A Traveler's Tale: On Patrick Leigh Fermor
At a Chelsea-to-Richmond boating party held sometime in the early 1950s, the Duchess of Devonshire, then a beautiful young woman of 30, met a dashing man, some five years her senior, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator and armed with a net and trident. It was a look she thought suited him.
The fancy-dress gladiator was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a former officer in Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit that aided resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and an up-and-coming writer best known at the time for kidnapping a German general during the war. He had crossed paths with the duchess before and remembered her clearly from a regimental ball in 1940, when she was still Deborah Mitford—the youngest of the soon-to-be-famous Mitford sisters. She was then engaged to Andrew Cavendish, a tall naval officer and younger son of the Tenth Duke of Devonshire who had no expectation of inheriting his father's title until the war took his older brother's life four years later. Leigh Fermor had watched the couple dance their way through the evening, "utterly rapt, eyes shut, as though in a trance." Mitford had not noticed him.
But when they met again—as duchess and gladiator—Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor struck up a friendship that has endured for more than half a century. In Tearing Haste, a collection of their letters newly available in this country, gives the impression that the conversation that started at a boating party so many summers ago has never stopped. Spanning 1954 to 2007, the volume reads like an accidental memoir of a disappearing world stretching from the manor houses of the English aristocracy to the olive groves of Greece, its people and places rendered with a kind of care that's becoming scarce in our age of helter-skelter communication. At the same time, the book's title, a phrase deriving from Leigh Fermor's habit of dashing off messages "with a foot in the stirrup," captures the vigor and bustle of the lives that nourished the correspondence. I once happened upon the manuscript of a chatty letter Leigh Fermor had written in 1944 to an Englishwoman stationed in Cairo. Amusingly composed and illustrated with a witty hand-drawn cartoon, it closed with Leigh Fermor mentioning offhand that he was in hiding on occupied Crete and that an undercover runner was waiting outside to receive the communication.
In Tearing Haste is engaging from start to finish. There isn't a dull letter among Charlotte Mosley's selections. Even her annotations, often incorporating information from the book's two correspondents, are as surprising as they are informative. One biographical note on the painter Augustus John includes Deborah Devonshire's recollection of meeting him in London: "He looked me up and down and said, 'Have you got children?' 'Yes.' Another long look. 'Did you suckle them?'" More than anything else, the collection is important as an addition to Leigh Fermor's body of work, both because his letters constitute a larger portion of the volume and because the writing in them harmonizes with the books that established his literary reputation. But let it be said that the Duchess of Devonshire is no slouch either. Her letters, though generally shorter and less frequent than Leigh Fermor's, share his wit and many of his interests—a fascination with language, for example, or with the byways of English and European history. She puts a charming twist on these topics while adding a few bright threads of her own to the correspondence.
Deborah Devonshire's books—beginning with The House (1982) and The Estate (1990)—focus largely on the management of Chatsworth, the massive estate in Derbyshire that she and her husband put into charitable trust and opened to the public in 1981. (The house was a stand-in for Mr. Darcy's Pemberley in a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and throughout the letters Leigh Fermor refers to it as "Dingley Dell," after Mr. Wardle's house in The Pickwick Papers.) As a writer, she is best when describing the seasonal rhythms of country life (the arrival of the year's pullets, say) or assessing the gamut of rural arts (from drystone walling to mushroom gathering) and tilling their linguistic soil. In Counting My Chickens, a collection of notes and essays published in 2001, she remembers leaving Leigh Fermor "stumped" by the meaning of words gleaned from the glossary of a pamphlet about sheep. "One sheep disease," she recalls, "has regional names of intriguing diversity: Sturfy, bleb, turnstick, paterish, goggles, dunt, and pedro all are gid." On the same page she can be found rhapsodizing over "the glorious language of the 1662 prayer book, with its messages of mystery and imagination."
