Tag Archives: Chatsworth

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire laid to rest

The Duchess of Devonshire funeral at Chatsworth House Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND

The Duchess of Devonshire funeral at Chatsworth House Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who were close friends of the Dowager Duchess, walked the entire route behind the hearse carrying her coffin The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has begun her final journey from Chatsworth House to the parish church where she is to be buried.

By Gordon Rayner

First published in the Telegraph 2 October 2014

More than 600 staff from the Chatsworth estate have been give the day off work so they can line the two-mile route that the cortège is taking to St Peter’s Church in the village of Edensor.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who were close friends of the Dowager Duchess, were among the mourners, and walked the entire route behind the hearse carrying her coffin.

The estate staff lining the route fell in behind as the hearse passed, with more than 500 chairs set up for them at the church so they could watch the funeral on a giant screen showing the service from inside the church, which only holds 200.

Halfway through the service the sound of Elvis Presley singing How Great Thou Art filled the parish church.

The Dowager Duchess was a huge Elvis fan and owned a collection of Elvis memorabilia.

The Dowager Duchess, who died on September 24 at the age of 94, was the last of the Mitford sisters, the most celebrated and controversial family in pre-war high society.

It was her head for business that transformed Chatsworth from a crumbling stately home into one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions and the model for virtually ever other stately home in the country.

She was buried in the church’s graveyard next to her late husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who died in 2004. His gravestone has been removed for the Dowager Duchess’s name to be added.

The plot is next to the grave of Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F Kennedy, who was married to the 11th Duke’s brother.

In accordance with the Dowager Duchess’s wishes, the estate staff lining the route of the cortège wore their work uniforms, with butchers turning out in aprons, gardeners in their green sweatshirts and tour guides in their crested blazers. All wore either a black tie or black armband.

As the staff gathered at their muster points to be briefed on their positions, they swapped stories and memories of the Dowager Duchess, who was known as “Debo”.

Paul Neale, 59, the head butcher at the Chatsworth Farm Shop, said: “We have turned out in our uniforms because it is what the Duchess wanted and it is the highest compliment we can pay her because she started the retail side of Chatsworth.

“She was a lovely lady, very much involved in the business and we would see her three or four times a week coming to look round the shop.

“She used to stop and talk to everyone. I’m so proud to have known her and to have worked for her for 18 years.”

The Dowager Duchess knew the names of virtually all of the 620 staff standing to attention along the route, from the 92 catering staff to the 40 gardeners, the 20 tenant farmers and the three gamekeepers.

Alan Hodson, 66, one of the 63 tourist guides among the mourners, said: “Today is a celebration of a wonderful lady.

“She used to speak to absolutely everyone, she had fabulous social skills, she would always admire people’s children or their dogs and you would see her holding the door open for visitors who probably had no idea who she was.”

The Dowager Duchess’s son, the 12th Duke, followed immediately behind the hearse with his wife and his sister Lady Emma Tennant. The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall walked immediately behind them.

The Duchess of Cornwall’s former husband Andrew Parker Bowles was also among the mourners.

As the cortège progressed along its route, accompanied by the steady monotone beat of a single bell at the church, the numbers walking behind the coffin grew to hundreds and then well over a thousand as the staff and members of the public joined it.

The Dowager Duchess’s wicker coffin, ringed with flowers, was carried into the church by pall bearers including Stephen Reid, head gamekeeper, and Andre Birkett, manager of the Farm Shop.

The Dowager Duchess’s retired former butler, Henry Coleman, carried a cushion bearing her insignia of the Dame Commander of the Victorian Order.

The funeral service, conducted by Canon David Perkins, included music by Bach, Brahms, Handel and Grieg, and the hymns Holy! Holy! Holy! and We Plough The Fields And Scatter.

The readings included the poem Lament Of The Irish Emigrant by Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin, and a passage from Ecclesiastes Ch.3 v 1-22.

