However, in the end Corfu proved to be a healing experience for the grief-stricken Durrells. Louisa, Larry and Gerald all come to vivid life in these pages but compared to their siblings, Margaret and Leslie barely wrote so their voices never quite come across.

With an illegitimate child and misappropriated funds to his name, Leslie must have been quite a colourful character. However, Haag has written a love letter to an extraordinary family. As families and other animals go, the Durrells are a breed of their own.