Last week while we were enjoying ourselves discovering The Hague, I stumbled across an English language bookshop. But it wasn’t merely an English language bookshop, it was really an English bookshop full stop. I didn’t see any American editions of anything. Everywhere I turned there were editions of books I have only seen on British based book blogs--books that are for the most part unavailable in the United States. When I saw the bright blue Bloomsbury Group edition of Miss Hargreaves I couldn’t say no. The same was true for the lavender Bloomsbury Group edition of The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Although I have heard much about both of these books on various blogs, perhaps most notably on Stuck in a Book, I had made no attempt to order either of them. But seeing them sitting on a table right in front of me I couldn’t resist. And right next to these two little beauties was Deborah Devonshire’s Home to Roost. And it turned out to be perfect reading for the plane ride back to DC. I read it cover to cover somewhere over the Atlantic.
Deborah Devonshire, born one of the six (in)famous Mitford sisters, otherwise known as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has intrigued me since the earliest days of my Anglophilia. I remember reading years ago the story of how she and her husband, the 11th Duke, had to get really smart and creative to save their magnificent house Chatsworth from ending up on the auction block to pay off huge death duties. Most things that I have read about her over the years had kind of a behind the scenes quality that I love. When I visit a stately house like Chatsworth I am less interested in the grand history, art, and decoration than I am in the behind the scenes workings of such a large estate. Call it the Upstairs, Downstairs Syndrome. So it was with that in mind that I picked up Home to Roost. I wasn’t expecting gossip mind you, but a peek behind the official curtain was what I hoped for. There was a bit of that but surprisingly the parts of the book that I found most interesting weren’t about the house at all. They were the chapters about Devonshire’s relationship with the Kennedys and her eye witness account of the inauguration of President Kennedy as well as his funeral two years later. I suppose it was behind the scenes after all, but more about where I live (Washington, DC) than about Chatsworth. Similarly her memories of the “Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibition at the National Gallery here in Washington was pretty interesting. I have a vague recollection of this exhibit despite the fact that I was in high school in Minnesota at the time. Reading Devonshire’s account of it I am really disappointed I didn’t get to see it.
Overall I enjoyed reading the book but I found parts of it slightly annoying as well. Some of the chapters seem to be nothing but a list of words that once upon a time meant one thing and now mean something else. There is nothing interesting, enlightening, or even new about this kind of comparison. If I had remembered Simon’s review at Stuck in a Book, I would have known that he had similar feelings. In fact, he does such a good job identifying what doesn’t work about the book that I am going to let him have the final words:
Too often the articles are simply catalogues of complaints, snarking at anti-hunting people, townfolk, American vocabulary, the government - anything any grumpy old lady might moan about. I'm sorry to sound a bit cruel, but there is no fury like a booklover scorned. Some of the essays had the sparks of humour I'd hoped for - when she is writing about tiaras, for example, and book signing. And none of the collection is unreadable - it's just the tone is consistently grumpy and demonstrating an inability to see the world from anyone else's perspective.