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Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – obituary

The Duchess at Chatsworth in 2005 Photo: REX

The Duchess at Chatsworth in 2005 Photo: REX

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was the devoted chataleine of Chatsworth and the last of the Mitford sisters.

First published in the Telegraph 24 September 2014

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has died aged 94, was the youngest and last of the celebrated Mitford sisters, and the chatelaine of Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peak” in Derbyshire, which from the 1950s onwards she made into both a glorious public spectacle and, really for the first time, a consummately stylish private home.

She was born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford on March 31 1920, the sixth daughter of the eccentric 2nd Lord Redesdale, well-known to readers of Nancy Mitford’s novels as “Uncle Matthew”. “Debo” (as she was always known) was repeatedly assured throughout her childhood by her eldest sister Nancy that “everybody cried when you were born” on account of her being yet another girl.

Debo took refuge in quaintly odd pursuits. Another sister, Jessica (“Decca”) Mitford, described her spending “silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen’s face when it is laying an egg, and each morning she methodically checked over and listed in a notebook the stillbirths reported in the vital statistics columns of The Times”.

As the youngest in a family of seven, Debo was constantly and mercilessly teased, despite the bellowing championship of her father. She was passionately fond of the country and country pursuits, and did not suffer from the brilliant, restless boredom so well-documented by her sisters. None of the girls was sent to school, as their father thought education for girls unnecessary; a succession of governesses was employed, one of whom, Miss Pratt, had her charges playing Racing Demon daily from 9am until lunchtime.

As a girl Debo was a fine skater, and was invited to join the British junior team; but the idea was vetoed by her mother. As an adolescent she witnessed several scandals surrounding her sisters — Diana’s divorce and remarriage, Jessica’s elopement, Unity’s involvement with Hitler — as well as the disintegration of her parents’ marriage.

She was famous for having chanted as a child, in moments of distress: “One day he’ll come along, the Duke I love.” When she married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, however, he was a mere second son. Debo wrote to her sister, Diana Mosley, then in Holloway prison: “I expect we shall be terrificly [sic] poor but think how nice to have as many dear dogs and things as one likes without anyone to say they must get off the furniture.”

Debo remained surrounded by dogs for the rest of her life. In The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth (1982), the delightful and bestselling book she wrote, in between doing a lot of sums to illustrate that 365 ordinary-sized residences could fit into The House, with its 7,873 panes of glass and 53 lavatories, the Duchess took care to inform the reader: “It’s a terrible place to house-train a puppy.”

In 1944 Andrew’s elder brother was killed in action, and in 1950 the 10th Duke unexpectedly died. The Devonshires were left with 80 per cent death duties which took 17 years to settle. In 1959 they moved to Chatsworth, uninhabited since before the war.

When she had first seen the house after the war she had thought it “sad, dark, cold and dirty. It wasn’t like a house at all, but more like a barracks.” It had not been redecorated for decades, and during the war had been home to a girls’ boarding school.

But Debo embraced her role of chatelaine gaily, as she set about redecorating the house. “Debo has become the sort of English duchess who doesn’t feel the cold,” reported Nancy, disconsolately.

The Duchess was both beautiful and deceptively literate, although exceptionally modest. Lucian Freud painted her when she was 34, and Debo used to delight in the story of how an old woman was heard remarking, as she stood before the painting: “That’s the Dowager Duchess. It was taken the year before she died.” When the painting was completed, Freud allowed the Duke and Duchess to see it at his studio. “Someone else was already there,” she later recalled. “Andrew looked long at the picture until the other man asked, ‘Who is that?’ ‘It’s my wife.’ ‘Well, thank God it’s not mine’.”

She also sat for Annigoni, to whom she found herself apologising for her face: “I know it’s not the sort you like.” The artist replied, not very graciously: “Oh well, it doesn’t matter, it’s not your fault.”

The Duchess kept aloof from her family’s literary and political pursuits. She visited her Fascist sister Diana in prison, and her Communist sister Decca in California, keeping a light touch with both.

