I love that the Duchess of Devonshire is reduced to “Deborah Devonshire” in her capacity as an author. It’s a kind of leveling perhaps — only not really. One of the many, many pleasures in this volume is the grandeur of the lives depicted. Deborah, of course, is the youngest and only surviving Mitford sister, widely known as “Debo.” Leigh-Fermor is a much-decorated travel writer. The two became friends in the 1950s and are still, at the respective ages of 93 and 96, volleying back and forth these sparkly entertaining missives.
Debo always posed as illiterate and pretended that she’d never read a book but her letters are pithy and vivid. Self-deprecation (probably a useful strategy among those Mitfords) is a constant as is her keen sense of fun. Which she shared with “Paddy,” who had more tools in his writerly paintbox. He wields them sometimes self-consciously but writers will do that.
And, oh! the people and the places! The Chatsworth trajectory is fascinating, from the massive white elephant the Devonshires take on in the 1950s to the formidably grand (that word again) enterprise it is by the end of the book. Yet throughout Debo is opening drawers and finding, for example “Andrew’s grandfather’s garter thing, been there ever since I suppose…” Translation: Order of the Garter awarded to the 9th Duke probably early in the 20th century. Wouldn’t you have thought they would have missed it?
The arc of their lives is poignant. Lots of brave chatter in late letters about “Dr. Oblivion” who removes all one’s memories, and rueful reminiscence about friends and spouses as they die off.
Still, it’s the energy and sense of humor that kept me turning the pages. In 2005 Debo was in the hospital in Bakewell and, after praising the hospital, added: “But the lunch was yak, I think, certainly no known meat. Perhaps the patients are all from Nepal.” As Debo says, “Do admit…” Do admit it’s a great read.