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Comparing the Real Life of “Louisa Durrell” To Her TV Persona in “The Durrells Of Corfu”

Louisa Florence Durrell, born Louisa Florence Dixie, was an Anglo-Irish woman born in India during the British Raj. She married and raised four children, including novelist Lawrence Durrell and zoologist Gerald Durrell. She was featured as the character of “Mother” in Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical Corfu Trilogy, published from 1954 to 1978, about the family’s years in Corfu, Greece from 1935 to 1939. A new book, The Durrells Of Corfu written by family friend Michael Haag, however, reveals the secret of why the Durrells family really went to Greece in the first place. By drawing on the family’s letters and an unpublished memoir by Gerald, he made a darker conclusion– one hiding tragic loss, engulfed by alcohol abuse and an occasional nervous breakdown

  • Name: Louisa Durrell
  • Birthday: 16 Jan 1886
  • Born in:  Roorkee, British India
  • Died on: 24 Jan 1964 (age 78y) Bournemouth, England
  • Spouse: Lawrence Samuel Durrell
  • Marriage Details: 23 Nov 1910 Roorkee, Bengal, India Lawrence Samuel Durrell
  • Children: Lawrence, Margaret, Leslie, Gerald

The Real Life of “Louisa Durrell”

Early Life:

Born as Louisa Florence Dixie, the mother of 2 popular novelists, came to this world in 1886 to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family in Roorkee, India. Her father, George Dixie, was the head clerk and accountant of the Ganges Canal Foundry.

Louisa’s’s family were colonials in the years of the British Raj. Colonists who lived in India during this period often invited jazz and cabaret artists from the UK. 

The Anglo-Irish were a social class in Ireland, who are mostly the descendants and successors of the English Protestant Ascendancy.  Its members would follow English practices in matters of culture, science, law, agriculture and politics, but often defined themselves as simply “British”, and less frequently “Anglo-Irish”, “Irish” or “English”. Many became eminent as administrators in the British Empire and as senior army and naval officers, which is probably why Louisa’s father travelled and settled in India. 

Motherhood:

Louisa Durrell was described as an anxious mother, shunning social contact just to be with her children during their formative years. Her children, Lawrence, Leslie, Margaret, and Gerald Durell had started school in India, but the boys were sent to England for further education. Lawrence Durrell was sent to boarding school at the age of eleven. Louisa was actively interested in spiritualism and cookery. Louisa had a very inviting motherly touch about her, she was an unusual British citizen in rural India  for mingling more than many colonials with Indians locals to learn of local spirits and cuisine. She did not conform to the views of her time regarding the segregation of social groups, perhaps adding to the eccentricity of her family. 

Alcohol Abuse:

Louisa Durrell was not quite the serene matriarch portrayed by Keeley Hawes in the TV series. Fans know that she was born in India, as were all her children,  in 1886 and she had married an engineer who designed railway lines the breadth of the Raj, but a lot of people don’t know that only months after her second child (Leslie) was born, she lost the baby girl to diphtheria. This had a profound and lasting effect on her and she started to drink alcohol excessively.

Then, in 1928, her husband died of a stroke, which was attributed to overwork, and the family was forced to return to England. Years later Louisa Durrell admitted that she had thought of suicide after her loss, but went on living for Gerald’s sake, who was her youngest child. 

In any of Gerald’s books, though their mother’s drinking is not mentioned, the son of Louisa  did leave an unpublished autobiographical memoir on his death in 1995, in which he acknowledged the dark family secret: ‘

‘Mother took to mourning the death of my father in earnest,’ he wrote, ‘with the aid of Demon Drink.’

Then another source also confirmed this. ‘She used to retire to bed,’ confirmed Lawrence Durrell’s girlfriend Nancy, a tall, slim, striking blonde( who could go skinny dipping with Lawrence often) who had dropped out of art college and who had travelled to Corfu with the family, ‘and take her gin bottle up with her.’

Nervous Breakdown:

In his autobiographical notes, Gerald Durrell also revealed that his mother had had a ‘nervous breakdown’. This would otherwise have remained a secret, too.

Louisa’s breakdown looks like an attempt to return to India where her infant daughter (who she lost in 1915) and husband lay buried. Her name and Gerald’s are listed as first-class passengers to India aboard the SS City Of Calcutta. But someone, possibly Larry, discovered that she planned to run off to Asia, and at the last minute prevented his beloved mother and brother from boarding. 

The Real Reason Why Gerald Left School:

The Durrells spent a couple more years living in Bournemouth, where Gerald was sent briefly to school. One day when he was nine he fought back against a bully but was punished with six of the best by the headmaster. Louisa responded by removing the boy from school. He never went back.

The hilarious opening pages of My Family And Other Animals have the family selling up simply because Larry tells them, ‘What we all need is sunshine.’ All this was avoiding the truth. As Gerald’s autobiographical fragments reveal, the real reason was that their mother was falling back into heavy drinking, and Larry ‘decided that decisive action must be taken’.

What She Really Felt About Her Sons Book:

Keeley Hawes plays the role of Louisa on ITV, a channel with the most entertaining and relatable characters.  

Louisa Durrell was described as ‘a gentle, enthusiastic and understanding Noah’ in My Family And Other Animals, ‘who has steered her vessel full of strange progeny through the stormy seas of life with great skill’, but she hardly recognised herself in it. ‘

The awful thing about Gerald’s book,’ his mother complained, ‘is that I’m beginning to believe it is all true.

