Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review - Deborah Mitford's Home to Roost

Home to Roost and Other Peckings by Deborah Devonshire
Published by: John Murray
Publication Date: 2009
Format: Hardcover, 168 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

While Deborah has always been considered the horse and hounds sister of the Mitfords, but involving chickens, I think that she has a secret... that despite her protestations ("[m]y father would not have wasted time reading - a trait I have inherited from him") that she is actually quite well read and loves to write. Despite Home to Roost being a very slim volume, it clearly shows that the writer is well educated, a fact we know is not due to her upbringing, and adept at pulling out the right literary quote at the right time, traits that I wouldn't lay at people who aren't readers. The little essays in this beautiful book (there are adorable illustrations) run the gamut from book reviews (see she does admit to read a little!) and her awkward book signings to family history and how one looks in a tiara. So there is a little something for everyone you might say.

Yet, like her most literary of sisters, Nancy and Jessica, it's not the slightly turgid and formulaic book reviews or weird ramblings about motorways that capture your interest, it's her own experiences and the history of her husband's family that not only sparkle with wit and insight but draw you completely into her world. I think it's because this is what she loves to write, plain and simple. Sure, she'll write the other stuff if asked or if the mood suits her, but really she'd rather tell you about a party at Chatsworth House during the height of Queen Victoria's reign. In fact, this family history I think is what lured her into being a writer, especially if you take note that her earliest writings where all on Chatsworth. It's her love of Chatsworth and it's history that make a simple story about a post office closing something more. A post office isn't a post office, it's the beating heart of a community, which anyone who is a fan of Lark Rise to Candleford will agree. Therefore the closing of the Edensor post office was a poignant story.

Because of this diverse range of topics, Home to Roost has a very uneven feel until about half way through the book. What happens half way is that Deborah shifts the book right into that which she writes best, her own life. It becomes a diary, and oh what a diary. The three pieces on the Kennedys is amazing. While the Mitfords where kind of the lay royalty of England, the Kennedys where the same for America. To find out that not only that they had this connection, but that the families where joined by Kit Kennedy's marriage to Debo's brother-in-law was fascinating. Too bad that ended in the tragedy which made Deborah the Duchess of Devonshire... yet that this intimacy between the families continued long after the tragedy is what drives these little vignettes. That Deborah was there for not only the inauguration but then the funeral, brought a sad reality to it. For me, JFK was always someone of the past and a part of history, but Deborah made him more real, more human. Also, it didn't hurt that she thought he was an all round swell guy.

Though hands down there was one article, for sheer humor, that made the book for me. Being raised in the art world and then being an artist myself, who at one point was considering going to get a Masters Degree at Christie's Auction House, I know the vagaries of naming art work and the inherent humor. Debo herself mercilessly skewered and made fun of these naming conventions in the short piece "Auction Catalogues." I was howling with laughter and her thinking of how the names where created by the compiler of the catalog. "The figures in rural scenes are always Peasants or Cottagers. If the female peasants have got pots on their heads they will be In an Italianate Landscape. Any water in the way puts them into A River Landscape. If you can see for miles, start with An Extensive Landscape." Deborah views the modern "untitled" art as a wise move, to avoid these lenghty and downright odd conventions. Go Debo! I am heartily glad that there is still one Mitford out there we can count on for some barbing! Where would we be without a Mitford?


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