First published in The Guardian 12 September 2010
By Stephen Moss
The 90-year-old Duchess of Devonshire talks about her famous Mitford sisters, meeting Hitler, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and why she doesn’t like change.
‘Oh, you’re punctual – how very unusual,” says Deborah Cavendish (AKA the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) as she enters the drawing room. I’m not sure whether I’m being congratulated or castigated; either way, I feel she has the advantage, one she never loses. I was already nervous about this encounter. The duchess has just published her memoirs, and journalists are not spared. She describes how, after she had talked about the deaths of four close friends in the second world war, a particularly dumb interviewer asked her, “So, did the war change you?” She also says in the book that you should never believe anything you read in newspapers. As well as representing the dodgy fourth estate, I’m also wondering whether I’m supposed to call her Your Grace.
The duchess says she embarked on her memoirs because she felt her family, and her parents in particular, had been portrayed unfairly in the media, with journalists working from ancient press cuttings. At 90, she wanted to put her version of her upbringing on record. And what an upbringing it was. Debo, as she is called by people who eschew titled formalities, is the last surviving member of the six Mitford sisters, an afterthought (or so she implies in the book), dismissed because her parents had wanted a second son, patronised by her glittering sister Nancy, overshadowed by the fame (or notoriety) of Jessica, Diana and Unity. Her memoir – called Wait For Me! because she says she was always running to catch up with her older, longer-legged siblings – is a touching, funny memorial to a vanished age of debutantes, balls and young men with fancy titles making the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield. She only started to write in her 60s – first about the ancestral seat of Chatsworth, then more generally – but belatedly she is catching her writerly sisters up.
Her life has been remarkable, and only her languid, laconic, matter-of-fact style allows her to shoehorn it into 370 pages. There is enough here for a dozen books. She must be one of the few people to have met both Adolf Hitler and John Kennedy, has been a familiar of the Queen for her entire reign, and was related by marriage to Harold Macmillan and used to go shooting with him. “When he became prime minister [in 1957, having previously been chancellor],” she tells me apropos of nothing in particular, “he told me it was wonderful because at last he had time to read.” She laughs. Her sense of humour and recognition of the absurdities of life are apparent throughout both her book and our conversation, bearing out her friend Alan Bennett’s remark: “Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say, ‘Joking apart . . .’ Joking never is apart: with her it’s of the essence, even at the most serious and indeed saddest moments.”
She may have deemed my punctuality worthy of remark because she lives in the middle of nowhere, in a hamlet called Edensor on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. The duchess occupied Chatsworth itself, perhaps England’s finest country house, until the death of the 11th duke in 2004. Soon afterwards she moved about a mile away, to a vicarage on the edge of the estate, far enough from the house to give her son Stoker (nicknames are important in these circles – his real name is Peregrine), the 12th duke, and his wife Amanda, the new duchess, room to breathe. Dowagers have to know their place, and recognise their moment in the sun has passed. Nothing, she emphasises, belongs to the person; it all goes with the title. “I’ve lived in furnished rooms all my life since I was married.”
Her final set of rooms are in the Old Vicarage at Edensor, which she occupies with her butler Henry, who has been with the Devonshires for almost 50 years, an ultra-efficient secretary called Helen, who has been with her for almost 25, and large numbers of chickens, pictured on the cover of her book. She enumerates the several breeds she keeps, and seems a little disappointed that I am unaware of the differences. Another dumb journalist who will probably confuse a Derbyshire redcap with a Scots dumpy.
We talk in the drawing room, silent save for the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. Her piercing blue eyes unnerve me, though she tells me towards the end that, because of macular degeneration, she can barely make out my face. That also makes reading virtually impossible, and it is remarkable that she has managed to write this book, scribbled in bed early in the mornings (“I wake up very early – I love the shipping forecast at 5.20”), with Helen typing it up. Her hair is steely grey and voluminous; she is elegantly dressed in high-necked blouse, lemon cardigan and sensible skirt; on her left wrist, beside her watch, she has a band with a small red disc that I mistake for a bracelet; she tells me it is an alarm in case she has a fall, but that she likes to pretend the red button she has to activate is a ruby.
I begin by asking her to recount her meeting with Hitler in 1937, when she, her mother and her sister Unity (who was besotted with the Führer) took tea with him in Munich. In the book she recalls him noticing they were “grubby” after a journey from Vienna, and showing them to the bathroom, where he had brushes inscribed “AH”. She has a passion – and a talent – for details. “I didn’t know Hitler,” she tells me. “I only went to tea with him once. He was very fond of my sister Unity.” She starts recounting the meeting Continue reading