Debo, as everyone calls her, was 90 this year. Having greeted me in her pretty garden, shaking my hand and looking me directly in the eye, she leads me into the apple-green-walled and flagstone-floored hall – 'Do put your bags down, no burglars here' – and shows me into her sitting-room, which has an extraordinarily nice atmosphere, and we take to the floral sofa, where she positively lounges, looking at me brightly, waiting to be amused.
There have been countless books about the Mitfords, both biographical and autobiographical, and now her own memoirs, Wait for Me!, are about to be published. (She has written several books, mostly about Chatsworth, her former home.)
Debo says she was motivated to write about her life because she had offers from other people to do it for her, and she didn’t really want them 'to fiddle about with it’. She was appalled by some of the books about her sisters – in particular David Pryce-Jones’s book about Unity, and the books about Diana, who married the fascist Oswald Mosley. 'They are so full of inaccuracies,’ she says. 'No one ever really got my sister Diana, and she was such an incredible person. It was always a delight for me to see somebody who was prejudiced against her sitting by her on the sofa like you and I are now and… melting, absolutely melting.’ Debo became close to Diana, who was 10 years older, only later in her life, but now, she says, 'hardly a day goes by when I don’t say to myself, “Oh I wish I could tell Diana that, she’d laugh so much.”’
Deborah's elder sister Diana Mitford, sometimes known by her marital names of Diana Guinness or Diana MosleyIt wasn’t an easy book to write; it has taken her four years. Debo suffers from the eye condition macular degeneration and can’t read at all, but she can write; she says it’s because she knows the shape of the words. She does all of her writing in bed, early in the mornings ('My sheets are covered in ink’) and then her assistant, Helen Marchant, reads it back to her. 'And you feel guilty asking someone to read it back three or four times but that is what I had to do to try and get it right. Helen in her genius way can translate it into ordinary English, because I don’t know grammar and she knows grammar.’
The book is full of stirring anecdotes, such as when a wounded soldier repatriated from
during the war brought home a lemon. 'Such a luxury had not been seen in the shops for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross.’ Or the dinner at Calke Abbey, where lived the Harpur Crewes. 'The dining-room table was set with candles – the only light in that high-ceilinged room, which I imagine had not been used for years. The first course was melon; it was followed by cold beef; then melon for pudding.’ Her host, Airmyne, whose best friend was a goose, then took her up to meet 'Nanny’ who, they said, used to be the Kaiser’s nanny, a tiny, ancient creature who was fast asleep in bed. It was the strangest evening she had ever had. 'The Harpur Crewe siblings,’ she writes, 'were the only true eccentrics I have ever met.’ Italy
Can this be true, I ask her. I imagined her life must be full of eccentrics. 'Well, if you don’t count all my sisters, but I never thought of them as eccentric. I suppose my father was a bit outlandish; he was the source of all jokes in our family.’
The Mitfords – there were six sisters and one brother – were a defining family of their time; Debo says now that they always thought they were ordinary, but their celebrity and influence has endured. Extreme behaviour seemed to run in the family. David Freeman-Mitford (Farve), later Lord Redesdale, married Sydney Bowles (Muv) in 1904.
Their eldest child, Nancy, wrote several historical biographies and eight novels, the most famous of which, The Pursuit of Love, was, in her own words, 'an exact portrait of my family’. There was Pam, the least well-known sister, described by John Betjeman as 'the most rural Mitford’. There was Tom, who used to pay his sisters a shilling an hour to argue with him and went on to become a barrister, but was killed in the war in 1945.
Diana married young, then left her husband for the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, and was put in prison for three years for her beliefs; she was also one of the few people who knew both Churchill and Hitler. There was Unity, who moved to
in 1934 at the age of 19 and became devoted to Hitler, whom she got to know well; her dual loyalties to the Führer and her country caused her to attempt suicide by shooting herself in the head at the outbreak of war. Germany
Jessica, known as Decca, became a communist and ran away at the age of 19 with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, and then moved to
. After Romilly’s death she married again and wrote several books, including The American Way of Death, which changed the way people felt about the funeral business. America
And there was Debo, the youngest. 'Everyone cried when you were born,’
, 16 years older, would enjoy reminding her (their mother had wanted another boy). Nancy went on to tease and torment her until it came close to bullying. Nancy
'I should think the social services would be called in now,’ Debo says mildly. 'But I adored her. I used to sit on her bed for hours being mentally tortured. I would be in tears succeeded by roars of laughter. She was so funny, you see, and people don’t seem to be quite so funny any more.’
