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The Rash Adventurer, a life of John Pendlebury.

August 15, 2014


I’m on holiday this week and as part of my holiday reading I packed Imogen Grundon’s book. I’ve had it for several years on my ‘to read’ list but hadn’t realised it was published back in 2007, so this is hardly an up-to-date review! I’m sure there’s more recent work that has been written about Pendlebury, but as far as I’m aware this is the only full-scale biography. My apologies if I’m wrong about this and do let me know.

Pendlebury, as I’m sure you’re all aware, excavated Amarna, was curator of Knossos and excavated on Mount Dikti and helped organise Cretan Resistance during the 2nd World War. Imogen Grundon’s biography draws on the considerable amount of information available about Pendlebury’s life – his letters, site diaries, SOE reports and testimonies from his friends and acquaintances. As a historian of 20th century British archaeology I, inevitably, read a lot of biographies and have used a lot of archival biographical information in my writing and I was initially envious of the resources she could draw upon but after 300+ pages I’d say more selectivity would have made this a more enjoyable read.

This is very much an old style biography, it begins with John Pendlebury’s parents, there’s a paragraph or two about his grandparents, before moving back to Pendlebury himself. It is the traditional summary of a life – ancestry, birth, education, achievements, death and legacy. It’s an examination of a whole life rather than an intellectual biography, or one that concentrates solely on Pendlebury’s archaeological or military work. And, it appears to have been written with the sincere belief that lives can be traced, pinned down, explained with no ambiguity, no hesitations or lacunae. Reading the bibliography every possible source appears to have been consulted, but there are no critical/postmodern biographical approaches in that bibliography and no evidence in the writing that any have been read.

I‘d have said it would be hard to write a bad book about such a fascinating character and Imogen Grundon was ideally placed to write an exceptional biography. As an archaeologist who has worked at Tell el Amarna, Knossos, and Mycenae, she is, as Patrick Leigh Fermor says in the foreword, extremely well equipped to interpret John Pendlebury’s life. The book is around 165,000 words long, that’s a lot of information about a man who died when he was only 37– and much of it is repetitive. With this level of information overload I found my interest decreased rather than increased as I read. After school and university the chapters cover months rather than years and parts of the book turn into a slog rather than a fun read. Round about page 100 I had to take time off and read something else and I’m the type of person who will endlessly read a cereal packet or the toothpaste tube if there’s nothing else on offer.

Every part of his Pendlebury’s life is detailed and letters or diary entries quoted exhaustively, even exhaustingly. And, I began to question if I really needed to know about Pendlebury’s undergraduate drinking clubs. Was it included to illustrate his chivalry and whimsicality? If so it backfires, as a university lecturer and ex-student I found this section tedious rather than intriguing. And this is the problem, Imogen Grundon discusses every aspect of Pendlebury’s life, including archival quotes and first-hand accounts to illustrate her point, but often the information is irrelevant anyway, doing nothing to further the story. For example, Pendlebury certainly had one extramarital affair, possibly more, but what does that actually tell us about him? The information is given without any interpretation or context. Was the affair serious? Did it affect his relationship with his wife Hilda, with his volunteers, with his Cretan workforce? Were affairs commonplace amongst archaeologists of this period? In wider society? None of this is discussed, it’s seemingly enough to tell us that the affair occurred and is verified by reference to various sources.

Equally frustrating are the omissions. How did Hilda Pendlebury feel about giving up her own work to further Pendlebury’s career? It was her scholarship and interest in archaeology that attracted him initially, what happened when her interests were subsumed in his? Imogen Grundon tells us that in 1931 ‘With Hilda he had begun work on a guide to the stratigraphical museum at Knossos’ (IG 2007: 144). This came out under the sole authorship of John Pendlebury – how did Hilda feel about this? Again this isn’t discussed, Hilda is portrayed increasingly unsympathetically throughout the book and after Pendlebury’s death her life is dismissed in a single sentence.

This is a very well researched biography but, as I said, it’s too traditional and uncritical to make it an academic work, yet too wordy and detailed for a popular book. With sharper editing it and cutting out all the repetitions and irrelevancies it would have been a much more enjoyable read. It’s definitely a work that demonstrates the adage ‘less is more’.

Ok, that’s my attempt at a book review, I’m sure you can all do better, give it a go! Email your reviews to

and, as ever, have a great weekend – I’ll be reading this


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosalind Janssen permalink
    August 17, 2014 7:26 am

    Dear Julia,

    Thank you for your review of Grundon’s biography of John Pendlebury. I want to point out to HARN members that, despite its extraordinary detail, this does not represent the end of the story. As a result of receiving unpublished family correspondence, I published an article in 2010 concerning the nature of Pendlebury’s death at the very beginning of the Battle of Crete. This basically demonstrated that he had not died as a result of having been shot in the head by German paratroopers. It also revealed the great determination of Hilda Pendlebury to ferret out the precise details of her husband’s death in post-war Crete. This resulted in her speaking to the British doctor who had performed John’s post-mortem, rather than simply rely on the testimony of the two Cretan sisters who had sheltered her dying husband. As a result of publishing these findings, I had the interesting experience of being ‘blacked’ at a seminar attended by certain nameless archaeologists who, it would seem, prefer that the Pendlebury romance continues to live on. My article was published in Göttinger Miszellen 225 (2010), 75-81 under the title ‘Der kretische Lawrence’: Who killed John Pendlebury? So HARN members, please read the fully story and see what you think. For me the nature of Pendlebury’s death is revealed as even more chivalrous, and it was not for nothing that I used ‘The Cretan Lawrence’ designation from Nazi propaganda in my title.

    best wishes to all,
    Rosalind Janssen

  2. harngroup permalink*
    August 17, 2014 6:04 pm

    Dear Rosalind,
    Thank you very much for this, I imagine HARN members will be very keen to read your article. I’ll certainly be getting hold of a copy, it sounds enormously interesting.

  3. Αρτεμις permalink
    January 11, 2017 9:44 pm

    Hello, I am reading-and wondering- about Pendlebury’s death circumstances and I came across the comment of Mrs Janssen, which sounds VERY interesting and Ifeel her contribution to the matter is most important for finding, or at least trying to approach the truth. . I tried to order a copy of the Goettingen Miszellen, where the article of Mrs Janssen was published, but got no answer from the University. I also tried to contact Mrs Janssen, by emailing to her email address above, but no luck. All these within the last 20 days. Is it possible to give me a hint how to contact Mrs Janssen,or how to obtain the article in question?
    Thank you very much for your time,
    Best wishes for 2017,
    Artemis Klitsi


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