Lawrence Durrell was born on 27 February 1912 in Jullundur (also variously spelt Jalandhar) near Lahore in north-west India, the son of Lawrence Samuel Durrell and his wife Louisa Florence (née Dixie). His father was a civil engineer. His parents had both been born in India: Durrell’s mother put it succinctly when she said ‘Most people talked of home and meant England, when we said home we meant India.’ Durrell’s maternal grandfather had been born there in 1854, but on his father’s side his grandfather (born in England in 1851) had not arrived in India until 1876. Durrell’s father’s boss, Cecil Henry Buck, married Durrell’s aunt, and wrote Faiths, Fairs and Festivals of India (1917).
Durrell’s father, the son of a Suffolk-born army sergeant, was an engineer working for the Indian railway companies until 1920, when he established Durrell & Company at Jamshedpur, in Bihar province, where he built a hospital and the Tata Iron and Steel Works. (Founded by Jamsetji Tata in 1868, the Tata group is today a global enterprise headquartered in India, comprising over 100 operating companies in more than 100 countries across six continents.)
Durrell senior’s success was short-lived, however, as he died eight years later at the age of forty-three. Durrell’s earliest memories were of villages in Burma and present-day Bangladesh, until, in 1918, his family moved to Kurseong in the north-east of India, in the triangle tucked under the Himalayas in the lap of Nepal, where his father was responsible for the construction of railways, including the Darjiling line: ‘The track ran through landscapes of dreams… You had the snows and the mists always opening and closing upon sheer precipices’. It was in the north-east, however, in Kurseong, that the young Lawrence Durrell began his lifelong attempt to locate his life of exile between the memories of his childhood and his colonial views of ‘home’:
under the Himalayas. The most wonderful memories – a brief dream of Tibet until I was eleven. Then that mean, shabby little island up there wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me
The reference to ‘that mean shabby little island’ indicates Britain, which Durrell disliked and to which he often referred as ‘Pudding Island’.
Like many Anglo-Indians, Durrell senior maintained a mental landscape of ‘home’, an England which at that stage he had never seen, but whose values and significance were part of the nineteenth-century colonial baggage, a lien on an idea of empire and history which was only partly real, and almost impossible to articulate: homeland.
Lawrence Durrell was educated at St Joseph’s College, Darjeeling (he spelt it ‘Darjiling’) until, at his father’s insistence, he was sent to school in England – first at St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School in Southwark and then St Edmund’s, Canterbury, experiences which provided a solid and significant basis for his first three novels with their medieval substructure. One of the most significant encounters during these years was his discovery, in Southwark Cathedral, of a group of recently recoloured and regilded tombs: ‘in form, proportion, heaviness of decoration and unapologetic brightness of colour – particularly of colour – they at once brought India to his mind’.
Durrell claims to have deliberately failed the entrance exams to university. He settled in London, where he befriended the poet, critic and collector John Gawsworth. He spent much time in the Reading Room of the British Museum (today, the British Library) where he read voraciously. He earned a precarious living as a rent-collector, a railway porter, an apprentice racing driver and, less improbably, playing jazz piano in a night-club (and indeed composing and selling jazz songs using his mother’s surname as a partial nom-de-plume, running a photographic studio and, later, writing drama criticism.
Durrell married Nancy Myers, an art student, and they lived at first in the Sussex countryside at Loxwood with their friends George and Pam Wilkinson, setting up the Caduceus Press to print Durrell’s first poems.Then in 1935 they decided, on the basis of a small income which he received from his father’s estate, to follow the Wilkinsons’ example and live economically on the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea off north-west Greece. At this stage, Durrell had published nothing except a few small collections of poetry, Quaint Fragment (1931), Ten Poems (1932) and Transition (1934) and, in 1933, under the pseudonym ‘Gaffer Peeslake’, a satire of Shaw’s Black Girl entitled Bromo Bombastes.
The move to Corfu was highly significant since it was there that he conceived his entire life’s work as a novelist; he had written his first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers and corrected the proofs after arrival in Corfu. He wrote his second novel, Panic Spring in Corfu and began his third, The Black Book. His years in Corfu (1935-39) were recorded subjectively in the poetic Prospero’s Cell.
The move to Corfu was also significant because Lawrence persuaded his widowed mother (who, after her husband’s death had moved her family to England) to move to Corfu. This led to her youngest son, Gerald, also conceiving his life’s work during his formative years, largely under the guidance of Theodore Stephanides. Gerald recorded his own impressions of Corfu in three books (known collectively as the Corfu Trilogy): My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods.