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Behind the wit

Home to Roost and Other Peckings by Deborah Devonshire, edited by Charlotte Mosley

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

Home to Roost and Other Peckings Deborah Devonshire

John Murray, pp.168, 10

Home to Roost and Other Peckings by Deborah Devonshire, edited by Charlotte Mosley


As Alan Bennett says in his introduction, ‘Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say “Joking apart . . .” Jok- ing never is apart: with her it’s of the essence, even at the most serious and indeed saddest moments.’ And so, of course, this book is full of jokes: the Chatsworth gamekeeper who used to refer to the Duke of Portland as ‘His Other Grace’; the agent at Bolton Abbey who every year used to put a final item on their bill for the unconscionably expensive August grouse shooting: ‘Mousetraps — 9d’; the ladies gathered at pre-war balls: ‘Some of the young women were fairylike in their beauty. The old and fat were not.’

But for all that, behind the wit and quips, there is something else stronger and more rigorous. She goes to the ballet at Covent Garden with the Queen Mother and notices that throughout the entire performance, the Queen Mother’s back ‘never once touched the chair’. That is how the Duchess is too — never a slouch, never a saggy moment, even in grief alert, attentive, observant. The back is the principal bone of the body but it never stiffens into rigidity or pomposity or jokelessness. At the heart of the book are three pieces about the Kennedys, their glamorous arrival in London in 1938, JFK’s chaotic, stirring, snow-clogged inauguration to which the Devonshires were invited, and his funeral, in which the whole of Washington and all the beautiful optimistic inhabitants of Camelot appear crushed and debilitated. Even here, though, the funniness never quite goes. The plane bringing back the prime ministerial party is diverted by fog to Manchester and Debo arranges for them all to stay the night at Chatsworth. Alec Douglas-Home wonders, before he goes to bed, whether if he lies very still the same sheets could be used for Princess Margaret, who is due to come the next day.

The whole book is a small, cumulative but revealing self-portrait. She is always sceptical but never rude, she understands the ridiculousness of the powerful and the pretentious and has that mysterious gift of appearing to be indiscreet when in fact she isn’t. She does what she does seriously — agriculture, horticulture, commerce — but that doesn’t stop her having portraits of pigs in the bathroom or being in love with Elvis. She is a calmly grown-up person, who cries and laughs and fulminates when things are done wrong — the destruction of her local post office at Edensor summons undiluted rage — and she believes in the importance of style, a sense of beauty and grace.

She is a conservative and doesn’t question the social hierarchy into which she was born and married, but that acceptance is allied to the knowledge that the hierarchy has a duty to behave well and be generous. Propriety is important, but a central part of this kind of propriety is laughter, at oneself, at others and fate because laughter, in an odd way, seems to understand more than solemnity. Perhaps in the end this is a book about manners, how to behave, and being funny as a form of civilisation.


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