Tag Archives: Mitford sisters

The Mitford files: Exploring the extraordinary lives of six sisters

Surely more forests have been felled in the name of the Mitford girls than any other family circle in history, and the death recently of 94-year-old Deborah, the youngest and longest-lived, prompts a consideration of the sisters’ contribution to the world of letters – as both authors and subjects.

By Mark McGinness.

First published in The National, 2 October 2014.

Between 1904 and 1920, Lord and Lady Redesdale produced a son, Tom, and six daughters – Nancy, the novelist and Francophile; Pam, a horsewoman, farmer and cook; Diana, a fascist beauty; Unity, a besotted Nazi; Jessica (“Decca”), an American communist and writer; and Deborah (“Debo”), the Duchess of Devonshire. They were six variations of the same face and voice with an obsessive dedication to a person or cause. Nancy’s love for Gaston Palewski, Unity’s for Hitler and Diana’s for the English fascist Oswald Mosley, blighted their lives – although none of them would ever admit it. Jessica’s dedication to communism and Deborah’s to her home, Chatsworth House, were just as strong but cast no shadows.

Four of the sisters – Nancy, Diana, Jessica and Deborah – took to print. Memoirs from the last three of them (and more than 40 books among them); novels and historical biographies from Nancy; biographies and reviews from Diana; and exposés from Jessica, the Queen of Muckrakers. Three volumes of Nancy’s letters have been published (one, her correspondence with Evelyn Waugh), 700 pages of letters from Jessica, and Deborah’s 54 years of brilliant badinage with the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, In Tearing Haste. There are also the 843 pages of correspondence between all six sisters, covering 77 years.

These tomes join four previous biographies of Nancy (by Harold Acton, Selina Hastings, Laura Thompson and Lisa Hilton); two of Diana (by Jan Dalley and Anne de Courcy); three of Unity (the most comprehensive – and controversial – by David Pryce-Jones); one of Pamela, the quietest and, according to John Betjeman, “the most rural of them all”; and two of all six sisters: The House of Mitford by Diana’s son, Jonathan Guinness and his daughter Catherine; and Mary Lovell’s quite definitive The Mitford Girls. There was even a musical of the same name in 1981. Deborah’s daughter, Sophia Murphy, also produced The Mitford Family Album. Biographies of Deborah are certain, like her beloved chickens, to be hatched before long.

Why the fascination? The lives of the Mitford sisters have riveted, and repelled, Anglophiles, romantics and readers since the 1930s. Diana Mitford once wrote, “I must admit ‘the Mitfords’ would madden ME if I didn’t chance to be one.” Their hold on the public imagination, through their loves and marriages, their politics and opinions, their friendships and sense of fun, can be attributed to a mixture of aristocratic eccentricity, romance, rebellion, devotion, betrayal, estrangement, tragedy and loss; and through it all, a uniquely irrepressible wit. This absolute self-possession and determination to treat the gravest aspects of life as a lark are what make the Mitfords such an enduring study.

The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (2008), superbly edited by Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, presents the sisters at their vivid best, bouncing off each other, revealing a distinctive, instantly recognisable style that shines through each one’s letters. The lives of the Mitford girls seem as remote today as the Bennett sisters. The latter were fictional and the Mitfords have become so, too.

It is almost impossible for many to separate the family from their fictional equivalents. The books that made them so, and grew into what Jessica dubbed the Mitford Industry, were Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), which become classics, still in print today, creating cult figures of her already notorious family.

The intensely autobiographical nature of Nancy’s fiction might suggest a lack of creative imagination, but the real-life models she was so brilliantly able to draw on – with some, but not much, embellishment – made it all the more fascinating for appearing to be true. Published in December 1945, The Pursuit of Love, a hilarious, high-spirited and sweepingly romantic tale came at just the right time to a country exhausted and numb after six years of war.

That spirit and the ingredients of love, childhood and the eccentricities of the English aristocracy in the guise of the Radlett family make it still so eminently readable today. Nancy trumped her success with Love in a Cold Climate four years later, again drawing on life with the Radletts, but focusing on their neighbours.

