In the spring of 1956, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, invited the writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor to visit Lismore Castle, the Devonshires’ house in Ireland. The halcyon visit sparked a deep friendship and a lifelong exchange of highly entertaining correspondence.
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About the Author
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014) was the youngest and last surviving of the six noted Mitford sisters. She became chatelaine and housekeeper of one of England’s greatest and best-loved houses, and following her husband Andrew’s death in 2004, she moved to a village on the Chatsworth Estate.
Charlotte Mosley lives in Paris and has worked as a publisher and journalist. She is the editor of Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford, The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters.
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In Tearing HasteLetters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
By Charlotte Mosley
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Charlotte Mosley
All right reserved.
21 March 1954 Fitzroy House Fitzroy Square London W1
Dear Paddy Leigh Fermor,
I'm beginning like that chiefly because Nancy says one mustn't, but as she says I'm mental age of 9 it doesn't signify how one begins. I'm ever so excited about you coming to Ireland. Do really come & don't just say you are.
Daph & Xan are coming to stay at Chesterfield St on Monday, v exciting.
Best love Debo
26 April 1955 c/o Niko Ghika Kamini, Hydra Greece
I've just heard from Daphne on the point of departure to stay with you. Why does everyone go to that castle except me?
My plan is this: there is a brilliant young witch on this island (aged sixteen and very pretty), sovereign at thwarting the evil eye, casting out devils and foiling spells by incantation. It shouldn't be beyond her powers to turn me into a fish for a month and slip me into the harbour. 1 reckon I could get through the Mediterranean, across the Bay of Biscay, round Land's End and over the Irish Sea in about 28 days (if the weather holds) and on into the Blackwater. I'm told there's a stream that flows under your window, up which I propose to swim and, with a final effort, clear the sill and land on the carpet, where I insist on being treated like the frog prince for a couple of days of rest and recovery. (You could have a tank brought up – or lend me your bath if this is not inconvenient – till I'm ready to come downstairs. Also some flannel trousers, sensible walking shoes and a Donegal tweed Norfolk jacket with a belt across the small of the back and leather buttons.) But please be there. Otherwise there is all the risk of filleting, meunière etc, and, worst of all, au bleu ...
Please give my love to Daphne if she's with you. You can let her in on this plan, if you think it is suitable, but nobody else for the time being. These things always leak out.
P.S. Please write & say if this arrangement fits in with your plans.
30 April 1955 Lismore Castle Co. Waterford Eire
Dear Paddy L F,
I was v v excited to get your letter with the swimming plan in it. It is a frightfully good plan, but the pestilential thing is that you would find, not me, but Fred Astaire installed in this pleasant residence. However if you could swim a bit further to the right and land in England and then be like an eel & get a bit across the land you can have the freedom of my bath in Derbyshire & I will have the sensible shoes etc ready.
I would like it like anything, so have a try and I will instruct any salmon around your rotate to see that you aren't filleted or meuniered or bleued.
I heard they set on you at a ball and broke you up, oh it was a shame.
Is it jolly in Greece? I bet it is.
Love from Debo
2 March  Gadencourt Pacy-sur-Eure Eure
Thank you very much for your letter in January, also for asking me to stay in Ireland in April. It's frightfully rude not having answered earlier, and I can't quite think how it's happened. Anyway, if it is still open, I would simply love to – if I could come towards the end of this month, as Daph and Xan are coming here on their way back to the Kasbah.
The cold here has been worse than Baffin Land. It got so bad about three weeks ago that I baled out and went to Paris. I had a delicious luncheon with your sister Mrs Basil Seal with lots of vodka beforehand – O for a beaker full of the cold north! – and then lots of a wine called Château Chasse-Spleen. This was very nice; then I took sanctuary at Chantilly, and had a paralysing, but most luxurious attack of lumbago. Don't be spellbound by the beauty of the name – it's as though a mastiff had mistaken your spine for an ordinary bone, and given it the usual treatment. This was dispelled by heavenly drugs, thrust in like bayonet practice by a jovial nun resembling a Merry Wife of Windsor.
Annie Fleming, Judy Montagu, Ld Gage & Peter Quennell came to stay, and we had lovely protracted meals by candlelight, discussing poetry, sex, heresy and kindred themes. The big castle looked like some tremendous Russian Winter Palace in a park peopled by statues posturing under loads of snow. All the lakes were frozen and covered with ducks and swans mooching about rather awkwardly, wondering what on earth had gone wrong. There were also a number of displaced herons.
