Deborah Devonshire, the 90-year-old Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, wrote her newest book, the superb ‘Wait For Me’ by hand over the last four years. I’ve just completed reading it, and I’m tempted to re-read it right now. I can’t recall a more surprising and witty autobiography.
Every chapter of the 370-page volume grabs the reader with portraits of her family and witty and wrenching anecdotes of her sisters.
Each paragraph bounds forward, and every era of her life is compelling. Debo brings to life dramatic decades of historical encounters, batty governesses, drafty houses she was attached to, her outlandish and rollicking childhood, family tragedies and comedies, and the spoils and sadnesses of a fabulous life.
I ordered ‘Wait for Me’ months ago from a London bookshop—and in October I received two signed copies, one inscribed ‘For Diane, Deborah Devonshire’, and the second simply ‘Deborah Devonshire’ in a very firm Italic-style signature, written with pen and ink.
The book, with a telling selection of snapshots from her family photo albums, is crammed with vibrant and lively anecdotes. Deborah and her sisters and mother kept lifelong diaries, wrote long letters to each other, so all was documented and recorded.
Debo grew up believing that she was the least talented of the sisters. She says Nancy was more sophisticated, Pam more adventurous, Diana more beautiful, Decca funnier, and Unity more ethereal. She says in the book she’s only read two books in her life, and had about two weeks of formal schooling. Her English-style understatement, modesty and dry wit turn outsize events and personalities on their head.
“It was a daily pleasure to live among the pictures at Chatsworth. Gazing at Velasquez’ ‘Lady with a Mantilla’ in my sitting room, was a real inspiration when I was trying to do something difficult. There seemed no obvious place to hand Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Old Man’, as it has to be studied close to and it is no good muddling it up with other pictures. Andrew put it on an easel to be examined at leisure. Reynolds’ portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her baby daughter, and Batoni’s portraits of the Fifth Duke (looking supercilious) and his younger brother Richard Cavendish (looking drab as befits a second son) suited the blue drawing room. Like Chatsworth’s furniture they were slotted in without a thought of dates or nationalities. I loved this mongrel arrangement.”
Deborah was the driving force behind the regeneration of Chatsworth) which now greets 600,000 visitors each year. She plays it all down, but she has been a lifelong charity fundraiser, has been a country campaigner, is the author of thirteen books, mother of three and great-great grandmother of many, as well as an award-winning arts and culture philanthropist and voice for the preservation of stately treasure houses and English country life traditions.
This is a book to delve into and delight over every unexpected tale of imprisoned sister Diana, fascist brother-in-law the black-shirt Mosley, Paris assignations, and travels to Africa with the Duke, at one time a politician.
Everyone who pranced about the twentieth century seems to make a command performance. Deborah did not seek the limelight but nonetheless, a grand parade of notables, revealed as puffed up, tragic, lovely, silly or glamorous or wildly charismatic.
Appearing on the Mitford manuscript are Elvis (she visited Graceland three times), John F. Kennedy (at one time his sister Kathleen was the Duke’s eldest brother’s wife, a marriage that ended in two tragedies), kings and queens, emperors and princesses, farmers, equestrians, bores, debs’ delights, prime ministers, the artist Lucian Freud, curators, housekeepers, cooks, ambassadors, art collectors, and names too illustrious and name-droppish to mention.
Trust me, everyone who was anyone turns up on one or more pages. The Shah of Persia jump onto the page, as well as Ali Khan, the Queen Mother, coronations, the young Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of Windsor, Prince Charles and Diana, Cecil Beaton, Farah Diba, even Ian Fleming.
|Deborah Devonshire. Photo by Andrew Testa/New York Times.|
Lucian Freud, considered the greatest living painter today, was a lifelong friend.
“I had a black Mini which I kept in London and Lucian borrowed it several times. Being driven in London by Lucian Freud was hazardous. Marble Arch was terrifying. Hyde Park Corner even worse. He was Mr. Toad, scarf and all. He weaved in and out of the swirling traffic, avoiding buses and bicycles and angry taxi drivers by inches. When I shouted, “Stop. Slower. Please!” he said, “It’s all right. They’ve all got brakes.”
|The Mitford Sisters|
The five other Mitford sisters - Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela — in 1935. Photograph: Harpercollins
One mystery I had hoped to solve here is Unity, her lost sister, the one who in the thirties notoriously had a crush (or affair?) on Hitler and several of his cronies. There is a hint in the book that Unity was a little unbalanced and ‘eccentric’ early on, as she seemed to be swiftly thrown out of every school she was ever sent to. But Debo clearly felt great affection for her 'misunderstood' blonde Amazon sister.