In addition to looking hopefully at the clock every evening and saying, 'As soon as you’ve gone to bed I shall do the joy dance,’
would chant, 'Nobody will want to marry you, not only have you got a deformed thumb but there is the gland…’ Debo had a lump in her neck, she thinks, because she drank milk from a tubercular cow. ' Nancy explained that it hubbled and bubbled when I was asleep,’ she writes in her book, 'and that no man could stand it.’ Nancy
'Oh, the gland, wasn’t it wonderful?’ Debo says, touching her neck. 'It’s still there; I’m very fond of my gland.’
Nancycontinued to tease Debo all her life, calling her 'Nine’, which she claimed was her mental age, and addressing her envelopes to 'Nine, Duchess of Devonshire…’ (It is true, Debo says, that she hated reading, but Diana has said of her that she was the reverse of the intellectual snob; she actually claimed not to have read books that she had read.)
Debo grew up mostly in Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire. 'This was the calm background of a self-contained agricultural community,’ she writes, 'regulated by the seasons, in an exceptionally beautiful part of
The children all had pets – Decca had a sheep called Miranda, Unity a goat, rats and snakes, Debo had ponies, dogs, guinea pigs and hens. The younger girls had extraordinarily close relationships with each other, and their own private languages; all the sisters had a complicated variety of nicknames, and, later, political alliances and rivalries (except for Debo and Pamela, who remained apolitical).
The best and most revealing book about the Mitfords is Letters Between Six Sisters, 75 years of letters masterfully edited by Charlotte Mosley, Debo’s niece, published two years ago. They all had the Mitford voice – relentlessly upper-class 1930s, and their own particular imperative way of speaking: 'do miss me’, 'do say you’re thrilled’, 'do be sorry’, 'you must say it’s funny’. They toyed with words constantly, and invented nicknames that robbed people and things of their status – in
’s hand Mein Kampf became Mein Comf and then Mein Uncomf; Sir Oswald Mosley was Cyril, Sir O, the Great Leader or simply Lead; Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was Cake; Nancy herself was known as French Lady Writer. Nancy
Did Debo have a favourite sister? Growing up, she says without hesitation, it was Decca. 'She was absolutely my boon companion; I couldn’t imagine life without her and then suddenly she left, and it was never quite the same. Her husband, Esmond, just didn’t like our family; he only liked her, and he jolly well did like her, and I’m quite convinced it would have been the happiest marriage ever, but sadly his plane went down in the Atlantic when he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.’
Decca’s running away was a dark time for Debo. 'It was so frightening; we didn’t know if she was dead or alive. She was in such a state of euphoria herself that I don’t think she considered that we might all be very worried.’
As a teenager, Decca had always had a Running Away bank account and became increasingly dissatisfied with her life and enamoured of the idea of communism (she and Unity would partition the schoolroom at Swinbrook, scratching swastikas and hammers and sickles on the windows). When she met Esmond Romilly, who was her second cousin, she had already fallen in love with his reputation, and they made surreptitious plans to go to
where he would report on the war against Franco, Decca going along as his secretary. Spain
Under the pretence of going to stay with friends, Decca went to
Francebut they couldn’t get a visa for , and for a while her family had no idea where she was or with whom. Nancy and her husband were sent to bring them back; they refused to come. By the time they returned to Spain England, they were married, and in 1939 Decca moved to with Romilly. She remained there after his death in 1941, marrying again, coming back only occasionally to America . But after 1937 Decca never saw her father again. England
Farve, faithfully portrayed as Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love, was prone to 'roaring’ at everyone. On her birth certificate, according to
, it gives her father’s occupation as 'Honourable’. He enjoyed the occasional 'child hunt’ where he would chase his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds, he was rude to all Nancy’s friends who came to stay ('Don’t these people have homes to go to?’ he would shout to his wife across the dinner table), and a man he didn’t like was a 'sewer’ or 'a pointless piece of meat’. He had a horror of anything sticky, and Debo once asked him what his idea of hell was. 'Honey on my bowler hat,’ he said. Irascible, unreformed and very dry, he made a great double act with Nancy . Nancy
Did he know he was funny? 'Oh, yes,’ Debo says, 'but people didn’t know how to take him because he was completely deadpan.’ The sisters loved him but they would gently tease him; they called him 'The Old Subhuman’ or 'The Poor Old Male’. Decca would shake his elbow while he was drinking his tea so he could practise for when he had palsy.
Their upbringing was an unusual one for the time. Their mother, Sydney, rejected all conventional forms of medicine, including vaccination, believing that 'the good body’ would cure itself. They were on a strict diet – only wholegrain bread, nothing cloven-footed and no shellfish; only their father was allowed to eat sausages. When did Debo break those rules? 'When I was 18 and free to do what I liked. Going to all the deb dances there were marvellous suppers laid out – things like lobster, which were absolutely banned at home.’