Half a century passed between Nancy’s first novel, Highland Fling (1931), and Debo’s first book. Eldest green-eyed Nancy never recovered from not being an only child and was relentless in her teasing. She called Debo “Nine” – her apparent mental age – and claimed she had to point to the words on a page to read. Debo played on this, claiming never to read; rather like Favre (as they called their father), who apparently only ever read one book, White Fang, which he found so good there was no need to read another.

Debo was certainly a late developer but would write almost as many books as Nancy, and proved herself as gifted, original and funny as her supposedly cleverer sisters. Most of them reflected her life’s work, Chatsworth House, the seat of the Cavendishes for 16 generations since 1549, the 175-room caramel-coloured pile, known as “the Palace on the Peak” in Derbyshire, which in 1959, she and her husband, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, occupied (with their son and two daughters) and set about to rescue. Debo was arguably the greatest chatelaine of the 20th century.

In 1980, at the age of 60, she produced Chatsworth: The House (1980); then in 1990, The Estate: A View from Chatsworth. The Treasures of Chatsworth and The Farmyard at Chatsworth were published in 1991 and, in 1999, The Garden at Chatsworth. Two years later a bestselling collection of home thoughts and reviews, Counting My Chickens (2001), appeared. She was a hen breeder and chicken lover for more than 80 years.

The Chatsworth Cookery Book ­appeared in 2003. Debo’s hairdresser thought she had a nerve as she had not cooked since 1945. But she was better than two of her sisters. Nancy, looking after her father during the war, threw an egg into a pot of water and was appalled when “a sinister sort of octopus grew out of it”. So she threw in two more – the whole week’s ration – and the same thing happened. She then gave up. Jessica was no more adept. Her recipe for roast goose reads: “Take a goose and roast till done.”

In 2005, Round About Chatsworth was published, featuring the 35,000 acres that surround the house – plumb full of houses and architectural curiosities: bridges and byres, mills and a mortuary, turrets, towers and troughs, forests, fountains and follies – brimming with Devonshire knowledge and Mitford dash.

Writing about Chatsworth was the most natural thing in the world for Deborah and so it read. She listed her occupation in Who’s Who as “housewife” and would refer to Chatsworth as “the dump”. As Alan Bennett said in his introduction to the second collection of her journalism, Home to Roost … And Other Peckings (2009), a bestseller like her predecessor, “Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say ‘joking apart …’: with her it’s of the essence, even at the most serious and saddest of moments.”

And in a long life, she had her tragedies and her trials. She lost three children at birth and like many a duke, her husband had affairs. He was also an alcoholic and a gambler but gave these up so their last two decades were warm and companionable.

“Happiness is very rare and totally overrated,” Deborah would say. “Contentment is completely different and Chatsworth has made me content … I am the most easily pleased of the sisters.”

By December 2005, sisterless and widowed (her last sister, Diana, died in 2003 and the Duke the following year), Debo left Chatsworth to her son, the 12th duke, and his wife, moving nearby to the Old Vicarage at Edensor. She called it the Old Vic and soon made it her own. She continued to contribute to The Spectator as a columnist and reviewer. Her views were sturdily conservative – Crown and countryside, the social order and stiff upper lip, good manners, loyalty and friendship, but always expressed with originality and humour.

Then, at the age of 90 and by then almost blind, she published her memoirs, Wait for Me!, perhaps the most reliable and rational account of life as a Mitford sister, recalling the stumpy-legged infant trying to catch up to her five big sisters. Indifferent to their politics, her love for her sisters was unwavering. Debo had been the Redesdales’ last chance for another son. Mabel the parlourmaid recalled, “I knew it was a girl by the look on his lordship’s face.” Yet, unlike her tearaway sisters she loved life at home with Muv and Favre and became her father’s favourite. Apart from preserving Chatsworth and protecting the legacy of her sisters, the Duchess of Devonshire championed, through her writing and her patronages, traditional values and the importance of country life; proving in the end, to be the grandest and most remarkable of that remarkable brood.