After visiting Decca and doing the rounds of her Communist friends, Debo sent Decca a photograph of herself and her husband, dressed in their ducal robes for a coronation, garlanded with orders, chains and jewels, staring stonily ahead. Beneath the photo she wrote: “Andrew and me being active.”

Nancy used to address letters to her sister “Nine, Duchess of Devonshire”, her contention being that Debo never developed beyond the mental age of nine. Certainly the Duchess always maintained that she never read books and that her favourite reading matter was the British goatkeepers’ monthly journal, Fancy Fowl magazine and Beatrix Potter.

The epigraph in her book The House is taken from Hobbes, who was tutor to the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Devonshire: “Reading is a pernicious habit. It destroys all originality of sentiment.”

Debo and Paddy 2008

Debo and Paddy 2008

Paddy and Debo 2008

Paddy and Debo 2008

Chatsworth, however, was always filled with literati, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, a great friend, was determined that Debo was a closet reader, who sneaked books the way alcoholics sneak whisky. As a writer, she was a natural storyteller with a knack for the telling phrase and a delight in human eccentricities.

Certainly The House is a wonderfully rich and beautifully written work. It is organised around a Handbook of Chatsworth written in 1844 in the form of a letter from the “Bachelor Duke” (the 6th) to his sister and is full of very funny accounts of the foibles of earlier dukes and duchesses. Among other stories, it chronicles the war waged against woodworm by the wife of the 9th Duke (the former Lady Evelyn Fitzmaurice). Believing concussion to be the answer, the formidable beldame kept a little hammer in her bag to bang the furniture where they lurked.

The Duchess showed acute commercial flair in raising money for the Chatsworth estate, making a nonsense of her sister Nancy’s generalisation in Noblesse Oblige that aristocrats are no good at making money. She presided over the bread, cake, jam and chutney industries which grew up to feed the farm shop, which was described by the late Hugh Massingberd in The Daily Telegraph as “every greedy child’s idea of what a shop should be”.

Although the house had been open to the public ever since it was built, it was not until 1947 that the revenue from visitors went towards its upkeep. In 1973 the Duchess set up the Farmyard at Chatsworth, “to explain to the children that food is produced by farmers who also look after the land and that the two functions are inextricably mixed”. A little boy from Sheffield watched the milking, then told the Duchess: “It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll never drink milk again.”

Visitors to Chatsworth are able to buy items such as souvenirs, books, porcelain, knitwear, while the Farm Shop sells estate produce. A mail order business was established, along with cafés, restaurants and a commercial catering business.

Chatsworth Carpenters was an especially successful venture. The Duchess, in her gardener’s apron, was for many years a familiar sight at the Chelsea Flower Show, where she was to be seen busily selling furniture fit for a stately home to the owners of small town gardens.

The 11th Duke once observed: “My wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am.” He added: “She is on the bossy side, of course; but I’ve always liked that in a woman.” She dealt heroically with her husband’s philandering nature and his weakness for alcohol, and the marriage was a happy one.

Despite living in a house overflowing with masterpieces by such artists as Rembrandt, Veronese, Murillo, Poussin and Reynolds, the Duchess always maintained that Beatrix Potter was her favourite artist, and Miss Potter’s enchanted world may indeed be the key to appreciating the genius loci of Chatsworth.

The Duchess was an ardent conservationist of vernacular architecture and was president of the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust. She also chaired the Tarmac Construction Group and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Her devotion to making Chatsworth a viable financial concern was well rewarded in 1981 when a charitable trust, capitalised by the sale of certain treasures, was established to preserve The House for posterity.

In 2001 the Duchess published Counting My Chickens… and other home thoughts, a collection of sharply observed musings on Chatsworth, gardening, poultry, dry stone walling, bottled water, the United States, Ireland, the Today programme, the Turner Prize and other topics. On the modern fashion for hiring business consultants, she wryly observed: “He arrives from London, first class on the train… Most probably he has never been this far north, so the geography and the ways of the locals have to be explained, all taking his valuable time. After a suitable pause of a few weeks (he is very busy being consulted) a beautiful book arrives, telling you what you spent the day telling him.”

