Deborah Mitford, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire with her great grandchildren
Wait For Me! by Deborah Mitford,Douglas & McIntyre $32.50 345 pages
If you’re under thirty you may be bewildered by Mitfordmania. You may be saying who are/were the Mitfords anyway? Why all the publicity around a 90, yes 90 year old Dowager Duchess of Mitfordshire, I mean Devonshire, and her memoir Wait For Me!
A little history.
Exhausted by world war II, Britain voted in the socialist revolution in the hopes of making the country more egalitarian. But the older, richer, anarchic England wouldn’t lie down and die. Today, the word aristocratic is often used to indicate refinement. In fact, aristo culture is warlord. In the old days, the landowners used their private armies to make kings. Today, the greatest aristocratic families still look down on the Royal Family as upstarts. Thus Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, even as the socialists got their teeth into the muscle of the country, was a hunting call to the newly oppressed. The affectionate satire of her parents Lord and Lady Redesdale, and their six daughters who insouciantly made their own rules, their own language in their own bubble made readers laugh and cry. Overseas readers loved Farve, an unregenerate feudal lord who did exactly what he liked, hunted his children across his Oxfordshire acres, and hated all foreigners. How the dining room was so cold that the family used to clasp heated soup plates to their chests to keep warm. One night absent-minded Muv clasped a full soup plate…. English eccentricity at its most beguiling.
Aristo backlash – then some. As taxes rose and 80% death duties ravaged many an ancient estate, aristos kept their heads down. But slowly aristo creep was observed. Charm is a prerogative of power, and the aristos continued to use charm in the trenches, anticipating People magazine and a time when charm and celebrity would be all. Nancy was also a skilled provocateur , writing an article about U and Non-U speech which emphasized the divisions of a class-ridden nation. Even the Queen, so it was said, let it be known that she didn’t want to hear any more about how the use of mirror instead of looking- glass made the English despise each other. Of course it was a Nancy tease – how, said one of my cousins, can you say “driving looking-glass.” ?
Nancy’s sisters, meantime, had outraged the nation even more sensationally. Unity had fallen in love with Hitler, and tried to commit suicide when war broke out. Jessica, having eloped in order to fight in the Spanish Civil War, was now in California, a Communist organizer, preparing her muckraking bestseller The American Way of Death. Diana had married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascists, in Goebbels’ Berlin house with Das Fuhrer the only witness. She was imprisoned during the war as a threat to the state – and it was Nancy who had denounced her!
What today’s 7/24 news cycle would have done with this. As it was, the press gave the Mitfords as near a full Princess Diana as print could provide. No wonder Lady Redesdale, brought up to believe that a lady should only have her name in the press when she was born, married, and died, found her heart sinking when she saw the headline “Peer’s daughter….” That was just for starters. Books by and about the girls became a cottage industry, followed by a musical, TV….
Enter Deborah, Debo, the youngest and surviving sister to tell her story. Her parents nicknamed her Stubby because she had such short fat legs: she trailed her sisters crying “wait for me.” She’s funny of course, not brilliant like Nancy or spontaneous as Jessica who intoned “Nature nature, how I hateyer” on a nature walk, but deadpan. And remember, she’s the one who had tea with Hitler. In 1936, when Debo visited her lovesick sister Unity in Munich, the dictator invited them to tea in his flat. He didn’t say much but imagine Adolf putting aside his plans to murder millions to spend a couple of hours with the Mitford girls.