Mark McGinness is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Dubai.

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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

The Duchess of Devonshire: ‘When you are very old, you cry over some things, but not a lot’

A young and beautiful Debo

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.”

The duchess with her beloved chickens at Chatsworth in the 1990s. Photograph: Christopher Simon Sykes/Getty Images

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

The Duke of Devonshire’s obituary from The Independent

Andrew Cavendish was the 11th Duke of Devonshire, Debo’s beloved husband and a close friend of Paddy for over half a century. Paddy and Andrew shared many long walks and expeditions together some of which are detailed in the book of letters ‘In Tearing Haste’ whilst the most comprehensive account of one of their shared journeys is ‘Three Letters from the Andes’ published in 1991 during which Paddy described his own responsibilities as ‘looking after the primus stove’. 

First published in The Independent Thursday, 6 May 2004 

 Rescuer of Chatsworth and reviver of the family tradition of patronage 

“I am a very rich duke, a most agreeable thing to be, even in these days,” said the hero in Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love. Her brother-in-law Andrew Cavendish, when he succeeded five years later as 11th Duke of Devonshire, had every reason to disagree. 

Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, landowner: born London 2 January 1920; MC 1944; styled 1944-50 Marquess of Hartington, succeeded 1950 as 11th Duke of Devonshire; Mayor of Buxton 1952-54; President, Royal Hospital and Home (formerly Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables), Putney 1954-91; President, Building Societies Association 1954-61; President, Lawn Tennis Association 1955-61; Chairman, Grand Council, British Empire Cancer Campaign 1956-81; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations 1960-62; Minister of State, Commonwealth Relations Office 1962-64, and for Colonial Affairs 1963-64; PC 1964; Chancellor, Manchester University 1965-86; Steward, Jockey Club 1966-69; President, National Association for Deaf Children 1978-95; Chairman, Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association 1978-81; President, RNIB 1979-85; Patron in Chief, Polite Society 1991-2004; Vice-President, London Library 1993-2004; KG 1996; married 1941 The Hon Deborah Freeman-Mitford (one son, two daughters, and two sons and one daughter deceased); died Chatsworth, Derbyshire 3 May 2004.  

Born a second son on the second day of 1920, he grew up with no expectation of becoming a duke. His father’s premature death in 1950 left him with huge death duties to pay, and the extra liability of palatial Chatsworth, at a time when smaller houses were going down like ninepins. How he overcame all these difficulties, making Chatsworth habitable and a source of widespread enjoyment, discovering in the process new ways of helping all manner of people and institutions, as well as reviving the family tradition of enlightened patronage, is one of the success stories of our time. 

The Cavendish family roots were in Suffolk, but “Bess of Hardwick”, founder of the dynasty, was born in Derbyshire, in 1518. Successive marriages, the second to Sir William Cavendish, enabled her to expand her property. Quarrels with her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, led her to leave the house she had built at Chatsworth, and build another, even larger, at Hardwick itself. Her sons built on this foundation, the second becoming father of the first Duke of Newcastle, the first buying back Chatsworth and created Earl of Devonshire in 1618 (the title came not from any territorial connection, but because it had just become vacant by the death without issue of the previous holder). 

They were royalists in the Civil War, when the family wealth was diminished – save in the library, watched over by Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher. The fourth Earl, of imperious disposition, fell out with the Stuarts and retreated to Chatsworth, which he rebuilt and enlarged. He supported William III, who elevated him to be the first Duke of Devonshire. His son, Steward of the Household to Queen Anne and later to George I, was the first great virtuoso of the family, and built up the collection of old master drawings at Chatsworth. He was the first, too, to succeed on the Turf, buying Flying Childers, “the fleetest horse that ever ran at Newmarket”. 

The second Duke’s son and grandson were both Lord-Lieutenants of Ireland, and between them remodelled the grounds at Chatsworth, the fourth Duke commissioning James Paine to build the new stables. By his marriage to the only daughter of the great Earl of Burlington, architect and connoisseur, more came to Chatsworth, from the Boyle Irish estates to the drawings of Inigo Jones. His son, husband of the famous Georgiana Spencer, was himself a notable figure. Their only son, the sixth Duke, the greatest collector of all, made Chatsworth what it is today. 

