Nicholas Shakespeare

A sensual Greek goddess

She was a great life-enhancer, and muse to countless men — but chiefly to Paddy, her soulmate for 60 years

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’

This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming case for Joan to be considered the proper foundation of Paddy’s existence; his muse and ‘greatest collaborator’, whose wealth and talent as a sounding board underpinned his career as an author. ‘Joan made it possible for Paddy to write.’

She was like one of her cats, all of whom descended from a single Abyssinian ‘which had mated freely with the village toms’: fiercely independent (she and Paddy had a ‘pact of liberty’), alluring, a watchful presence in the shadows. ‘Sensual, somewhat aloof and deeply private,’ writes Simon Fenwick. ‘This is Joan.’

Tall, slender, with her blonde hair cut short: Lawrence Durrell called her the ‘Corn Goddess’. To John Betjeman, who made a late declaration of love, she was ‘Dotty’, with ‘eyes like tennis balls’. To Cyril Connolly, with whom she went to bed during her first marriage — and whose photograph, ‘eaten by tiny insects’, she kept in her bedroom — she was a ‘lovely boy-girl… like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. To Noel Annan, on the first page of his 450-page history, Our Age, she was a ‘life-enhancer’. Careful never to tread into the foreground, she runs like a silken thread through the memoirs of her generation, a thread which Fenwick skilfully tugs out and spins into a gossamer portrait, reminiscent of Ann Wroe’s biography of Orpheus, composed of glances and glimpses — and fingerprints, like those that Joan left on Cecil Beaton’s bathroom wall at Ashcombe, ‘to the left of the towel rail’.

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