Tag Archives: The Mitford Sisters

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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Time for Some Mitford Mania?

I know I do my ‘incoming posts’ at the end of every month about the books which come through the letterbox, however sometimes books come that need their own individual posts on the blog frankly (and you will be getting two posts about such books in the next 24 hours) and over the last few weeks a collection of books with a rather Mitford theme have turned up, and you know how I love all things Mitford, so I thought I should give them their own post… so I am.

My Mitford obsession has only started in the last few years since I read ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ which has become one of my very favourite reads. I wish I knew what made me pick that book up initially as now I have quite forgotten. Anyway, in their letters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah’s personalities all really shone through and all the things they had seen, and wrote about, from meeting the Queen to Hitler, from one sister shopping another to the police and one sister shooting herself, plus the divorces, love affairs and the like I became besotted. So imagine how thrilling that in the past few weeks all of these have arrived…

That to me is like some kind of Mitford lover’s heaven, do admit. You have these lovely newly re-released Nancy novels ‘Pigeon Pie’ and ‘Christmas Pudding’ by Capuchin Classics plus the re-issued Nancy non-fiction from Vintage with ‘Voltaire in Love’, ‘The Sun King’, ‘Madame de Pompadour’ and ‘Frederick The Great’. I don’t even know who some of these people are but I trust Nancy wouldn’t have written about just anyone. The final two hardback treats are Lisa Hilton’s book about an affair Nancy Mitford had and called ‘The Horror of Love’ and Deborah Devonshire’s, the only living Mitford sister, essays, thoughts and memoirs ‘All in One Basket’.  The choice is seems it endless.

In fact I am rather stuck on where to start in what I think is going to be an autumn and winter of dipping into utter Mitford joy. I have already decided that I will be reading ‘Christmas Pudding’ on Christmas Day as a real treat, but where to start next. I think as she has the democracy over these newly arrived treats, as well as all the Mitford books I have in the TBR, I need to pick a Nancy novel next. Should I start with ‘Highland Fling’ which was her first (and I got a fair few months ago) or should I branch out and try her non-fiction and see if her personality comes across as she writes about another woman larger than life with ‘Madame de Pompadour’? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Do you have any outstanding Mitford novels on the shelves? Maybe its time to dust them off and give them a whirl too.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

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

Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

I am sure that you are well aware by now that I am something of a Mitford maniac. Ever since reading their collected letters a few years ago (one of my very favourite reads) I have watched endless documentaries about them and the like and yet I read their memoirs and Nancy Mitford’s novels rather sporadically. Having been in the need of some comfort reading over the last few weeks, as well as having something of a crime fest, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a book I knew I would adore and indeed did.

Technically ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ is a sequel to the wondair (those of you who love Mitford will know what I mean) ‘The Pursuit of Love’ though in many ways it runs alongside it in terms of nattaive and time scale. Told once again through the eyes of Fanny who narrated its predecessor we follow the story of the beautiful and perfect Polly Hampton from their childhood friendship, through to their ‘coming out’(no, not that sort) and onto a rather scandalous relationship that she then embarks upon. As this all goes on we are once again given an insight into the society of the 1930’s between the wars. Women’s roles are still to be somewhat submissive and the aim of a lady’s life is to find a suitable husband, it does seem odd to think that this was actually not that long ago.

It has been said, including by the authors sister Jessica Mitford who writes the introduction to my edition, that ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was very much a rather autobiographical fictional piece. Uncle Matthew being very much like Nancy’s father and the children seeming to have all the traits of her sisters even down to the gang they called ‘The Hons’. What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.

“Well, the Lecherous Lecturer’s lecture was duchesses and, of course, one always prefers people to gates. But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste to sex. Think of the thrill! He took Linda up on the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing when he was on his way down to dine. Do admit, Fanny.”

The characters are clearly caricatures of people Nancy knew or had met in passing, from Fanny’s mother ‘The Bolter’ who is mentioned through gossip often as a salacious lady who bolted from husband to husband, to Polly’s highly dramatic mother Lady Montdore and the wonderful if slightly disturbing Boy Dougdale also referred to as ‘The Lecherous Lecturer’. That this book is based so much on real people and how society worked in the 1930’s I find fascinating and should interest any of you who want to know more about that period in history.

Though it might not be to everyone’s taste I do urge anyone who hasn’t read Nancy Mitford to give her a try. If you like your books full of humour, crazy characters and some bittersweet moments thrown in then you simply can’t go wrong. In fact with the current craze for shows such as Downton Abbey this would be just the thing. A perfect read for when you need laughter and escapism. I loved it. 10/10

My edition, which features both ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a wonderful edition that my friend Dom (who I speak in slight Mitford with and calls me ‘Jassy’ after the character who is really rather cheeky – cant see the resemblance can you) bought me a while back. It has been a perfect treat I’m glad I’d saved until I was feeling somewhat under the weather.

As I mentioned I have been back in the land of Mitford rather a lot of late. Alongside this I have been slowly making my way through Deborah Devonshire’s (the last surviving of the Mitford sisters) memoirs ‘Wait for Me’ and the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh which make for fascinating reading and I will be reporting back on in due course. Have you read and loved anything Mitford, or are you yet to try them? If it’s the latter then you have some marvellous reading ahead, do admit!

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Filed under Books of 2011, Nancy Mitford, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Vintage Books