Debo and her mother traveled to Germany as Hitler’s guests in 1934.
In her diary she wrote, “Neither Muv nor I could speak German, so Unity interpreted our conversations with Hitler. We all went and sat on some chairs by the window. Soon tea was brought in. Hitler suggested we might want to clean up, and we all went to wash up in the bathroom. He had some brushes there with ‘AH’ on them.” The totally apolitical Debo was not impressed.
When Germany and England went to war, Unity shot herself in the head with a gun she carried around. She was nursed lovingly for many years by her mother, and died tragically. Debo’s comment is that Unity, described elsewhere as a dreamy girl, was always misunderstood, and downplays the fact that she was a rabid Nazi sympathizer, and great pals with Goebbels. Debo writes at one point that ‘words cannot describe her’ so regarding the mad Unity, a reader is left mystified. Sometimes Debo just does not want to go there. Other sisters leap off the page. Their every conversation, shriek, gown, joke, banter, visit, and marriage and re-marriage and misadventure are recorded as if these decades-old chats had happened yesterday. Not Unity.
The parents were outsize characters, and the whole family followed a very strict diet of wholegrain bread, and no shellfish and only their father was allowed to eat sausages.
'When I was eighteen, I broke from that life, and was free to do what I liked,” said the Duchess, “Going to all the deb dances there were marvelous suppers laid out, with tables of things like pastries and lobster, which were absolutely banned at home.’
|The Mitford family (l-r top) Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Tom and Lord Redesdale, (middle) Diana and Pamela, (bottom) Unity, Jessica and Deborah. The sisters were educated at home, because their mother didn't believe in exams, and Deborah spent most of her time hunting and skating. Photo by the BBC.|
Deborah Devonshire, clearly backed up here by researchers, files, and her niece Charlotte Mosley, who has edited all of her books, is laconic about those she despised, and droll and languid as only a Duchess can be. She never complains, is generally kind (or deftly sly in her comments about concepts, like ‘self-esteem’, which she detests).
She deals briefly with the chronic alcoholism and violent rages of the Duke.
“Time dims the unpleasant or sad events in life and dates run into each other in a middle way,” she writes. “Had he not written so openly about it in his memoirs, I would not have mentioned my side of the story. Andrew was addicted to alcohol for much of his adult life, a weakness that ran through the Cavendish family.”
She writes about his giving up drinking in a thoroughly non-judgmental way, and credits Alcoholics Anonymous and many counselors for her hard-found wisdom. That’s it. To delve in an unseemly manner further into the dark side would be infra dig, simply not done. Bad form, you know.
But some personal experiences filter through her reticence. It is touching and rather a shock when she records in Chapter 10 that she lost three of her babies, two of them just hours after they were born. At that time she was expected to carry on as if nothing had happened, and no-one discussed it, including her nurses. Once more she muddled through. It’s a sad passage in a book that rattles along from one grand shooting party and gymkhana and chilly stately house to another.
She lost many of her four best friends, her brother and many others in just one month in the Second World War, but her lonely plight with callous neonatal doctors stops the reader as the Duchess reveals her truly tragic, private moments.
She had three subsequent children, including two daughters and her son, Stoker, the current Duke of Devonshire, with whom she is clearly very close.
|Deborah Mitford and Lord Andrew Cavendish on their wedding day, 1941|
We are invited to go with her to London balls, JFK’s inauguration and later his funeral (Debo and the Duke were there as ‘family’), and travels to India and Burma and the South of France, Paris and remote islands of Scotland.
The Duchess of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, sitting on garden furniture made at the estate workshops in the 1970s. Photograph: Popperfoto
Society Women, 1938: the Hon Pamela Herman Hodge (left), the Hon Deborah Mitford (centre) and Lady Margaret Ogilvy at a point-to-point race meeting. Photograph: Hulton Archive
Deborah attending at a banquet given by the Royal Society of St George, in 1954. Photograph: Getty Images
The Duchess of Devonshire out shooting in 1980. Photograph: Getty Images
Chapters about inheriting Chatsworth and taking on the responsibility of restoring the house, living in it, and paying staggering death duties (with interest accruing daily) keep the reader enthralled and grateful.
