Debo Devonshire's novelist sister, Nancy Mitford, apparently always addressed her communications to her 'The Duchess of Devonshire 9'
because she maintained that nine was her youngest sister's mental age. I don't want to boast, but I have come to realise that eleven is mine.
For some reason my mother decided that I wasn't worth talking to or
bothering about or listening to until I reached the glorious age of eleven. Once this barmitzah of a day arrived she would find time to get to know me. Truth be told there was many a day when I could have wished myself the same age as the delightful duchess - which see above. Oh, to be nine again, or even eight and a half! I would look back on those halycyon days when I was not required to opine on the comedy of Alexander Pope, marvel at Lord Byron's letters, or write an essay on the feebleness of the women in Dickens' novels as being a time of innocent enjoyment. Say what you will but -
'She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
'Of Nigh primaeval, and of Chaos old!
'Before he, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
'And all its varying rainbows die away.'
does not immediately appeal as being reallyu hilarious stuff. Unfortunately my mother found Alexander Pope's verses seriously rib tickling. She would read me out examples, rocking with delight at their wit. Happily because she was laughing I knew when to do the same, and became adept at 'pretend laughing', finally going to bed at night with my face aching from the effort.
My eleventh year was dominated not just by Alexander Pope but also by her great crush, Lord Byron. She had written a book about Lord Byron. She read his poetry with respect, and his letters with awe. My crush was the hero in Georgette Heyer's novel These Old Shades. He was my kind of guy, insouciant, cold eyed at the right time, able to fence, ride a horse, and have eyes that changed expression when he just caught a glimpse of his beloved Leone - sigh. My mother despised Georgette Heyer's novels. She had no time for Justin or Leone. Her despite was so intense that my grand-mother and I had to hide her books, all of which we read and re-read once her ladyship was out of the house.
There are great drawbacks for the well read child. One of them is that once back at school you can't find anyone else with whom to share your
enforced sophistication. While everyone else is going round humming tunes from Salad Days your forehead is only gradually unknotting from having read and absorbed the American edition of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and the complete works of Eugene O'Neill. Not only that, but English classes are a bore. Everyone is enjoying the set book - say Oliver Twist - but you have read it - not once but two or three times, so when Nancy or the dog meet an untimely end you are hard put to keep awake while everyone else is sobbing.
The truth was that by the glorious age of eleven there was hardly a classic that I had not taken out of the library, not once, but many times. There was a reason for this, and it was not just that my mother would set me a list of questions about said oeuvre, it was because I had learned to smuggle amd books I enjoyed under cover of The Good Reading book.
Like all criminals I had evolved a plan, It was not a plan of genius, but it did work. It lay in a certain material of which, even in those times, there was a plentiful supply - brown paper.
The question - 'What have you got there?' would mean that I could produce a carefully re-covered book 'The Life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson'. or another, one of my mother's favourites 'The History of English Heraldry' or 'Lord Byron's Letters' - him again - and with a saintly expression explain that I was so concerned about damaging the covers of these wonderful library editions, that I covered them before allowing myself to embark on their undoubted pleasures.
So The Castle of Adventure, Just William, What Ho Jeeves! and and other delights were tastefully covered with brown paper - along with The Life of William Wordsworth and such engrossing tomes as The History of British Heraldry. This last was a book that I hated. To be tested on shields and bars was so dull, so mind blowingly irritating, that to this day I couldn't, and certainly wouldn't tell you what my own family coat of arms is, let alone anyone else's.
Oh the hell of bar sinisters, or whatever they're called, and lions segnant, or regnant, or whatever they are meant to be doing. Let them just sit on gates far above us, I would pray, let them glitter with red and gold, but don't bring them near me!
The summer of my eleventh year was marked, however, by a book of a different sort altogether, and again, my mother found it hilarious. It was a book, called Harriet Wilson's Memoirs and its first line reads, 'I cannot say how or why I became the mistress of the Earl of ....' and so it continues, in like vein, as Harriet. a famous courtesan of her day, reveals all about her many lovers. It is a book famous for the line 'publish and be damned', said by the Duke of Wellington when the author demanded money in return for leaving him out of the book - in which she described him as 'looking like a rat catcher'.
This was a book that my mother considered not only delightful and funny, but entirely suitable for term time reading. When it was discovered in my trunk by Matron and handed in to the headmistress I was summoned to her study to find out why and how I came by such pornography? My guileless answer was that my mother had given it to me as term time reading. A telephone call to her ladyship confirmed this to be true. The line 'what must the headmistress have thought?' springs to mind; and my assertion that now I was eleven years of age my mother deemed Harriet and her love life to be entirely suitable, filled as it was with historical references, fell rather flat.
A truce was reached. The headmistress would keep the book in her study, and if and when I wanted to borrow it, I was to ask her, but I was not on any account to lend it to my more innocent friends. An offer from me to cover it with brown paper was graciously accepted.