Beasts in my bed



When I was nine, I read a chapter from My Family and Other Animals and I can still remember whole paragraphs of Gerry angling for a baby donkey as a birthday present. This is not a reflection of my acute memory (thanks, Ayurvedic Concepts). It's just that I've read the Durrell books over and over again and I still snigger when brother Larry reaches for a box of matches at dinner and gets a box of baby scorpions. Oh Larry, did you really encourage 'that bloody boy' to write those insane stories about your family? Did you know that after you wrote Spirit of Place, he would write a book called Fillets of Plaice ? Gerald Durrell, like Helene Hanff, is one of those writers whose literary success can clearly be traced to the charm of their personalities and their madcap lives. So powerful is this factor is that it almost obscures the clever writing.

Last weekend, I found a book written by Jacquie Durrell, Gerry's first wife. Beasts in my Bed is a book written in the same oeuvre as the Durrell books, full of lively animals, eccentric, colourful people and looniness. Jacquie, a much less accomplished writer than Gerald, trades more heavily on the charm of their lives much more heavily. Jacquie worked alongside Gerry from the first month of their marriage. She helped him write and edit his many, many books. She was part of the expeditions, working long, muddy, gruelling hours looking after animals. This book, written by her in her late 30s is full of love and respect for Gerald but is rendered ironic because of the reader's knowledge that a decade later she would divorce him. She does touch upon the demands Gerry's vocation placed on their marriage but does not (obviously) talk about his drinking, one of the major grounds for their divorce.

Even PG Wodehouse has more serious moments than Durrell does in his books. Jacquie's book, despite its efforts to stay within the endearing sunlight of Durrell antics, where there is no space for grief or tragedy, gives away too much without meaning to. First, Durrell's arch footnotes appear throughout the book. I kept wanting to say, 'Straighten those eyebrows! Now!' The footnotes are meant to be funny and bloody-minded but the humour fails completely. There are startling lapses into the brand of humour that a friend calls 'My wife is the Home Minister, heh, heh!'

Jacquie was a 19 year old with an extremely promising career in opera when she met Gerald. She married when she turned 21 and gave up her career. From the beginning, it was clear that there was no space for two careers in that marriage. Jacquie grew attached to the animals herself and became integral to the expeditions and the zoo. And after the first chapter where she talks of her decision to marry and assist Durrell in his life's mission, she never talks of opera again. She lightly talks of her family's opposition to the marriage. The truth was that after she eloped with Gerald, she never spoke to them again. There are some intriguing differences in Jacquie's narration of the lives that all of us followed adoringly in Durrell's books. One of the few things that makes one wince when reading the Durrell books is his embarrassing colonial-sahibness. Gerry grew up in India, the son of a dyed-in-the-wool empire builder. The paternalistic 'chop chop bad beef' attitude is visible in the Africa books more than in the Corfu books. Jacquie on the other hand, does spend some time reflecting on the extreme poverty of the indigenous people in South America (though she says categorically that she hates going to Africa.)

 In all of Gerry's books his mother is an amiable, bumbling woman who is obsessed with cooking and frequently scandalised by her children's antics. According to Douglas Botting, GD's official biographer, Louisa was actually something of a stud herself. She was born in Rourkee and though quiet, was highly independent and flouted the racial segregation of the times. As a young woman she trained as a nurse, scrubbed floors and travelled to remote locations with her railroad engineer husband.  In her own way, she was as eccentric as the rest of the family, with a taste for gin, a serious interest in the paranormal and a supreme ability to let her children be. It is through Jacquie that one gets a tiny glimpse of this wild Louisa Durrell, known only as Mother, in Gerald Durrell's books.

Gerry was said to be shocked when Jacquie walked out on him and found it difficult to believe she was serious. He did marry again, and this time it was to a  young naturalist called Lee. I find that in at least one Gerald Durrell fan club online, the ethics of Gerry's two marriages are as passionately debated as the relationship between Jane and Thomas Carlyle. Jane Carlyle was a child prodigy and destined for literary greatness when she married Thomas Carlyle. Though he had every single social and emotional failing that an archetypal gloomy and intellectual husband could have and though she was famous for her wicked wit, she looked after his finicky interests right up to her death. She built him sound-proof rooms, played the piano to soothe his fevered brow (giggle) and entertained his brilliant, prickly friends.

A sample of what was going through her mind as she performed these dutiful tasks can be seen from a letter she wrote to her friend, "I begin to be seriously afraid that his Life of Cromwell is going to have the same strange fate as the child of a certain French marchioness that I once read of, which never could get itself born, tho' carried about in her for 20 years. . . A wit is said to have once asked this poor woman if 'Madame was not thinking of swallowing a tutor for her son?' So one might ask Carlyle if he is not thinking of swallowing a publisher for his book?" Millions of years later the marriage is still being debated by anxious academics. "Did she suffer? Did he suffer? If he was such a bastard, what about that self-flagellating book he wrote after she died, where he confessed to having neglected her? Why must we be interested in his wife when he was such a brilliant man? Other Victorian women wrote, why didn't she? Can't have been so clever then..." With a couple of sniggers I must note that I also found out that conferences have been held on the subject of the Carlyles. In the plural. Ah, David Lodge, things are not so different from Small World.

With as much conviction as the Victoriana specialists, if less erudition, the Gerald Durrell Fan Club is divided on the subject of Gerald Durrell's marital perfidies. To return to Jacquie's book, it is quite readable and her essential seriousness gives us Durrell-greedy a sense of gravitas about the Durrell adventures while protecting the ark.

1 comments:

" I can still remember whole paragraphs of Gerry angling for a baby donkey as a birthday present."

I remember that too but I went back to my old favorite today and saw the chapter where he got Leslie to make a boat called "Bootle Bumtrinket" for him.

Whatever happened to the donkey which was supposed to be a "surprise" gift? Where is it, both our memories can't be failing (thanks, Ayurveda)

May 28, 2009 at 3:15 AM  

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