Comparing The Cast of Durrells Of Corfu vs The Real Family 

Lawrence Durrell:

British railway engineer Mr. Durrell died in Dalhousie in 1928, so Louisa took the three youngest (Leslie, Margo and Gerald) to England where they tried to get by on a widow’s pension. Eldest son Lawrence had already been sent to a boarding school in England to be educated, something he definitely wasn’t happy about.

Born in 1912 and named after his father Lawrence Samuel Durrell, Larry or Lawrence became a diplomat and writer who married four times and lived around the world. His fame came with his literary work on The Alexandria Quartet (a series of novels set in Egypt).  Like Gerald he also wrote about his time on Corfu, though his lyrical novel Prospero’s Cell has been less remembered. Larry’s account actually doesn’t mention his mother or any siblings except for Leslie, his brother, although his first wife Nancy is featured. By 1935 Lawrence was living in Corfu with his first wife Nancy (although in the TV series Larry, who is based on Lawrence, is single and unmarried). That was the year his mother, sister and brothers arrived to join him on the island.

Though Lawrence and his wife had first lived with the whole family at their house at Kontokali, in early 1936 the young couple moved to a tiny fishing village to start a life of their own. He later married Nancy and they escaped the German occupation of Greece, but she wrote to him soon afterwards to say their marriage was over. 

Larry would go on to form a friendship with the writer Henry Miller, who came to visit in 1939 and soon enough, his first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published in 1935. He drew on his experiences growing up in British occupied India, his loss of his father and his difficult time fitting in when sent to school in England. The novel then moves on to his discovery of sexuality and his character’s burgeoning love life.

The semi-autobiographical novel had a disappointing reception, receiving tepid reviews and a small print run. It was not republished in Lawrence’s lifetime. Larry eventually settled down in Sommières, France, where he died in November 1990.

Gerald Durrell:

Gerald began to collect and keep local wildlife as pets, spurring a life-long interest in nature and conservation. He was home-schooled by his mother and siblings and allowed to run free. The young boy also found a friend and mentor in the Greek doctor, scientist, poet and philosopher Theodore Stephanides. The two explored the island together, accompanied by Theodore’s young daughter Alexia (who doesn’t appear in the series).

So it’s no wonder that young Gerry grew up to be a popular naturalist, conservationist and author. After returning to England he worked at an aquarium and a pet store, and though he was called up for military duty in 1943, he was excused on medical grounds. After the war he joined Whipsnade Zoo as a junior keeper, and then embarked on a number of excursions around the world to bring back unusual animals to the UK.

But his focus on conservation was out of step with zoos at the time, so he worked on redefining the role of the zoo.

Eventually, Gerry founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is now directed by his second wife, Lee McGeorge Durrell, after his death in 1995. He is now best remembered for his bestselling Corfu Trilogy, starting with My Family and Other Animals and then followed by Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods.

Margaret Durrell

Margaret Durrell also called Margo Durrell began a love affair with an RAF pilot, moved with him to South Africa and married him in 1940. The two stayed there for the duration of the war, then moved to Bournemouth, had two kids and divorced. Bournemouth held some memories for her as her mother once ran a boarding home here. Eventually, Margo ran the same boarding house in Bournemouth after her divorce, in the city where her mother Louisa also lived until her death in 1964. At her guest house in Bournemouth Gerry used to stay after animal-collecting trips. Inevitably, a zoo grew up in her back garden – ‘monkeys and birds, you name it’.

Margo, played by Daisy Waterstone, had also once declared Corfu her true home, sharing a cottage with some local friends. 

But if you take a look at Gerald’s book ‘there were things I objected to strongly’, said Margo. She thought that her brother portrayed her simply as something of an airhead, forever worried about pimple cream. She stated that: ‘Gerry took it for absolute granted that I would sanction everything he wrote, but I didn’t.’ Margo came to feel that Gerald ‘became very successful by libelling me a lot’.

So to let some people in on what happened to her, she wrote an account titled “Whatever Happened to Margo?” which told the story of her eclectic guests, and the occasional visits from Gerry and his “travelling menagerie” of animals. His collection of animals were initially housed in the back garden and garage before they found new premises. If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, then you’ll want to check her writing out when you learn that she had love affair with a trombonist. 

While Leslie was always the sickliest child, ‘I was a toughie’, said Margo Durrell who lived to be 87. 

Leslie Durrell: 

Louisa’s second oldest child never sought the public spotlight. However, he has shared an account of  one occasion Leslie was down by the lagoon when he became aware of someone watching him. The young man turned out to be a convict and murderer named Kosti who was out on weekend licence, and was even brought home to meet Louisa and drink a glass of beer. Gerald later stole this story for My Family And Other Animals, claiming it was he who had met the man.

On television the character of Leslie is played by Callum Woodhouse. The second son was described as a ‘loveable rogue’. When he spent the war working in an RAF factory, he had a secret wartime liaison with the family’s maid and had a son with maid Maria Kondos, who came back to England.

Leslie Durrell also had to flee to Kenya after misappropriating funds while working as a school bursar. Leslie Durrell who died in 1983, finished up as a janitor, but in the pub would call himself a civil engineer. His business ventures were unsuccessful (including an attempt to run a farm in Kenya) and he later worked as a hotel concierge. He died in 1983.

For the Durrells family, after their years in England struggling with their family loss and mental health problems, Greece was a rebirth. It was Louisa’s ‘amused but loving tolerance that held them together,’ stated a family friend, but the children’s understanding of their mother’s vulnerability meant they never pushed their disorder too far, allowing her to let her happiness preside over anything else. 

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