Bi­og­ra­phy

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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

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