In Tearing Haste

In the library of Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, are two doors disguised as shelves of books. The second one was created in the 1960s during renovations, and 28 book-backs were made by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, the luxury London bookbinding firm, for titles like Reduced to the Ranks by D. Motion, Second Helpings by O. Twist, Dipsomania by Mustafa Swig, and The Battle of the Bulge by Lord Slim. The last volume is Book Titles by Patrick Leigh Fermor, chosen to honor the inventor of the titles. For the travel writer and war hero had responded to the Duchess of Devonshire's epistolary plea: "Now something really important" she prefaced the request. His letter with the full list—anyone have a copy of First Steps in Rubber by Wellington?—is one of the gems of In Tearing Haste, the new anthology of Fermor and the duchess's correspondence.

 

They met in late 1940 at a regimental ball—she was then just Deborah Mitford, youngest of the over-discussed sisters, and ever known as Debo—but their friendship only took off in the 1950s, fuelled by their mutual high spirits and an endlessly overlapping set of friends. They met frequently in London or Paris, in one or another of the Devonshire estates, or in some continental manse that Fermor had finagled. Their correspondence began as attempts to plan such escapades or to say thank you for hospitality. But it grew over the years to become a record of impressions and pleasures shared. Fermor wrote to her about his far-flung travels, describing places and his joy in unusual facts, while Debo's short letters are a caustic take on the modern aristocratic county life: endless royal sightings—the Queen Mum is always called Cake for the enthusiasm she once showed at a wedding—and shooting, riding, and agriculture.

 

Still, there is no denying that the correspondence is an unequal one. Fermor's best letters are small versions of his great books—recounting two weeks hiking in the Pindus Mountains, a car tour of classical ruins in southern Turkey, motoring down the Dalmatian coast, swimming the Hellespont, borrowing an old Ottoman house from the Greek foreign minister—and yet he will often insert indications of what Debo can skim over knowing her patience to be tried by his flights of fancy. She continually refers to herself as not much of a reader, and Evelyn Waugh sent her a copy of his biography of Ronald Knox with the inscription, "To Darling Debo, in the certainty that not one word of this will offend your Protestant persuasion." The pages were 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." Happily Fermor's letters suited her, too, and she hoarded them, allowing this charming addition to the too-small library of Fermoriana. As the correspondents are still going strong in their nineties, we can hope for more.

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

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