Hungerford Literary Festival: Simon Fenwick on Joan Leigh Fermor

Birthday book haul.

I had a pleasant birthday weekend: a five-mile country walk with some foraging of sloes, reading in the armchair with the cat, catching up with Poldark on DVD, and a three-course Italian feast my husband made from a River Café cookbook (plus a homemade Sachertorte). And I got 11 secondhand books for my birthday, if you were wondering!

We also attended a couple of Hungerford Literary Festival events. This year the theme was “Journeys,” so all of the featured books and authors were broadly travel-related Alas, the talk we were meant to attend on Saturday by Sunday Times writer Jonathan Dean, based on I Must Belong Somewhere, his memoir about researching his family’s European history, was cancelled due to insufficient ticket sales – we felt so sorry for the poor author!

However, on Sunday my husband saw Nick Hunt speak about his recent travelogue on famous European winds such as the mistral, and I saw Simon Fenwick in conversation with journalist Elinor Goodman about his new biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, the wife of celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Fenwick and Goodman consistently called Paddy).

Fenwick considers Joan an enigmatic figure; although she could be quite a bitch, she also brought out the best in certain people, including Paddy. From a wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant family, she met golden writers like John Betjeman at bohemian parties. Although she was a fairly successful photographer – there will be a major exhibition of her work in London next year – she cast herself in a supporting role, as was traditional for the time: she would say that her career was all about helping Paddy in his, financially as well as morally. (I could just imagine what a novel about her would be called: The Travel Writer’s Wife.)

Although Fenwick believes Joan is a worthy biographical subject in her own right, her relationship with Paddy dominated the talk. When the couple met in Egypt in 1944, he was famous for having kidnapped a Nazi general, a stunt of debatable military benefit though it was certainly great for publicity. Women flocked to the handsome Paddy: he was carrying on two affairs at this time, and his one lover got pregnant and had an abortion.

Patrick Leigh Fermor. By Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος (Ιωάννης Δ.Παπαδήμος) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Though they didn’t marry until 1968, by which time they were settled in their home in Kardamyli, Greece, Joan and Paddy were an item for all the intervening years. Theirs was an open relationship, though; they even shared a lover, Alan Pryce-Jones. (Hoping I heard this correctly and am not just making a wild claim!) “NO GUILT” was one of Paddy’s mottoes. The travel writer’s life entailed long separations: Fenwick estimates that during the 1950s, Paddy didn’t stay put anywhere for more than two months at a time, but Joan served as “his psychological home.” Perhaps this practicality explains why the Fermors never had children: Paddy was simply hardly ever home. Or perhaps Joan was infertile, given that Paddy and Joan’s previous husband, John Rayner, both impregnated other women.

Joan was known as a wonderful cook and entertainer. In Greece they had a rotating cast of guests, and people would frequently just turn up uninvited. From afar the house looks like an ancient monastery, Fenwick said, though it’s now surrounded by modern buildings. Much of it is one huge room that serves as library, living room and dining room, with a corridor leading to the outside. In Joan’s time there were cats galore. Fenwick remembers the strong smell of jasmine the first time he walked through the archway into the courtyard.

The Fermors’ Greek villa. By Rodolph at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Fenwick’s route into this project was somewhat unusual: he’s an archivist by trade and has spent decades of his life reading other people’s letters. He was invited to archive the papers in Fermor’s writing studio after the author’s death in 2011. The material was in chaotic files, but eventually he organized some 19 boxes of records to send back to the UK; they are now held in the National Library of Scotland. He wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement about the experience, and from there one thing led to another. He never met either Paddy or Joan, who died in 2003, while Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, did meet him.

Although Fenwick did not wish to comment on another biographer’s work, he noted that in comparison to Cooper’s his is perhaps a bit of a new view on Paddy, a “not wholly heroic but fascinating” figure, flawed “on a grand scale.” Fenwick was impressed by “his pure energy – in his writing and in everything he did.” While Paddy must have been exhausting to live with, Fenwick believes he and Joan recognized in each other a similar approach to life.

As a speaker Fenwick wasn’t particularly engaging: even with a microphone he seemed to mutter, and left awkward gaps before answering. Is it fair that his dull manner made me wonder whether his book would be worth reading? Not all authors can be charismatic in person, I’m sure; I would definitely struggle with public speaking if I ever had to go on a book tour. But I do wish he had perhaps read a section from his book so I could have gotten a sense of the style. I think Joan’s life is interesting enough that I will still read her biography someday, but perhaps only after I’ve read more of Paddy’s travel books and the Cooper biography, which I own in paperback.


Have you attended any literary events recently? Does an author’s personality influence your opinion of their books?

26 responses

  1. Lovely way to spend a birthday. My haul only amounted to two but that’s because mistakes have been made in the past, and exchanges have had to be made!

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    1. Ha ha! Luckily these were all from my Amazon wish list, so my husband knew what to buy for me (some on my mother’s behalf). Small photo, but did you see the Elizabeth Hay novel on the pile? 🙂

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      1. I missed it but now see it’s the fabulous Late Nights on Air!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s a rather lovely copy, too: French flaps AND deckle edge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Is it the Emblem edition? I was sent that instead of a proof for some reason.

