The It girl and the war hero

A young and beautiful Debo

What the trigger-happy, book-hating Duchess of Devonshire said to Patrick Leigh Fermor

Kate McLoughlin

From The Times Literary Supplement November 26, 2008

Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – known as Debo – was the youngest of those prototype It girls, the Mitford sisters; in faint and possibly euphemistic praise, the editor of this book of letters, her niece-by-marriage Charlotte Mosley, also describes her as “the most well-adjusted”. In this collection of letters, Debo comes across as jolly, plain-spoken and, where animals are concerned, murderous, her gun having taken her “from Sussex to Devon, from Anglesey to Norfolk and home via Northumberland”. Debo tends Chatsworth (the Devonshires’ stately home in Derbyshire), which she endearingly refers to as “the dump”, and engages in country pursuits. When asked by President Kennedy what she does all day, she admits she is “stumped”. A disarmingly simple soul – “I now prefer horse shows to lovers & I’ve never liked drink” – the Duchess is at her best on varieties of gooseberry and rare breeds of cattle. A running joke in this correspondence is her anti-intellectualism in general and antipathy to reading in particular. Invited to a literary lunch in Leamington Spa, she plans to tell her audience, “BOOKS how I hate them – as an avid non-reader it is awful to have added to their number”. The reader of her letters may be forgiven a wry smile.

The recipient of the Devonshire dispatches is Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as “Paddy” and occasionally “Whack”): war hero, author of travel books such as The Traveller’s Tree (1950), Mani (1958), A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the recipient of many honours, including a knighthood for services to literature and Anglo-Greek relations. During the Second World War, he was posted to Crete to support the local Resistance and led the successful abduction of the German commander on the island, an exploit that earned him the DSO and was later filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). Fermor attends the making of the movie and is enchanted when Dirk Bogarde portrays him as “a mixture of Garth and Superman, shooting Germans clean through the breast from a dentist’s chair, strangling sentries in an offhand manner”. From his letters, Fermor emerges as charming and whimsical, with a delightfully childlike imagination offsetting an annoyingly schoolboyish sense of humour. Still entranced by what he calls in A Time of Gifts “the glamour of fairy stories”, he hears the sea roar “like angry lions at feeding-time”, sees hills crowned with “tea-cosies of mist”, watches blackbirds mass “as if someone had rashly opened a pie”. In the best of his travel writings, Fermor combines a similar sense of wonder with local colour, an eye for ridiculousness (including his own) and vivid description in rangy sentences remarkable for their buoyancy. There is little of this soaring prose here: although some lengthy descriptions of travel are included, Fermor is reduced to telling his reluctant reader which passages she may skip.

Fermor and the then Deborah Mitford first met at a regimental ball in 1940. They bumped into each other at parties from time to time over the next decade but the first letter in this collection is a six-liner dated March 21, 1954, from Debo, now married to Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire, to Paddy saying that she hopes he will come and stay with them at Lismore, their house in Wexford. This sets the tone for the correspondence to follow: invitations are extended and accepted, thank-you notes are then sent. Too intermittent, the letters are unsatisfying records of festivities long finished. Although Charlotte Mosley claims to have excised plans for meetings, reports on health, grumbles about the weather and the slowness of the posts, the weeding out has not been thorough enough.

Another of Mosley’s claims in support of the correspondence is that the participants are indifferent to politics. It is difficult to decide whether this indifference is another instance of charming whimsicality or just unforgivable negligence. The exchange of letters is too sporadic to allow for political themes to be developed at length, but politics are not entirely absent. Andrew Cavendish was Harold Macmillan’s nephew-by-marriage and served in his government, later becoming an early member of the Social Democratic Party.

In 1958, with Macmillan a year into office, Debo “talks secrets with the PM” and finds it “most jolly and educational”. Much later, John Major “exudes goodness”, Tony Blair is “the wretched little Prime Minister”, Cherie “frightful”, and John Prescott “looks like a bare-knuckle fighter . . . from the East End”. This animosity may have been partly caused by the hunting ban, brought into force by the New Labour government in 2005, and the slaughter of livestock following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In their strongest expression of political feelings, Paddy calls the passing of the anti-hunt bill “a day of mourning” and Debo describes the cull as “truly ghoul”.

These references apart, the correspondence is largely devoted to the dramatis personae of high society, mostly long-gone minor aristocrats about whom Mosley provides rather more information than necessary in her footnotes. The Queen Mother, whom Debo calls “Cake”, having been lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm at a wedding when the cake was cut, puts in a few appearances, memorably crying “Oh God” and making a dash for the Royal Box when the conductor unexpectedly strikes up “God Save the Queen” at an opera gala. Princess Diana visits Chatsworth and Debo is stuck for what to give her to eat “as she prefers the fridge to the table, I’m told”. In other sly thrusts, Jackie Kennedy’s face “is put together in a very wild way” and Somerset Maugham’s is “so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille”.

Old age arrives suddenly for the correspondents – the long gaps between the letters mask the passing of time – but they sound the same as ever, still playing with the same phrases (“I freely admit” is one of Debo’s, much repeated by family and friends), the nicknames (Nancy Mitford is “the Old French authoress” and “the Ancient Dame of France”), the in-jokes (Debo’s supposed illiteracy), still “v v excited” about things or finding them “frightfully good”. Their lack of self-pity as they age is impressive and appealing; there are jokes about failing eyesight and “Dr. Oblivion” but, even though they have reached the stage in life when Paddy is constantly writing obituaries, they maintain good cheer. Twenty-first-century life fails to disconcert them. “There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales”, writes Debo. “You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?”

Did they love each other? Debo is “funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving”, Paddy tells mutual friends. In a letter of 1957 he rebukes her: “I wish you didn’t love everyone else more than me – it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t rather love you, as I suppose I do, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so selfish and possessive [. . . .] I do adore you”. His adoration is clear in his letters, which outnumber Debo’s: he chides her for not writing often enough, he delights over her average prose, he sends her long travelogues that she replies to with short letters about gooseberries. But her fondness and admiration for him are also evident, and a photograph in the volume of them aged ninety-three and eighty-eight shows a pair close together but not touching: a couple of old friends.

In one of her letters to Paddy, Debo marvels that the University of Texas has paid $10,000 for her sister’s papers: “They’ve got all Evie [Waugh]’s stuff, & Osbert [Sitwell]’s, & letters saying things like ‘Arriving on the 2.14 on Saturday so much looking forward to seeing you’ are put under glass and revered”. Similar feelings are induced by In Tearing Haste. The volume diminishes its subjects by preserving their off-the-cuff remarks and, in Fermor’s case, prose that does nothing to suggest that his finest writing is spectacular. It is good to know that the two are corresponding still, but it might be for the best to save their last letters for their own private pleasure.

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3 thoughts on “The It girl and the war hero

  1. Dermot McMahon

    Just a small detail(but important in Ireland!)
    Lismore ,the delightful and magical home of
    the in Ireland is in the County Waterford not Wexford.

    Reply
    1. Dermot McMahon

      “Home of the Devonshires” of course.(I truly nodded!)
      Dermot McMahon

      PS The gardens,displays,museum and teashop are well worth a day’s visit.

      Reply

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