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.

Book Reviews: Stiff Upper Lip and All That

Henrietta’s War
Joyce Dennis

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I didn’t consciously plan to read these two books in quick succession, yet both of them are epistolary novels about coping with the trials and tribulations of World War II in the United Kingdom. In Henrietta’s War, the action takes place in 1941 in a small Devonshire village and is told through a series of letters from Henrietta to her childhood friend Robert who is serving in the British army. In the case of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the action takes place in 1946 and is described in a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, a journalist living in London, her friends and colleagues, and a group of folks who lived through the Nazi-occupation of Guernsey, a British territory in the Channel Islands just off the coast of France.

Henrietta’s War has been much reviewed in the blogosphere by a generally adoring fan base. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t necessarily sweep me off my feet. Perhaps I had read too much hype before I finally got to read it. In any case I won’t spend much time talking about it so you might want to check out reviews by Stuck-in-a-Book, Cornflower, Paperback Reader, Read Warbler, and Frisbee, to name just a few of the great reviews of the book.

TGLPPS has also been reviewed by a great number of folks like Savidge Reads, Letters from a Hill Farm, and Bibliophile by the Sea. But I found this book so delightful that I feel the need to wax rhapsodic about it. I love the book for several reasons. First, the characters come together over their love of literature and they “meet” through their letters. Shaffer and Barrows essentially create a scenario that is not unlike the communities of folks who blog about books and get to know each other by trading literary likes and dislikes on the Internet. The only real difference is that in 1946 the medium was ink, paper, stamps, and the Royal Mail. Which, frankly is another reason I love this book so much, I absolutely love letters. Back in high school I had about 30 pen-pals and I miss the day when people would put pen (or even typewriter) to paper.

The subject matter is also fascinating. I have an undergraduate degree in history, but I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I am not sure if TGLPPPS would fall into the category of historical fiction, probably not, but it does a great job of describing what life was like in Nazi-occupied Guernsey. In 2005 Masterpiece Theater showed a fantastic British drama called Island at War, a fictional account of life in the occupied Channel Islands. The storylines are completely different, but the historical detail in Island at War and TGLPPPS complement each other rather well. And both of them make me want to visit the Channel Islands.

Another reason to love TGLPPPS is that it is a joy to read. I loved the characters, I loved the plot lines, and I loved the humor. And Shaffer and Barrows are quite deft at weaving the reality of Nazi atrocities into the story without minimizing them or being pedantic.

Occasionally, but not often, the language seems a tad too modern for the 1946 correspondence. But it is just a little whiff here and there, overall it seems very appropriate to the era. I was, however, quite disappointed with the introduction of what I think is a rather pointless reference to one of the character’s homosexuality. The information doesn’t really add anything to the story, unless the authors were just trying to prove that homosexuals existed during World War II. But what was truly jarring to me was the very unrealistic way in which the characters talk about the subject. The dialogue doesn’t ring true for one second. In fact it was so stylistically and historically incongruous it was like having a Sousaphone player toot his way across stage through the middle of a Mozart string quartet.

Having said that, the book is wonderful and everyone should read it.

My only other quibble with both Henrietta’s War and TGLPPPS is one that I have with most epistolary novels. When people write letters they almost never include actual dialogue. In a letter (or email) one may write something like “Then he told me to shut-up and I told him to go to hell.” But it is unlikely that someone would write you a letter like this: “Shut-up!” he yelled. “Oh yeah, well you can go to hell!” I replied shaking my fist. And so on. Most people just don’t write that way. One of my all time favorite authors, Carol Shields wrote an epistolary novel with Blanche Howard called A Celibate Season that was so full of quoted dialogue that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. On the other hand 84, Charing Cross Road which is a series of actual letters written by author Helene Hanff that tell a wonderful story and is entirely free of quoted dialogue. In my opinion that is the way it should be. Otherwise epistolary novels are just lazy ways to describe settings or advance plots without needing to be clever enough to connect it all together. A bit of an overgeneralization, I know, but for OCD types like me, it just seems wrong.

