Category Archives: Deborah Devonshire

The End of an Era…

On Wednesday we learned the sad news that Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, had passed away. As the last of the Mitford sisters, who you all probably know I am a huge fan of, for me it seemed like a particular part of history had died out.

I don’t really want to say lots about it, partly as I don’t feel qualified to sing her praises enough and partly as I never knew or even met Deborah Devonshire in the flesh. Yet through her wonderful writing both to her sisters and in the diaries, memoirs and essays she kept, I did feel like I would have loved to sit and have a gossip and a chat with her, I think wicked laughter would have ensued as her wit, like all the Mitford sisters, was wondair. The hours spent reading those has been a joy so I am hugely thankful for that, and the reading I still have to come.

I also have her to thank for all the wonderful times I had playing in Chatsworth as a child, when I wouldn’t have know her from Adam if I has passed her in a field, which apparently Gran once did and had a lovely chat with her. Yet she turned what was a dilapidated and run down building into a place of wonder which benefitted tourists from miles around but just as importantly locals both in trade and in wonderful summers spent within its acres. Though this leads me to my favourite Deborah quote…

“Thousands of people come to walk in the park at Chatsworth all year round. There is no way of telling how many, because it is free. Most people enjoy it, or presumably they wouldn’t come, but every now and again a letter of criticism arrives.

Last week a woman wrote to say she was ‘disgusted by the animal faeces on the grass, every few feet’ and that she and her grandchildren couldn’t play ball games in case of stepping on them. Oh dear. I suppose she wants us to buy a giant Hoover to attach to the JCB and sweep 1,000 acres of well-stocked ground before breakfast in case she gets her new shoes dirty. Sorry, Madam, but you had better go and find some municipally mown grass where your unhappy grandchildren can play their clinically clean games without the fear of stepping on the unspeakable. What a frightful grandmother you must be.”

That gives you just a taste of what wonderful company she must have been and indeed what a wonderful woman she was. If you haven’t read her I would urge you to try Wait for Me or Counting My Chickens, I will be getting All in One Basket off the shelves once back from London. And you must, must read The Mitfords; Letters Between Six Sisters if you haven’t. It is like a history of the UK since the early 1900’s, told with wit and incredible insight both from the sisters perspectives and places in society. In fact go and get it now! It is wonderful that we have the words and works of Deborah and her five sisters; Pamela, Unity, Nancy, Diana and Jessica, do admit!

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Wait For Me! – Deborah Devonshire

There are certain books you have high expectations of which fall short of what you hoped for, and then there are those books that utterly exceed what you could ever have wished. ‘Wait for Me!’ the memoirs of Deborah Devonshire nee Mitford, is one of those latter gems. Now before you pass this post thinking ‘well it’s a book about a Mitford Sister, so he’s bound to love it’ I would urge you to read on, especially if you love books about the war, the thirties or the change in the lives of women in the last century, because ‘Wait for Me!’ is an incredible read for so many more reasons than just a love of the Mitford sisters. I wonder how annoyed ‘Debo’ gets at constantly having the words ‘Mitford sister’ attached to her. Anyway, onto the book…

John Murray, memoir, hardback, 2010, 370 pages, a gift and from publisher (one went to my Gran)

A memoir is a very difficult kind of book to surmise and really give impartial thoughts on. Invariably, and in particular in the case of a one such as ‘Wait for Me!’ you are reading the book because it’s someone who you are fascinated by and their life. So I might have to throw impartiality out the window with my thoughts here. Deborah Devonshire is someone I have become particularly interested in over the last few years since reading ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ and becoming a Mitfordoholic and also since finding out she was the Duchess of Devonshire who made Chatsworth, which was a huge part of my childhood growing up down the road in Matlock Bath, come alive again.

In her open and frank writing, you imagine there is predominantly a sparkle in her eye and a wry smile on her face as she writes (apart from obviously discussing the war, the deaths of some of her children not long after birth and the deaths of her husband and siblings who she has outlived), she takes us through her childhood in the Mitford house, her debutante days in the 1930’s, meetings with Hitler and the Queen (not at the same time), marrying a Duke’s second son, becoming a Duchess and inheriting Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall and huge death duties, to her life as a widow and Dowager Duchess now. This starts from her birth date, a blank date in her mother’s engagements book, on the 31st of March 1920 until very recently – a huge amount of history of which she was in many ways rather privy to. This of course makes fascinating reading to anyone wanting to know British history and I would say easily equals the lives of the Mitford family themselves.

“The 1950s were grim for this country. Rationing did not end until 1954, nine long years after the end of the war, and recovery was painfully slow. In our case it was not recovery but a downward slope we were facing. Many beautiful buildings all over England were being destroyed and supplanted by monsters. No one believed that a house like Chatsworth would ever be wanted again, let alone lived in by the descendants of the family who built it. It was a period of limbo. No major decisions were being taken at Chatsworth but never the less a five-hundred-year legacy was beginning to come undone.”

