By Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010
It’s difficult to comprehend the words ‘last surviving Mitford sister,’ just as it’s almost impossible to credit that Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the sisters (known to her friends and nickname-mad family as “Debo”), now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, is ninety. The whole purpose, the only justification, for being a Mitford sister is surely to be young, flippant, controversial, quotable. The brittleness of old age – to say nothing of the austere grandeur of the Dukedom of Devonshire with its lands and townhouses and castles – seems to belong firmly in our staid, monochrome world, whereas the Mitford sisters, with their unending slang and their irrepressible wit and their fashionable insouciance, come from another 20th century altogether, a sunnier place of parties and country houses and casual charm. They are foxhunts in the frosty dawn, with vermouth in the saddle-bag; they are furs worn to bomb shelters; they are clever remarks made to mankilling dictators over tea. Diana, Unity, Jessica, Nancy, and Debo – a Drones Club in heels, laughing while the rest of us rationed food, the “rum” and “riffy” Greek chorus to the whole 20th century. How can such a tawdry thing as time ever touch them?
And yet, here she is in a memoir of her own at last, Deborah Mitford, suddenly as old as the rocks among which she sits, looking back on her very public life with businesslike remonstrance and wry pep. Her sisters are all gone, and although she tells us that her book’s title Wait for Me! derives from her childhood, always pleading with her longer-legged sisters to slow down, there’s a second and sadder meaning waiting right there at the surface, a plea to the dead that foreshadows a world with no Mitford sisters in it at all, a thing none of us ever thought we’d see.
This is her first memoir but not her first book; like all of her sisters (most famously Nancy and Jessica) and so many of her Devonshire-by-marriage forebears, the Duchess writes. Happy onlookers who’ve rejoiced in the revivified and profitable concern she made of the ancestral seat at Chatsworth – the Farmyard, the shops, the petting zoo, the many lucrative publicity coups – have already enjoyed her charming accounts of that side of her life, Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost. Forensic litterateurs have searched in vain for that quicksilver glint of genius that animates so much of her sisters’ prose. There is nothing in those earlier books, or in this one, of Nancy’s restless, omnivorous intellect or Jessica’s masterful dramatics. With characteristic self-deprecation, our author is the first to guess that her sisters would have been less than charitable:
Writing was an interest that came unexpectedly into my life. I wonder what my sister Nancy would have made of the efforts of the ‘nine-year-old’ (the mental age beyond which she said I never developed) whose fist, according to her, was incapable of holding a pen. There would no doubt be a torrent of scorn, but I think she would have liked some of the jokes sprinkled in my books.
It was older sister Nancy’s girlhood confidences to young Debo that opened “a window on a glamorous life, embellished no doubt, but they made me long to meet the butterfly people she described …” (when she later actually does meet them, they are predictably more insectile than lepidopteran, as is the way with childhood wishes), and the younger sister’s imagination is filled with dreams. The Mitfords were a cadet branch of decidedly minor aristocracy, and Debo dreamed: “I planned to marry all the Maharajas of India and, failing that, the President of Turkey with the irresistible name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.”
No Maharajahs materialized, but in 1938 she met Andrew Cavendish, the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire and fell in love. About that falling in love and the inner workings of that courtship we get comparatively little in Wait For Me! – there is on every page of this memoir a kind of tasteful discretion that is not so much British as Edwardian (in his recent memoir, the late American author Louis Auchincloss – a contemporary of Debo’s and a friend, naturally – exhibits much the same reserve) a firm belief that there are public stories and there are private stories and a memoir is a place only for the former. One quickly comes to inhabit the rhythm of the book’s caesuras, to infer what one will not be told. The most wrenching chapter, “Childbirths and Deaths,” takes us right into the barren hospital rooms in which she lost three newborn or stillborn children, but it scarcely takes us past the lintel of her heart. She tells us with devastating simplicity that she’s all the more grateful some of her children lived and were healthy – as a dramatic master-stroke, it would never even have occurred to her more talented sisters.
There are rare moments of poetry here and there. When her family’s finances were straightened by the Great Depression, her father was forced to sell the family home and estate at Swinbrook House in 1935. “I minded more than I can say,” she tells us of her reaction, but an English naturalism worthy of the Pastons or Gilbert White leaps through the understatement:
As one who becomes hopelessly addicted to sticks and stones, gateways with their ruts and puddles, anthills, thrushes, freshwater springs, kingcups, dog roses and may (soon to be hips and haws), wood anemones under oaks, silent woods in August, milk-white walnuts in autumn, the smell of new creosote on chicken houses, saddle soap and horse manure – having to abandon all these made leaving Swinbrook, ‘the land of lost content’, hard to bear.
