Historian Michael Haag reveals the women written out of The Durrells’ family history

As the latest series of The Durrells ends, read about the rest of their untold story

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The way Gerald Durrell tells it in My Family and Other Animals, his mother, Louisa Durrell, arrives in Corfu with her children – Larry, Leslie, Margo and Gerry – and Roger the dog, who leads her to the nearest lamppost to relieve himself after the overnight sea crossing from Brindisi.

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Most of that is true, except that Larry had arrived several days before with his wife, Nancy, and they were in bed when the family surprised them at their hotel. Nevertheless, in his book Gerry creates the impression that Larry was always living with the family under the same roof – and he never mentions Nancy at all.

Over the course of four years, from 1935 to 1939, Mother moved her family from villa to villa, the Strawberry Pink, the Daffodil Yellow, the Snow White, each of them well away from town, where in isolation the children relied on each other and were often lonely; Gerry in particular, who was not yet in his teens. His fascination with scorpions and water snakes and tortoises and pelicans supposedly sufficed for company, and there was always Roger the dog.

There were visits from Theodore Stephanides, a doctor and zoologist and walking encyclopedia, who became Gerry’s mentor. But in My Family and Other Animals Gerry presents Theodore as a bachelor, a man alone, making no mention of his daughter, Alexia, who became the boy’s closest friend in Corfu.

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Alexia and Gerry

Nor does Gerry mention Maria, the family maid, a handsome woman whom Leslie photographed, and on the back of the print wrote “Jolly nice”. Maybe it’s no mystery that Maria is not mentioned; her pregnancy may have been the reason the Durrells had to leave the island so quickly. Two women and a girl, intimately connected to the Durrells, part of the family, you might say – but not a word said about them.

The Durrells were colonials, all of them born and raised in the Indian subcontinent where their father Lawrence was a civil engineer. But Gerry mentions none of that, nor the tragedy that brought them to the Corfu – the sudden death of their father in India and the devastating effect it had on their mother.

Louisa had first brought her family to England and had taken to drink. She had visions of her dead husband, and suffered a breakdown. It was Larry’s idea to go to Corfu. Its warmth and colours, the intensity of the sensations they encountered there, reminded them of India. It was like being allowed back into Paradise, Gerry said: “Our arrival in Corfu was like being born for the first time.”

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Nancy

Protective of their family vulnerability, the children never pushed too far, allowing their mother to preside over a happy anarchy. It was chaotic but oddly functional. This is the world Gerry described, a child’s-eye version of the Garden of Eden without the complications of Nancy, Alexia and Maria.

“There were not many children to play with,” recalled Alexia. “He [Gerry] and I were very fond of one another. We were constantly together. I tagged along with my father’s and Gerry’s expeditions. Gerry looked after me very nicely. Once I was sick – all over myself – and Gerry wiped me down. I adored him.”

In Gerry, Theodore found a serious boy, eager to learn, without arrogance towards the natural world – and he began to look upon him as a son, hoping that he would someday marry Alexia.

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“Jolly nice” Maria

In 1939, with war approaching, the Durrells left Corfu. Their maid Maria left, too, but well before the family, travelling to England on her own. Her hurry, it seems, was because she had become pregnant by Leslie and her brother was out to kill her to protect the family honour.

She lost her child, in the event, and went on to work throughout the Second World War for the Durrells in Bournemouth, where she and Leslie, who was working at a local aircraft factory, continued their liaison. By the end of the war, Maria was pregnant again. It was Margo who noticed the maid’s changing form while she was hanging the washing on the line. “I think Maria’s pregnant,” she told her mother, at which Louisa immediately looked round for a double gin.

The matter ended sadly. In September 1945, their son, Tony, was born but, while Maria adored Leslie, he had become involved with another woman whom he eventually married. There are few Durrells left. The line is carried on by Margo’s two sons and their offspring. Larry had two daughters but they died without having children, Gerry had no children at all and Leslie had only Tony – a child of Corfu and, like his mother, written out of the story.

The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag is available from the RT Bookshop

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The Durrells in Corfu airs on Sundays, 8/7c, PBS Masterpiece