My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[The mid-1930s: Gerald Durrell and his family - his widowed mother, 2 older brothers and a sister - have moved to Corfu]
For some time Mother had greatly envied us our swimming, both in the daytime and at night, but, as she pointed out when we suggested she join us, she was far too old for that sort of thing. Eventually, however, under constant pressure from us, Mother paid a visit into town and returned to the villa coyly bearing a mysterious parcel. Opening this she astonished us all by holding up an extraordinary shapeless garment of black cloth, covered from top to bottom with hundreds of frills and pleats and tucks.
'Well, what d'you think of it?' Mother asked.
We stared at the odd garment and wondered what it was for.
'What is it?' asked Larry at length.
'It's a bathing-costume, of course,' said Mother. 'What on earth did you think it was?’
'It looks to me like a badly-skinned whale,' said Larry, peering at it closely.
'You can't possibly wear that, Mother,' said Margo, horrified, 'why, it looks as though it was made in nineteen-twenty.'
'What are all those frills and things for?' asked Larry with interest.
'Decoration, of course,' said Mother indignantly.
'What a jolly idea! Don't forget to shake the fish out of them when you come out of the water.'
'Mother, it's awful; you can't wear it,' said Margo. 'Why on earth didn't you get something more up to date?'
'When you get to my age, dear, you can't go around in a two-piece bathing suit. . . you don't have the figure for it.'
'I'd love to know what sort of figure that was designed for,' remarked Larry…
Mother snorted indignantly and swept upstairs to try on her costume. Presently she called to us to come and see the effect, and we all trooped up to the bedroom. Roger [the dog] was the first to enter, and on being greeted by this strange apparition clad in its voluminous black costume rippling with frills, he retreated hurriedly through the door, backwards, barking ferociously. It was some time before we could persuade him that it really was Mother, and even then he kept giving her vaguely uncertain looks from the corner of his eye. However, in spite of all opposition, Mother stuck to her tent-like bathing-suit, and in the end we gave up.
commentary: The TV programme The Durrells delighted my Sunday evenings recently: a series freely adapted from this book and two others by Gerald Durrell. Although I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere, the series was also closely connected with a previous BBC film-length version – one that featured in a blogpost I did a while back on best book-to-TV adaptations. The new one has the same writer, and concentrates on the same aspects of the book – I’m guessing Simon Nye has been trying to get the series made ever since the original in 2005.
I said then: It is always hard to remember that Gerald’s annoying and unconventional big brother Larry is actually the august author Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame.
And I also said: This is one of the rare cases where I like the adaptation better than the original book.
Both films are incredible adverts for the isle of Corfu, which surely must have gained in tourist traffic from them – the island looks gorgeous.
Anyway, the book is always enjoyable, though as someone who is not interested in wildlife I find I can skip quite a lot of it. It is very funny, and full of great anecdotes – Gerald is a bit vague about the exact nature of the book, but the word is that it is very strongly fictionalized: he strung together his stories as it suited and made a fine tale out of them. He liked a big moment, a social event, and made the most of them.
And the family are excellent, a most unusual picture of young people for either 1956 or 1936.
‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’Later, when he is drunk in bed and his mother comes in to help he says to her ‘You’re a horrible old woman… I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.’
‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother. ‘I never did anything of the sort!’
‘Well we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.
Meanwhile Lesley goes around firing off guns, and Margo enjoys her mangled aphorisms, such as ‘ you only die once’ and ‘a change is as good as a feast’ while looking for romance.
The most startling thing about Gerald, to modern eyes, is that the great wildlife conservator is always keeping his finds in small cages, and at one point takes baby magpies (magenpies) from their nest - it is rather discomfiting.
I’m interested in the idea that Mrs Durrell implies that Margo wears a 2-piece bathing suit. That would be pretty advanced for the time – though they did exist, contrary to what some sources claim. The bikini, when described as such, is definitely a post-war phenomenon, but the picture above shows Jane Wyman, the movie actress, at the age of 18 in LA., in 1935
The other picture is an advert from the NY Times – it’s from 1916. Much earlier than the date of the book, but the point seems to be that Mrs D’s swimsuit is terribly old-fashioned.
The history of swimwear has been a frequent feature on the blog,with some awesome illsustrations - click on the labels below for more.