She takes any opportunity to undercut the preconceived notions one might have about a duchess's likes and dislikes. "I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows," she says in Counting My Chickens, "and good stout things they are." For the playwright Tom Stoppard, who contributed an introduction to the book, this was one of her most characteristic revelations. For me, a close runner-up is her discussion of flower gardening on a grand estate, where she admits, "I prefer vegetables." Many of her stories turn on a similar blend of unexpected rusticity and unflagging old-school civility. In an essay about the life the Mitfords led for a time on the island of Inchkenneth in the Hebrides, she describes traveling by train in the company of a goat, a whippet and a Labrador back to her sister Nancy's house in Oxfordshire when the war broke out. "I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room," she confesses, "which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket."
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For all her modesty, the duchess isn't embarrassed to mention boldface names that have sailed in and out of her social circle. (They range from Fred Astaire to the Queen Mother, the latter called "Cake" when she appears in the letters.) The humor in one anecdote depends on knowing that John F. Kennedy was intimate enough with the duchess to employ her nickname. This caused some confusion when her uncle Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, found himself involved in a telephone conversation with the American president about matters involving Castro, SEATO and NATO. It took him a moment to switch tracks when Kennedy asked, "And how's Debo?" (Evelyn Waugh, a friend of hers, might well have written the scene.) In the letters, Kennedy is counted among the "bodies to be worshipped," and several entries describe the friendship that developed between JFK and the duchess in the years between his inauguration and his death.
Her relationship with Leigh Fermor has many dimensions, its ardor fueled by humor, charisma and delight in a good tale. The revealing joke that runs through In Tearing Haste is that Devonshire is not a reader and that despite her lively correspondence with Leigh Fermor, she can't manage to read his books. She praises one of his letters not for its vivid language but because it has instructions about which parts to skip. Leigh Fermor takes revenge in another letter, marking a set of passages with notes "don't skip" and "ditto." The bit he wants her to see—a foray into history by way of language—might well have been lifted from one of the books that made him famous: "The inhabitants are Koutzovlachs who speak a v. queer Latin dialect akin both to Rumanian and Italian. Some say they are Rumanian nomad shepherds who wandered here centuries ago with their flocks and never found their way home again. Others, more plausibly, say they are the descendants of Roman legionaries, speaking a corrupt camp Latin, stationed here to guard the high passes of the Pindus, miles from anywhere."
When Waugh sent the duchess a copy of his biography of Ronald Knox in 1959, she was pleased with his personal inscription but put the book down without delving further into its contents. It was a guest who finally flipped through the pages, only to find, as a letter to Leigh Fermor records, that they were "ALL BLANK, just lovely sheets of paper with gold edges & never a word on one of them. That's the sort of book which suits me down to the ground. Good Old Evie." Years later she listed this custom edition among her "unstealables"—books so precious she hoards them in her room to deter casual theft by her guests—along with other Waugh books, "with pages covered in print, dash it." Even the books she does admire help to cultivate the anti-literary stance. "Most precious," she says in Counting My Chickens, "is The Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. If that goes, I give up." (Stoppard once gave her a signed photo of Presley and later recalled, "I've seldom scored such a success with a house present.") Devonshire comes by her resistance to books—or the pose—honestly. As she mentions in a letter written in 1985, Mitford family legend had it that her father read Jack London's White Fang as a young man and found the book so satisfying he never read another. She says the same about her reading Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill, but qualifies the assertion, "if it's the fellow I think it is."
The duchess certainly hasn't sidestepped writing of a particular sort. In a letter from 1971, she reports to Leigh Fermor: "I have written an article about Haflingers for Riding & one about the goat I liked best for the British Goat Society's Year Book. Two publications which I feel you may not subscribe to." It was clear to Leigh Fermor, however, that his correspondent wasn't owning up to her literary flair. When two of her sisters published volumes of autobiography in 1977, he wrote, "I wish you would write a book like everyone else, the abstention looks rather ostentatious." Knowing her proclivity, however, he added that "you wouldn't have to read it; someone else (viz. one) would do that." The ruse seems to have worked; she has since gone on to publish at least ten books.