I’m not much of a royal watcher, but after living for almost four years in a small cottage on the estate at Gorhambury, ancestral home of Francis Bacon and his decendents, I’m mad for stories about British aristocracy. You will not find a more fascinating group of people and Deborah Mitford is one of the shining stars in the aristo firmament.
Debo, as she was called by her family, was the youngest child in the Mitford clan. Her only brother was killed in WWII and her sisters were all famous; both Jessica and Nancy were well respected writers, Pamela married a famous scientist and, in the case of her sister Unity, who became very close to Hitler in the thirties and her sister Diana who married a reviled British fascist, infamous. But Debo made out the best when she met and fell in love with Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, during her debutante season in 1938.
Wait for Me! is full of stories from Debo’s childhood with the happy and occasionally financially challenged Mitford clan. As she grew up, her sisters and only brother moved out, married or formed their ill-advised alliances. Farve, as Debo calls her father, was an interesting, albeit anti-social creature and the family’s financial ups and downs were always handled as if it was all the same, good times or bad. Of course being down and out for the Mitford’s meant only that they might have to sell a few houses, or let-out the larger ones until fortunes were once more secure.
When Debo reached 18, her life became a whirlwind of parties, dinners and events. One night she sits next to Andrew Cavendish and the rest, as they say is history. Debo never expected to become a Duchess, but WWII intervened and changed her fate when Andrew’s older brother William, who was married to Kick Kennedy, JFKs older sister, was killed in a bombing raid in Belgium. Everything changed.
Deborah Mitford is a consummate storyteller and the characters of her life are the best and brightest of the age. Debo knew the Kennedy’s at their peak, she dined with literary greats like Evelyn Waugh; Harold Macmillan was married to her aunt and in an amusing anecdote, she describes touring the Queen Mum around a garden show and preparing her a gin afterwards. She has been a politician’s wife, a world-traveler, an ambassador, interior designer, patron of the arts and a consummate hostess to all who come to see her.
Don’t be mislead, Debo is down to earth as they come. She bore three children, had several miscarriages and her husband was a life-long alcoholic and serial cheater. He only stopped drinking late in life, but it’s clear they bore each other through life and their bond strengthened each year they were together. Once she became chatelaine of Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Devonshire family and one of the truly great historic houses of England, she strove to return it to a former glory, seldom seen in the days of estate taxes approaching 80%. Andrew finally paid off the death duties of £7 million for his father’s estate in 1973, though his father had died in 1950.
Chatsworth has turned around fully and become profitable after being opened to the public. Debo started several ventures branded with the Chatsworth image, including gift shop items, a tea room and a kitchen garden and she now enjoys raising her chickens as the Dowager Duchess in her own house on the Chatsworth estate. Her three children and their children have given her 17 great-grandchildren. All in all a fascinating life for a woman who this year turned 91.
I enjoyed reading this from start to finish. Though I don’t subscribe to her politics, I wasn’t surprised by her conservative leanings as well as her love of fox hunting, shooting and fishing; what could seem more natural for a woman raised as she was. Debo is supremely likable and she’s as natural a writer as Jessica (best know for The American Way of Death) or Nancy (who wrote both novels and historical biographies). She has written numerous books about her life as Duchess of Devonshire and the house and gardens at Chatsworth. Wait for Me! is a great place to start for anyone wanting to know more about Deborah Mitford and her amazing life.