I honestly didn’t know much about Joan Leigh Fermor when I asked for this book for Christmas last year, but I knew a little about her travel writer husband Paddy, and the blurb intrigued me. I decided to take the book in holiday with me to Devon, where I read it in two days, mostly while sitting in a cafe overlooking a beach, and on a sun lounger outside our holiday cottage. Bliss!
In his introduction Simon Fenwick reminds his readers that he is primarily an archivist, and his author bio states that he has worked on/in the archives of Paddy Leigh Fermor. Reading the book, you can see his archival skills coming out as he meticulously details documents and diaries, and he reproduces a lot of letters. This was great in terms of accuracy, but after a while I found it a bit list-like and too literal. Fenwick goes into a huge amount of detail about social events from Joan’s one surviving pocket diary, to the point where you feel that you aren’t learning anything real about Joan, just about her calendar.
Fenwick tells us an awful lot about Joan’s social circle, which included the likes of Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman – which is interesting in that you get an idea of her social world and contemporaries, but I felt that there was too much detail about these other people and their lives in ways that were not always relevant to the story of Joan’s life. In a similar vein, the book begins with a little history lesson about some of Joan’s ancestors, which while interesting was totally irrelevant. The second chapter, titled ‘Growing Up’, is also more about Joan’s brother Graham’s time at Oxford than about her; towards the end of the chapter there is a bit about her and her sister’s experience at their boarding school, and a brief mention of her social debut and visit to Buckingham Palace. This is described as a moment she has been waiting for her whole life, and yet it is only mentioned briefly. I didn’t feel like I got a real sense of Joan’s childhood or what it was like for her growing up.
As the book, and time, progresses, we learn more about Joan’s own life, and a little about her career as a photographer. This was seen as a suitable career for a woman, and it was one that Joan could do with her small amount of formal education. She was obviously sharp and intelligent and clearly would have benefitted from a chance to extend her schooling and go to university. I got the impression that she did the best she could with what’s she had, and wasn’t willing to settle into a domestic life straight away. She travelled for a job and this lead her to a desire to live abroad – something she shared with her eventual partner and husband, Paddy Leigh Fermor. I enjoyed hearing about their life together, even though they spent a lot of time apart as Paddy travelled and wrote in various locations. Fenwick reproduces a lot of their letters and highlights their adoration for each other, only later dropping in that Paddy had a lot of affairs throughout their early relationship, and maybe later. Once Joan meets Paddy, it becomes even more clear that the author is an expert on Paddy rather than Joan. At times I felt like I was learning more about him than her, and I didn’t get a real sense of Joan’s experiences.
This was my feeling throughout most of the book to be honest – I got the outline of the movements of Joan’s life, and the people around her. At times I felt like Fenwick was trying to tell the story of Joan’s life by talking about about everything and everyone around her, rather than the woman herself. He admits that she left a very small personal archive, but still the book feels a bit blank, like there isn’t enough material to go on. There was too much detail and at the same time not enough. It felt a little unbalanced. In my most disappointed moments, I thought that you could tell that this is the first biography that Fenwick has written, and that his career as an archivist means that he presents the evidence well, but doesn’t really go beyond that. So, I was rather disappointed overall, which was a shame, as I could tell that Joan Leigh Fermor was a brave and interesting woman who deserves for her life story to be told.
Published in 2017 by Macmillan. I read the hardback edition pictured above.