Her brother, Tom, went to
Etonbut the girls mostly didn’t go to school – their father believed that they would be made to play hockey and might develop thick calves. taught them until they were six; she then engaged governesses, which she paid for out of the profits she raised from selling eggs and honey. By the time the last two sisters were teenagers she had relented slightly; Unity went to two schools (and was expelled from both) and Debo went to one for a week ('It smelt of lino and fish and girls’) where she was so unhappy that she fainted in geometry and was sent home. Sydney
Muv was a meticulous housekeeper who lived very frugally and recorded everything. After Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire in the 1950s and moved into Chatsworth, it became clear that she had inherited some of
’s skills at household management. Sydney
'I suppose I inherited from her some of those old-fashioned ways, which seemed to work. My mother’s account books are fascinating. She was very meticulous and wrote down every penny which she spent on household things, every penny. She loved figures and adding up.’ (Her children didn’t all inherit this ability: when Sydney once tested their housekeeping skills, giving them an imaginary sum of £500 a year and asking them to budget for heating, food and so on, Nancy wrote, 'Flowers £499. Everything else £1.’)
Debo partly wrote this book, she insists, as a way of correcting what other people had written about her parents. 'People who never knew them. I wanted to put it straight, and then of course it burgeoned into a much bigger thing.’ Her mother particularly has been portrayed over the years in books – some by her own daughters – as distant and vague, even callous if you believe
. 'People always thought my mother was miserable because of the things my sisters had done but she used to say, “I am perfectly satisfied with all my children,”’ Debo says. Nancy
In fact she was an extraordinarily selfless woman; when Diana was interned in Holloway prison
would visit her regularly; after a journey that took between four and six hours she would be obliged to wait for an hour in the prison and then was allowed only 15 minutes with her. Her frequent and loving letters to Decca always began 'My darling little D’, even when she was so distraught about her and Esmond. When Unity was brought back from Sydney with brain damage in January 1940, she was by then incontinent and needed a lot of supervision. 'My mother washed her sheets every day,’ Debo says. 'The little garden was completely taken over by the sheets drying.’ Germany
The bits about her parents in the book are some of the most moving. The family became riven by politics: at various times
wouldn’t speak to Unity or Diana, Diana wouldn’t speak to anyone who criticised Sir O, and Decca and Diana didn’t speak or correspond for more than 35 years. Nancy betrayed Diana to the authorities (she effectively prolonged her time in prison by reporting that in her opinion Diana was a 'ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general’) – a fact that didn’t emerge until after Nancy’s death in 1973. (Debo describes this betrayal as 'extra ordinary’, and thinks that Nancy was probably jealous of Diana.) Nancy
And although neither parent was directly involved in politics (although Lord Redesdale did attend the House of Lords), it was in the end politics that drove them apart. 'My mother thought there never should have been a war and that they should have talked to Hitler. She really thought it could have been avoided,’ Debo says. 'My father took another view and wrote to the newspaper to say he was loyal to whatever the government was going to do, and that was enough to spark off rows, banging doors, all of that.’
By this time they were living in a small cottage near High Wycombe. Even though Debo was 19 and unofficially engaged to Andrew Cavendish, it affected her very much. 'There really wasn’t room for two people with such diverse views so they quietly went their own ways, but they still wrote to each other.’ Farve, who was something of a shadow of his former self by then, moved to Redesdale Cottage in Northumberland with their former parlourmaid Margaret Wright. 'She was a very boring woman, very ordinary,’ Debo says. 'I think he had had enough of rough and tumble and wanted someone quiet that he needn’t bother to answer. But we never spoke about it. In those days you didn’t talk about why people did things.’
Unity seems more of an unknowable character. 'It is difficult to explain why we all loved her so much,’ Debo says. 'She was very difficult as a teenager, really sullen sometimes, and if something happened at the dining-room table which she didn’t like she would just very quietly slide underneath it and stay there until she thought the coast was clear.’
After she shot herself, in the English Garden in Munich, days after the outbreak of war, Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler’s expense, and then he arranged for her to be sent to Berne in Switzerland, from where Sydney and Debo collected her at Christmas 1939. 'She was completely changed,’ Debo recalls in Mary Lovell’s 2001 book The Mitford Girls. 'Her hair was short and all matted. Because of the wound I expect they couldn’t do much about washing and combing it; and her teeth were yellow, they had not been brushed since the shooting. She couldn’t bear for her head to be touched. She had an odd vacant expression… the most pathetic sight… but it wasn’t just her appearance; she was a completely changed person, like somebody who has had a stroke… her memory was very jagged. She recognised us, though.’
