I love reading memoirs. Last week I finished Life Class by Diana Athill, her collection of memoirs written in the course of her adult life.
I also love reading collections of letters. The gossipy, insider language, the references to an intimate circle of friends, the private thoughts, the opinions expressed freely. Collections of letters make easy reading, especially before bedtime. You can read a letter or two, there is always a natural breaking point and it doesn’t take much to get back into the book. This week I finished In Tearing Haste, The Letters of Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor. A charming book, it transmits two radically different voices who tune to each other.
I have read about and around the Mitford sisters for a number of years, starting I think with The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness. Six beautiful girls, almost no education, strong personalities and points of view. Bags of self-confidence. Despite political differences, they remained very tied to each other and captivated by their own sense of specialness. Deborah, the youngest of the lot, married the Duke of Devonshire and became chatelaine of Chatsworth, the great English country house. Perhaps the most beautiful of the six, she lived the most traditional life, with balls, country fetes, livestock auctions on her annual agenda. In the 1970s, she started selling the farm produce from the Chatsworth estate, presaging the Slow Food movement. She also became a patron of rare breed societies (livestock and chickens, not people). She has written numerous books about the house and the estate — but she describes herself as a non-reader. Certainly her writing flows uncensored and unfiltered, like a spring bubbling forth.
Several years ago, my friend Timmy gave me two books by Patrick Leigh Fermor — A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Timmy is an excellent book selector — but sometimes her book selections can be a bit serious for this dilettante reader. So these two volumes sit in the travel writing section of a bookcase waiting for the impetus or inspiration to commit to them. The prose looks dense and the type is small — probably requiring me to wear reading glasses (which are not yet necessary for most books). Leigh Fermor was a hero in World War II in the Cretan resistance against the Germans who then became known as a great travel writer, chiefly through these two volumes which chronicle his youthful walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and back. He has lived most of his adult life in Greece.
Last summer, Patrick Leigh Fermor appeared in my reading in Trying to Please, John Julius Norwich’s memoir. The convergence of two worlds that I had been reading around with a form I find addictive made In Tearing Haste an irresistable purchase. Timmy’s recommendation of Leigh Fermor was spot on — he is a wonderful observer of nature and situations, is a generous spirit and writes with elegance. The letters were an excellent way to dip one’s toes in his writing. (I think I’ll try Words of Mercury next as it is a collection of his writings, and save the other two for a later time.)
The charm of the collection of letters, however, lies in the deep affection of the two correspondents for each other. Their shared humor and evident respect for each other’s worlds and capabilities paints a picture of a lively friendship. And one to be envied. They ask each other questions or favors — PLF asks DD for an illustration from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim from her library; she asks him how to pronounce “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen” or to suggest titles for a new false bookshelf — Consenting Adults by Abel N. Willing. They share news of mutual friends. They celebrate each other’s accomplishments. They mourn the loss of spouses and describe funerals. Together they gauge a response to a proposed biography of one of their circle. They do all of this via the post — and often the post between England and Greece!
Does anyone write letters anymore? Unlikely. Is the collected letters a form which is nearing extinction, only sustained by generations now approaching their final missives? Who is amassing a dialogue via email? Do we want to read the collected correspondence when it comes without handwriting and funny illustrations?
Perhaps the blog offers the 21st century equivalent of a letter. It allows one to express opinion, to have a voice and in some cases to engage in a conversation with followers (I don’t have any yet). A blog, however, takes place publically and the intended reader is an unspecified person, Everyman. Where does the written conversation between intimates, which nourishes and sustains a relationship exist now? On chat? On SMS?