Deborah Mitford: Wait for Me!


…We have not just a sketch but a portrait of a remarkable woman…

One of seven children, and the last of six daughters, born to Lord and Lady Redesdale in 1920, Deborah Mitford (the Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford before her marriage), has written her memoirs, a veritable catalogue of eccentrics (don’t the English just specialize in nurturing outlandish characters who would be imprisoned or institutionalized in other countries ?) and a chronicle of twentieth-century life viewed from a posh perspective, if ever.  Lord Redesdale, described by his daughter as “impatient, intolerant, impulsive, loyal, courageous, loving, fastidious, unread, and possessed of great charm,” dominates the narrative of her early years; “I was my father’s favourite. . . we saw eye to eye about everything,” she writes.  Well, perhaps not everything:  he had read, he said, only one book in his life, Jack London’s White Fang, and found it so extraordinary that he never read another, fearing that nothing could measure up.  And speaking of measuring up, one wonders, despite the spin given to Deborah’s 60+ year marriage, if the stress and tensions that ramified throughout the course of that union were not in some measure due to the husband’s failure to meet the “standards” set by the father.  The portrait of Lady Redesdale seems to have been done with a revisionist brush; contrary to received opinion that she was vague, undemonstrative, and detached, her daughter presents her as assertive and loving, with an intuitive connection to each of her daughters.

The Mitford family

With scant education – some lessons from “Muv” (Mother), a little day schooling, and a couple of months at a curiously named London finishing school, the Monkey Club, Deborah was presented at Court, then married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941; because of the death of his older brother, the heir (married to JFK’s sister Kathleen), Andrew became the eleventh Duke of Devonshire.  The couple took possession of Chatsworth, the Devonshire seat in Derbyshire, a musty, crumbling pile of some two hundred ninety-seven rooms with hundreds of staff for the house and extensive grounds.  Chatsworth, by the way, was but one of seven properties in the Devonshire portfolio.  And so it began. . .

Deborah’s older sisters had already established themselves, after a fashion.  The oldest, Pamela, married and led what seem closest to an ordinary life, though that may need qualification:  she married Derek Jackson, described by Deborah as “vital, generous, courageous, bisexual, unfaithful, unpredictable, rich… rude.”  She goes on to say that “when she [Pamela] became pregnant he took her to the north of Norway and drove for miles over bumpy roads with the inevitable result of a miscarriage.”   Unity (“always the odd one out,” says her sister), fell madly in love with Hitler and, when Britain declared war on Germany, she shot herself in the head with a pearl-handled revolver in a Munich park, causing irreparable brain damage.  Diana, the great beauty of the family, had married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Irish brewing fortune and had two sons by him, only to have an affair with the already-married Sir Oswald Mosley, infamous leader of the British Fascist Party; both were imprisoned during World War II because of their outspoken politics laced with distasteful racist rant.  (Diana, was, as they say, a piece of work:  interviewed late in life, she refused to condemn Hitler, admitting that “he did have a sense of humor, you should have seen him mimic Mussolini,”).  Nancy, ever disappointed in love, turned her talents to writing, publishing several novels as well as acclaimed studies of Voltaire, Mme de Pompadour, and Louis XIV as well as an admired translation of Madame de LaFayette’s Princesse de Cleves. Twice Nancy took it upon herself to inform the English authorities that her sister Diana was a danger.  Jessica, after marriage to a cousin who died in the war, emigrated to the United States where she joined the Communist Party and became a journalist still remembered for her muckraking account of  the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. Tom, who would have succeeded his father as Lord Redesdale died in the war; like Diana and Unity, he was an ardent Fascist and admirer of Hitler.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935

Thus, what you get in Wait for Me! is, from one perspective, a family story, the narrative of a rich and long life lived at the upper reaches of the English aristocracy.  The Duchess has been a confidante of the Queen for many, many years, and that has certainly given her access to the great and (perhaps) good – Harold Macmillan (“Uncle Harold,” by marriage), Prime Minister and Chancellor of the University of Oxford; Winston Churchill; the Kennedys (old Joe and Rose as well as the girls and boys of the clan); LBJ and Lady Bird; Prince Charles and Camilla.   The list goes on and on – but it’s never name-dropping, just part of the life.

Eccentrics abound, among them:

Evelyn Waugh:

The phenomenal amount of drink that the writer downed made him tricky company and, as I was still shocked by drunkenness, I kept my distance.  One night he poured a bottle of Green Chartreuse over his head and, rubbing it into his hair, intoned, ‘My hair is covered in gum, my hair is covered with gum,’ as the sticky mess ran down his neck.

Dame Edith Sitwell:

On another occasion when we lunch at Renishaw [the Sitwells’ house], she wore a feather hat and long fur coat that she never unbuttoned.  She told me that the chief things she remembered her mother saying were, ‘We must remember to order enough quails for the dance,’ and ‘If only I could get your father put into a lunatic asylum.’

Sir Edwin Marsh:

For exercise, Eddie tossed a pack of playing cards on the floor and picked them up one-by-one.