Deborah's sister, Unity Mitford, an ardent Nazi, who attempted suicide in 1939
Unity never recovered enough to live an independent life. She died in 1948 after an infection of the wound in her head turned into meningitis.
In August 1938 Debo met Andrew Cavendish in a restaurant off Curzon Street in London. 'We met at a dinner party,’ he said in an interview, '… and if it wasn’t love at first sight it was certainly attraction at first sight.’ They were un officially engaged for quite some time; in 1941 she wrote to Diana, in Holloway: 'I expect we shall be terrificly (sic) poor but think how nice it will be to have as many dear dogs and things as one likes without anyone having to say they must get off the furniture. I do so wish you weren’t in prison, it will be vile not having you to go shopping with…’
They were married at the church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in April 1941. Andrew was serving with the Coldstream Guards, and Debo moved around with him and then to a cottage in her parents-in-law’s estate, Chatsworth. The war hit her hard; she lost her only brother, her four best friends, and in 1944 Andrew’s older brother Billy, Marquess of Hartington (who was married to Kick Kennedy, JFK’s sister), was killed and Andrew became the heir to the dukedom.
Andrew’s father, the 10th Duke, set up a trust, the Chatsworth Settlement – the law at the time stipulated that five years had to pass from the date of handing over the property for it to become free of death duties. But in 1950 he died of a heart attack, 14 weeks before the five years was up, and Andrew became the 11th Duke with an inheritance subject to death duties amounting to 80 per cent of the worth of his estate: £4.72 million, with interest to be paid at a rate of £1,000 per day.
Apart from Chatsworth, the estate comprised Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Place in Sussex, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire – and their contents – and Lismore Castle in Ireland, which he already owned. The Duke decided to hand Hardwick Hall over to the Treasury (it is now with the National Trust), and to sell thousands of acres in Scotland and Derbyshire. He also sold books and many works of art to various national institutions, though nothing left the country. The final debt was cleared in 1974.
The Duke and Duchess moved into Chatsworth in 1959. Passing it, Debo had often said to Andrew, 'Oh, look at that lovely house, I wonder who lives there.’ And he would say, 'Oh, do shut up.’ They embarked on a huge programme of renovation and improvement, most of it orchestrated by Debo (the house had 175 rooms, 17 staircases and 3,426 feet of passage) – including the installation of 17 more bathrooms. ('Who is my sister going to wash in all those bathrooms?’ Nancy asked.)
Chatsworth last year attracted more than 623,000 visitors; it is one of the most popular country houses in England. Debo has played a huge part in its administration and all its initiatives. The two achievements at Chatsworth of which she is most proud are the Farmyard, which she instigated in 1973, a very avant garde idea, now very fashionable – to show town children how the country worked and where their food came from. 'The city children were amazed and so were their teachers because they were the first generation of teachers who hadn’t got relations in the country.’ And 1977 saw the establishment of the Farm Shop, also way ahead of its time. In 1991, for their golden wedding, the Duke and Duchess asked everyone in the county whose golden wedding anniversary fell the same year to a tea party – 3,700 people attended. This was a typical gesture; there is very much a feeling that they created a sort of magic kingdom during their reign at Chatsworth.
Andrew Cavendish used to wear a sweater bearing the words never marry a mitford. 'I don’t think any of the brothers-in-law ever read a word that Nancy had written,’ Debo says, 'certainly Andrew never did. He just wasn’t interested.’
But he was tolerant of her Mitford-ish eccentricities – up to a point. In June 2000 some American friends of hers came to stay, who visited every year. They included the art collector Jayne Wrightsman and the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife. Thinking they would be bored by a table centre of flowers, and because chickens are her passion, a Buff Cochin cock was washed and placed on some hay in a rectangular glass container. 'A couple of hens of uncertain ancestry occupied another glass container,’ she writes, 'and there had been a hatch of Welsummer and White Leghorn chicks that morning so I put them in little china baskets lined with hay to keep them warm… the chicks presumably thought it was all quite normal as they had only been alive for 12 hours.’
'It was fantastic,’ recalls a guest who was there. 'But it only just worked. It was almost too much for the Americans.’
The following year Debo topped it by putting half a dozen piglets, replete from their feed, in straw beds on the middle of the table. 'But after the first course, my husband said, “That’s enough, take them away,” which was rather sad really.’