I had a rather dispiriting return to Normandy. The Normans are an awful lot really. My heart bleeds at the thought of the nice easy-going Saxons suddenly, in 1066, having to put up with an influx of these bossy and humourless louts. What was rather curious was the discovery, in the house, of two tortoiseshell butterflies walking about the place with wings ajar. They were tottering in a most inexpert way as though they'd had a few. I can't think where they have been all through the winter or what living on; furtively grazing in their stunned way, I suppose, on dark pastures of Harris Tweed and Lovat mixture ...
Do, please, let me know about Ireland. It really would be lovely.
Best love from Paddy
6 March  Edensor House Edensor, Bakewell Derbyshire
I am so pleased you will come to Lismore, any time would be terribly nice.
It is unfair you having Daph & Xan, they won't come to us. I'm booking for the Kasbah though, I can see one has to book a long way ahead or some horrid counter-hon would get there first.
Sorry about it being so cold, anyway there are crocuses now.
Don't forget to come to Lismore. Explain to the Fieldings how one worships them, as a matter of fact I suppose they know.
Saturday [May 1956] Gadencourt Pacy-sur-Eure
I'm not going to attempt to say thank you in this letter for that lovely Paradise stay in Lismore – only that I still exist in a glorious afterglow of it, and find myself smiling with the inane felicity of a turnip lantern whenever I think of it, which is almost the whole time: it must astonish passers-by ...
Millions of hugs & love to Ran and Daph. I'm writing to them this afternoon.
And Glorious love & devotion to you, from Paddy
Saturday [May 1956] Gadencourt Pacy-sur-Eure
Darling Daphne & Xan,
Lismore was beyond all expectations, absolute bliss throughout. Thank heavens no one else there most of the time except Debo, Emma & Stoker, Andrew & Eliz half the time, then Ran, Debo's Wife for a night, and three heavenly days with nobody but Debo and those sweet & comic children, for whom I fell like anything, also for Andrew, but most of all, as you might guess, for your best friend, Debo, who is funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving, an exquisite and strange deviation. With all this, there was another quality that I like more than anything, a wonderful and disarming unguardedness in conversation, and an intuitive knack – which you'd both mentioned – for people's moods and feelings. Well, as you see, it's as I feared! These graces and charms must really be enormous, because they even compensate for an engagingly unashamed Philistinism.
Anyway, all that flair and instinct, coupled with so many pretty ways, nearly makes up for the gaps left by Shakespeare etc. As you can imagine, we talked lots about you both, an orgy of body-worship all round. I long to hear how it all went, the descent on Tangiers. I thought for one wild moment of inflicting myself on you – or the neighbourhood – but had, ruefully, to come back here.
There was hardly a drop of rain all the time and the whole castle and the primeval forest round it were spellbound in a late spring or early summer trance; heavy rhododendron blossom everywhere and, under the Rapunzel tower I inhabited, a still leafless magnolia tree shedding petals like giant snowflakes over the parallel stripes of an embattled new-mown lawn: silver fish flickered in the river, wood pigeons cooed and herons slowly wheeled through trees so overgrown with lichen they looked like green coral, drooping with ferns and lianas, almost like an equatorial jungle. One would hardly have been surprised to see a pterodactyl or an archaeopteryx sail through the twilight, or the neck of a dinosaur craning through the ferns and lapping up a few bushels out of the Blackwater, which curls away like the Limpopo, all set about with fever-trees ... Anyway, you know it all so well, and Debo must have told you all our adventures and peregrinations: lovely gorse burning; visits to cows, drinking Guinness as one went; watching salmon hauled in below Dromana, finding bones in a graveyard overgrown with giant broccoli, while ravens croaked in a ruined tower; two swans nesting on the mudflats in front of Ballinatray, the falling house where the housemaid is a keen huntswoman; the little Gaelic-speaking lobster harbour of Helvik – a Norse name – then my search for a shrimp tea (what was shrimp in Irish we wondered? – sráoimph? At last we found an old boy in Ardmore, who scratched his head and said, as if he was imparting a treasonable secret: 'Birawny is what they call ut'). Then, on the last day, a wonderful picnic three miles from Bridget's house, outside a witch's hut in a magical wood containing a fairy tree, and a queen's tree, so the witch said. She had a small boy there, a grandchild: 'my dartur doid in the bearin of him, and left us in poor circumstances ...' Then Aer Lingus, London, and the 400 in the space of 3 or 4 hours.
Darling Daph & Xan, must stop now. Do sit down (unlike me!) and write at once with lots of details and news. I'm feeling un poco adagio & lonely as you might say at the moment. Thank heavens Joan gets back in a few days.
Fondest love Paddy
[Postmarked May 1956] Tangiers [Postcard]
I am having a jolly time, no one goes on at me about learning to read but there is ever such a lot to hear. V. pleased with your telegram in Frogland. We are going on a Mystery Trip into the hinterland and to a grand dinner party, Daphne has made a wonderful holiday. Xan is being a terrific Hon, very gullible.