“He appears to be disposed to spend a great deal of money,” said the family auditor to his father. “So much the better,” was the memorable reply. “He will have a great deal of money to spend.” He did, enlarging and beautifying Chatsworth with the help of Jeffry Wyatville and Joseph Paxton. He bought wonderful books, marble and antiquities, including a fifth-century bronze head of Apollo, commissioned sculpture from Canova, and for him Paxton built the splendid conservatory at Chatsworth, forerunner of the Crystal Palace. 

But he remained the “Bachelor Duke”: dying childless in 1858, he was succeeded by a cousin who had fortunately inherited much himself, including the wealth and books of the scientist Henry Cavendish and the Compton family estates on the South Coast. He himself invested in industry, built up Eastbourne and gave Cambridge the Cavendish Laboratory. His son reverted to politics (he was the only person to refuse the premiership three times) and horse-racing. The ninth Duke became Governor-General of Canada during the First World War, when Chatsworth was inevitably neglected. All the plants in Paxton’s conservatory died and it had to be pulled down, but gradually life returned to normal. 

So Lord Andrew Cavendish grew up between the wars, when the hereditary peerage had not become a political plaything and leisure was a way of life, not a profession. Devonshire House in London had gone, pulled down to make way for a motor showroom, and so had Chiswick House (now in the care of English Heritage), but the family still owned four other great houses besides Chatsworth and Hardwick. The footmen still wore full livery (lemon coat, dark blue breeches and white stocking) if there were more than six to dinner. 

It was 1938 when his grandfather died, aged 69. Andrew’s father was Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and abroad, and Andrew was about to leave Eton for Trinity College, Cambridge. He had taken neither very seriously. His father worried about this, as about his occasional flutters on and off the Turf. But an old friend said to him, “Surely you wouldn’t like your son to get good reports?”, and Newmarket turned youthful diversion into an abiding passion. Neither overcame an earlier, deeper and even more long-lasting love of books and reading. A year later his elder brother William, now Marquess of Hartington, came of age, with a series of parties – the last at Chatsworth in August 1939. Then came the war and goodbye to all that. 

Both brothers went into the Coldstream Guards, to be “sorted out” like many others by drill, boots and sergeant-majors. Caterham was varied by escape to London, where Andrew would take Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the six daughters of Lord Redesdale, out to dinner; in April 1941 they married. Then came posting abroad, via North Africa to Italy, where he first saw action; unable to sleep the night before, he read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room, just out, from cover to cover. In the fierce fighting north of Rome in July 1944, he was awarded the MC. His company captured a hill south of Strada, and held it despite being cut off on all sides. The citation records his “endless cheerfulness, energy and disregard of danger”; he himself said, “I got it for being cheerful”, a characteristic self-depreciation. 

That same spring his elder brother married Kathleen Kennedy, sister of the future President of the United States; only four months later he was killed in action in France. This was a crushing blow, still remembered with pain almost 60 years later. Used, by gentle warning from his father, to accept the minor, less demanding role of a younger son, he now found himself pitchforked into new responsibility. When he left the Army, he dutifully stood in the Conservative interest for the neighbouring seat of Chesterfield in 1945 and again in 1950. 

Adjusting to post-war austerity and high taxation was another problem. His father, well advised like his forebears by Currey & Co, made over the estate, the gift dependent on his living for five years. In November 1950, 14 weeks short of this term, he died, aged only 55. 

His estate was then valued at £5.9m, and at the current rate of 80 per cent death duties came out at £4.72m. It was clear that huge economies would have to be made; the question was how to make them without diminishing the sources of revenue needed to maintain what was left. The 11th Duke and his Duchess counted their assets: they were both 30, young, energetic and, untrammelled by conventions now out of date, were prepared to do something different. Time was on their side, and Chatsworth, hitherto more a place just to visit, proved to be the key to the future. Continue reading