Debo was the driving force behind opening the house to the public, launching retail shops and farm products, and welcoming school children so that they could learn about a vanishing country life.
When Andrew became the 11th duke, he inherited Chatsworth, and the estate comprised Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Place in Sussex, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire – and their contents. Lismore Castle in Ireland, he already owned. Thousands of acres, rare books, paintings and art works were sold to pay taxes. Hardwick Hall was ceded to the National Trust, and can be visited, like Chatsworth.
|Calke Abbey (Courtesy of the National Trust).|
Her enduring appreciation and love for Chatsworth, its collections, the hundreds of people who maintained it, flow through the book.
“Waking the first morning in the bed I was to come home to for the next 46 years and one month was a joy and I never tired of the incomparable view west across the park,’ she writes. 'In all those years I never took the place for granted, but marveled at it and the fact that we were surrounded by beauty at every turn.’ She stayed on there for over a year after Andrew’s death, and then handed it over to her son Peregrine, the 12th Duke, and his wife, Amanda.
“I was 85, it was high time to go and high time for the others to come.’ She now has eight grandchildren (the model Stella Tennant is one of these) and 17 great-grandchildren, and they all adore her. She lives in the Old Vicarage (she affectionately calls it the ‘Old Vic’) in Edensor (pronounced En-zor), surrounded by friends, family and her chickens.
The Duchess of Devonshire at her home since 2004, the Old Vicarage at Edensor. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian
Mitford books take up many shelves in my bookcases. I’ve been feasting on the Mitford sisters' tomes for years, but quickly tired of narcissistic Nancy, and the unknowable beauty Diane, and never cared for Decca (so admired in Berkeley, California, and so doted on by all her literary and communist hangers-on. (“You know she’s the sister of the Duchess of Devonshire, don’t you,” said a simpering literary agent to me one evening, when it has been announced that Decca has raised funds to send pianos to Cuba. ‘Yes,” I responded mildly.)
I nibble on ‘Counting my Chickens’, one of the compendiums of essays collated from Deborah’s writings for various publications.
I recently worked my way through a cookbook she published a few years ago.
In the book’s introduction, Deborah recalls mentioning to one of her Chatsworth staff that she, who had never cooked in her life, was writing a cookbook.
“Oh, Madam,” the good woman responded, “You writing a cook book is like a blind man teaching someone to drive.”
It’s called the Mitford Industry in England—as the Mitford girls among them have written dozens of books. In 2008 I ordered ‘The Mitfords, Letters between Six Sisters’ (edited, like much of the Mitfordiana, by Debo’s niece Charlotte Mosley. It’s 75 years of letters, all with the upper-class Mitford voice, – relentlessly thirties. To each other, the girls had a particularly imperative (and now hopelessly dated) way of speaking in Noel Coward tones: 'do be sorry’, ‘don’t you think!’ and 'do miss me’, 'do say you’re thrilled’ and rather often, considering their sense of humor, 'you must say it’s very funny’
I especially loved ‘In Tearing Haste’, the 2009 book of fifty years of letters between Deborah Devonshire and the great writer and war hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who now likes in the Peloponnesus, in a remote Mani coastal town. My book in signed by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah (they are both in their nineties, I am so honored), along with the firm hand of Charlotte Mosley, who edited the letters.
Patrick (‘Paddy’ to Deborah) Leigh Fermor is one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers (not a mere ‘travel writer’) so his letters, of travels in remote places, Greek history and architecture, and historic events, are the richest feast in this book. Highest recommendation.
But Deborah’s new book, getting the last word, is the most charming and captivating. She does not have an axe to grind. She’s grateful for her life, and gracious and witty. The book is also a history of the decline of nobility in England, and a vanished life.
|Deborah Devonshire with her rare breeds of chickens at Chatsworth, 2009.|
One of my favorite sections of the book concerns a visit to Chatsworth, in 2000, by Debo’s friends Oscar and Annette de la Renta and their group. I’ve read this report several times, each re-reading offering up more detail.
The art collector Jayne Wrightsman and the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife were making their annual visit to Chatsworth. They’re longtime friends, and Oscar has designed gowns for the duchess.