I could possibly read about the Mitford’s all day long, so that was a huge box ticked for me from the start. What I didn’t expect was to be so enthralled, the way war affected her, the legacies and old laws of great families of society, and how not many years ago young women of the day were brought up to be wives and little more. Well look at all this wife achieved for her family. The times between the World War’s and the time just post WWII are two particular times in history I find fascinating and we get these in abundance, the sense of uncertainty is there on the pages if often with a funny tale thrown in throughout.

There is also a huge emotional pull in this book. The relationships between siblings are wonderfully displayed in terms of both the highs and the lows. There is an honesty from Deborah of how she wished she had known her brother better before he died in the war, how she might have done more after Unity, renowned for being a friend of Hitler, survived after shooting herself in the head when war was declared, and the genuine shock when she learnt her sister Nancy had advised the government to keep her other sister Diana locked up in prison as a danger to the country for her political views. There is the completely bare heartbreak of having children prematurely and their deaths. There is also the hardship of living with and loving someone who is an alcoholic, as her husband Andrew became, how you deal with that and how in old age they spend their time feeling they don’t want to live anymore. It is honestly incredible.

I think what makes this ever more impressive and ‘readable’ is all down to Deborah Devonshire’s voice and narrative through the book – its like talking to a very wise friend who is imparting gems of history, advice and knowledge onto you. You could actually be sat with her, the voice rings so true. I am also amazed she never wrote fiction, the atmosphere and sense of place be you in a derelict Chatsworth, Hitler’s lounge, London during the Blitz, visiting Buckingham Palace or the countryside in the 1920’s just comes out the pages seemingly effortlessly and often with much humour.

“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. Our other delights were Fry’s peppermint cream, which broke off into conveniently sized bits, and good old Cadbury’s tuppenny bars. I do not know if she sold anything more expensive but these were what we could afford. There was the village idiot who chased Nancy 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 mistook for a heifer calf when she was bent over weeding her garden.”

I could ramble on about how much I loved this book for hours and hours. I could happily in fact just quote the whole thing. Instead though I shall simply say read it (and you can win a copy here), read it as soon as you can. Be you a lover of history, of the Mitford’s it’s a book for you, and those of you who think ‘oh no, not my cup of tea’ I dare you to give it a go and not come back converted and a possible Mitfordoholic too. Easily one of my favourite reads of this year, and one I have had to read on and off to prolong the enjoyment, I was very sad when I turned the final page.

P.S My only criticism of this book is the covers of both the UK hardback and paperback. The American one is rightly glamorous and less like the memoirs of an older lady who might be a bit eccentric with her chickens or her dog! It doesn’t show really what the book is truly about. Small issue, but needed to mention it.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Deborah Devonshire, John Murray Publishers, Non Fiction, Review

Counting My Chickens – Deborah Devonshire

I thought as I am in the delightful Derbyshire for a long weekend and having Chatsworth House just down the road ‘Counting My Chickens’ by Deborah Devonshire would be the perfect post to have up on the blog and be a delightful read in the lead up to going and get me in the mood to be back in my homeland. Not that Chatsworth is my home, I wish, but the area surrounding it was a huge part of my childhood. Throw in the fact that Deborah Devonshire is one of the Mitford sisters, who I adore reading and reading about, what could make a more perfect Sunday recommendation?

I knew nothing of the Mitford sisters, especially not that one lived so nearby my family home, until I read ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ a few years ago which swiftly became one of my all time favourite reads. Deborah Devonshire, or ‘Debo’, is the youngest and last surviving of the Mitford sisters and was also one of the people responsible for turning Chatsworth into the stately success that it has become. In an assorted collection of articles, diaries and reviews we gain a greater in sight into her life. From here childhood with her siblings, to taking on Chatsworth and all it entails and to how live has changed for her over the years (I wanted to say as she aged but I fear it would be improper with a Mitford sister and rather impolite).

“I have reached the stage in life when I wake up earlier and earlier in the mornings. The wait till breakfast time has forced me to put a kettle and a toaster in my room, so I can help myself to their merciful productions whenever I like. I advise all early wakers who have fallen for this plan to buy a clock with a minute and second hand of immediately recognisable lengths, or you may have my disappointing experience of last week. Waking at 6 a.m., I made and ate my breakfast, only to discover that the clocks similar looking hands had played a trick on me, and it was in fact only 12.30 a.m. Too early even for me, but too late to pretend I hadn’t had breakfast.”

There are three sections to the collection; ‘Diaries’ looks at her life over several years and has titbits on her sisters and other famous relatives, her thoughts on the TV version of ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ are interesting and thought provoking. ‘Chatsworth’ looks at how the estate has changed over the years, the responsibilities of it and how much she adores the place and the staff it has housed who have become friends. ‘Books and Company’ is a selection of reviews of books by those she knows or those in the ‘stately home’ genre plus more of a look back on her childhood.