After her husband’s death in 2004 she published a poignant tribute in Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007). Other publications included In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008); Home to Roost … and Other Peckings (2009), a collection of occasional writings; and Wait for Me!… Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010). She was also a contributor to The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. Her last book, All in One Basket, which brought together two earlier volumes of occasional writings, was published in 2011.

The Duchess claimed to buy most of her clothes at agricultural shows, adding: “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris. Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

Her dislikes included magpies; women who want to join men’s clubs; hotel coat-hangers; and drivers who slow down to go over cattle grids. She regretted the passing of brogues, the custom of mourning, telegrams, the 1662 Prayer Book, pinafores for little boys and Elvis Presley (“the greatest entertainer ever to walk on a stage”).

In 2003 she published The Chatsworth Cookery Book, introducing it with the words: “I haven’t cooked since the war.”

Debo Devonshire was appointed DCVO in 1999.

She is survived by her son Stoker, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and by two daughters.

Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, born March 31 1920, died September 24 2014.

Related articles:

Listen to the 2010 BBC Radio 4 interview on Woman’s Hour here.

Never Marry a Mitford

The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor

Our archive of articles about or including Debo

Paddy’s great friend Debo Devonshire, last of the Mitford sisters, has died

A young and beautiful Debo

A young and beautiful Debo

Deborah, or Debo as she was known to her friends, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and the last surviving Mitford sister, has died aged 94. This announcement from the BBC news website. She was the last of Paddy’s friends from his younger days left alive. It is the end of an era.

Her son, the Duke of Devonshire, announced the death in a statement from Chatsworth House, her stately home.

The Mitford sisters fascinated – and sometimes scandalised – British society in the 1940s.

Unity was a friend of Hitler, Diana, the second wife of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, and Jessica a left-wing polemicist.

Deborah was more focused on her home life. Listen to the 2010 BBC Radio 4 interview on Woman’s Hour here.

Nicknamed the “housewife duchess”, she made Chatsworth one of the most successful and profitable stately homes in England after marrying Andrew Cavendish in 1941.

But along with her siblings, during her lifetime she moved in the same circles as Sir Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Evelyn Waugh.

She also accompanied her sister Unity to tea with Hitler in 1937, was painted by Lucian Freud, and amassed a collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia.

The statement from her son said: “It is with great sadness that I have to inform you that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, has passed away peacefully this morning.”
Deborah Deborah was the youngest Mitford sister

It added that an announcement about funeral arrangements would be made shortly.

Born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford on 31 March 1920, the duchess was the sixth daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale.

The Mitfords’ childhood at their family home in the Oxfordshire village of Swinbrook was immortalised in her sister Nancy’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Her parents made a poor job of hiding their disappointment that Deborah had not been born a boy, leaving Thomas their only son.

The Mitfords’ father disapproved of educating girls, famously insisting that hockey would make their ankles fat, and Deborah spent her formative years skating and hunting.

Her sister Unity’s infatuation with Hitler saw the young Deborah invited to tea with the German dictator, although the visit made little impression on her.

“If you sat in a room with Churchill,” she later recalled, “you were aware of this tremendous charisma. Kennedy had it too. But Hitler didn’t – not to me anyway.”

At Chatsworth, the Duchess took on a major role in running the house and its garden, which have been used in a number of film and TV productions.

In July 2002, the duchess and her husband spoke out against the government’s proposed ban on fox hunting.

Made a dame in 1999, she became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2004 after her husband died and their son inherited his title.

She wrote a book about her life, Wait for Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, which was published in 2010.

Related articles:

Never Marry a Mitford

The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor

Our archive of articles about or including Debo

A Traveler’s Tale: On Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Wes Davis

First published in The Nation, December 2010

At a Chelsea-to-Richmond boating party held sometime in the early 1950s, the Duchess of Devonshire, then a beautiful young woman of 30, met a dashing man, some five years her senior, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator and armed with a net and trident. It was a look she thought suited him.

