This little volume is the book that put Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire ahead of her late sister Jessica Mitford in the tally of books published. (Debo: 12. Decca: 11. And Debo’s got another one coming out in November 2010.) Not bad, for someone who only started publishing in 1980 and whose sister Nancy always called her “9,” claiming that was her mental age. (Nancy, who died in 1973, will probably end up ahead in this particular race with 17 titles, but she did start nearly fifty years before Debo.) And, yes, Home to Roost is just a collection of what used to be called “occasional pieces” but now we can just call “magazine articles.” Still, it’s endearing. One gift Debo possesses is that of comic timing. Here is a sentence from a piece about “Romney Marsh and Other Churches,” in which she proclaims her preference for English ecclesiastical architecture — “I so agree with the English nanny who was taken with her charges to Chartres Cathedral and, when they came out into the fresh air so beloved by nannies, was asked what she thought of it: ‘Well, it’s a bad light for sewing in there.'”
There are book reviews and little essays here, some about Chatsworth and some about elements of the author’s life (the delicious piece on “Tiaras” falls into this category). She was present at Jack Kennedy’s Inauguration and funeral, and has written about both of those events with great feeling. The final piece is a meditation about the beautiful house Ditchley Park in its heyday, when it was occupied by Ronald and Nancy Tree in the 1930s. “After many years, does memory play you false? Do you look back on events, people and places in a slanted sort of way, slanted to summers being fine, friends always there, jokes, laughter, pleasure and entertainments galore, untouched by responsibility and living for the moment in a cheerful, hopeful sequence of exciting exploration?” Coming from a woman of ninety, this is almost unbearably poignant.
Home to Roost also seems to be the work of that rare creature, the natural writer with charm to burn. I will say, though, that the Duchess is given a run for her money by Alan Bennett, who wrote the introduction. He begins by comparing the Duchess to Miss Shepherd, his famous Lady in the Van, “both strong-willed single-minded women who wanted something out of me.” He also called her, he says, “Ms. Debo.” I would have liked to see that.