May 2013 tbrIn one of those happy coincidences which still happen when you read your books in (vague) order of acquisition, I read two books by people with long, roughly contemporary lives (Patrick Leigh Fermor was 15 years younger than Frances Partridge and died seven years after she did). He appears in the index of her biography, and they did meet and have overlapping circles of friends, and I like that kind of link. Two excellent books, too.

Anne Chisholm – “Frances Partridge”

(25 September 2012)

I was fortunate enough to meet Anne Chisholm at the Iris Murdoch Society conference last September. I was unfortunately unable to hear her talk or purchase the book at that stage, although we did have a chat at the evening reception, I fear about bifocal glasses rather than literary fiction, philosophy or Bloomsbury. But I did learn enough at that event to know that this was a must-buy, and so it proved to be. In fact, I wish I’d bought it in hardback, which doesn’t happen very often!

It’s a masterful biography of that tricky thing, a long life with a huge cast of characters, many of them hopelessly entangled with one another, and in my opinion it’s just as good as Michael Holroyd’s seminal “Lytton Strachey”, the writing, editing and publishing of which is in fact treated in this book in detail. It’s a very warm, human and humane read, made so particularly by the author being able to spend a good amount of time interviewing her subject and gathering her opinion on past events and their portrayal.

With so many spoons in the Bloomsbury pot, a lot of the narrative turns out to be about retellings of events and personalities, with Gerald Brenan in particular indulging in myth-making about himself and his friends. Of necessity a story about friendship as much as it is about love, with Frances Partridge stoically enduring half an adult life of widowhood, it treats female friendship particularly well, which is refreshing.

Although invariably tragic events occur, and there is the inevitable stream of losses in old age, it maintains momentum and gives as clear a picture of its subject in extreme old age as it does of her youth, without pity or a display of self-pity. The very personal involvement of the author in the end days of her subject’s life, continuing to visit her even when the storytelling is over, and attending her in hospital, is recounted movingly and fits well in this remarkable and excellent book, which did change my view of Frances’ husband, Ralph, who is seemingly portrayed as Frances wished him to be, for once.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – “Three Letters from the Andes”

(October 2013)

Pounced on with glee in a charity shop, as his oeuvre was not large and yet he is one of the most perfect travel writers of all time (in the opinion of many other people than me, too, I promise!). This is a fairly slight book made up of three long letters sent home from a guided trip walking and climbing in the Andes with among other people, Andrew, the Duke of Devonshire, married to Debo Mitford. It’s all full of self-deprecation about his fitness and climbing ability, but there’s nothing lacking in his writing, of course, where limpid prose and wry asides abound. There’s a charming hand-drawn map and delightful illustrations (by an illustrator) and it’s a precious thing to have and read.