From watching The Durrells, you might expect that earnest novelist Lawrence is the Durrell kid who grew up to write about his life on the island in My Family and Other Animals. But actually it’s little Gerry who penned the autobiographical Corfu trilogy that has now been adapted by ITV.
But who were the real-life family – and how close to life is this drama? How did they end up on the island, and what happened to them in later life?
How did the Durrells end up in Corfu?
Louisa Durrell, her husband and their four kids were all born in India during the British Raj. Travelling engineer Mr Durrell died 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. Oldest son Lawrence had already been sent to a boarding school in England to be educated, something he definitely wasn’t happy about.
In 1935 they moved to Corfu, joining oldest Durrell child Lawrence and his first wife Nancy in their adventure – though in the TV series, Lawrence is a single young man.
What really happened to the Durrells in Corfu?
Gerald began to collect and keep local wildlife as pets, spurring a life-long interest in nature and conservation. He was home-schooled and allowed to run wild. 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).
Though Larry and his wife initially lived with the family at their house at Kontokali, in early 1936 the young couple moved to a tiny fishing village on their own. He later struck up a friendship with Henry Miller, who came to visit in 1939.
Larry’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published in 1935. He drew on his experiences growing up in British India, his loss of a parent, 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 (now you can see why Louisa isn’t keen on finishing the book).
The semi-autobiographical novel had a disappointing reception, receiving tepid reviews and a small print run. It was not republished in Lawrence’s lifetime.
What happened when World War II started?
The Durrells remained in Corfu until 1939, when the outbreak of World War II forced the family to return to England for safety. Louisa left the island with Gerry and Leslie as well as the live-in maid.
However, Larry and his wife stayed and had to escape with their baby daughter to Egypt after the fall of Greece.
Margo also declared Corfu her true home, sharing a cottage with some local friends. She 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.
What did Larry, Leslie, Margo and Gerry do next?
Gerald Durrell (1925-1995): 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, and founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust – which is now directed by his second wife, Lee McGeorge Durrell, following Gerry’s death in 1995.
Gerald with a cheetah at London Zoo in 1954
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.
Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990): Named after his father Lawrence Samuel Durrell, Larry became a diplomat and writer who married four times and lived around the world. His most famous work is 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, though wife number one gets a look-in.
Larry eventually settled in Sommières, France, where he passed away in November 1990.
Lawrence Durrell in 1987
Margaret Durrell (1920-2007): Margo Durrell ran a boarding house in Bournemouth after her divorce, in the city where her mother Louisa also lived until her death in 1964.
Acknowledging people’s curiosity, she wrote an account titled “Whatever Happened to Margo?” which told the story of her eclectic guests, her love affair with a trombonist, and the occasional visits from Gerry and his “travelling menagerie” of animals. In fact, Gerry’s collection of animals were initially housed in the back garden and garage before they found new premises.
Leslie Durrell (1918-1983): Louisa’s second oldest child never sought the public spotlight. After the family’s return from Corfu to England, he spent the war working in an RAF factory and had a son with the family’s Corfiot maid Maria Kondos, who came with them back to England. His business ventures were unsuccessful (including an attempt to run a farm in Kenya) and he later worked as a hotel concierge. Leslie died in 1983.
The Durrells in Corfu airs on Sundays, 8/7c, PBS Masterpiece