I loved all the sections but it was ‘Chatsworth’ that sang out to me, probably because I was one of the youngsters that used to play in the parkland way back when. It really evokes the atmosphere and scenery of that beautiful part of the English countryside. In fact if you love books that are quintessentially English you need go no further than this or indeed any other Mitford memoir. Like her sister Nancy (I have yet to read anything by Jessica) Deborah Devonshire has a way of phrasing things which is sardonic and wry yet delightful and warming. I wonder if it was in their gene pool.

“Thousands of people come to walk in the park at Chatsworth all year round. There is no way of telling how many, because it is free. Most people enjoy it, or presumably they wouldn’t come, but every now and again a letter of criticism arrives.
Last week a woman wrote to say she was ‘disgusted by the animal faeces on the grass, every few feet’ and that she and her grandchildren couldn’t play ball games in case of stepping on them. Oh dear. I suppose she wants us to buy a giant Hoover to attach to the JCB and sweep 1,000 acres of well-stocked ground before breakfast in case she gets her new shoes dirty. Sorry, Madam, but you had better go and find some municipally mown grass where your unhappy grandchildren can play their clinically clean games without the fear of stepping on the unspeakable. What a frightful grandmother you must be.”

I really loved this book, I will admit the bits on gardening passed me by a little, and the rest was just a pure pleasure from start to finish. It simply makes me think I must read more Mitford both fiction and non because time spent reading them is ‘wondair, do admit’!

A book that will: be a must read for Mitford lovers old and new, anyone who loves things that are typically British and who likes narration that’s wry and has an occasional raised eyebrow. 9/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley – I think it could be the best collection of letters ever. Told over a huge expanse of British history you are given an insight quite unlike any other, you’ll be hard pressed to put it down.
In The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – which had me laughing out loud in bed one evening to the point that I was in tears.

Which other Mitford books can you recommend? Have you yet to try one? Have you been to Chatsworth? What other quintessentially English books can you think of?

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Filed under Deborah Devonshire, Long Barn Books, Review

Mitford & Maupin Missions

My complete and utter favourite book of last year was undoubtedly The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed any non-fiction as much in all my reading years. At the time it wasn’t the Mitford’s that appealed to me it was partly the fact it was letters between sisters but more the amount of time that the letters spanned, all that history. It wasn’t until reading the letters that I started to twig just who the sisters were, I had heard of Deborah and Nancy before only I knew Deborah as the owner of Chatsworth House which is just down the road from my Gran’s and Nancy as an author most authors raved about. At the time I got the book there was also a TV show on Unity and the rumours of her affair (and pregnancy) with Adolf Hitler. As everything about them became more and more unusual and the more letters I read I gained a bit of a fascination which has resulted in this…


Now four of these are new additions to the collection as I received In Tearing Haste from the delightful John Murray before Christmas, The Pursuit of Laughter and A Life of Contrasts from the lovely Gibson Square just after Christmas and Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford from the very kind people at Orion only yesterday, naturally I haven’t read any of those yet. I have in fact of that whole collection only read ‘The Letters’ and The Pursuit of Love, the rest have all come from some very good routing through charity shops. There are still so many I am missing though; Nancy’s biographies as well as The Blessing and Jessica’s books on Death in America etc, to name just a few. (I also should thank Mitch as she bought me The Letters for Christmas after my Gran, yes you naughty thing, ‘borrowed’ mine and then said I had given it to her lol – well you can have it now.)

I now have one more mission for 2009 is to read all the ones that I haven’t read yet but own. Plus there are many more coming, I actually have a PDF proof version of Deborah’s next book, but I am not allowed to say anymore than that.

Dovergreyreader looked at Mitfordmania when she reviewed A Pursuit of Laughter by Diana Mosley and it brought up some rather heated debate on Diana as a person. I don’t condone her like for Hitler I don’t even attempt to understand it, but what I was always taught in history was to look at both sides and someone who saw both sides of Hitler and one of the biggest events in our worlds history was Diana and though I don’t agree with her ideals I will be interested to hear her side of things if that makes sense. The other question that was raised was ‘are there too many Mitford based books on the market?’ I would say no, I actually think that some of their own books need to be reprinted rather than so many books about them in all honesty. I can understand the fascination though, they knew a wide range of famous people and indeed some of histories most renowned faces and through their love of letters and essays have captured years and year’s worth of history. I just wonder what Debo makes of it all as the furore around her and her sister is going and she is living to see it?

On a slightly different note another series of books I am going to make it my aim to read (well re-read in some cases) arrived yesterday also The Tales of the City Series by Armistead Maupin….

I first read the first three or four (or possibly five) of these about 8 years ago and wanted a land lady like Miss Madrigal, and strongly believed when I moved to London I would make some of the best friends in the world and they would be diverse and wonderful and everything would be fabulous. I would say half of that wish came true. I very rarely re-read novels I have read so it will be interesting to see what I make of these almost ten years down the line! I will keep you posted. I am currently debating if I should read all of them with no stop-gap, but am worried I will get Maupin Overkill, any advice?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Charlotte Mosley, Deborah Devonshire, Diana Mosley, Jessica Mitford, Nancy Mitford