I thought as I am in the delightful Derbyshire for a long weekend and having Chatsworth House just down the road ‘Counting My Chickens’ by Deborah Devonshire would be the perfect post to have up on the blog and be a delightful read in the lead up to going and get me in the mood to be back in my homeland. Not that Chatsworth is my home, I wish, but the area surrounding it was a huge part of my childhood. Throw in the fact that Deborah Devonshire is one of the Mitford sisters, who I adore reading and reading about, what could make a more perfect Sunday recommendation?
I knew nothing of the Mitford sisters, especially not that one lived so nearby my family home, until I read ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ a few years ago which swiftly became one of my all time favourite reads. Deborah Devonshire, or ‘Debo’, is the youngest and last surviving of the Mitford sisters and was also one of the people responsible for turning Chatsworth into the stately success that it has become. In an assorted collection of articles, diaries and reviews we gain a greater in sight into her life. From here childhood with her siblings, to taking on Chatsworth and all it entails and to how live has changed for her over the years (I wanted to say as she aged but I fear it would be improper with a Mitford sister and rather impolite).
“I have reached the stage in life when I wake up earlier and earlier in the mornings. The wait till breakfast time has forced me to put a kettle and a toaster in my room, so I can help myself to their merciful productions whenever I like. I advise all early wakers who have fallen for this plan to buy a clock with a minute and second hand of immediately recognisable lengths, or you may have my disappointing experience of last week. Waking at 6 a.m., I made and ate my breakfast, only to discover that the clocks similar looking hands had played a trick on me, and it was in fact only 12.30 a.m. Too early even for me, but too late to pretend I hadn’t had breakfast.”
There are three sections to the collection; ‘Diaries’ looks at her life over several years and has titbits on her sisters and other famous relatives, her thoughts on the TV version of ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ are interesting and thought provoking. ‘Chatsworth’ looks at how the estate has changed over the years, the responsibilities of it and how much she adores the place and the staff it has housed who have become friends. ‘Books and Company’ is a selection of reviews of books by those she knows or those in the ‘stately home’ genre plus more of a look back on her childhood.
I loved all the sections but it was ‘Chatsworth’ that sang out to me, probably because I was one of the youngsters that used to play in the parkland way back when. It really evokes the atmosphere and scenery of that beautiful part of the English countryside. In fact if you love books that are quintessentially English you need go no further than this or indeed any other Mitford memoir. Like her sister Nancy (I have yet to read anything by Jessica) Deborah Devonshire has a way of phrasing things which is sardonic and wry yet delightful and warming. I wonder if it was in their gene pool.
“Thousands of people come to walk in the park at Chatsworth all year round. There is no way of telling how many, because it is free. Most people enjoy it, or presumably they wouldn’t come, but every now and again a letter of criticism arrives.
Last week a woman wrote to say she was ‘disgusted by the animal faeces on the grass, every few feet’ and that she and her grandchildren couldn’t play ball games in case of stepping on them. Oh dear. I suppose she wants us to buy a giant Hoover to attach to the JCB and sweep 1,000 acres of well-stocked ground before breakfast in case she gets her new shoes dirty. Sorry, Madam, but you had better go and find some municipally mown grass where your unhappy grandchildren can play their clinically clean games without the fear of stepping on the unspeakable. What a frightful grandmother you must be.”
I really loved this book, I will admit the bits on gardening passed me by a little, and the rest was just a pure pleasure from start to finish. It simply makes me think I must read more Mitford both fiction and non because time spent reading them is ‘wondair, do admit’!
A book that will: be a must read for Mitford lovers old and new, anyone who loves things that are typically British and who likes narration that’s wry and has an occasional raised eyebrow. 9/10
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;
The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley – I think it could be the best collection of letters ever. Told over a huge expanse of British history you are given an insight quite unlike any other, you’ll be hard pressed to put it down.
In The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – which had me laughing out loud in bed one evening to the point that I was in tears.
Which other Mitford books can you recommend? Have you yet to try one? Have you been to Chatsworth? What other quintessentially English books can you think of?