The First World War claims a great many of her friends and relatives, and when it claims the Duke of Devonshire’s oldest son and then the Duke himself dies in 1950, her Andrew inherits one of the richest and grandest dukedoms in the kingdom. Little Debo gets her Maharajah after all, and like all her sisters in one way or another, she steps onto the world stage as if it had been waiting for her. Andrew is appointed Minister of State in the Commonwealth Office, and the two of them travel extensively both for work and pleasure. They raise a family, they have their disagreements (about which there is hardly a word in this book), and they move in the company of the famous and the powerful. Prime Minister Macmillan is known as “Uncle Harold” to the sisters, and the large Kennedy clan are old friends from the carefree pre-WWII days. Half a dozen rich headline-grabbers are pulled before the book’s spotlights, slapped in the face with a pie, and then hooked off stage left. Nancy Astor (who is treated rather more gently in Auchincloss’ memoir, and in most reminiscences of the time) is dealt with summarily:
Nancy Astor was the star. Small, upright and sharp as a needle, she was a born entertainer – often at someone else’s expense. She would fix her ice-blue eyes on her victim and stop them dead in their tracks. A dreary educationalist from the Midwest was droning on and on until she cut him off with ‘that’s very interestin” – a Virginian, she dropped her g’s – ‘but I’m not interested.’
Evelyn Waugh makes one or two drunken, petulant appearances:
Evelyn Waugh was a difficult guest and when he drank too much he was impossible. Everything was wrong: the wine, his bedroom, the outlook, and, judging by his behaviour, the other guests too … Kitty was staying at the same time as Evelyn on one of his visits, and when we went up to bed she came to talk to me in my room. In no time Evelyn was in with a complaint. ‘The curtains don’t meet and I won’t be able to sleep,’ he grumbled. ‘So sorry,’ I said, ‘but there is nothing I can do about it now.’ Off he stumped but was soon back. ‘If you turn the hall light off, I won’t see my way to the bathroom.’ ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’ll leave it on.’ A while later, a knock at the door, louder and more insistent this time. ‘What is it now?’ I said. ‘I thought you ought to know,’ Evelyn announced with a look of triumph on his face, ‘ that the pot in my bedside table is full.’
The world-wandering Duke and Duchess of Windsor – old Mitford friends – are seen here in quick, deft vignettes that do much to recapture some of the charm of the Duke and cast a knowing glance at the reptilian affect of the Duchess, who purrs at a 1963 party, “Look at those brilliant Mitford brains” in a way that makes you want to douse her with something indelible. Eddy Devonshire, her husband’s father, also gets a perfectly chosen anecdote, no less enjoyable for being often told:
Keenly interested in the animal kingdom, Eddy was President of the Zoological Society of London from 1948 until his death. Herebrand, the Eleventh Duke of Bedford (whose best friend was a spider) was a member of the Society. On one occasion Eddy was being driven home by Lewis James from the London Zoo; he heard a strange grunting, gabbling noise coming from the boot. ‘James,’ said Eddy. ‘That is not a mechanical noise.’ ‘Geese, your Grace. A present from the Duke of Bedford.’ They drove on in silence.
Even the rare contemporary figure gets the Mitford touch, though some might wish they hadn’t. The Queen is a distant figure in these pages, the Prince of Wales a friendly one, the Queen Mother an intermittent source of joy, but mere politicians are fair game, especially when they meddle with matters that don’t concern them. “All but ninety-two hereditary peers were turned out of the House of Lords in 1999 by Prime Minister Blair,” we’re told, “who had no plan with which to replace them; a stranger to common sense, he preferred the grand gesture and the big spin.”
Perhaps in deference to her more bookish sisters, she omits almost all mention of the literary world’s luminaries – unless they, too, happen to be old family friends. It’s disconcerting and quickly charming to hear the 20th century’s greatest travel-writer Patrick Leigh Fermor referred to as “Paddy” throughout and to see him starring somewhat dottily in his own anecdote:
In extreme old age you suddenly find you are unable to run uphill, two buckets full of hen food are heavier than they were and the cheerful scream of hearing aids, proving that they are working, is a welcome sound. Other things go wrong. Paddy Leigh Fermor, aged ninety-four, came to stay, got into the bath, looked down at the tap and to his dismay saw that both his feet had turned black. ‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘teeth, ears and eyes are wonky and now my feet.’ He need not have worried. He had got into the bath with his socks on.
We’ve relished his prose so long and so lovingly that we can almost believe it’s some other Leigh Fermor, until a bit of a letter is quoted and we’re briefly transported to a level of English that not Debo nor any Mitford nor precious few others can match:
The whole castle [Lismore Castle in County Waterford] and the primeval forest round it were spellbound in the late spring or early autumn trance; heavy rhododendron blossom everywhere and, under the Rapunzel tower I inhabited, a still, leafless magnolia tree shedding petals like giant snowflakes over the parallel stripes of an embattled new-mown lawn: silver fish flickered in the river, wood pigeons cooed and herons slowly wheeled through trees so overgrown with lichen they looked like green coral, drooping with ferns and lianas, almost like an equatorial jungle. One would hardly have been surprised to see a pterodactyl or an archaeopteryx sail through the twilight, or the neck of a dinosaur craning through the ferns and lapping up a few bushels out of the Blackwater, which curls like the Limpopo, all set about with fever-trees …
Wait for Me! isn’t a long book, but it contains many worlds, linked only in their wild inaccessibility to most ordinary mortals. Most of us know the magnificent Castle Howard only from watching Brideshead Revisited, and then we read of it in a marvellously different light:
At Castle Howard [in 1937] there were no grown-ups. The parents of Christian, Mark, George, Christopher, and Katie Howard had died by the time I first went there (my mother told me that their father, Geoffrey Howard, had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals) … at Castle Howard the rules were there for the breaking and we had riotous fun in that glorious house with no one to tell us to stop.
