Thursday, 6 February 2014

Better Late Than Never

I ought to have said so before, but in August there was something on The Dabbler blog that I wrote about a book by the Duchess of Devonshire. I was reminded of it because I have been reading her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Duchess likes to pretend she is awfully dim, but she's actually tremendously clever, as the following excerpts from her letters attest. Some of them are about the years when her husband was somehow involved with the Department of Trade and they had to entertain civil servants and foreign dignitaries.

I have experienced similar evenings to those she describes in her letters of 8th December 1960 and 12th February 1985. She is actually almost too brilliantly accurate - the memories came flooding back rather more vividly than I really would have liked:

17th November, 1960

"I'd never seen or heard wild geese before. Have you ever? A fantastic noise, like a lot of women at a cocktail party in the sky, tumbling over each other for the best place in the air."

8th December, 1960

" ... we've had the first small taste of official entertaining ... It's a new world and a rum one. The Ceylons (ie Ceylon High Commissioner to London, plus wife), live in a plain house in Addison Road, never an ornament to be seen, but many chairs placed about the room like those lounges where television interviews take place. No fire, not even electric, but bright lights and central heating.
     Very well then. I thought it would be Andrew and me and some Ceylonese people. Not at all. It was for grandees like Ld. Home, Ld. Mountbatten, Mrs Pandit, Ld. Soulbury, laced with a few gloomy faces like Mr and Mrs Creech Jones and various anonymous but high up civil servants.
     I was lucky and sat by Ld. Home. He is sweet and looks like an amiable goat, but does not smell or anything. Lady Home is one of those large English county ladies with a loud voice, but comforting because of their unchangingness, usually to be seen and heard on saints' days at Eton. She wore an electric blue dress of strange shape and nameless stuff and huge dirty diamonds on a huge clean bosom.
     Ld. Mountbatten shouted about the bag at Six-Mile Bottom to me across the table and scarcely addressed a word to the lady in a sari whose dinner it was. When the pudding loomed - jelly - he said very crossly to the hired waiter, 'What on earth's all this?' It makes one despair of the behaviour of some hopeless English people.
     When we'd all stuck it till eleven, Ld. Home was very polite and said to the hostess, 'I'm afraid we must very reluctantly tear ourselves away.' I thought that was better.

6th December, 1963

     We went to Washington for his [JFK's] funeral. Oh, it was strange. The Americans aren't suited to tragedy. They like everything to be great!

12th February, 1985

     What would Lady Redesdale [the duchess's mother] say, asking a lot of people to dinner who I've never met. No women except me, and when you've eaten a bit someone taps on a glass and says now we'll hear what you all think and everyone (except me, of course, too stupid) shouts out a lot of tosh about dollars and exchange rates and employment and unemployment and some of them talk in that new language which is incomprehensible but it is FASCINATING, a new world to me as you can imagine. (A paper belched out by their offices about some huge scheme said something was a revolving evergreen facility. Well, what is it?)

18th February, 1986

     The trouble is I'm starting a new book. I can't think of anything else but I can't do it, so the result is NOTHING. Nothing done which ought to be done and everything left undone.
     The first sentence is very trying, you'll admit. Famous Authors (that fraudulent thing in America which explains how to be one) says write 'the' on a bit of paper (well what else could it be on) and then put down some more words. I ask you. Then I thought, 'Well', as all interviewees on the wireless begin. No good. And 'like' and 'it came to pass.' No good either. So I looked at a few ghoul vols., no help. I think it will be 'if', like Kipling, but the nub of the ensuing sentence is Dutch to nearly everyone, not to you because you know everything and not to my editor (R Garnett) because he knows everything, but to ninety-nine per cent of the fools who read books.' [she was writing a book about the Chatsworth Estate, which she did in the end manage to finish and a quick look at Amazon reveals she finally chose this sentence as her starting point:

"In Bess of Hardwick's day there was no parkland to the west of the river."]


  1. It is a great book, isn't it? As you say, she's sharp as a tack.

    1. I love her disingenuous manner - 'but does not smell or anything', for instance