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  2. Somehow I always thought of Leigh Fermor as a committed bachelor- maybe he gave that impression because he wasn’t a committed partner?

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    1. Fenwick noted that Fermor rarely/never mentions a traveling companion in his books, even though Joan was often with him. He suggested this may have been to cultivate the romantic myth of the solitary male traveler.

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  3. Happy birthday! Joan sounds like a good subject for a biography. Too bad Fenwick wasn’t more engaging (or audible!)

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    1. I really like the “famous wives” novels that have been so popular in the last 10 years or so. It’s a way of telling some of the more hidden or overshadowed stories of history, and I hope the same is true of Joan’s biography.

      I wouldn’t normally complain about acoustics at a talk, but if I was struggling to hear and was only sitting partway back, I wonder if others had trouble too.

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  4. Paddy is a big deal at Heywood Hill—he hung out there a lot, was friends with Nancy and Deborah Mitford, etc.—and we’ve been doing well with Joan; give it a go! I think she was a pretty remarkable woman. (It is true, though, that an author who doesn’t perform well tends not to sell as well, either. When we do book sales at events/lectures, the ones that fly off the shelves afterwards are the ones whose authors were genuinely engaging and, ideally, spent a lot of time during the Q&A saying things like “What a great question—as you’ll find out, I talk about this a lot in my book…”)

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    1. Ah yes, there’s a whole collection of his letters to/from D. Mitford, isn’t there?

      I felt sorry for the poor chap, really: he’s an archivist and an introvert, probably not at all used to being on the book tour circuit. It was for the best that he was given a questioner rather than being let loose to do his own talk. He did have a quiet sense of humour about him, but simply wasn’t a gifted speaker.

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  5. I spotted the David Park novel in your haul: one I’m keen to read having discovered him by reading his more recent book “The Poets’ Wives”. (Another variant on the famous wife theme and highly recommended.) I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Light of Amsterdam, which I think is a very different book to The Poets’ Wives. And I’ve just learned so much more about the Leigh Fermors – thank you for that! Sounds like a great birthday weekend, Rebecca!

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    1. Ha, I hadn’t put two and two together — I read The Poets’ Wives a couple years ago but didn’t realize it was the same author. I found out about The Light of Amsterdam too late to read it before/during our trip there in September, but thought Christmas would be a good time to catch up as it’s set in the run-up to the holidays.

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  6. I’m glad you had such a nice birthday! Your husband sounds like a good cook. 🙂

    I often wonder how shy people manage the publicity of their books. If I ever wrote a book, I’d probably use a pen name!

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    1. Yes, he’s an excellent cook! Just a bit messy 😉

      I would really struggle with the publicity aspect of releasing a book. I would want to be a hermit who doesn’t make any public appearances…but I’m sure eventually I’d have to get used to it.

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  7. Naughty Paddy, I’m sure he hardly mentions Joan in his letters with Debo, too! But I do love his books and always will. I do feel for the author, if he’s a quiet archivist sent on a book tour, poor thing! And I can’t quite see all the books on your pile, so I hope you’re going to do a haul post soon and tell us all about them!

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    1. I don’t know, are book haul posts too gloat-y? 🙂 I’ve acquired ever so many books recently between Book-Cycle, Bookbarn, charity shops and my birthday (and still a £20 voucher to spend).

      I should have just reproduced this photo at larger resolution. I got novels by Roxane Gay, David Park, Carolyn Parkhurst and Elizabeth Hay, plus the massive whale-themed Tisala. And then memoirs by Paul Lisicky, Alice Hoffman, Clay Byars, Tom Cox (with cat theme), Alice Eve Cohen and Alice Jolly.

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      1. No, book haul posts are a chance for us all to gloat about what someone else has got and see if we’ve got any of them ourselves, not personally gloaty!

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  8. Well of course we were wondering how many books were involved: how could we not!? Your birthday weekend sounds marvellous. And the reading, plus armchair and plus cat, too. I love this time of year for literary events, and mostly listening to or seeing an author on a panel makes me want to read their book more, especially when they speak in detail about their writing/research process. Only a couple of times do I recall being put off, which is great odds considering. I’m late in reading this: you’ve probably spent your remaining vouchers by now? 🙂

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    1. Yep, I spent the Amazon voucher on 5 (secondhand) books I’ve been wanting for a long time 🙂

      I came across the perfect William Hazlitt quote about authors as speakers: “An author is bound to write — well or ill, wisely or foolishly; it is his trade. But I do not see that he is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or ride, or fence better than other people. Reading, study, silence, thought, are a bad introduction to loquacity.”

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    2. P.S. See my cat and armchair photo on Instagram (or the panel on the right here).

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  9. […] there might be more books to come, though). Looking back at my birthday book hauls from 2016 and 2017, I can see that I’ve had mixed success with getting through the acquisitions in a timely fashion: […]

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  10. […] birthday book hauls I’ve posted about and see how many of the books I’ve read: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and […]

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