Monday, August 11, 2008

Poultry contentment

I cannot at all tell you where I heard about this book--some online venue shrouded now in the dim mists of my inattentive recent past--but wherever it was, the title and premise prompted me to request it from my beloved BorrowDirect. It is a slender little volume titled Counting My Chickens: And Other Home Thoughts by Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (known to her friends as "Debo"); I think it was the combination of the chickens of the title and the fact of its having an introduction by Tom Stoppard that caught my attention...

In any case, though it is itself a kind of anthology or miscellany of odd bits and pieces, it is very much the sort of book that deserves the mini-anthology treatment; it is full of gems.


Evelyn Waugh, in Paris shortly after the liberation, bought Debo a white felt hat with a blue straw brim and two white stuffed birds perched on top. Other prized possessions of hers include copious amounts of chicken-themed art, including "an enormous canvas of double-combed Derbyshire Redcaps by T. Benson" and a pair of life-sized speckled hens, made of Belgian faience, "with heads turned back and beaks buried in their feathers, in that expression of poultry contentment hens wear after a dust bath on a spring day. One has a brood of chicks poking out from her breast, the other an egg. They are dishes - the top halves lids, heads and necks the handles." When she first met Patrick Leigh Fermor, it was at a fancy dress party sometime in the 1950s and the writer was dressed as a Roman gladiator armed with a net and trident.

A trove of menu cards dating from 1893 to 1939 surfaces in an old cupboard as the kitchen at Chatsworth is being repainted and retiled; the Duchess comments that "the selection of teatime food" offered at an afternoon reception given for Commanding General Sir Kaiser Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana KBE of Nepal (in 1937) "is a child's dream, or a grown-up's, for that matter":
The guests were offered ices, cakes, éclairs, five kinds of sandwiches including fois gras, lobster and caviar, petits pains fourrés, wine cup, and every non-alcoholic drink imaginable, including thé.
The contents of a random drawer opened at Chatsworth in Debo's early days there: "a miniature of Duchess Georgiana, a Women's Institute programme of 1932, a bracelet given by Pauline Borghese to the Bachelor Duke to hide a crack in the marble arm of a statue of Venus, and a crystal wireless set"

On gardening catalogues:
Someone has had a jolly time thinking up names. Even the professors who have so kindly written to me to tell me what a quantum leap is may be stumped by Howard's Lancer, Black Velvet, Captivator, Leveller, and Whinham's Industry, gooseberries all.

The National Rhubarb Collection, believe it or not, contains more than one hundred varieties. I won't weary you with all their names, but you might fancy Grooveless Crimson. I don't think Early White Stone is an advertising man's dream description of a turnip, but whoever christened the parsnip Tender and True was a poet of the kitchen garden.

The oddest of all is the radish called French Breakfast. I have never seen a Frenchman tucking in to radishes for his petit déjeuner, but that is what they would have you believe.
The list of things the Duchess wants to bring back: "scyths, sharpes, and middlings, Invalid Bovril, brogues, mourning, silence, housewives, telegrams, spring cleaning, snow in January instead of at lambing time, nurses in uniform, muffins, the 1662 prayer book, pinafores for little boys, fish shops, Bud Flanagan, Ethel Merman, and Elvis Presley"

On the milking demonstration in the Farmyard at Chatsworth:
The audience remains riveted to the spot, fascinated, shocked, and delighted by this twice-daily ritual. One little boy from the middle of Sheffield said to me, "It's the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in me life. I'll never drink milk again."
A priceless description, too long to transcribe, of being at her parents' small island off the coast of Mull in Scotland when war was declared in September 1939, and a marathon journey she undertook from the Hebrides to London with a whippet, a Labrador and her beloved pet goat (at Stirling, "I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room, which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket")

And this, I think, is my single favorite paragraph:
The feel, smell, and taste of the oak pews at Swinbrook (I suppose that all children lick pews under cover of praying for their guinea pigs) are not the same as those at Edensor. They were put in by my father, who paid for them with the money he won by backing a long-priced Grand National winner owned by a cousin. He wanted a horse's head carved on the end of each one, but the bishop would not allow such frivolity, which was hypocritical of him, as I am sure he knew the source of my father's bounty perfectly well.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, that's glorious, Jenny! I'm pleased that the last surviving Mitford sister has the family taste for odd details and memorable anecdotes!

    I love the idea of giving someone a bracelet to cover up a crack in a statue. What a specific gift!