The fancy-dress gladiator was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a former officer in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit that aided resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and an up-and-coming writer best known at the time for kidnapping a German general during the war. He had crossed paths with the duchess before and remembered her clearly from a regimental ball in 1940, when she was still Deborah Mitford—the youngest of the soon-to-be-famous Mitford sisters. She was then engaged to Andrew Cavendish, a tall naval officer and younger son of the Tenth Duke of Devonshire who had no expectation of inheriting his father’s title until the war took his older brother’s life four years later. Leigh Fermor had watched the couple dance their way through the evening, “utterly rapt, eyes shut, as though in a trance.” Mitford had not noticed him.

But when they met again—as duchess and gladiator—Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor struck up a friendship that has endured for more than half a century. In Tearing Haste, a collection of their letters newly available in this country, gives the impression that the conversation that started at a boating party so many summers ago has never stopped. Spanning 1954 to 2007, the volume reads like an accidental memoir of a disappearing world stretching from the manor houses of the English aristocracy to the olive groves of Greece, its people and places rendered with a kind of care that’s becoming scarce in our age of helter-skelter communication. At the same time, the book’s title, a phrase deriving from Leigh Fermor’s habit of dashing off messages “with a foot in the stirrup,” captures the vigor and bustle of the lives that nourished the correspondence. I once happened upon the manuscript of a chatty letter Leigh Fermor had written in 1944 to an Englishwoman stationed in Cairo. Amusingly composed and illustrated with a witty hand-drawn cartoon, it closed with Leigh Fermor mentioning offhand that he was in hiding on occupied Crete and that an undercover runner was waiting outside to receive the communication.

In Tearing Haste is engaging from start to finish. There isn’t a dull letter among Charlotte Mosley’s selections. Even her annotations, often incorporating information from the book’s two correspondents, are as surprising as they are informative. One biographical note on the painter Augustus John includes Deborah Devonshire’s recollection of meeting him in London: “He looked me up and down and said, ‘Have you got children?’ ‘Yes.’ Another long look. ‘Did you suckle them?'” More than anything else, the collection is important as an addition to Leigh Fermor’s body of work, both because his letters constitute a larger portion of the volume and because the writing in them harmonizes with the books that established his literary reputation. But let it be said that the Duchess of Devonshire is no slouch either. Her letters, though generally shorter and less frequent than Leigh Fermor’s, share his wit and many of his interests—a fascination with language, for example, or with the byways of English and European history. She puts a charming twist on these topics while adding a few bright threads of her own to the correspondence.

Deborah Devonshire’s books—beginning with The House (1982) and The Estate (1990)—focus largely on the management of Chatsworth, the massive estate in Derbyshire that she and her husband put into charitable trust and opened to the public in 1981. (The house was a stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and throughout the letters Leigh Fermor refers to it as “Dingley Dell,” after Mr. Wardle’s house in The Pickwick Papers.) As a writer, she is best when describing the seasonal rhythms of country life (the arrival of the year’s pullets, say) or assessing the gamut of rural arts (from drystone walling to mushroom gathering) and tilling their linguistic soil. In Counting My Chickens, a collection of notes and essays published in 2001, she remembers leaving Leigh Fermor “stumped” by the meaning of words gleaned from the glossary of a pamphlet about sheep. “One sheep disease,” she recalls, “has regional names of intriguing diversity: Sturfy, bleb, turnstick, paterish, goggles, dunt, and pedro all are gid.” On the same page she can be found rhapsodizing over “the glorious language of the 1662 prayer book, with its messages of mystery and imagination.”

She takes any opportunity to undercut the preconceived notions one might have about a duchess’s likes and dislikes. “I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows,” she says in Counting My Chickens, “and good stout things they are.” For the playwright Tom Stoppard, who contributed an introduction to the book, this was one of her most characteristic revelations. For me, a close runner-up is her discussion of flower gardening on a grand estate, where she admits, “I prefer vegetables.” Many of her stories turn on a similar blend of unexpected rusticity and unflagging old-school civility. In an essay about the life the Mitfords led for a time on the island of Inchkenneth in the Hebrides, she describes traveling by train in the company of a goat, a whippet and a Labrador back to her sister Nancy’s house in Oxfordshire when the war broke out. “I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room,” she confesses, “which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket.”