Book Review: Curates and Cauliflower


Some Tame Gazelle
Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle was the third book I finished reading while we were traveling through southern France. It is a good thing that I am not one of those people who likes to read books germane to the places I am visiting, because the setting of Pym’s novel was in pretty stark contrast to where I had set my butt to read the book. Some Tame Gazelle takes place in an English village in the late 1940s, where the major concerns seem to be about darning socks, the proper way to dust the front room, and the topic of the Archdeacon’s latest sermon. All a far cry from a warm sunny day in Provence lounging by the pool. Of course, this begs the question, why in the world would I want to mentally transport myself from my sybaritic lair in the south of France to the mundane minutiae of post-war village life? Because everything about these industrious, gossipy English villagers fascinates me.

This is the kind of book that is manna for Anglophiles like myself. First published in the UK in 1950 (but not until 1983 in the US), Some Tame Gazelle is Pym’s first novel and it sets the tone for many others that she wrote later. Her books are full of competent, independent, often single women, usually mixed in with lots of vicars, curates, archdeacons, bishops and the like, and lots and lots of tea. A little bit of Trollope, a little bit of E.F. Benson, with dashes of Austen and Wodehouse.

The action, if you can call it that, centers on two middle age spinster sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede who keep house together. Harriet develops a platonic fetish for each of the young curates who pass through the local church over the years. Her interest in nurturing these young men, and an attachment to her life with her sister, keeps her from accepting the many offers of marriage that come her direction. Belinda, on the other hand, has had one overriding, longstanding, and unrequited love, for the archdeacon who she has known since their days at university together.

A mellow comedy of manners, the plot has a relatively gentle arc that is nonetheless engaging and surprising in its way. In many cases it is the routine details of their daily lives and their everyday interactions with their neighbors that are interesting and revealing about these characters. And I am never more interested in the minutiae of their housekeeping than when they talk about food. We aren’t talking Babette’s Feast here, we are talking about the obsession that many Briton’s must have had with food in the days of food rationing and fiscal diligence. These are the kind of descriptions of food that help give British cooking a bad name. Perhaps unjustly so if you consider what crap Americans were eating in the 1950s. There is a scene where the sisters serve Cauliflower Cheese for lunch and a caterpillar is found by their traveling seamstress Miss Prior, in her portion of the midday meal. The semi-polite interchange between master and servant over the caterpillar is hilarious in its subdued way. But for me the real fascination is with the Cauliflower Cheese itself. Some kind of gratin with cheese and cauliflower? A head of cauliflower with a cheese sauce poured over it? Can my British readers enlighten me? What is it? Do people still make it? Is it delicious or is it kind of bleak?

If mid-century middle-class British manners and mores are your thing, Barbara Pym is for you.

Sunday Morning

Boy am I glad I am done blogging about that 40 by 40 list. Hope it isn’t as tedious to read as it was to write.

We are about to head off to “Julie & Julia.” I loved the book based on the blog, and I loved watching Julia Child as a kid, and I LOVE going to the Julia Child kitchen at the Smithsonian. I am not sure I like Streep’s Julia voice from the trailers, but the film has gotten good reviews so I will reserve my judgement.

I took this photo about 4 years ago on a sunny Sunday morning in London. This fabulous stack of scones was taken in the Orangerie at Kensington Palace. A really wonderful and comfortable place to sit with friends. I am very proud of this picture, I think the lighting is just perfect. Unfortunately, this was taken before I had a digital camera and the only copy I have is this well worn one that has been tacked above various desks over the years, so it doesn’t scan very well. Looks better in person. Maybe I still have the negative somewhere.

Best Book Ever!

I stumbled across Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader while browsing the fiction section of the lovely but run down Mt. Pleasant Library here in DC. A novella of 120 pages it only took me about an hour to ready this little lovely. The story imagines the current Queen of England chasing after her corgis as they climb into a mobile library parked near Windsor Castle. Once inside to retrieve the dogs she feels obligated to check out a book. The result is that she ends up actually reading the it and going back for others. After a lifetime of meeting and knighting famous authors of all kinds, HM finds herself actually reading books for the first time in her life. For anyone who loves reading and/or is a bit of an Anglophile this book is a must. I hate to sound cliche or trite but this book really is a delightful romp. I wish it could have gone on forever.