Joanna Hodgkin is the daughter of Nancy Durrell Hodgkin.
In early 2012, Virago Press will publish Amateurs in Eden, Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother. In June 2012, Ms. Hodgkin will be a featured speaker at Durrell 2012: The Lawrence Durrell Centenary.
Ms. Hodgkin was born in London and read History at Somerville College, Oxford. She is the author of eleven novels, including Dora’s Room (1993), which WH Smith selected for its first Fresh Talent promotion, and Improvising Carla (2000), which ITV dramatised. Her historical trilogy — consisting of The Cornish Girl (1994), The Puritan’s Wife (1996), and The Lost Daughter (1999) — takes place in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Her latest novel is One Mistake (2008). From 2004 – 2007, Ms. Hodgkin worked as a Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham. She serves as a churchwarden at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, and she also writes regular reviews for the Guardian’s book page.
Durrell 2012: For all of the people who never met her, Nancy’s character seems quiet, shy, and elusive — shaded in a bit of mystery, as conveyed by the enigmatic “N.” of Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell. Even Gerald Durrell seems a bit protective of her, keeping his brother’s marriage to Nancy well out of the satirical moments in My Family and Other Animals. (“Larry,” by contrast, is never spared!) Amateurs in Eden brings Nancy back into the spotlight. What do you think that your readers will be most surprised to learn about the life of Nancy Myers Durrell Hodgkin?
Joanna Hodgkin: Nancy was very aware, as the Durrell literature grew, that she was going to be misrepresented, and portrayed as shy and quiet; this was the main reason she started the memoir which has been the jumping off point for my book.
Strangely enough, she didn’t at all mind being left out of My Family and Other Animals — she could see that it made artistic sense to keep the Durrell family nuclear, and anyway, she thought that although hardly any of the actual events were true, Gerald captured character and voice and atmosphere exactly.
Durrell 2012: Nancy studied at the Slade School and was trained as a painter. What were her main interests in art? Did she keep up her painting throughout her later life?
Joanna Hodgkin: Yes, she did. In the early ’50s she turned to sculpture, and though she was always her own fiercest critic, and destroyed huge amounts of work that didn’t come up to her exacting standards, she did leave a fine body of work behind her. Two of her sculptures were exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in the mid 1960s.
But almost all her painting from before the war has vanished – ironically, the only piece to have survived is a painting she threw away. Lawrence fished it out of the rubbish and sent it to Henry Miller: she would be appalled to think that her work would be known by something she has discarded, so I can’t decide whether to put it in the book or not.
Durrell 2012: Nancy was married to Lawrence Durrell from 1935 to 1947. Did she ever talk about those years?
Joanna Hodgkin: Yes, she talked about it a lot, and I loved hearing about her adventurous years before she married my father. Now I only wish I could remember everything she told me, but luckily I do remember most of it.
Durrell 2012: What about her time on Corfu? For Lawrence Durrell, the time at Kalami was transformational, and those pre-war years were lost moments to which he seemed to glance back continually. What did that time in Greece mean for Nancy?
Joanna Hodgkin: She loved it. I think for her it was the discovery of the south and a way of living which was a revelation, its sensuousness and richness and physicality. She always talked of the joys of swimming naked, the feel of the water against your skin.
I think the reason she never went back was because the experience of war and loss meant she was afraid of being disillusioned. When she spoke about it, it did seem like a vanished Eden, which is why the title of the book seems so appropriate. It was Eden and, like all of us, they were amateurs and got it wrong, but they did glimpse something magical in those years.
Durrell 2012: If you can imagine reading Prospero’s Cell with your mother’s eye and ear, what do you think she would have to say about it?
Joanna Hodgkin: This is quite hard to answer, in fact I’m not sure that I can. She must have talked about it, but I have no memory, except she was always fairly skeptical about the diving for cherries part. She was an intensely honest person, and would have wanted the whole picture to be recorded, whereas Larry was interested in a different kind of truth.
Durrell 2012: As a young person, how aware were you that your mother’s story was connected with the life of Lawrence Durrell?
Joanna Hodgkin: Oh yes, from quite an early age. I remember being intensely jealous of my sister Penelope because there was a poem for her ‘To Ping-ku asleep’ in a book, which I first became aware of when I was about 6 or 7. Very glamorous! And it always seemed most unfair that my father was her step-father but that it didn’t work the other way around. It took me years to work that one out.
Durrell 2012: Did you ever meet Lawrence Durrell? If so, what do you most recall?
Joanna Hodgkin: Yes, I met him when I was quite young, then again at Sappho’s funeral which Penelope and my father organised, so that was obviously pretty traumatic. A couple of years before he died I went with Penelope to spend a week with him in Sommières. His charm was terrific, even though he was pretty depressed, and I was glad to experience that — it’s the most elusive part of someone, but such an important aspect of the man.
Durrell 2012: I recall Margo Durrell pausing during an interview to say, almost in a hushed voice: “But Mother loved Nancy. We all adored Nancy. . . .” What do you make of Nancy’s relationship with the Durrell clan?
Joanna Hodgkin: When she first met them she was bowled over by the family, so different from hers in every way. She loved their unconventional ways, and the fact that she felt she could be herself with them — a total contrast to her own family. She liked them all, and when she and my father bought a house not far from Bournemouth, Margo came to visit several times with her family. They were very affectionate times.
Durrell 2012: What was the most important lesson that you learned from your mother?
Joanna Hodgkin: The first thing that springs to mind in answer to that question was her belief that things always make sense to the person who is doing them, even when it’s not at all obvious. As a general rule that meant she delayed judging, or tried to.
I remember when I did something that seemed irrational and hurtful, her response afterwards was ‘I knew you must have a reason, but I couldn’t work out what it was,’ or words to that effect.
Durrell 2012: What do you think gave her that sort of knowledge or insight?
Joanna Hodgkin: She was very influenced when she was trying to work out all the big ‘meaning of life’ questions by a relative of her father’s, Fielding Hall, who had written a book about Burmese Buddhism. It’s called The Soul of a People and it’s still in print — full of wise things. It’s a credit to her that she responded to it so powerfully as an unhappy teenager — and of course, it gave her a link with Larry, too, through the Buddhism.
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