Christopher Ondaatje

An Island For One

Count de Mauny: Friend of Royalty


Begell House Inc 125pp £10.50 order from our bookshop

LAST NIGHT I dreamt I was back on Count de Mauny Island, no doubt because I had been reading this book. As I write, I am sitting in the Weligama Rest House on a sweltering afternoon. The Rest House overlooks the tiny island immediately across from Weligama beach and approachable on foot only at low tide. At high tide one either wades in up to one’s neck or is carried to the island de Mauny named Taprobane – the old name by which Sri Lanka itself had once been known.

I have waited for this biography for many years. De Mauny is a name out of my past: over sixty years ago, before Ceylon’s independence,- my family used to rent this little island off its coast for the most idyllic holidays we spent together. I cannot remember any point in my childhood when I was havvier – L A swimming in the surf, being carell of the undertow, trudgmg across to the Rest House for string hoppers and prawn curry. I remember distinctly the north-west room where I slept, with its view over the endless blue Indian Ocean. There is nothing between this tiny island and the South Pole.

I have always wondered who de Mauny was, and I even have a small watercolour of the island painted by the Count himself.

Maurice de Mauny Talvande was born in 1866 in Le Mans, France. His father was a banker with a questionable reputation, and his mother was the granddaughter of a Comte de Mauny. It was &m him that he adopted his title. When he was thirty-two he married Lady Mary Byng, daughter of the Earl of Sdord. The newly-weds took up residence at the sumptuous chateau of Azayle- Rideau in the Loire Valley, which de Mauny tenuously turned into a type of university for foreign students. Mary gave birth to a son, and later a daughter. However, a nasty scandal soon I erupted when the so-called Count was charged with ‘making advances’ to the 1 young Oliver Brett I (son of the influential Viscount Esher), who had been sent ‘to the chateau to learn French. The Count’s marriage began to crumble, and when the university failed, the couple returned to England separately, onlv to reunite in 1908 and move to Sandel (now Sandle Lodge) in Wiltshire, where the Count’s passion for gardening began. He developed the garden there, and also wrote his first book, The Peace of Suflering (1919), which revealed that he had become something of a traveller. He had visited Ceylon in 1912, at the invitation of Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate. Formal bankruptcy, dsenchantment with England, and severe marital problems were good reasons for the Count’s decision to move permanently to Ceylon. It is probable too that he was paid to stay away by his wife.

A second book, Gardening in Ceylon, was published in 1921. And then, quite by chance, in 1925 the Count saw the island that was to become his final home: ‘a red granite rock, covered with palms and jungle scrub, rising from the Indian Ocean – an emerald in a setting of pink coral’. He soon set about designing the house that he described in his third and final book, Gardens of Taprobane (1937). He named the island Taprobane because its pear-shaped outline resembled that of ‘a miniature Ceylon’. ‘Before de Mauny reclaimed and renamed the island, it was used as a cobra dump. All cobras found in the locality were brought in sacks to the island and left there because snakes are not normally killed in Sri Lanka. And before de Mauny could start building and gardening on Taprobane, he had to get rid of the cobras.’

The remarkable house was octagonal in shape with a broad terrace around it. ‘The north facade looked on to the mainland and was the entrance to the house whilst the south falade was the principal kontage with a wide terrace, a lawn and an Italian garden. Overall, there would be echoes of the Italian lakes, the Isle of Cavri, some details of the Kandyan style, Alhambra-style cahed wooden pdlars and even some elements of the Vatican gardens.’ De Mauny called his central hall the Hall of the Lotus. It was also octagonal and 30 feet high, lined with panels of wood inlaid with a design of lotus buds and flowers. AU the rooms, as they still do now, converged on the main hall and a frieze inspired by the Sigiriya frescoes ran along the walls. Outside, and visible from the central hall, towering palms and tropical foliage were everywhere. The Count also started designing his own furniture. Eyentually he employed over two hundred carpenters and inlays, and hg furniture, which he sold, is now highly valued in Sri Lanka – if you can find it.

But the house is de Mauny’s real masterpiece. Built to be in full harmony with the gardens around it and the sea beyond, it is a testament to de Mauny’s imagination and his skill as a designer. He lived in hs glorious creation until his death in 1941. He encouraged many people – royalty, aristocrats, writers (Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, Gore Vidal, Arthur C Clarke) and other famous versonalities – to visit. He was seldom alone.

After his death, his island was auctioned and underwent ‘a period of sad neglect in the hands of disinterested owners’. (In 1951, Paul Bowles bought the island for L5,000, but he sold it five years later because his wife loathed it.) By the time Robin Maugham visited the island in the 1970s the house had been taken over by rats. The island is now owned by Sri Lankan expatriate and London barrister Desmond de Silva QC, and is leased to Geoffrey Dobbs, an enigmatic businessman from Hong Kong who has restored the house to its former glory. (Dobbs, according to Chomet, spends some time on the island when he is not playing elephant polo in Nepal.)

Unfortunately, this is not quite the book I had been waiting for all these years. It is not really a biography – merely a list of names, places and events combined with speculation over the Count’s ability to gain access to the inner sanctum of the Windsor establishment. It is a disappointingly flawed book: little attempt has been made to flesh out the character of the romantic, scandalridden Count.

De Mauny created a legendary folly of great beauty. Many have lost their souls to the dangerously seductive island of Ceylon; many have stayed, and many have written about it. But few have left behind such a romantic monument. It is not surprising that we old colonials still refer to the place as ‘Count de Mauny Island’.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter