Saturday, 10 November 2012

Lawrence Durrell: In an Irish Fairy's Armpit

'I am Irish on my mother’s side, and half on my father’s side’, Lawrence Durrell said in a 1970 television interview.  It was a story he repeated with various permutations and contradictions throughout his life. 

Not surprisingly, when Durrell died in 1990 his obituary in The New York Times described him as the son of an 'Irish-born father'.  The Daily Telegraph in London said the same.  The British Library, however, took a somewhat different view when it described Durrell’s ancestors as ‘English on his father’s side and Irish on his mother’s side’ on their recently released CD of Durrell's readings and interviews in their Spoken Word series. 

But the truth about Durrell is that he had good English roots on both sides of his family.  

Hacheston in Suffolk.  Its population in the mid-nineteenth century was barely four hundred.  The widowed Mahala Durrell lived on this street when she gave birth in 1851 to her illegitimate son Samuel Stearn Durrell, grandfather of Lawrence Durrell.

The paternal side of the family came from Suffolk, a deeply rural county northeast of London. Mahala Durrell, who lived in the village of Hacheston, was Lawrence Durrell's great grandmother. Her husband, a sailor called William Durrell, committed suicide some years before she gave birth to an illegitimate son.  Boldly fixing responsibility on the child’s father, a landowner called Samuel Stearn, she baptised her boy Samuel Stearn Durrell.

At the age of eighteen Samuel Durrell joined the army and was soon shipped to India, saw service in Afghanistan and China, and achieved the rank of major before retiring to England.  Major Durrell’s children were all born in India, among them Lawrence Samuel, who married the India-born Louisa Dixie; their oldest child, likewise born in India, was the future novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell.

Dixie is an English surname, primarily local to East Anglia, that is to the same part of England as the Durrells and Stearns in Suffolk. Lawrence Durrell’s own daughter Penelope spent years interviewing family members and searching official records seeking evidence that the Dixies had a connection with Ireland but she drew a blank.

There is one exception to Lawrence Durrell’s English ancestry: a young widow named Johanna Doherty, born O’Brien, who married Louisa’s grandfather John Dixie, a sergeant-major in the Sappers and Miners, at Delhi in 1845. Assuming that Johanna was herself wholly Irish, that would make Durrell at best one-eighth Irish. But Johanna’s ancestry is open to doubt.

The rounded gravestone of Lawrence Durrell's great grandmother Mahala Durrell in a Suffolk churchyard.

Lawrence Durrell is not known to have mentioned his slight Irish ancestry until he was twenty-four and living in Corfu where he began a correspondence with Henry Miller, an American who disliked the English.  Suddenly Durrell was 'pure Anglo-Irish-Indian ASH Blond', as he exotically described himself to the older and admired writer.

But Irishness also had another appeal to Durrell. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary Irishness can refer to ‘their reputation for illogicality’, and for Durrell, whose developing genius in part lay in his fantastical imagination, he felt the need to escape the bonds of logic, of cause and effect, and of space and time.  The whole of Durrell's work, from Prospero's Cell, his island book about Corfu, through The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet, presents a universe of unconfined dimensions in which past and present are not distinct, in which human personalities merge, in which the writer, the artist, is the supreme and unbridled creator.  Or in the words of one of Durrell’s reproving English critics P N Furbank, ‘He just makes it up’.  To the orderly English mind, Durrell does not play by the rules.   

This substantial house several miles from Hacheston belonged to Mahala Durrell's lover, the father of her son.  The future poet and novelist was not a Durrell at all, instead he was the great grandson of the Suffolk landowner Samuel Stearn.

In later life Durrell rubbished his earlier claims to be literally Irish, laughing it off as a joke which people fell for easily.  And in Livia, the second volume of his Avignon Quintet, he has his character Sutcliffe, to whom he has given a biography very similar to his own youthful experience of England, and who is himself the literary creation of another character in the novel, explain how he invented his Irishness: ‘For my part I told everybody that I lived in Ireland in a fairy’s armpit’.

Michael Haag is writing a biography of Lawrence Durrell to be published by Yale University Press.  The colour photographs are his copyright.