I am fascinated by places where artists gain inspiration such as the Lake District, Newlyn and Venice, but particularly where colonies of artists have grown and lived together. Charleston would be a place of pilgrimage for me, the home created by Vanessa Bell on the south coast. This was where the Bloomsbury group of artists would stay and their decoration of the house is preserved beautifully ( with their rather entangled love affairs preserved beautifully in the BBC series Life in Squares). So, when offered the chance to read this novel about the artists and writers drawn to the Greek island of Hydra, I was looking forward to diving in. It was read over three gloriously sunny days in my garden, reclined in my steamer chair with a jug of PImms. It was the perfect way to experience the world Polly Samson conjures; an amphitheatre of houses all focused towards the sea, stray cats waiting for the fishing boats, swimming at midnight within a silvery trail of moonlight and a young girl in love for the first time, searching out memories of her mother.
The island of Hydra became a magnet for writers and artists in the 1950s when writers like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller took up residence. Samson’s novel is set a generation later in the 1960s when the colony seemed to revolve around Australian writers Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston. Our heroine Erica is 17, mourning the loss of her mother and looking after an increasingly belligerent father in their London home. A parcel arrives addressed to her late mother, and this is the catalyst for a golden summer she will remember all her life. In the parcel is a letter from Charmian Clift and a copy of her latest novel and Erica starts to read about a different world which inspires her. Erica has always wanted to write, and craving adventure as well as a possible link to her mother, she wants to visit the island where Clift lives. Her boyfriend Jimmy is an artist and both she and her brother have a legacy from their mother they can use, as well as a car they didn’t know their mother owned. Erica is armed with blank notebooks and a lot of questions about her mother, so with Charmian’s promise to secure them a cottage, they all set out to Hydra.
Erica is such an appealing character because everything about her feels new, there is so much to experience and we see it all through her naive eyes. At first there is more freedom than she’s ever known, with no one to answer to or look after. She and Jimmy can make love into the afternoon, they don’t need to work so have ample time to create and can finish the day drinking at one of the tavernas and then skinny dip in the still warm sea after dark. She does find herself drawn to Charmian’s house, a bohemian jumble of rooms overrun with children and visitors, and the sound of a grumpy George bashing away on his typewriter. Charmian is the mother of the group: a cook, organiser, listening ear, social secretary and occasional writer. Erica falls in love with the eccentric group that centre around her, including Axel a Norwegian writer who can’t seem to stay faithful to his beautiful wife Marianne, and new arrival Leonard who is a handsome poet from Canada. Erica puts them all on a pedestal, because she sees them as successful, doing a job she has always aspired to and living in this idyllic place. She is similarly in love with Jimmy. As she wakes and sees him lying next to her naked she imagines capturing him just as he is now, beautiful and preserved only for her.
This is a coming of age novel and I enjoyed how the events of the summer open Erica’s eyes, about relationships, the seemingly idyllic community on Hydra, and the realities of being a writer who is also a woman. In their own cottage, Erica finds that her nurturing personality is easily exploited by others busy pursuing their art. While others merely sleep in, then write or paint, Erica is busy fetching water, clearing dishes and collecting supplies. She has also attached herself to Charmian’s home where the door is always open and there are kids to herd. Charmian points out the difference between men and women who write; men get up and retire to their study to create, unencumbered by housework, children or cooking. Just as Virginia Woolf writes decades before, how different would it be if women had a room of their own? A physical room where the door can be shut, but also a metaphorical room – space away from the mental load of running a household. Instead of working on her own book, Charmian is perched in George’s study offering advice, bolstering confidence and sometimes, even providing the words. Whilst downstairs Marianne and Erica herd feral children and keep an eye on the cooking. Marianne is another example, pregnant by husband Axel who is having an affair with a young girl called Patricia. After his departure, she becomes close to the poet Leonard, but it isn’t long before she’s cooking for him, laying out his desk and popping a fresh gardenia in a vase for him. Charmian warns Erica to never let a man clip her wings, observing that she’s seen her looking after Jimmy at the expense of her own writing time.
The sense of place Samson creates is incredible and laid out in my garden, I could imagine lowering my book and seeing the harbour. The place is idyllic, romantic and seductive:
‘The best time for a night swim at the rocks is when the moon is full. I’ll never forget my first phosphorescence: Jimmy coming up the ladder streaming with stars, one caught on an eyelash still blinking away as he reached and pulled me in, our limbs moon-silvered, our fingers trailing through constellations’.
Who could resist a first love with this backdrop? Samson’s descriptions of the characters clothes, their beautiful homes and the incredible Greek cuisine that Charmian is teaching Erica to cook, create a sensual pleasure in the reader; we’re soaking up this world she has created. However, there are hints that once you stay beyond a couple of weeks, you start to see that the island is not the perfect heaven that Erica has built in her mind. They find a live kitten, flea bitten and crusty eyed, thrown away in a bin bag like rubbish. Once he is treated and nurtured by Erica and Jimmy, Cato becomes a wonderfully sleek black cat. The regular residents acknowledge the problem with strays, in fact a writer called Jean-Claude had drugged a colony of them, then thrown them into the sea in a sack. This type of shock in amongst the beauty of the place, is the reader experiencing Erica’s awakening alongside her; nowhere is perfect for longer than it takes to capture a postcard image.
The same lesson lies in wait about the members of this colony. No relationship is perfect, and Erica is in danger of romanticising George and Charmian almost like surrogate parents. To learn that Charmian may have cheated on her husband is bad enough, but George humiliating his wife by writing it as a sex scene in his latest book, causes a lot of tension. Alex leaves the island with Patricia, despite Marianne giving birth to their son. Erica watches Leonard slowly get closer to Marianne and the baby. Will he truly be able to capture her heart or will she always run back to Axel? When Erica looks back in her later years she imagines them both playing on the beach with the baby between them. Could there’s have been the best example of love, looking back? I’d no idea till later in the book that this Leonard is Leonard Cohen and the reader is left to imagine Marianne inspiring his song of the same name. Erica has to learn that most things are temporary. Life isn’t a fairy story which ends happily when the handsome prince chooses his wife. That is simply one moment in a, hopefully, very long life. She sees that no relationship, even her own, is truly safe or within her control. Cracks appear when one night at a local nightspot the group lounge around on large cushions gossiping. The gossips turns to Marianne and Erica is surprised how bitchy it gets, it disillusions and disappoints her.
The author cleverly weaves into the story, these little hints that show life on Hydra, and within this artistic community, is not what it seems on the surface. There are artistic jealousies, even between man and wife, but especially between the men. There’s a degree of suspicion underneath the cheerful socialising. Erica’s relationship with Charmian has ups and downs. Erica sees her as queen of their community., almost like a mother to them all. Perhaps she pushes in and questions her too much at first and Charmian will not divulge any secrets about her mother’s life. Towards the end of the novel the pair meet again in London by chance and Charmian is more forthcoming about Erica’s mother and accompanies her to a protest. When Erica eventually revisits Hydra years later, not many of the old gang are left. Will those that remain full in the blanks for her, or will so much remain obscured by time and her naivety at the time of the events? How will going back bring closure for her? Although I was more interested to see whether Erica had taken the lessons she learned there and applied them to her life. Hydra remains alluringly beautiful and I felt it would have a strange, magnetic power over Erica for the rest of her life. This final visit is about settling memories back into place, with tears and laughter that is so bittersweet,
Now so long, Marianne
It’s time that we began to laugh
And cry and cry and laugh about it all again
Marianne by Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen, Marianne.