For all her modesty, the duchess isn’t embarrassed to mention boldface names that have sailed in and out of her social circle. (They range from Fred Astaire to the Queen Mother, the latter called “Cake” when she appears in the letters.) The humor in one anecdote depends on knowing that John F. Kennedy was intimate enough with the duchess to employ her nickname. This caused some confusion when her uncle Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, found himself involved in a telephone conversation with the American president about matters involving Castro, SEATO and NATO. It took him a moment to switch tracks when Kennedy asked, “And how’s Debo?” (Evelyn Waugh, a friend of hers, might well have written the scene.) In the letters, Kennedy is counted among the “bodies to be worshipped,” and several entries describe the friendship that developed between JFK and the duchess in the years between his inauguration and his death.

Her relationship with Leigh Fermor has many dimensions, its ardor fueled by humor, charisma and delight in a good tale. The revealing joke that runs through In Tearing Haste is that Devonshire is not a reader and that despite her lively correspondence with Leigh Fermor, she can’t manage to read his books. She praises one of his letters not for its vivid language but because it has instructions about which parts to skip. Leigh Fermor takes revenge in another letter, marking a set of passages with notes “don’t skip” and “ditto.” The bit he wants her to see—a foray into history by way of language—might well have been lifted from one of the books that made him famous: “The inhabitants are Koutzovlachs who speak a v. queer Latin dialect akin both to Rumanian and Italian. Some say they are Rumanian nomad shepherds who wandered here centuries ago with their flocks and never found their way home again. Others, more plausibly, say they are the descendants of Roman legionaries, speaking a corrupt camp Latin, stationed here to guard the high passes of the Pindus, miles from anywhere.” Continue reading

Paddy’s Introduction to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

You may be interested in Paddy’s introduction to the trilogy written by Miklos Banffy. I have been able to find it on the web for you to enjoy. Paddy wrote this whilst staying with the Devonshire’s at Chatsworth, Christmas 1998.

 

Page One

Page 2

Page 3

Related article:

Andrew Nurnberg to handle world rights for Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy

Never Marry a Mitford

The title is taken from a sweater that Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire used to wear around his Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. However, just like us he must have been fascinated by the Mitford sisters. In this lengthy article entitled Elvis, Chatsworth, JFK and me, Deborah Cavendish, The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and the last of the Mitford sisters, talks about her extraordinary life.

By Jessamy Calkin

First published in the Telegraph 12 Sep 2010

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire Photo: Emma Hardy/East Photographic

If you give the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire a fiver, she’ll show you round her house, an old vicarage in Edensor, Derbyshire. It would be tempting to think that she pocketed the money, but it goes towards the church roof fund. The occasion is the annual village fete.

‘It’s true,’ she says mildly. ‘What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, “You’re very brave to do this,” and I say, “You’re very brave to come,” because there’s always a queue. So funny.’

Debo, as everyone calls her, was 90 this year. Having greeted me in her pretty garden, shaking my hand and looking me directly in the eye, she leads me into the apple-green-walled and flagstone-floored hall – ‘Do put your bags down, no burglars here’ – and shows me into her sitting-room, which has an extraordinarily nice atmosphere, and we take to the floral sofa, where she positively lounges, looking at me brightly, waiting to be amused.

There have been countless books about the Mitfords, both biographical and autobiographical, and now her own memoirs, Wait for Me!, are about to be published. (She has written several books, mostly about Chatsworth, her former home.)