Debo has an extraordinarily youthful spirit, and she is, says an old friend, just as impressed by the local milkman as by JFK. This is borne out by the fact that at one point she had a tramp living in her barn for several years. She also got to know JFK quite well, and says he was one of the funniest people she ever met. 'He was so quick, and he made such fun of other people, but in such a nice way that they didn’t mind.’ She met Kennedy at a ball in 1938, and later became close friends with him; he would often ring her at 3am to chat, and she and Andrew attended his presidential inauguration in 1961 and, in 1963, his funeral.
Deborah Devonshire is not a self-pitying kind of person but her life has not always been easy. She has three children – Emma was born in 1943, Peregrine in 1944 and Sophy in 1957 – but she also lost three babies shortly after birth. And in her middle years one gets the impression that life with Andrew was not always a bed of roses; he was an alcoholic. (There is a short and rather brusque chapter in Andrew’s own memoirs, Accidents of Fortune, entitled 'Drink’.)
There was alcoholism in his family – Andrew’s uncle Charlie died of it at the age of 38 – and Debo says that drinking also contributed to his father’s death at 55. Andrew was an angry man and Debo describes one period of their life as 'like walking on eggshells’, waiting for that anger to flare up when he was drunk. Advised by her family and Alcoholics Anonymous counsellors, she explained to his loyal employees that Andrew was suffering from an illness that was alcoholism, and asked for their support. He gave up drinking twice – once in the 1970s for two years, and again for a short time in the early 1980s. In 1983, after a particularly terrible weekend when 'Andrew’s behaviour was out of control’, she left Chatsworth and went to stay with her son, agreeing to return only if he stopped drinking. He did, with the help of the drug Antabuse, and never drank again. He died in May 2004, aged 84.
Debo never stopped appreciating Chatsworth. 'Waking the first morning in the bed I was to come home to for the next 46 years and one month was a joy and I never tired of the incomparable view west across the park,’ she writes. 'In all those years I never took the place for granted, but marvelled at it and the fact that we were surrounded by beauty at every turn.’ She stayed on there for 18 months after Andrew’s death, and then decided it was time to go, handing it over to her son Peregrine, the 12th Duke, and his wife, Amanda. 'I was 85, it was high time to go and high time for the others to come.’ She now has eight grandchildren (the model Stella Tennant is one of these) and 17 great-grandchildren, and they all adore her.
Deborah with her late husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has her own exhibition at Chatsworth, in celebration of her 90 years. There is a display cabinet with her diary open at the page where she writes about having tea with Hitler in 1937. There are paintings and photographs of her – by Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber – and some of her clothes on display, including a Philip Treacy hat, dresses by Dior and de la Renta, a bouclé skirt by Givenchy, and her trademark uniform in the 1980s and 90s, wool cardigans by the Natural Dye Company. There is her collection of insect and spider brooches, and also what can only be described as an Elvis shrine, including a piece of picket fence with a nail that may or may not have been knocked in by the man himself.When the talk turns to Elvis, she brightens considerably. 'Oh, don’t speak about Elvis,’ she says looking delighted. 'Wasn’t he wonderful? I never became a fan until after he was dead, otherwise I would have been a stalker.’
She has been to Graceland three times, once in the company of her son and daughter-in-law ('I don’t think they were terribly impressed’), who were in Memphis for an exhibition of works of art from Chatsworth, and once in the company of people from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 'By far the most amusing thing was seeing them peering at the records which line the walls. They got out their little jewellers’ glasses and they might as well have been examining a Vermeer.'
'Would you like a strong drink before you leave?’ she asks, gesturing at the drinks table, although it is about 11am. We go into her office where one wall is covered with birthday cards, many of them, I note, depicting Elvis. (Her birthday celebrations – dinner for 910 at Chatsworth, staff and family only – took place shortly after the 'long service awards’: Alan Shimwell, who has worked for Chatsworth on the farm and in the garden (60 years), was given a carriage clock; Henry Coleman, Debo’s butler (47 years), got a postbox; Debo herself (55 years) was given a bracelet.
Most of her pictures have been removed for her exhibition, but Debo shows me a lovely little Lucian Freud picture of eggs in a basket. She sees him often. 'Good old Lu. I take him eggs every time I go to London.’ What does she think of Woman in a White Shirt, his picture of her, painted when she was 34? When Andrew went to see the finished picture at Freud’s studio, there were two men there, one of whom, looking at the painting, asked him, 'Who is this woman?’
'My wife,’ Andrew replied.
'Well, thank God it’s not mine,’ the man said.
Debo thinks that the older she gets, the more like the picture she becomes. 'Lucian’s great and extraordinary talent when he was doing that style of painting is making a person aged 34 look like I do now, and I’m 90. You know, yellow skin, green moustache. So funny.’