National Post Book Review Nov 27 2010
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.
Arista 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 II 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 qrandfather, Thomas '