Rococo letter writing

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Writer David Bentley Hart calls Patrick Leigh Fermor ‘one of the greatest masters of English in our or any epoch’. One acquaintance described Fermor as ‘a most enchanting maniac’. He is famous for the exuberant narratives of his travels across Europe in the 1930s beginning with A Time of Gifts. Travelogues also fill his letter writing (recently collected as Dashing to the Post, John Murray), which is similarly rococo and attests to a by-gone era when letters were minor works of art, writers could be swashbuckling gadabouts and time moved more slowly (at one point Fermor describes a cafe owner greeting him warmly, remembering his visit from seven years’ prior). This potpourri includes letters to famous friends, outpourings to jilted lovers and beautiful descriptions of countrysides (especially of Greece where he eventually settled).

Adam Sisman, who introduces this collection, describes him as playful, boyish and not particularly interested in politics. He lived through war and communism, could sleep in a barn if he needed to, but also hobnobbed with the rich and famous. He corresponded with the Duchess of Devonshire (their letters have been previously collected), was friends with Diana Cooper and Bruce Chatwin, but found the super-rich ‘colossally boring’. He was liberal in his collection of friends and lovers. There are many outpourings of love here, with coy references in code to sexual adventures. But there are also long descriptive passages just for the thrill of describing, say, a boat trip to an island.

The letters show a deep knowledge of history and literature, as well as surprising insights into Christianity, from his stays in monasteries when he was researching a book on the subject, and where he describes himself as ‘clear-headed’ after having to leave off the alcohol during his stay.

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