Subsequently, Debo pulled herself together and married an English duke. Not any old duke. The Devonshires were magnates like the Duke of Omnium in Trollope’s The Palliser series, owners of vast estates, above all the greatest country house of all, Chatsworth, a glittering Baroque gem with 297 rooms and set in the rolling hills of Derbyshire, surrounded by ll miles of parkland, and stuffed with incomparable art treasures. ( Moviegoers will have had a glimpse of its beauty from the movies of Pride and Prejudice and The Duchess.) Happy ending? Not yet. Lucky she was battlehardened by the Redesdale school of hard knocks.,
First the enchanted early years of being a Mitford. Debo, who’s as fed up with the age of Mark Zuckerberg as most everyone over 25, recalls tartly that “Money was not spoken about as it is now, when it is often the sole subject of conversation, with a bit of illness thrown in.” The children didn’t know their father had squandered his inheritance just that they kept moving. While a new house was being built, Farve stashed the family in a cheap Paris hotel. Unfazed, the children wasted no time making it like home. Debo, Jessica, even Nanny were puzzled by the bidet and hurried out to buy some goldfish to fill it. Fortunately, no formal schooling – the girls had governesses – squelched their shiny faced naivete. They must have inherited their insatiable curiosity from their journalist maternal grandfather, Thomas Bowles, the publisher of the magazine, The Lady, which survives today. Their fearlessness too because Bowles was illegitimate in an unforgiving era. But they got their way with words from their father, a powerful imagemaker. He came home from lunching on sheep’s hearts “still beating on the plate” as he told the children.
Muv was the family’s anchor wherever they moved, running any household to perfection. A progressive Green, she served only Kosher food (healthier), never drank or smoked. Refrigerators may have saved millions from food poisoning but Muv said “I don’t really like refrigerators: they make the food so cold.” Aghast to learn Farve had only read one book, White Fang, she read him Tess of the D’Urbevilles, thinking its rural character would please him. But when the story grew sad, he started to cry, “Oh darling, don’t cry, it’s only a story.” Farve was furious. Books were dead. He did however read Nancy’s description of him in The Pursuit of Love – and laughed.
Upperclass women’s destiny was marriage and Muv had no choice but to raise her daughters to be subservient wives. She did her best. When Debo was ten, Muv tested the girls’ housekeeping skills, asking them to account for a budget of 500 pounds a year. As the others struggled with rent and wages, Nancy wrote “499 pounds for flowers. one pound for the rest.” After that, “Muv gave up.” But she remained heartbreakingly loyal to her warring brood. She had their number.
Dying she told them “You’ll cry at my funeral and then you’ll start laughing.” She was right.
If Debo had any idea that marriage was a safe harbour, she was soon disillusioned. She felt quite at home with her father-in-law . A keen fisherman who made his own flies, he would lie in his bath pretending to be a salmon and his butler would float the flies above him so he could determine which was irresistible. But then he died inopportunely in 1950 triggering horrendous death duties which took 4/5ths of the family fortune and 24 years to pay off. This wasn’t the only problem. Debo’s husband was a drunk most of their married life, which she discreetly acknowledges. But she doesn’t mention his sex addiction. In 1985 the butler spilled the beans on the Duke’s habit of giving large checks to a series of young women who came to his London house. The Duchess stayed mum. In the sixties, Debo became a good friend of John F. Kennedy – his sister had married the Duke’s elder brother who was killed in the war – and recounts without irony that she swam with him in the White House swimming pool – since revealed as a noontime hookers’ venue. MItfords don’t apologize or explain.
Anyway, by this time she was inextricably wedded to Chatsworth itself. The Duke who liked to tell people he did nothing, did atleast one great thing. He made her CEO of brand Chatsworth. If the estate survives in the future, it will be largely thanks to her. Not only did she supervise the modernization of the huge house so a family could once again live in it, but she opened up the Chatsworth experience to the people. Channelling Muv, Debo made Chatsworth green. She opened the first farm shop at any stately home, stocked with local produce, opened a restaurant and gift shop, all contributing to Chatsworth’s bottom line. Chatsworth is now child-friendly with hands-on exhibits, a working farmyard and a maze. She bonded with her neighbours. More than 3,000 couples in Derbyshire married the same year as the Devonshires were invited to tea to celebrate their golden wedding. Not least, she led the Chatsworth contingent to join 750,000 fellow rustics in the 1997 Countryside March on Westminster to protest the ban on fox hunting. Her daughter Sophie beside her sported a banner “I’m ready to go to jail.”
Somewhere her sisters must be laughing. .