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Larry and Nancy: where were we?
her domineering husband. These Hodgkin sensitively unpicks, finding the reality ‘far more complex’. Miller, to do him justice, encouraged her to keep up her painting, hardly any examples of which, alas, survive. Come the war, they were back in Greece, where Larry acquired a job with the British Council, and awaiting the arrival of their daughter, Penelope. There was a further relocation to Egypt, ahead of the Nazi invasion, where Larry worked as a press attaché at the British Embassy. In summer 1942, bored and disillusioned, Nancy wrote from Jerusalem to tell him the relationship was over.
It would take an exceptionally tolerant student of the Durrells’ marriage not to end up making a few judgements on the people involved in it. Self-centred, breastbeating Larry distinguishes himself by a near-complete indifference to his wife’s feelings, ambitions and emotional and sexual wellbeing (‘Another panic this month over Nancy’s period. That girl is a pest’) and by returning the words ‘Why don’t you shut up?’ to most of her attempts at conversation. Nancy, while deserving the Catherine Dickens Award for longsuffering stoicism in the face of husbandly vainglory, rates a second trophy for habitual vagueness. Among various high-grade achievements in this field, she is unable to remember where she and her spouse first met (‘in a pub, or somewhere’), details of her artistic commissions (‘he wanted me to do a drawing of some sort, a woodcut of two animals’) and even, when it came to the protracted divorce proceedings, the date of their marriage.
At least some of this talent for imprecision has rubbed off on Joanna Hodgkin, her daughter, who can’t decide whether Nancy is six or only three inches taller than her diminutive first husband, and at one point describes a cartoon she contributed to Graham Greene’s short-lived weekly magazine Night and Day as depicting a caveman dragging a cavewoman out of a wood, whereas it clearly shows a Roman soldier clad in chain mail and sandals. On the other hand, the animating spirit that pulses through this joint biography is thoroughly to be applauded. As the product of Nancy’s second marriage, to the infinitely nicer-sounding Edward Hodgkin, Joanna Hodgkin clearly burns to tug her silent, ironic and intermittently glacial mother out of the shadow in which she happily sequestrated herself (Nancy died in 1983, leaving a fragmentary memoir). Hodgkin’s final judgement, inspired by a Durrell memorial event on Corfu, is that Nancy’s supporting role in bringing ‘all these people to this place at this particular moment’ was ‘quite an achievement’. Loyally, if somewhat haphazardly written, full of arresting details from the Miller ménage and the perilous wartime escape across the Mediterranean, Amateurs in Eden is full of good things, while never quite convincing the reader that the material is strong enough for its rather exorbitant length. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 36
The great Bicentennial Dickens Jubilee Olympics are upon us. On television, radio, in the theatre, on film and even in the bookshops, there is no escape from garbled versions of the work and accounts of the man. How many people will actually read the novels in 2012 is another matter, but some of the books under review might encourage them to engage with a more authentic Dickens. The onevolume The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 458pp £20) is a good place to start. While Simon Callow’s claim that ‘if not a single novel or story of Dickens were to survive, his letters alone would constitute one of the glories of English literature’ may be an exaggeration, they do give a vivid impression of this extraordinary and multifaceted man. Jenny Hartley has risen splendidly to the difficult challenge of making a representative choice from c at h e r i n e p e t e r s
Sparkler of Albion the twelve-volume Pilgrim Collected Letters. An affordable selection of this quality has long been needed, and Dickens lovers will all be grateful to Hartley for her skill and judgement.
Another essential volume for the reader of Dickens is the new ‘Anniversary Edition’ of The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 675pp £25), the first for a decade. It has a wonderfully informative index, always a good indication of a really well-conceived companion. As well as the obvious themes and subjects, there are entries on all the literary and theatrical figures of the age who had any connection with Dickens, some of them too obscure to figure in other guides to Victorian literature. I wish OUP would also reissue an equally treasured volume, The Dickens Index (Oxford University Press, 1988), which, as well as giving biographical information, is the most complete guide to the details of Dickens’s fiction. The Oxford Companion has lengthy and informative entries on each of the novels, but the Index is a treasure chest of unexpected facts. If you want to know who Pedlar and Pool were, or where Jerry Cruncher lived, The Dickens Index is the only place to look. I am convinced it would still sell well, in print or online.
OUP have also unearthed Dickens’s anonymously published Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1838) and Sketches of Young Couples (1840), sequels to Sketches of Young Ladies by the forgotten Edward Caswall, also included in the same volume (Oxford University Press 221pp £9.99). Where Caswall generalises and
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