Book Review: Home to Roost at 37,000 Feet

Home to Roost
Deborah Devonshire

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.

More travel pictures soon. How about another stack of books…

You may recall, before we took off out of town I went book browsing/shopping with my friend Benjy who was visiting from Atlanta. I got quite a cheap haul of books from Books for America, a charity shop here in DC before lunch that day.  After lunch we went out to deepest suburban Maryland to the Daedalus Warehouse Store. I have blogged about Daedalus before. They are probably the biggest wholesaler and online retailer of remainder books in the English speaking world. If you have ever shopped a bargain table at a bookstore, you have probably touched a book that has been distributed by Daedalus.

So this is the haul I made that afternoon. You can see there are lots of great things here. There is a book buying moratorium coming up, but not yet…

Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope
I love Anthony Trollope. We will see what I think of his dear old mother Frances.

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox
I was lying if I didn’t admit that I was drawn to this by its fabulous Penguin cover. But I also bought it because my knowledge of the Classical world is woefully inadequate despite my undergraduate degree in history.

My Own Cape Cod by Gladys Taber
I had never heard of Gladys Taber until I came across her name on Nan’s fabulous blog, Letters from a Hill Farm. And since I yearn to move north and love the northeast, this book of Taber’s reflections of the Cape seems right up my alley.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes great, easy-to-read novels that border on chick-lit, but smart chick-lit. I have also read The Inn on Lake Devine and Ladies Man.

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
I read a lot of Hesse in high school, Narcissus and Goldmund was a particular favorite, but I am not sure if I ever read this title.

Letters from London by Julian Barnes
Even before I read (and liked) Arthur and George by Barnes I thought his essays on London seemed like something that would appeal to me.

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Bennett has written many things that I love, including one of my favorite books of all time The Uncommon Reader. Bennett has a way of making everything sound interesting to me. So this memoir with diary excerpts and essays should be quite enjoyable.

Turn Magic Wheel
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
Don’t know anything about Powell so these two were a roll of the dice.

The Little Girls
Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
I have really liked other books by Bowen.

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad by Rostenberg and Stern
This one speaks for itself.

Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
I love Walt Whitman’s work, my paperback of Leaves of Grass is quite tattered from use, but I don’t really know much about his life.

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson
I have an academic bio of Murdoch that I haven’t really been able to get through. It is a little dry. I was thinking this might be a more interesting read about one of my favorite authors.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
This one kind of speaks for itself as well.

Have you read any of these, or do you have them in your TBR pile?

A note on book (over)buying.
I have really been pigging out lately when it comes to books. In addition to this haul and the one from Books for America, I found an English bookshop in The Hague where I picked up a few titles which I will blog about soon. I went to the Book Depository website and ordered a bunch of books that I have been coveting for some time now. And finally, I placed an order with Persephone Books which I really can’t wait to get.  After all of that and my already huge TBR pile, I will not be buying books for some time now. I want to say I am on a book buying moratorium for the next year, but that might be setting myself up for failure. But I do need to stop for a while. I will keep you posted.

Of Road Trips and May Sarton

In the summer of 2008 my husband and I took a wonderful road trip up through the Northeast. Normally our travels mean we get on a plane and go explore some other part of the US or the world. And while the Northeast feels decidedly different than DC and the mid-Atlantic region, it is close enough that we were able to skip the flight and car rental formula in favor of packing up our car and hitting the open road. Having our own vehicle and not being beholden to any schedule or airline luggage restrictions meant we really did have the freedom to do what we pleased. For me this meant stopping in every secondhand bookstore we came across. After two weeks traveling through the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks, and Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts, rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, and a final stop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania we arrived back in DC with about 75 more books than when we left.

During our overnight stay in Woodstock, Vermont we came across one of the nicest little bookshops on the whole trip. Pleasant Street Books is in a converted barn behind one of the houses that line the main street through town. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon. It had a really nice balance between antiquarian books and good secondhand reading copies and had a friendly, helpful proprietor behind the desk. While we were there I came across a stack of books by May Sarton. I knew the name, and had a vague notion that she was someone I should read, but I didn’t know anything about her. I am not sure why I was initially drawn to these old Norton paperbacks stacked on the floor in front of the shelves. When I started to look through them I noticed they had all been owned by the same person and was intrigued by the notion that whoever Susie was, she liked Sarton well enough to own eight of her books. The descriptions on the back of the books indicated that Sarton had been a bit of a local, having lived for many years in neighboring New Hampshire. It seemed fitting that our Northeast road trip should be commemorated with the purchase of some native literature.

Back in June, Art Durkee over at Dragoncave posted a lovely entry about his pilgrimage to Nelson, New Hampshire to see Sarton’s grave. He has some very striking pictures of Sarton’s milieu that so nourished her over the years.

Among the pile of Sarton were some of her novels and a few of her published journals. I started off by reading The Small Room a novel from 1961 about an academic and administrative crisis at a New England girls college. The second one I read was Kinds of Love, a novel about a long married couple, their friends and family and their relationships in a small New England town. I liked both books quite a bit, although I think The Small Room appealed to me more. It has been about a year since I read them, but I remember them having a kind of cozy but somewhat austere New England setting where nature and the seasons, and small town life are as important as any of characters in defining the books. Later I moved on to a few of her journals beginning with Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea. I liked those two immensely but will talk about them in context of my most recent Sarton read.

May Sarton was born in 1912 in Belgium but was raised in the United States where she died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 83. Based on her tombstone, Sarton considered herself, above all, a poet. Indeed she published sixteen volumes of poetry but she also published eleven works of autobiographical non-fiction and journals, nineteen novels, and two children’s books.

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton
It is unlike me to read things out of order, but so far I have been skipping around a bit among her autobiographical non-fiction. At first I could put it down to not owning all the necessary volumes to read them in order, but that doesn’t explain why I picked up Plant Dreaming Deep last week, instead of her first autobiographical volume. I can blame that on Wilkie Collins. After reading his fantastic novel The Woman in White, I needed something that was the exact opposite in style and content. Something based more firmly in real life. I needed to sweep up and clear away all of the Victorian drama and intrigue that was littering my psyche. I immediately thought of Sarton as the right tool for the job, and I skipped over her first volume of memoir because its detail was too much about dates and places and events. After so much plot, I wanted something that was pure description.

Plant Dreaming Deep was the perfect solution. It describes Sarton’s first home purchase in 1958 at the age of 46, her process of turning the house and 36 acres into her sanctuary, and her daily life and the people who became her neighbors and friends. This is the volume that begins to tell the tale of Sarton’s life in Nelson, New Hampsire and it was wonderful. This is essentially a poet writing about domestic chores and the joy and pain involved in her daily life. Like two other of her journals that I have read, Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea, Plant Dreaming Deep is a throwback to a time when the hum of an electric typewriter was considered noisy. She had books, and wood fires, and her garden, and a mailbox full of letters and cards, and friends who came to visit her, and all kinds of other things that makes me want to live in the past. But she also had to deal with drought, black flies, and woodchucks. And among the peace and quiet, as we learn in later journal volumes, she also suffered from debilitating bouts of depression.

With black and white photos sprinkled here and there, Sarton’s journals are perfect for people who love writing, reading, and gardening, or anyone who fantasizes about living a quiet life in a beautiful setting.

Where would you like to transplant yourself, and what do you want to do when you get there?