Joan – a blog review

When Simon Fenwick, a professional archivist, was asked to sort Paddy’s papers at Kardamyli after his death in 2011, one would imagine that it would be the illustrious Paddy who would fire Simon’s imagination to write a book. But, as Simon worked his way through the accumulations of a lifetime, it was Joan, the woman who lived in Paddy’s shadow who started to fascinate and inspired him to write Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor.

Although Joan’s money enabled Paddy to write, and she accompanied him on many of his post-war journeys, there is barely a mention of Joan in Paddy’s work. Simon’s painstaking research has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable biography that gives Joan real shape and depth. Not only has Simon managed to produce a book about a woman who barely left any archive of her own (a diary from 1936 and some letters from John and Penelope Betjeman is about it), he has a very engaging and entertaining style.

Paddy of course features prominently in the latter half of the book, but Simon is careful to retain the focus on his subject. We do, however, learn a lot more detail about Paddy to supplement Artemis Cooper’s 2012 biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. Simon has had the benefit of access to a very wide range of different source information, and dare I say, material that now is much better organised than when Artemis was writing.

Simon Fenwick is very candid about the lifestyles and affairs of Joan, Paddy and their assorted friends. It was Joan who was friends first with Cyril Connelly, Maurice Bowra, John Betjeman, Patrick Kinross etc, and introduced Paddy into their world where he found immediate acceptance. There is a degree of honesty about his work which will appeal to those who want to know what the lives of these people were really like. We may think that we know them, but Simon Fenwick truly brings a new perspective and introduces us to new material. It is certainly a good read, and in paperback, an ideal stocking filler for Christmas.

Buy Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor

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One thought on “Joan – a blog review

  1. brianhuman

    It was good to read your review of Simon Fenwick’s biography of Joan Leigh Fermor. He paints a delightful picture of her life and exciting times peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters. The added insights into the life of Paddy are very welcome too, of course. Yes, a splendid stocking filler for anyone interested in both the Leigh Fermors and the cultural life of Britain in the middle 50 years on the 20th Century.

    You might feel a ‘however’ coming on, and there is one. A significant failing, for me, is that Fenwick’s otherwise excellent book does not lead to a better understanding of Joan as a photographer. During her lifetime publishers seldom did justice to her work and the chance to showcase it at its best is missed completely here. As a consequence Joan remains, in his telling, as no more than a minor footnote to the story of British photography. She emerges as an attractive muse to the men who so often dominate the story Fenwick tells, rather than as a creative artist in her own right.

    Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues (2017) and Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece (2017) add somewhat to the picture. A sense of personal and photographic competency emerges and it appears this how she was seen in the wider literary and artistic circle of which she was a part. The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover (2018) attempts lift her from comparative photographic obscurity, to unwarp the enigma. This handsome, well-produced volume, includes 177 plates (nine in colour) showing 204 of Joan’s photographs. But we still only have partial picture, partial in both senses of the word. The book, linked as it is to an exhibition in Athens, concentrates almost entirely on Greece; and it is celebratory, rather than critical. We still see nothing of Joan’s other photography. Surely there is more to see and understand about Joan’s work, and thereby to rescue her from the fate of many photographers of her era, who laboured in the shadow of writers and did not enjoy the respect and credits they merited.

    These points are elaborated in more detail in three postings on my blog, brianhuman.co.uk/wp

    Reply

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