Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick is perhaps the outstanding biography of the Fermors. This review includes the background to Fenwick’s growing interest in Joan as a person, as Paddy’s muse, and not just the wife.
By Nicholas Shakespeare.
First published in The Spectator.
Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’
This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming case for Joan to be considered the proper foundation of Paddy’s existence; his muse and ‘greatest collaborator’, whose wealth and talent as a sounding board underpinned his career as an author. ‘Joan made it possible for Paddy to write.’
She was like one of her cats, all of whom descended from a single Abyssinian ‘which had mated freely with the village toms’: fiercely independent (she and Paddy had a ‘pact of liberty’), alluring, a watchful presence in the shadows. ‘Sensual, somewhat aloof and deeply private,’ writes Simon Fenwick. ‘This is Joan.’
Tall, slender, with her blonde hair cut short: Lawrence Durrell called her the ‘Corn Goddess’. To John Betjeman, who made a late declaration of love, she was ‘Dotty’, with ‘eyes like tennis balls’. To Cyril Connolly, with whom she went to bed during her first marriage — and whose photograph, ‘eaten by tiny insects’, she kept in her bedroom — she was a ‘lovely boy-girl… like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. To Noel Annan, on the first page of his 450-page history, Our Age, she was a ‘life-enhancer’. Careful never to tread into the foreground, she runs like a silken thread through the memoirs of her generation, a thread which Fenwick skilfully tugs out and spins into a gossamer portrait, reminiscent of Ann Wroe’s biography of Orpheus, composed of glances and glimpses — and fingerprints, like those that Joan left on Cecil Beaton’s bathroom wall at Ashcombe, ‘to the left of the towel rail’.
A semi-professional photographer, with a taste for bombed-out buildings and cemeteries, Joan ‘always hated being photographed’, and left her films to be developed by other hands. The image she had of herself was of a bad-tempered, selfish Aquarian, withdrawn, given to grumbling, and indecisive. In a 1936 pocket diary, one of only three fragments of the paper trail that survives from before the 1940s, she confessed her lifelong dilemma:
A gregarious loner, she steps across Fenwick’s pages as simultaneously self-effacing and attention-seeking — once gaining notoriety for wearing ‘a single extraordinary earring’ consisting of ‘a bunch of 42 small gilt safety pins’. To almost everyone (including the author of this review, who met her in Kardamyli), she exuded, as Michael Wishart remarked of Barbara Skelton, ‘a tantalising quality of needing a tamer, while something about her suggested she was untameable’. A walk-alone feline who fluttered at will into a social butterfly, and a pin-up for other androgynous admirers, like the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, she has, not surprisingly, proved hard to pin down.
She was born Joan Eyres Monsell, into ‘a great deal’ of money. The family wealth came from a rich skinflint, a Leeds wool baron, who, when asked why he travelled third-class on the train, answered: ‘Because there’s no fourth class!’ She claimed to have nothing in common with her family, but her father — an ‘odious’ bully — was a sailor (and later first lord of the Admiralty), and on both sides there were writers, travellers and explorers — like her cousin Gino Watkins, who disappeared in Greenland, his kayak discovered floating upside down ‘and his trousers on an ice floe’.
As well, she had the example of her triumphantly profligate great-uncle Charles Kettlewell, ‘the Wicked Uncle’, who spent two years sailing his 420-foot schooner on a scientific voyage round the Far East, before dying bankrupt aged 49, having got through his entire inheritance (£4.5 million per year in today’s money), leaving only a collection of stuffed birds that ended up in Leeds Museum.
The most remarkable thing about much of Joan’s life was its lack of focus. Her first 20 years were spent in the shadow of her gay brother Graham and his Eton and Oxford friends, such as the penniless aesthete Alan Pryce-Jones, with whom Graham had probably slept. When Joan accepted a marriage proposal from Pryce-Jones, Betjeman wrote to him: ‘There is one thing you must do before you marry— you must explain that you were once inverted. She won’t mind at all.’ But her father did. ‘No, no, Pryce-Jones, come back in a few years when you have something behind you.’
The person Joan came back with, after a wartime marriage to the Express journalist John Rayner (‘we gradually drifted apart,’ she explained), was an equally penniless aesthete: an officer with the Special Operations Executive called Paddy Leigh-Fermor, ‘with few clear prospects’, whose riches largely consisted in his appetite for life — described in his own phrase as ‘that of a sea-lion for the flung bloater’.
They met in Cairo in 1944. Their affair continued until they tied the knot in 1968; in the same year, their home in Kardamyli was completed. Leading separate lives had sustained their enchantment for each other. ‘At this distance you seem about as perfect as a human being can be,’ Paddy wrote from the French monastery where he was writing The Traveller’s Tree, in one of the letters that formed the marrow of A Time to Keep Silence. Whenever they came together, as they longed to do (‘I shall have tiny Fermors every year,’ wrote Joan, desperate for a family), they often found it hard to adapt, and there would ensue, in Paddy’s words, ‘a tremendous mutually vituperative blow up’. This might explain the most evocative entry in Joan’s commonplace book, the single Fuegian word mamihlapintafoi, meaning: ‘Looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do.’
When Fenwick opened the calf-bound visitors’ book at Kardamyli he discovered ‘a Who’s Who of 20th-century society’. With only one of Schizo Joan’s diaries to rely on, and no memoir, his affectionate scrap-book of a portrait more closely mimics the ‘personalised disorder’ which he found in Paddy’s desk; one drawer was ‘aptly’ labelled ‘Total Confusion’; another drawer contained stray photographs, broken spectacles and ‘wads of small printed notices saying that he was very busy and unable to answer his correspondents’; at the bottom of a tin trunk were two pennants from General Kreipe’s staff car. ‘Somewhere, amidst all this disarray, was the story of Joan and Paddy and their lives together.’