In the wake of my niece by marriage, Charlotte Mosley, queen of editors, I have done a few book signings lately in aid of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. The reason for joining her is because I am a contributor to the book and am still alive, but alas my sisters are not. Charlotte is the only person who could have made this book. She has been part of the family since 1975, when she married Diana’s son Alexander, and has an enviable record as an editor with the best, shortest, sharpest, most accurate footnotes in the business. Who else would have waded through 12,000 letters to choose 600 covering 80 years? Who else could have been entrusted with intimate family relationships?
Publishers sometimes think it is a Good Idea for an author to do a book signing to give the book a shove. We were invited to bookshops where we found an apparently inexhaustible supply of the things piled in heaps round Exhibit A, us. The staff in the bookshops are kindness itself. They have put two chairs and a table in the cave of books. The signing has been advertised and it is a matter of pride to the staff and terror to the signatories to see if anyone turns up. When the appointed moment comes we settle in the chairs, armed with pens (and specs for me), and with luck some would-be customers shuffle into view. Even if they have come on purpose to buy the book, they look at several identical volumes as if there might be something different between one and another.
It is strange how few people seem to buy a book for themselves. He/she picks one up, looks doubtfully at it, turns it round and says, ‘It’s for my mother, actually.’ Younger customers say, ‘It’s for my grandmother, actually.’ ‘Oh, good,’ says Charlotte, ‘That is really nice of you. What shall I write in it?’ Long pause, while the buyer considers whether the recipient should be addressed by her Christian name, as the author can’t very well call someone else’s mother/grandmother ‘Mummy’ or ‘Granny’. So the Christian name is chosen. It has to be spelt out, especially if it happens to be Sheila, a trap with a good chance of ‘gh’ at the end. Luckily, the most usual name is Margaret and, as far as I know, there is no peculiar spelling there. But names get ever more unlikely and you have to listen carefully to the invented ones. The next customer tells her life story. That’s fine as long as there is no one behind her, but it can make the attention wander if you see one or two people who are obviously in a hurry and don’t want to hear of far-off school days, a shared Oxfordshire childhood, or some aspect of life in Paris (where Charlotte lives). Then comes a man, rolled umbrella if in Piccadilly, tweed coat and pale trousers if in Burford. ‘Three copies? Oh thank you. What shall I put?’ ‘Just your signatures, please.’ Quickly done and off he goes. Obviously an excellent fellow, the sort the wireless calls a decision-maker.
Bookshop regulars spot the chairs and the pile of identical books and dart in the opposite direction to avoid having to buy out of pity something they don’t want. They ask, ‘Where are the maps?’ or ‘Are there any books on beavers?’ and make off like lightning. With luck, the pile has diminished in the hour which has passed. So have the customers. Now we can have a good talk to the shop staff, and find out what is really selling, while we sign a few copies for stock. The devotion to books of staff or owner of the shop, as the case may be, shines out and we come away wondering about the charm of the written word.
A cheerful occasion was the lunch given by the publisher Fourth Estate at the Swan Inn, Swinbrook. The pub, decorated with family photographs, was reborn last November when Archie Orr-Ewing became landlord and its reputation has blossomed ever since. Eighteen important people in the book and magazine world came and I felt very proud of the Swan, its staff and Swinbrook itself. After 71 years it is still home to me; the same apple tree stands outside my old bedroom window in the Mill Cottage, which adjoins the Swan, and from where I was married in 1941. The dear old Windrush got overexcited in July and poured through the pub leaving a tidemark to say that it is called the Swan with reason.
The tallest box tree I know is by the entrance to the pub. Up the road is the hauntingly beautiful St Mary’s church. Go and see the Fettiplace monuments — 16th- and 17th-century stone men of a family long died out, lying on their sides propped up on their stone elbows. They are of extraordinary quality. The flagged floor and the pews were given by my father after a 500-1 win on the Grand National. He wanted to put up a plaque to say so but the Bishop wouldn’t allow it.
As children we licked the pews during the long hour of matins and they taste the same today. There is a memorial to my only brother Tom, who died of wounds in Burma in 1945. My parents and my sisters Nancy, Pam, Diana and Unity are buried there among the wool merchants’ tombs of long ago, some topped by rolled-up fleeces carved in stone.
Back to London and another book signing. So far the messages to be written have been pretty ordinary. As yet, we have not had the one a famous author of my acquaintance told me about. A man formed up and asked nervously, ‘Could you put “For Marlene — sorry about last night”?’
Philip Hensher reviews The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters on page 56.
© Dowager Duchess of Devonshire 2007