Book review: In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor from The Scotsman

First published in The Scotsman 13 September 2008

by Roger Hutchinson

THE MARVELLOUS THING ABOUT yours [books],” wrote the Duchess of Devonshire to Patrick Leigh Fermor in May 1974, “is that they never appear.”

Deborah Devonshire professes a pathological dislike of reading. Somewhere in the unfathomable depths of that eccentricity may be discovered the contrary reason for her having been, for over half a century, the favourite correspondent of one of the greatest British authors of the 20th century.

Debo and Paddy had been swapping letters from various parts of the globe for 20 years when she congratulated him on the paucity of his output. When he received that letter he was in fact just finishing A Time of Gifts, the first volume of the travelogue through Europe in the 1930s which would cement his reputation. If we are to believe the Duchess, she has never read a word of it or any of his other works.

This does not mean that their collected letters, expertly compiled by Charlotte Mosley, is entirely non-literary – there are plenty of gems here for the student of the Leigh Fermor oeuvre. It means rather that their friendship was established on broader grounds.

The youngest Mitford sister, Debo Devonshire, clearly possesses oodles of her siblings’ trademark charm, without the family handicap of being mad as a meat-axe. Patrick Leigh Fermor saw and fell for her at an officers’ ball early in the Second World War. She did not so much as notice him until several years later. By the early 1950s Paddy Leigh Fermor was difficult not to notice. Handsome, polyglot, rakish, wildly itinerant and with a war record straight out of a John Buchan novel, he fell upon London society like a wolf on the fold.

He must have been able to pick off debutantes at a hundred paces. But Deborah Mitford was made of sterner stuff. She had set her sights on a duke. PLF would have to settle for best male friend. We should say, one of her best male friends. Her roster of masculine admirers is extraordinary. President John F Kennedy tops the chart, but it winds down through almost every eligible and ineligible man in the developed world. Debo’s good fortune – and now that this engaging anthology has been published, ours too – is that not a single one of them was half so good a writer as her faithful Paddy.

Naturally, most of the words in this collection were authored by PLF. But if Deborah Devonshire has been a foil, she was a perfect one. Chatty, witty, teasing, gossipy, relentlessly cheerful and with more than a hint of modest good sense, her short replies bounce off his beautiful essays like volleys of tennis balls off a cathedral.

Leigh Fermor has always used letters to his late wife Joan and to his friends as the first drafts of books. Two of his works – A Time to Keep Silence and Three Letters from the Andes – were firmly based on such correspondence. His handwritten letters to Debo include several small treasures of travel writing from Africa, India, the Pindus range, France and of course his beloved Greece.

There are typical PLF moments here, as when he beds down in a mountain hut with two Greek hillmen and swaps stories of nereids and demons. There are also such previously unpublished diamonds as the tale of a hare-lipped Australian father and son who were greeted like long-lost cousins in India by a hare-lipped monkey and her hare-lipped infant. She in turn is able to illuminate him (and us) with such intriguing details as the fact that at his inauguration in 1960, President Kennedy appeared never to have heard of her Uncle Harold (Macmillan, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom).

Deborah Devonshire is of course correct. Patrick Leigh Fermor writes books as if carving every word in stone. Unlike Debo, some of us regret rather than welcome the consequent insufficiency of publications, while appreciating that he’s taking all that time in his lifelong pursuit of writing the perfect book.

PLF is now 93 years old. This collection of letters is as close as we are likely to get to a post-war autobiography of a remarkable man. That is not because he will die soon. He’ll probably reach triple figures with all of his immense mental faculties intact.

But Patrick Leigh Fermor will need that time to complete his pre-war autobiography, the Time of Gifts trilogy. The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, was published in 1986. The final account of his 1930s walk to Constantinople has been in preparation ever since. As he approaches his century we are surely entitled to see PLF spending a little less time scaling mountain ranges and a little more time at his desk finishing the masterwork.

It is heartening to read in a relatively recent letter to the Duchess of Devonshire that he is still chipping away at the edifice. Who knows, perhaps even she will read it.

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