Debo says she was motivated to write about her life because she had offers from other people to do it for her, and she didn’t really want them ‘to fiddle about with it’. She was appalled by some of the books about her sisters – in particular David Pryce-Jones’s book about Unity, and the books about Diana, who married the fascist Oswald Mosley. ‘They are so full of inaccuracies,’ she says. ‘No one ever really got my sister Diana, and she was such an incredible person. It was always a delight for me to see somebody who was prejudiced against her sitting by her on the sofa like you and I are now and… melting, absolutely melting.’

Debo became close to Diana, who was 10 years older, only later in her life, but now, she says, ‘hardly a day goes by when I don’t say to myself, “Oh I wish I could tell Diana that, she’d laugh so much.”’

It wasn’t an easy book to write; it has taken her four years. Debo suffers from the eye condition macular degeneration and can’t read at all, but she can write; she says it’s because she knows the shape of the words. She does all of her writing in bed, early in the mornings (‘My sheets are covered in ink’) and then her assistant, Helen Marchant, reads it back to her. ‘And you feel guilty asking someone to read it back three or four times but that is what I had to do to try and get it right. Helen in her genius way can translate it into ordinary English, because I don’t know grammar and she knows grammar.’

The book is full of stirring anecdotes, such as when a wounded soldier repatriated from Italy during the war brought home a lemon. ‘Such a luxury had not been seen in the shops for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross.’ Or the dinner at Calke Abbey, where lived the Harpur Crewes. ‘The dining-room table was set with candles – the only light in that high-ceilinged room, which I imagine had not been used for years. The first course was melon; it was followed by cold beef; then melon for pudding.’ Her host, Airmyne, whose best friend was a goose, then took her up to meet ‘Nanny’ who, they said, used to be the Kaiser’s nanny, a tiny, ancient creature who was fast asleep in bed. It was the strangest evening she had ever had. ‘The Harpur Crewe siblings,’ she writes, ‘were the only true eccentrics I have ever met.’

Can this be true, I ask her. I imagined her life must be full of eccentrics. ‘Well, if you don’t count all my sisters, but I never thought of them as eccentric. I suppose my father was a bit outlandish; he was the source of all jokes in our family.’

The Mitford family

The Mitfords – there were six sisters and one brother – were a defining family of their time; Debo says now that they always thought they were ordinary, but their celebrity and influence has endured. Extreme behaviour seemed to run in the family. David Freeman-Mitford (Farve), later Lord Redesdale, married Sydney Bowles (Muv) in 1904.

Their eldest child, Nancy, wrote several historical biographies and eight novels, the most famous of which, The Pursuit of Love, was, in her own words, ‘an exact portrait of my family’. There was Pam, the least well-known sister, described by John Betjeman as ‘the most rural Mitford’. There was Tom, who used to pay his sisters a shilling an hour to argue with him and went on to become a barrister, but was killed in the war in 1945.

Diana married young, then left her husband for the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, and was put in prison for three years for her beliefs; she was also one of the few people who knew both Churchill and Hitler. There was Unity, who moved to Germany in 1934 at the age of 19 and became devoted to Hitler, whom she got to know well; her dual loyalties to the Führer and her country caused her to attempt suicide by shooting herself in the head at the outbreak of war. Continue reading

A Woman’s Hour special: ‘Debo’ – the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Woman’s Hour devoted a whole programme to an  interview with Deborah Cavendish, or as we know her ‘Debo’ – the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2010.

Deborah Cavendish

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Deborah Cavendish is 90 years old and has witnessed the 20th century up close. She has met anybody who’s anybody – Churchill, Hitler, JFK. She is also the last survivor of a remarkable set of women – the Mitford sisters: Nancy, who became a writer, Jessica who became a Communist, Unity who became a Fascist – and Diana who married one. In a special edition of Woman’s Hour Jenni talks to ‘Debo’ – the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire about her life, and the times she lived through. In her autobiography ‘Wait for Me’ she also talks about her own personal challenges; her husband, the Duke, had a long battle with alcohol and three of her children died within hours of their birth. She’s also credited with helping to save one of Britain’s great country houses, Chatsworth, which is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

A Review of In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor from the Spectator

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