Following the trail of a little-known great-grandfather: Gerald Brenan
Joséphine Corre's visit to Churriana reconnects the French descendants of the hispanist's family with the legacy of the Anglo-Irish writer of The Spanish Labyrinth and reveals a secret about his daughter Miranda
The appointment was set for five o'clock but the guest turned up ten minutes early - a clear indication that this visit was pretty important to her. She appeared in the entrance hall wearing a broad smile, a sweet look in her 35-year-old eyes, and greeted us in Spanish with a French accent, with a large rucksack on her back. Coincidentally, the image of a backpack and this 21st-century trip to the Spanish labyrinth is very similar to one of her then-young great-grandfather, Gerald Brenan, on his first time in Andalucía just a century ago.
It was Joséphine Corre herself who contacted the Gerald Brenan house in Churriana, Malaga, now a museum, to ask if she could visit. No phone calls, just a message via social media. This unusual request, given the family connection, received an equally unusual response from the director of Casa Gerald Brenan himself, Alfredo Taján, who welcomed the illustrious and unexpected guest into the "family home" that was her great-grandfather's.
The family tree lost its way, firstly with the premature death of the British hispanist's daughter, Miranda Brenan (1931-1980) and then that of the writer himself on 19 January 1987. Their deaths took some family secrets to the grave. This was not the first time that Brenan's descendants had knocked on the door of the Churriana-based residence of the author of The Face of Spain and South From Granada. However, until now, no one had answered the door.
Once introductions were completed, the conversation settled into a multi-lingual mix of Spanish, English and French, with smatterings of Spanglish. Fortunately, Carlos Pranger, Brenan's literary executor and translator, had also been summoned to the meeting and acted as an intermediary in English, in which his great-granddaughter is also proficient.
After listening to the account of how the residence was acquired and restored by Malaga city council to recover the links of this hispanist with Malaga, Joséphine Corre began to look around the place. She moseyed around the same rooms that her own grandmother, Miranda Brenan, ran around as a child when she arrived here in 1934 to live with her father and American writer Gamel Woolsey. Her attention was drawn to a prominent exhibit: the oil portrait of her great-grandmother, painted by Gertrude Mary Powis.
"This portrait is one of the most important works we have at the Brenan house; it truly captures the melancholy and beauty of Gamel," said Taján, who spoke in such intimate terms of the original owners of this home that Joséphine asked: "Did you get to know them?" "No, I'm not that old," he answered, raising an eyebrow in surprise. Then he explained that his being so involved in the history of the Brenans had pretty much made him feel like a close friend.
"Back home we have the portrait that Dora Carrington painted of Gerald Brenan," revealed Joséphine. The couple met among the artists that made up the legendary Bloomsbury Circle. The writer fell madly in love with the painter, but their brief and intense romance in 1922 was thwarted by her love for the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey. Taján jumped in with a daring remark: "Well, that painting would look great here next to Gamel's," to which Josephine replied, red-faced and apologetic: "It belongs to my father."
More class than money
Moving on to another room allowed for a change of subject. Sculptures by Elena Laverón, the current exhibition at Casa Gerald Brenan, observed Brenan's great-granddaughter as she wandered round the room, only to bump into her ancestors again with a photo of them enjoying themselves seated at a table with Ernest Hemingway.
"I'm very curious about the life and times of my great-grandparents," said the young woman. Pranger explained that the author of The Old Man and the Sea had been staying nearby at La Cónsula. At the time it was the estate of another big fan of Malaga, an American known as "Yankee Bill Davis".
"The Brenans were magnets, attracting everyone from the intellectual, artistic and cultural circles who passed through Malaga and the Costa del Sol, people as famous as Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier. They had a lot of class... the only thing they didn't have was money," said Alfredo Taján - ironic but true.
The couple, despite their intellectual influence and being held in such high regard, were never bestselling authors. Indeed, the writer himself died in a retirement home in Alhaurín el Grande after being repatriated from London with the help of both the national and regional governments of Spain and Andalucía.
Apart from this short pause to discuss Hemingway, the tour resumed, heading up to the first floor and the Casa Brenan conference room. However the guest's attention had first been caught by something at the bottom of the stairs. "Grandma!" she said in Spanish to Louis Vié, her partner and travelling companion, while pointing to a large portrait of Miranda aged about three or four, not long after arriving at the Churriana house with her parents. She took out her phone to take a photo to send to her father, Stephane Corre.