We know famous names from the society pages, but here they are part of a chattering background. “There were Bonham-Carters and Toynbees galore,” we’re told, “intellectuals and politicians in the making, all arguing …” It all sounds so glorious as to be surreal, until periodic tragedies appear and ground the proceedings again. Her miscarriages, Andrew’s life-long battle with alcoholism, even her own recent collapse in 2005 (when shown her brain-scans, she remarked “One looked like an inaccurate map of Europe, another was an exact replica of a hotel carpet”) – all serve as reminders that no lives, even Mitford ones, are uninterrupted sunshine.
As is somehow only fitting in a life that spans the 20th century, the focal point of a great many of those periodic tragedies is the Kennedy family. The Mitford sisters knew the oldest Kennedy children – wide-shouldered Joe, Jr., handsome, sickly Jack, and vivacious, winning Kathleen, called “Kick” – while their father was ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and all of prewar London was one gay party. Joe, Jr. dies during a mission over the Channel in 1944, and – in a far greater shock, to Debo and certainly to the Kennedys – Kick dies in a plane crash in 1948. She’s buried in the churchyard at Chatsworth:
She and I were both twenty-eight, not the time of life when you think about death, yet that most vital of human beings had been taken from us. Bert Link, the head gardener, lined her grave with pale mauve wisteria – the sweet-smelling short-lived flowers so fitting for a life cut short so tragically.
In 1963, President Kennedy made a side-trip from an official visit to Europe. He arrived in a helicopter with a full Secret Service detail, and Andrew and Debo greeted him at Chatsworth and led him to the little bridge that would bring him to the churchyard. They didn’t go with him to her grave nor did they offer to, and none of his aides or agents dared, and when he returned ashen-faced a short time later, there were two brief sentences exchanged which cemented in his heart the love he’d always felt for Debo. What they said is not included here nor should it be; discretion is again deployed to wonderful effect, leaving us to remember more the levity of the man than the tragedy. President Kennedy was in the habit of calling Harold Macmillan for advice and informal chat, and he would often drop his voice to a tone of mock-solemnity and ask “How are things with SEATO? How are things with NATO? How are things with DEBO?” Her diary entry recounting the slain President’s funeral includes the observation “The Kennedys are so good when things are going well but they are not equipped for tragedy.”
Chatsworth Farmyard opened in 1973 and very gradually expanded into the profitable enterprise it is today, and Debo spent many years cheerfully tending to her historic homes, opening them to the public, introducing innovative ways to make them going concerns. To an unprecedented extent, this meant involving the public; Andrew particularly enjoyed sharing the daily goings-on of the estate with the visiting masses (at two bob a head, of course), and his indefatigable Duchess was there to see it all with her sparkling Mitford aptitude for the repeatable scene:
Watching the children watching the milking is better than any theatre; they remain riveted to the spot until a teacher or a parent insists on moving them on. I asked one little boy from a school in the middle of Sheffield what he thought of this performance. ‘It’s the most disgustin’ thing I’ve ever seen,’ he said, vowing never to touch milk again.
The signature tone here is an affability none of her more imperious sisters could ever match. The best part of reading Wait for Me! is most certainly the sense of intimacy it imparts despite that ironclad discretion. The most refreshing thing about the Dowager Duchess is that she never stops learning nor wants to stop – all of life’s experiences find her happily wanting more. There’s a lesson in that for the more jaded souls who come to her book weary of their lives; her own life has been ever so much longer, and yet the tone of these pages is the quipping sardonic chatter of her youth, where any experience can be sifted for the priceless gem buried in the banal. She talks at one point about how age has lessened her fear of public speaking, but the barb is one she’d have spotted just as quickly in the 1930s:
I have found talking in public easier as I have got older, perhaps because I no longer care what I look like or whether or not my stockings are straight. But, oh, the apprenticeship is hard! I love the questions, some so deadly serious on a light-hearted subject; but they keep the audience awake. Recently I gave a talk about my childhood and someone asked me, “Your sisters are buried at Swinbrook, are you going to join them there?” She did not add the word ‘soon’ but that is what she meant.
Not too soon, I hope. The world is not quite ready for that, if it ever will be.
Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books. Contrary to idle speculation, she is not the ‘lost’ Mitford sister.