Charmer's love letters from foreign lands; Patrick Leigh Fermor was a literary rock star ahead of his time, a war hero, socialite and classicist. Martin Stote looks at the first biography of the author.
When, in 1945, the year in which the Second World War ended, Patrick Leigh Fermor was taken home by Joan Eyres Monsell to meet her parents, he was no slouch. He'd been lionised for his heroic resistance exploits on occupied Crete. He was a man of immense charm, improbably handsome, with an impressive command of the classics, history, and languages, albeit some of it piecemeal and self taught, and he harboured dreams of becoming a writer.
But her family's country estate just outside Evesham must have silenced even his voluble persona. Dumbleton Hall was not understated. It loomed from a landscape of pastoral perfection - most of which was owned by the family.
Its occupants were no less mesmerising. Joan's father Bolton Eyres Monsell had sat for 25 years as the Tory MP for south Worcestershire, been First Lord of the Admiralty and became Viscount Monsell 10 years earlier. He was a brusque chap, whose son Graham, a refined and musically gifted intellectual, prompted his irritation - "only pansies play the piano".
Her mother Sybil, the source of the family's substantial wealth, was shy but welcoming.
Joan's friends were immediately taken with "Paddy", as many women had been before, and many would again, throughout what became his 60-year highly unconventional love affair with and eventual marriage to Joan.
Three years older than him, she had been educated at St James's, Malvern, and finishing schools in Paris and Florence. She was beautiful, smart, cultivated, intellectually independent, and enjoyed a generous allowance.
Artemis Cooper tells us in her long-awaited biography of Leigh Fermor that Joan fought a losing battle "to remain undazzled" by her new admirer.
But for Leigh Fermor, for reasons which will become apparent, Joan's mind, money and milieu were doing a fair bit of dazzling of their own.
Leigh Fermor went on to write some of the most evocative modern British prose. He also had a marvellously deft comic touch, illustrated by the letters between him and "Debo", the Duchess of Devonshire, published under the title, In Tearing Haste in 2008, just three years before his death. He was awarded a military OBE in 1943, appointed a Companion of Literature in 1991 and received a knighthood in the New Year's Honours List in 2004.
An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, who was a close friend of Leigh Fermor, is a candid profile of a richly original Englishman who charmed his way into the homes of many of the aristocrats of old Europe.
He was born in London on February 11, 1915. His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, an eminent geologist, often worked abroad and Patrick's formative years were ones of "early anarchy" in the care of a country family. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old. His mother Eileen was a failed actress and playwright who "sparkled a little too brightly" in company. She veered between treating her son with a mixture of "possessive love and complete neglect".
At the King's School, Canterbury, his house master's penultimate report spoke of "a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness". He was expelled because he had been caught precociously holding the hand of the 24-year-old daughter of a local greengrocer.
He attended a military crammer, but, disillusioned, scrapped plans to attend Sandhurst.
He left London, aged 18, on December 9, 1933, on a Dutch steamer with a borrowed rucksack containing the Oxford Book of English verse, a volume of Horace, notebooks, sketchpads, and pencils. He was away for three years. He set off with the Orwellian notion to live "like a wandering scholar or pilgrim, keeping company with tramps and vagabonds, peasants and gypsies". But he also stayed at some of the grandest castles and mansions in old pre-war Europe.
"Happiness, excitement, youth, good looks, eagerness to please and an open heart; Paddy had them all. The combination was irresistible and people responded to it with warmth and delight," writes Cooper. Among them were a dark-haired Serbian beauty he met on a crayfish picnic in Transylvania, with whom he enjoyed a tryst in the woods; and the sophisticated, multilingual Byzantine princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, 16 years his senior, with whom he fell deeply in love and lived with for a while in a water mill in Greece.
The first of the two books chronicling his journey, A Time of Gifts, wasn't published until September 1977. Cooper writes that it is "a journey across a continent that exists somewhere between memory and imagination". The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water was published in October 1986, and won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. By then, she says, Leigh Fermor was "recognised as one of the great prose stylists of his generation." She is working on editing the unfinished manuscript of the third, which is due to be published next year under the title The Broken Road.
Patrick Leigh Fermor had a pretty good war, if you discount when he accidentally killed one of his own guides by shooting him with a rifle. Famously, in April 1944 he led the kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of the German forces in Crete, driving him through 22 military checkpoints before marching him to a mountain hideaway. The episode formed the basis for the 1957 film, Ill Met by Moonlight, with Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh Fermor.
Leigh Fermor met Joan, who had been working in overseas embassies, at a party towards the end of the war. It would be another 20 years before they married.
During the two decades before their marriage, both Leigh Fermor and Joan continued to enjoy other close friendships with the opposite sex.
In Cyprus in 1953, Joan was seen to slip him a handful of banknotes, saying: "There you are, that should be enough if you want to find a girl."
They eventually succumbed to a register office wedding on January 11, 1968 at Caxton Hall, Westminster.
Joan moved in circles where wealth was a given. In 1962, after Sybil died and Joan inherited her share of her mother's PS6 million estate, she and Leigh Fermor bought land near Kardamyli in the Peloponnese in Greece on which they built a house. It attracted two generations of writers and artists, including Lawrence Durrell, Francis Bacon and John Betjeman.
When Joan's brother Graham died in November 1993 he left her the Mill House, Dumbleton, which became their English refuge when the heat of high summer in the Mani, or its fierce December winds, drove them home.
Joan died in 2003 after she fell and banged her head in the bathroom of the house in Greece. She was buried in the cemetery at St Peter's Church, Dumbleton.
Eight years later Leigh Fermor's throat cancer recurred.
He was by then 96 years old, partially deaf, losing his eyesight, and sustained by a pacemaker.
On June 9 last year, companions helped him to fly back from Greece and drove him to Mill House. Cooper writes: "He was happy to be home at last; but the journey had taken all his remaining strength. Calm and fully conscious, he died the next day." He was buried next to his wife. The headstone is yet to be erected at the grave.
An Adventure by Artemis Cooper is published by John Murray.
Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Greek island of Ithaca (courtesy of John Murray Collection; photograph by Joan Leigh Fermor).
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Nov 8, 2012|
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