"It's not my first time coming here; twenty years ago I was here with my father, but we couldn't enter the building because it was locked up and in ruins," recalled Joséphine. Following that revelation, Alfredo Taján invited his illustrious visitor and everyone to go up the tower, where his office is, for the best views from the building. The sea, the bay and Malaga city can be seen condensed into the picture window of this old tea room. From here Gerald and Gamel witnessed the bombing of the city that Gamel portrayed in the unforgettable book Death's Other Kingdom, later renamed Malaga Burning - a work that Antonio Banderas pursued for film rights, but which he had to give up on due to too many hoops.
The unknown grandmother Juliana
The view from the other side of the tower was also once wonderful and, although now going to seed a bit, there is still a clearing. Around it, of course, it is besieged by real estate construction. "This was a rural estate in the middle of the countryside and there were spectacular gardens that I hope Malaga town hall will one day recover, restoring all their former glory, with bamboo canes up to five metres high and all kinds of plants. It was a lush oasis that we could lose forever," said Carlos Pranger, with sadness in his voice as he tried helping Joséphine to envision how it once looked. Oddly enough, Corre and Pranger are not related, but they might as well have been. She never knew her great-grandfather, whereas he did. He was just a young boy when his mother, Lynda Nicholson-Price, became Brenan's muse and translator in the late 70s after he upped sticks and moved to Alhaurín el Grande.
It was Joséphine Corre herself who brought up the subject of the mystery Spanish woman who was her real great-grandmother: "Miranda always talked to my father and his sister about Gerald and Gamel as though she were his grandmother. Then we found out that the real grandmother was Juliana."
As heir to this saga, Corre told the story of the teenage girl from Yegen (Granada), with whom Brenan had a daughter Elena in 1931, the same year he married Woolsey. There are different versions as to how that girl's future panned out. Some accused Brenan of taking the child from her mother and claimed she never saw her daughter again. Others jumped to his defence, suggesting that the girl's future would have been very different, even deadly, had she remained in their village in the Alpujarras.
Elena's name was changed to Miranda Helen and she left Spain with her father and stepmother Gamel when the Civil War broke out in 1936. She returned in the 50s as an adult.
"Within the family Juliana has not been a taboo subject because we don't really know the truth as the story of what happened is unclear," said Joséphine.
Pranger stepped in to give more details based on written records: "Those siding with Juliana in Yegen are very resentful towards Brenan, but I have read Gamel's letters from that period, and I believe that they provide a version that's closer to the truth, since the girl's fate in the town was doomed to misery, poverty and probably a somewhat sordid future. However, we will never know because so much time has passed."
Joséphine herself drew a line under the matter by simply stating: "Miranda was the daughter that Gerald and Gamel could never have."
After this quick review of family history, the group returned to the ground floor. Corre found her backpack and took out an envelope. "I brought these family photos," she said, starting with a copy of Woolsey and Brenan's wedding. The bride in pure white and wearing a veil; the groom in morning suit and top hat, looking every bit the English lord despite his penchant for the simple things in life.
Then she took out a collection of unpublished photos, taken from the family album she inherited from grandmother Miranda. In these Miranda appears as an adult with the writers at the Churriana house, in the garden with friends and with her father on some wild-looking beach along the Costa del Sol. Scenes of daily life for the Brenans that would be of great interest and value to the museum, (as Alfredo Taján pointed out in the hope they might be handed over to the collection, if not now, then perhaps as a future donation). Turning the photos over reveals a treasure worth almost as much as the photos themselves - a snippet of Miranda's true feelings. In her own handwriting is inscribed the word "mummy" right behind the faded, and partially obscured, image of her adoptive mother, Gamel, looking out serenely from the photo.
While the photos were hogging the attention of most of those present, Joséphine Corre busied herself with keeping her promise to her 70-year-old father Stephane. On a video call, talking in French, she repeated the whole tour for him, running around, phone in hand. Afterwards, she returned even more overcome with emotion at having reconnected with such a legacy that had been lost to her family for so long.
"My father had told me that my great-grandfather was famous and I read his books translated into French, but until now I just wasn't aware of quite how famous he was," she said, promising to return to Casa Brenan, next time, she said, speaking Spanish.