Joan: The Remarkable life of Joan Leigh Fermor Simon Fenwick (Macmillan, £25)
Joan Eyres MONSELL was a bewitching Worcestershire girl brought up at Dumbleton Hall, an ungainly Victorian pile, surrounded by 2,000 acres. Her father was an MP, raised to the peerage, and a bully and a bolter. Her mother had the money.
Tall, beautiful, home educated but erudite, she took as her first lover the impecunious would-be writer alan Pryce-jones, who, to her father’s horror, did not have a ‘place’ and didn’t shoot. Through alan, however, Joan, who had a bit of a job in London as a photographer, met, and was beguiling to, a host of 20th-century writers. These included John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Maurice Bowra, who all adored her.
Given her father’s disapproval of Pryce-jones, it’s amazing that Joan should have first married a Fleet street hack, John rayner of the Daily Express. But it is her enduring pursuit of Patrick Leigh Fermor over 20 years, and eventual marriage to him in 1968, for which she will be best remembered. This book shows Joan to be no mere cypher to Paddy’s quixotic war, love affairs and travel adventures. often she accom-panied him, and her photographs furnished ‘aidesmémoire’ to much of his writing.
In 1965, they built a house deep in the Greek Peloponnese. Betjeman called it ‘a book of Paddy’s and more lasting.’ Having myself first visited in 1976, and enjoyed several lunches or dinners with them there or at Lela’s, the tavern in nearby Kardamyli, I can attest that simon Fenwick’s book brings both their voices back to life. Charming, interested, energetic, well read and supremely kind to the young, Paddy and Joan loved each other.
Dumbleton was sold, and the Leigh Fermor’s House at Kardamyli is soon to be a writers’ retreat, administered by the Benaki Museum in athens. For the past two years, I have summered in a small town house in the hills above it and gone to dine there with my family. Each summer it is taken by the Italian writer roberto Calasso; we may have seen the last of Paddy and Joan’s imprint upon it.
We relived stories about Paddy and Joan and there are many new ones in this book. Paddy never forgot the debt that he owed his wife. Leaving him one day, after a six-hour lunch, I asked him about his book, Mani. ‘Joan wrote it,’ he said, with a twinkle that could have pierced a sunset horizon. and he meant it. Rory Knight Bruce
Joan Leigh Fermor in 1926