The Duchess was convinced that these New York denizens would be bored by a table centerpiece of flowers or the usual flowering branches from the estate.
Chickens are her passion, and she is often photographed feeding her brood. So a Buff Cochin cock was washed and placed on some hay in a tall rectangular glass container and placed along the center of the dining table.
'A couple of hens of uncertain ancestry occupied another glass container,’ she writes, 'and there had been a hatch of Welsummer and White Leghorn chicks that morning so I put them in little china baskets lined with hay to keep them warm… the chicks presumably thought it was all quite normal as they had only been alive for 12 hours.’
The following year, she said, she had to think of something better. Piglets!
“The glass containers were pressed into service again, and half a dozen piglets, replete from a long drink of milk from the sow, lay sound asleep in their straw beds in the middle of the dining table. The decoration did not last long. ‘This really is too much,” said Andrew (the Duke of Devonshire) after the first course.” The pigs were removed.
Her follow-up to the pig incident: Old Master drawings on miniature easels in front of each place setting.
“I do not believe the Raphaels and Rembrandts and Co. were splashed by gravy or ice-cream, and after dinner they were returned to their cold, unwelcoming, air-conditioned, thrice-locked shelves,” she wrote. “I would rather be one of the piglets in a warm barn any day.”
|Deborah Devonshire photographed at Chatsworth in 1990.|
|Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2005|
Another (of many, many) sections I adored is about Debo’s visit for a celebratory dinner to the very grand seventeenth-century Palladian residence, Calke Abbey, in 1961.
“The owner, Charles Harpur Crewe was a recluse who lived an intensely private life, in an intensely private house, in his own little kingdom in a vast park in the south of Derbyshire,” she wrote. She drove forty miles through dense fog and got lost several times. Finally they saw a dim light.
“The curtains were drawn back on the ground and first floors of Calke Abbey and the rooms were lit only by candles,” she wrote. “It was something I had never seen in a house of that size. Not even oil lamps reinforced the flickering flames. I thought I had arrived in a fairy story.”
She goes on to write, “ The dining room table was set with more candles, the only light in that high-ceilinged room, which I imagine had not been used for years. The first course was melon, followed by cold beef, and then melon for pudding.”
In 1981, Harpur Crewe died and Calke Abby was ceded to the National Trust. While the truly eccentric family has long since gone, I can’t wait to go and visit. It has been preserved to show a country house ‘in decline’, just as the family left it, with strange and wonderful cabinets of curiosities and no sense of the twenty-first century, let alone the twentieth.
Debo notes, “The clutter that filled the house from hall to attic, including natural history objects collected over centuries, are still there. The four-poster bed, a wedding to the Fifth Baronet and Lady Caroline Manners from Princess Anne, daughter of King George II, has been unpacked. It had been in packing cases since it arrived from London in 1734.”
She says, “When Harpur Crewe was asked why the great bed, one of the treasures of great houses of Great Britain, had never been unpacked, he responded, “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose they had something else to do.”
Perhaps most satisfactorily, the book brings the reader right up to the present. She invites you in to the vicarage, where you meet her assistant and grandchildren and old retainers, including an ancient butler.
It’s all very unpretentious and cozy, and you love her for it.
“I find twenty roses as interesting as two hundred, and so on down the line,” she writes. “There is lots more to come. I look back on a wonderful life watching other people work.”
‘Wait for Me” by Deborah Devonshire. I recommend that you acquire the American edition, with a glorious black and white portrait of Debo on the cover, shot by Beaton.
Deborah Vivien Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire DCVO (born 31 March 1920), née The Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford is the youngest and last surviving of the six noted Mitford sisters whose political affiliations and marriages were a prominent feature of English culture in the 1930s and 1940s. She was born in Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, England.
BOOKS BY DEBORAH DEVONSHIRE:
Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Estate: A View from Chatsworth (1990)
The Farmyard at Chatsworth (1991) — for children
Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View (1991)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays.
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003)
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
Home to Roost . . . and Other Peckings (2009)
Wait for Me!... Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010)
For more information on Chatsworth:
Photography from a variety of sources, including chatsworth.org press office, the Mitford and Devonshire archive, www.guardian.co.uk, Mitford books, and ‘Wait for Me’ published in the UK by Murray.