Friday, February 15, 2013

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ February 2013



I really enjoyed reading The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey. It is a rather slender story of hidden family secrets made engrossing by the method of delivery!  Not vampires but stylish gothic mannerisms. Doors loom out of the darkness, footsteps echo and servants remain tight-lipped. Catherine Bailey is not only a historian and a television documentary producer but also the author of Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty which is one of my favourite books. Black Diamonds tells the story of the Wentworth/Fitzwilliam family, owners of more than seventy coalmines and one of the richest families in England. Not any more…the family line has been extinguished along with the horrendous working conditions of the miners. I can imagine this story as a great TV serial yet to come.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey

Catherine Bailey, no doubt seeking another good story amongst the British aristocracy in the twentieth century, went to Belvoir Castle to delve in their famously well-kept archives. The residents, Duke of Rutland and family, date back to the 14th century and amazing documents from royal times are carefully kept in their castle in Leicestershire… 
What she discovered was something unexpected in such carefully kept archives… Three periods when nothing, absolutely nothing, was available. Why? Well, she set out to find out why and has come up with a very plausible answer. Finding out makes a great detective story and meanwhile you can see just how the aristocracy network operates. A guilty pleasure. And if you haven't read Black Diamonds do try to do it soon.

I was fascinated to find that the Duke of Rutland's family included Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, diplomat, politician and author. Of course she was at that time Lady Diana Manners, the youngest daughter, who became the most celebrated debutante of her time, then a successful actress in America and eventually, as wife to Duff, the Ambassadress to France, shortly after the Second World War. Apart from his Diaries, Duff Cooper's most famous book is his classic biography of Talleyrand, the silver-tongued French politician who managed to serve five different regimes.

Talleyrand by Duff Cooper The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951 by John Julius Norwich

The family talents carry on of course. John Julius Norwich, author of so many books  is the only son of Lady Diana and Duff Cooper, while Artemis Cooper, is their grandchild. So, coincidence continued, when I found Artemis was the author of the latest fascinating biography, that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of the very famous travel books A Time of Gifts or Between the Woods and the Water

His two most famous books describe his journey on foot from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1934, with a weekly allowance of one Pound. He didn't write these until more than forty years later – then with a gap of ten years between them. I've been asked why these are so famous and such best-sellers of their time. Not only is it beautiful prose (sometimes he strives too much) but also I think for the romanticism of the remote places and blend of mythology and history he recounts as well as his intense interest in languages. His journey was hardly hardwork. One of his first visits was to an aristocratic Middle-European family, who, charmed by the enthusiastic nineteen year old boy, sent him onwards with many letters of introduction, so he experienced a romantic way of life which was soon to disappear, sometimes staying at country estates for weeks at a time. In fact if you have any Hungarian connections I hope you have read A Time of Gifts or Between the Woods and the Water

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates by Patrick Leigh Fermor  Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper


I had a mistaken idea of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I had this picture in my mind of a rather scholarly, poetic writer. It turns out he was always known as Paddy (a rather different image to Patrick) or in Greece as Mihali. He was the sort of reckless schoolboy who was often expelled but who had an intense interest in poetry and history. He loved to sing and to charm and to be the life and soul of the party. Not everyone loved him. After a disastrous lunch Somerset Maugham described him as “that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”!  He did always have an older and richer lady friend!

After he reached Constantinople he travelled to Greece where he fell in love not only with the country but also with an older, richer Countess from one of the Balkan countries. His other books Mani and Roumeli, which he used as excuses for not continuing the travel story, are essays of love to those Greek areas.

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece by Patrick Leigh Fermor

His other claim to fame, and where I was totally wrong in my image of Patrick Leigh Fermor, were his activities on Crete as a Special Operations Officer during the Second World War. Along with another adventurer, and disguised as a German Corporal, he kidnapped a German General and spirited him off the island. I'm afraid I regard this as yet another schoolboy prank! Local villagers were punished terribly and it turned out not to be the wicked General after all, but his more acceptable replacement.

No doubt because of family connections, Artemis Cooper did know Patrick Leigh Fermor and acknowledges that not everyone loved him. But most did. A terrific biography of a life lived well and not to be repeated these days. It is said that Artemis Cooper will edit the unfinished manuscript left by Patrick describing the third part of his journey to Constantinople, perhaps to be called The Broken Road.

Her other books are Writing At the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David and Paris After the Liberation 1944-49 written with her husband, military historian Antony Beevor. She has also edited many books, including the Letters of Evelyn Waugh (Ed: The version edited by Artemis Cooper is unavailable) and Diana Cooper. One book I especially liked was Cairo in the War which now seems to be out of print. Keep an eye out for it.

Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David by Artemis Cooper Paris After the Liberation: 1944 - 1949 by Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper  Letters of Evelyn Waugh

Just for fun I'm going to list a few of the books of John Julius Norwich, the third Viscount, (whose children called him Lord Know-It-All). His most recent publication is The Popes: A History but he is most known for his histories of Byzantium and the Normans in Sicily. The titles are Byzantium: The Early Centuries; Byzantium: The Apogee;  Byzantium: The Decline and Fall and A Short History of Byzantium. Normans in the South 1016-1130 and The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194. The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean and A History of Venice. A nice little extra, especially for travellers, is A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin which describes some historically important places you can still visit today. Of course you can always find these books on Abbey's famous History shelves.

The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich  A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich  A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich


Here's another nostalgic suggestion for you. An author who also left home in 1934 to walk into his future, just as Patrick Leigh Fermor did, is Laurie Lee, author of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He also took more than thirty years to write his story of walking from London through Spain, making his way by playing his violin in cafes and streets. His other book, Cider with Rosie is available in Vintage Classics and is a delightful account of his childhood in the Cotswolds in the 1920's. Lovely writing. He is the author of several other books but these two are regarded as classics.

Keep well, Eve

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

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