Review published on December 27, 2017.
Patrick Leigh Fermor has been described as one of our greatest travel writers. His walk across Europe in 1933 from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople as well as his books on Greece and the Caribbean have rightly become classics. Apart from the most fleeting of mentions, what was missing from his books though was his companion of almost 60 years, Joan.
Joan Eyres Monsell was a member of the lower aristocracy and second daughter to Viscount Monsell, who in his time was an MP and First Lord of the Admiralty. Their family home was Dumbleton in Worcestershire. She grew up as most of her contemporaries did at the time, became a debutante and moved in privileged circles and mixed with the 1930s bohemian set. Even though her family was wealthy and well-connected, she differed from those around her because she earned her own living as a photographer. This was to take her America and Russia, earning her more column inches in the gossip columns.
She first came across Paddy, as he called himself, in 1944 during the Second World War when she was working as a cipher clerk in Cairo, where he was lauded for his success in kidnapping General Kreipe. At this moment in time, she was still married to John Rayner, but the marriage by that point had hit the rocks. Paddy and Joan were to fall deeply in love with each other. They travelled widely together and separately and spent a fair amount of time back in her family home of Dumbleton, but they were to put down deep roots and make their home together in a house that PLF designed in the village of Kardamyli, southern Greece. It was a place that drew others for parties, discussions and companionship and where Paddy and others were to write books that have now become classics.
It is a revealing biography of a bold and confident woman who never stood in the shadow of Leigh Fermor, but was his soul mate and closest confident until her death in 2003. Her income supported them both as he became better known as a writer and it was her inheritance that enabled them to build their dream home. Fenwick has managed to draw material from her archive to give us a sense of her character, her fears, the society that she was born into and her desire of wanting a family and to settle down with the man that she loved. Even though we know more than ever about Joan, she still manages to defy categorisation and still remains a little aura of mystique. This is an excellent biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, a woman no longer unknown.
Paul Cheney 4/3
Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick
Macmillan 9781509848690 hbk Oct 2017
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