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. Continue reading