Fans of the popular PBS Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu are probably already aware that the source material for the show is a trilogy of memoirs written by famed naturalist Gerald Durrell. The wildly popular books, released from 1956 to 1978, chronicled the family’s adventures in their adopted home of Corfu in the mid to late 1930's.
If you’re like me, you might feel that you know Louisa Durrell and her brood of challenging children as you would your eccentric, but endearing next-door neighbors. But historian and authorof the 2017 biography, The Durrells of Corfu, Michael Haag reminds readers that Gerald's biographical account was written from his viewpoint as a young boy and omitted several pivotal details about his famiy's time on the Greek island.
All the Durrells were born in India. The entire clan (including Louisa, her husband Lawrence and all four of their children) were born on the Indian subcontinent. Mr. Durrell died of a brain hemorrhage in 1928 and the family relocated to Bournemouth, England, where we initially find them in the TV series.
Louisa had a breakdown and almost returned to India. Devastated by the death of her husband, Louisa turned to drink (as is mentioned on a few occasions in the show.)
However, her grief may have turned to desperation when Mrs. Durrell attempted to return to India with Gerry on the SS City Of Calcutta. A family member, possibly Larry, discovered she planned to flee back to Asia and at the last minute prevented them from boarding the ship. Larry later suggested moving to Corfu as he thought the climate and surroundings would remind them of India without the painful associations.
Larry was married when the Durrells came to Corfu. We are led to believe that Louisa and her quartet of offspring arrived on the island together and lived under the same roof. Haag’s biography, however, verifies that Larry travelled separately with his wife, Nancy, in advance of the rest of his family. The young couple reportedly lived a bohemian existence in their own home across the island where the often entertained writers and artists. In Gerald’s memoirs, Nancy was never mentioned at all.
You may recall in Season 1 of The Durrells TV series, Larry had a girlfriend named Nancy (Lizzy Watts) who showed up in Corfu along with Louisa’s Aunt Hermione (Barbara Flynn). She issued Larry an ultimatum to return to England with her to start a life away from his family. Just when it appeared he had accepted, Larry returned home to his family and Nancy is never heard from again.
Theo had a daughter who became Gerry’s best friend. Living a considerable distance away from the center of town, the Durrell children were isolated and often lonely. This might explain the intensity of Gerry’s passion for wild and domestic creatures.
Fortunately, young Master Durrell also had the intellectually curious Theodore Stephanides for a mentor. From the show, we know Theo as a cultured bachelor, but according to Michael Haag’s research, Mr. Stephanides was married and had a daughter named Alexia.
“There were not many children to play with,” recalled Alexia. “He [Gerry] and I were very fond of one another. We were constantly together. I tagged along with my father’s and Gerry’s expeditions. Gerry looked after me very nicely… I adored him.”
Theo found Gerry to be an eager and serious student of the natural world. In fact, the mentor began to think of Gerry as a son, hoping that he would someday marry Alexia.
Leslie had an affair with the family maid. No, not Lugaretzia! The Durrells apparently had a younger domestic named Maria with whom Leslie carried on a romantic liasion.
With war threatening, the Durrells left Corfu in 1939. Maria departed for England as well and in a hurry. The maid had become pregnant by Leslie and her brother threatened to kill her to avenge the family honor. Maria lost the child, but continued to work for the Durrells in Bournemouth. Her intimate relationship with Leslie persisted until the end of the war. By then, Leslie had found a new woman whom he eventually married.
It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the Durrells' lives weren't exactly as idyllic as they appear on the page or screen. We can be thankful for young Gerald Durrell's rose-colored recollections of his childhood and Simon Nye's funny and heartwarming television adaptation and still know that behind every family's joys there are just as many trials.