Some of what appears in Wait for Me! may raise the hackles of democratically-inclined American readers who have little patience with some of the quirks of the English aristocracy.  One of the most irritating, perhaps, is that of giving everyone in the group a nickname and using it consistently:  Deborah refers to her parents as “Farve” and “Muv,” never “Father” and “Mother”; to her son, Peregrine as “Stoker”; and she gives us the names assigned to all her siblings as well, including her own, given by Nancy to reflect her estimate of Deborah’s intellectual development in chronological terms:  “Nine.”  (The late Queen Mother was known as “Cake” and the Prince of Wales as “Friend.”)  Perhaps even more irritating are the sheer excesses of the aristocratic lifestyle: the endless rounds of parties, balls, hunts; the palatial houses: life lived well over the top.  In 2009 “Stoker,” the present Duke of Devonshire gave a party for nine hundred ten guests at Chatsworth.

The woman who emerges from this memoir is both remarkable and complex, off putting and endearing, irritating and admirable.  Remarkable, given that her birth was largely ignored and she knew it:  as she notes, “my parents’ dearest wish was for a big family of boys; a sixth girl was not worth recording. . .no one, except Nanny, looked at me till I was three months old and then were not especially pleased by what they saw.”  An inauspicious, if not damaging, beginning for one who has achieved a good deal – marriage, children, the efficient overhaul of a grand estate into a self-supporting operation employing hundreds of local folk, life-long devotion of friends, and nearly a dozen books to her credit.

Complex, too, yes – with the slight hauteur perhaps appropriate for the Duchess persona she’s inhabited all these years, Deborah Devonshire suffers no fools, takes no prisoners, one feels.  A certain spikiness comes out, most often when appropriate.  Those a little too grand are dispatched.  Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and Director of the Courtauld Institute, visited Chatsworth, and she found him a difficult guest, disappointed perhaps that the company wasn’t grand or intellectual enough; “I was thankful when the time came for him to leave and take his cold eyes and unpleasant personality with him,” she writes. Journalists get it too.  One who asked her about her experience of World War II heard her tell of the loss of her only brother, her husband’s brother, a brother-in-law, and her four best friends.  At the conclusion of that painful narrative, the journalist asked, “So. . .did the war affect you in any way?”

Leave it to an American to take the Duchess herself down a few pegs.  At the White House with JFK and two male friends, dinner was preceded by drinks in the gallery; dinner was announced and, she writes, “. . .being the only woman and a foreigner, I went without thinking to the open door.  On the threshold Jack threw out his arms and said, ‘No, not you.  I go first, I’m Head of State.’”  Discovering her flight from D.C. to New York was scheduled for the same day as his, he set her straight, if she had any thought of sharing the ride, “I go presidential, you go commercial,’ he said, putting me in my place.”  Perhaps he knew that years before, after dancing with him at a ball in London, she’d returned home and written in her diary, “Rather boring but nice.”?

The Duchess does have a sense of humor:  “When Lord Carnarvon came to shoot, I kept a loaded water pistol by my place at dinner and if the talk got altogether too much, I threatened his velvet jack with a short sharp shower.”    In 1957 her last child, Sophy, was born.  Deborah had lost three stillborn children since the birth of her first daughter:  “The fourteen-year gap between Emma and Sophy sometimes caused people to ask, ‘Who was your first husband?’”

In the end, we have not just a sketch but a portrait of a remarkable woman – devoted, observant, discreet (she writes of her husband’s severe alcoholism and its nearly breaking the marriage but not of his infidelities; asked in an interview if he had been unfaithful, she snapped, “Oh yes, of course.”), and loyal to her own.  She clearly has a talent for friendship.  Her occasional class and family loyalty involves some myopia (defending her sister Unity, she writes, “she was not the only English girl to fall for National Socialism… we knew the bad side, we knew she had condoned Nazi cruelty and that she had taken a flat from a Jewish couple who had been evicted; yet. . .there was something innocent about Unity, a guileless, childlike simplicity that made her vulnerable and in need of protection”) and her narrative of that tea with Hitler is curiously – but typically – lacking in censure or even mild disapproval; it ends thus, “Looking back, what is surprising is that he postponed his departure for two hours so as to be able to sit and chat to Unity and though her, to us.”  Looking back, what is surprising is that she spent time with the satanic monster who would maniacally seek to destroy the Jewish people, slaughtering at least six million of them and countless others in his megalomaniacal quest to achieve his warped vision.

Deborah Devonshire has taken to herself both the gifts of privilege and the considerable burdens placed upon her – whether the care of a difficult, failing husband or the supervision of a very large household, really a corporation.  She has suffered the loss of three children, family and friends in war, and the considerable vicissitudes of aging (she is now nearly blind) without complaint, without self-pity.  Never the victim, she has carried on, always rising above it; and now, at age ninety, having outlived all her siblings and so many of her own generation, she manifests a deep and abiding appreciation for what counts – her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – and the memories of an extraordinary life.