“My father… was famous for having read only one book, White Fang, which he enjoyed so much he vowed never to read another. When they were first married, my mother was shocked to realize that my father had read only one book. She persuaded him to listen to her reading aloud some classics, starting with Thomas Hardy. She chose Tess of the d’Ubervilles with its descriptions of farm and heath land, which she thought he would enjoy. When she got to the sad part, my father started crying. ‘Oh, darling, don’t cry, it’s only a story.’ ‘What,’ said my father, his sorrow turning to rage, ‘do you mean to say the damn feller made it up?’ I was born after the days of White Fang and never saw my father open a book.” -Deborah Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Wait For Me
I’ve been intrigued by the Mitford sisters’ lives and literature for over ten years. Perhaps it’s because their outsized characters seemed like something out of a book, yet amazingly they lived both in and outside of the confines of manuscript.
Of the six English sisters, one became a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction; one became a Communist, ran away to marry a cousin (who in turn was Churchill’s cousin), then moved to America and exposed our crooked funeral industry while simultaneously marching in civil rights protests. A third sister left her billionaire husband and Guinness heir to marry the leader of England’s Fascist movement, Oswald Mosley. And, a fourth sister moved to Munich, became a Nazi, and was referred to as Hitler’s girlfriend!
Then, there is my favorite and the author of this memoir, Deborah Mitford… and she married a Duke. Their lives saw our world change more than any other generation; and they with it in a lot of ways. But one thing that has not changed is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire’s refusal to gossip; this is a memoir where “Debo” tells a beautiful story with descriptions and sense of place akin to fiction, yet she does not divulge secrets, expose people’s sins, or judge others too harshly. She gives equal ink to the tragedies as well as the triumphs, and even punctuates situations with a bit of her own social commentary. She is in the present, but with the manners and etiquette of a past world…one I’m afraid is far too gone.
I feel like I’ve been to her table, gone to parties with her; traipsed across Europe with Aly Khan, been the guest of JFK at the White House, and had tea with Hitler (who had little brushes in his bathroom with “A.H.” inscribed on them.) She is probably the one person to have ever had tea with the Fuhrer and years later attend the inauguration of the President of the United States as his special guest. How extraordinary.
She becomes a great hostess in her time and still owns The Swan Inn & Pub in Swinbrook on the edge of the Cotswolds. In June, I got the privilege of being a guest at The Swan and it was just as the Dowager Duchess describes it and her childhood village to be,
“Swinbrook village and its inhabitants seemed eternal. Winnie Crook, whose initials gave us such pleasure, ran the post office. She served a tuppence-worth of acid drops in a twist of paper, weighed on the same brass scales as the letters. There was the village idiot who chased Nancy (sister) and no one thought anything of it, Mrs Price, who lived up the bank and was nearly a hundred years old, and at the Mill Cottage, Mrs Phelps whom Farve (Father) mistook for a heifer calf when she was bent over weeding her garden.”She has made The Swan, a home. It may just be one of the last places left from this far gone time, and the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Mitford Cavendish, just may be the last in that elegant, passionate dynasty… where self-esteem is horribly appalling and wit meticulously crafted. A vanishing time that I am thankful to return to again and again in her memoir… “wait for me.”
~photos taken by me in June, 2014
Other books by Debo Mitford:
Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Estate: A View from Chatsworth (1990)
The Farmyard at Chatsworth (1991) — for children
Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View (1991)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays.
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003)
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
Home to Roost . . . and Other Peckings (2009)
Wait for Me!… Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010)