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.