Come back to Lismore. Much love Debo
* * *
(DD) Daphne Weymouth – as she was when I first knew her – was synonymous with enjoyment, laughter, fun and high jinks. She was one who lifted the spirits with her energy and overflowing good nature. She went in for almost childlike excesses of all kinds which, with her beauty, courage and imagination, made her an irresistible companion.
Sturford Meade, Henry and Daphne's house near Longleat, was a refuge of luxury and pre-war gaiety made more immediate by the friends ordered abroad, often never to return. For Andrew and me it was a second home while he was stationed at nearby Warminster in 1942–3.
Many marriages failed to survive wartime separation and when Henry came back after five years in the Middle East both had changed and theirs sadly stuttered to an end.
Daphne alone and in the prime of her life meant lovers; one or two serious, some here today and gone tomorrow. Her admirers were legion. She remained a great friend of us both, as did her second husband, Xan. She was married for twenty-five years to both her husbands. Two silver weddings must be unusual.
Wherever Daphne and Xan settled – like migrating birds they were often on the move – they made you feel happy and at home. Their company, the chat and the fun overcame any physical discomfort or rough edges which might be found in a hired house.
Tangiers was one of their stops and I stayed with them there. Their little, damp and badly lit house was squashed in a busy street so narrow that the continuous noise never got out, roamed by packs of dishevelled children with runny noses, and no Europeans nearby.
We went into the hinterland in the hopes of seeing the Blue Men of the desert, crossed mountains and drank too much coffee. With Xan one always felt safe, however hazardous the road.
We had lunch with the best-known ex-pat, David Herbert, a lifter of mood, so quick and funny. I felt he must have been very homesick. One side of his life could flourish unchecked, but there were few kindred spirits to entertain his whizzing social side, which was such a feature of life at Wilton and its neighbourhood. I loved hint until Iris disloyalty and cattiness about my sister Diana ended our friendship.
Sunday  Gadencourt Pacy-sur-Eure
I really must try and get hold of a travelling brain-sharpener (the size of one of those old bucket-shaped helmet-cases of japanned leather or tin, usually found in attics), because I was convinced you were leaving London a day later than you did. So you must picture my sorrow and dismay at the end of the telephone when I discovered that I was wrong, and that you had left an hour and a half before. It was little comfort to think that you were staying at the Continental. I hope you got a telegram from me there – also another and a stop-gap letter to Tangiers begging you to stop in Paris on the way back in order that we might spend a lovely evening guzzling and then dancing till cockcrow and finally eating onion-soup in the Halles as dawn broke.
The truth is I simply long for you, and hate the idea of changing jokes etc. You know, the sort of mood when nobody else will quite do. I'm still basking in a felicitous hangover of Ireland, and constantly discover vast smiles bisecting my rough-hewn features at the thought of all the fun and enchantment there. You, Andrew, Emma & Stoker seem saints and angels in human form. It's a miracle you're allowed to live, so do beware of traffic, falling flagpoles, mushrooms, lighting rockets and undercurrents when bathing; and a billion thanks for letting me come & stay.
I've just written a long letter to Xan and Daph about all this and about you, and piled it on pretty thick – but no thicker, I hasten to say, than the truth, which is glorious. I long to hear from you and from them about Tangiers, so please don't be sparing, and write almost at once and let it rip. I wish you could fly to Paris just for fun so that my splendid scheme can come into operation. Otherwise, I doubt if I shall survive, and that would never do. I'm down with Blackwater fever as it is, and the doctors are pulling long faces.
I say, wasn't it marvellous discovering that wobbly echo – Fermor's echo – under the bridge? I wish I really had written down all I wanted to remember, instead of only a few, but I'll get them all straight in time. At the moment they are all dotted about my brain like bits of Meccano to be assembled some time ...
I spent the weekend at Ad. Lubbock's, then dined with Judy Montagu, Peter Quennell and the girl, called Spider Monkey, who he is about to marry. She's very beautiful but etiolated and looks like Mice after finishing the bottle labelled DRINK ME. Then I came to Paris, and spent the evening, till 3 a.m., talking to Diana Coopers in a café, only to discover as we left that the key of her car had been pinched ... Luncheon with Nancy next day, when, by request and accompanied by her silver peal of laughter, she sang me 'the bubbling of the glands'; a sound for sore ears. Then I came out here, where my darling Joan arrives on Teusday.
Excerpted from In Tearing Haste by Charlotte Mosley Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Mosley . Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR by Deborah Devonshire....................xv
DEBORAH DEVONSHIRE by Patrick Leigh Fermor....................xix
Index of Names and Nicknames....................xxv