One hundred and five acres in extent, over four hundred years in the making, visited by hundreds of thousands of guests all year, every year, the gardens of the ducal house of Chatsworth are among the most famous and celebrated in the world. But with such beauty and fame come a terrific responsibility, and not a few horticultural headaches. As the Duchess puts it: the gardens are "an intimidating place to go out with a trowel". Despite her inhibitions, the Duchess of Devonshire has been an admired and energetic chatelaine of Chatsworth since she first came to these Derbyshire gardens as a young wife in the 1930s. Indeed she probably now knows the gardens, from the Laburnum walk to the famous Cascade to the Crinkle-Crankle Hedge, better than anyone--and is supremely qualified to write their history.
The anecdotes come thick, fast and informative. There are descriptions of Doctor Johnson, a beloved guest, eating "much and nastily" (they still named a path after him); an account of the Tsar of Russia stooping, socially and literally, to plant a Sweet Chestnut tree; and the terrible day after the First World War when, as an economy measure, the great glasshouses built by Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) were blown- up by Paxton's very own grandson. The author is, of course, the sister of Nancy Mitford, famed author of The Pursuit of Love. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that she shares the family gene for rarefied gossip and aristo-comedy. What is more surprising is her gift for relaying her love and enthusiasm in such engaging tones. A pleasure. --Sean Thomas