11.25.10

The Duchess Tells All

In her new memoir and a collection of letters, the last Mitford sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, talks about chickens, her famous siblings, and having tea with Hitler. Chloe Schama on her dispatches from another world.

On a trip to America for the inauguration of President Kennedy, Deborah (Debo) Mitford, the youngest of the infamous, outrageous, glamorous Mitford sisters and the then-Duchess of Devonshire, described an encounter with the newly appointed president: “Jack asked me what I do all day. Stumped.” What does a duchess do all day? Well, shoot pheasants, for starters. Back home, at Chatsworth, the 400-year-old seat of the Devonshire clan, Debo was struck by the contrast to America: “V odd to be back here, shooting cock pheasants out of the car.” Later that year, when invited back to Washington, she almost backed out, preferring to stick to familiar pursuits: “I’ve got cold feet now & heartily wish I was staying here pulling triggers,” she wrote to her great friend, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

So, what else does a duchess do? Her activities are recounted in the duchess’ newly published memoirs, Wait for Me!, and a recently published collection of letters exchanged between Debo and Fermor, In Tearing Haste. Along with pheasant- and grouse-shooting, chicken-raising ranks high on the list. “Chickens seem to have been her first love,” writes Fermor. “Poultry has been important to me since childhood,” asserts the duchess, who ticks off the breeds that roam 1,000 acres of the Chatsworth grounds: “Wesummers and enigmatic Bufurd Browns… pretty, shy, idiotic Light Sussex; even stupider White Leghorns… and neat, clever, sociable little Warrens.”

“I thought our upbringing was exactly like everyone else’s,” she writes in her memoir. “Perhaps it was not.”

The duchess’ interests extend beyond her chickens, but she was not exactly cultivated for wide-ranging intellectual endeavors. As the sixth girl, her birth was, she says, “a deeply disappointing event” to her parents. “No one, except Nanny, looked at me till I was three months old,” writes Debo, but even Nanny Blor did not indulge her; during Debo’s childhood ups and downs “Nanny sat on any ups.” The girls were educated at first by their mother and then by a series of governesses, one of whom “encouraged in us the difficult art of shoplifting,” another who “was not interested in education but loved playing cards.” Debo’s recollection of her childhood has a lovely, breezy tone: “[T]he Post Office reached by donkey cart, the two-penny bars & acid drops, the village idiot, the blacksmith’s shop, Nanny’s fabric gloves clutched in the back of the Daimler just before I was sick.” As teens, the girls were shipped off to Paris to learn French (Debo refused, not wanting to miss the hunting season), then they “came out” for the “the Season”: the Royal Ascot, the Epsom Derby, cricket at Lords, rowing at Henley, and as many balls as possible. “I thought our upbringing was exactly like everyone else’s,” she writes in her memoir. “Perhaps it was not.”

Although Debo writes that “marriage was the career that we all aspired to,” her five older sisters and one brother found alternative occupations. Nancy, the oldest, became a novelist, author of amusing and biting novels including The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), which were based largely on her family and their eccentricities. Pamela found an obsession in her pets: She “organized her existence around [her dogs’] needs to an extent unusual even in an Englishwoman,” writes Debo. The only son, Tom, who, Debo writes, she “hardly knew,” qualified as a barrister in 1932, then joined the army and was killed in Burma in 1945.

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Wait for Me! Memoirs. By Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. 368 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28. ()

Debo’s other sisters occupied themselves with politics, or, at least, with powerful political men. Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, in 1936 and spent much of World War II in Holloway Women’s Prison, thanks, in part, to Nancy’s secret assertions to the Foreign Office that her sister was “an extremely dangerous person.” Unity, aka Bobo—“always the odd one out”—fell hard for Hitler from afar, and, by stalking him at his favorite Munich restaurant, eventually secured herself a spot in his outermost circle. At the outbreak of the war, she shot herself in the head in a public park, survived, and lived the rest of her sad days tended to by “Muv,” the Mitford mother. Jessica, known as Decca, gravitated toward a different end of the political spectrum, becoming a communist and eventually settling in California with her second husband, a civil-rights lawyer. Her book chronicling the gruesome commercialization of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963), was a bestseller.

Debo alone took the expected route, ending up in a rarified version of the life for which she had been cultivated. The main work of the duchess’ life after her marriage was not chickens but Chatsworth. After her husband, Andrew, inherited the dukedom in 1950, Debo found herself in charge of seven houses in short order. “No wonder,” she writes, “I put down ‘Housewife’ when filling in a form that demanded my occupation; I was wife to all of them.” Chatsworth was the grandest of them all and in disrepair when the couple took it over. They began an overhaul and moved into the crumbling estate with their children in 1957. The upkeep was a job, she writes, “big enough to occupy every waking moment.” In the dozens of rooms that they turned into their home they hosted extensively. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Lucian Freud (who painted their bathroom), Cecil Beaton, Jayne Wrightsman, Oscar de la Renta, and many others were among their guests. In the decades since the Devonshires took it over, Chatsworth has become one of the most beloved country estates, used by film crews (see Pride and Prejudice) and picnicking families alike.

Despite her sisters’ proclivities, books and politics were decidedly not part of Debo’s work. “I am having a jolly time,” she wrote in a postcard sent from Tangiers in 1956; “no one goes on at me about learning to read.” Debo’s supposed illiteracy was famous. Nancy teased that she had only ever developed the intellect of a 9-year-old and (WFM, 277); Evelyn Waugh made her the subject of an elaborate prank:

His new book arrived … & I thought how nice & felt rather superior. NOT BEING A GREAT READER, to get the damned thing straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, so I undid it & read something like “To Darling Debo, in the certainty that not one word of this will offend your Protestant persuasion.” Naturally I didn’t look any further, but Emma and my wife who were sitting there, bagged it & started to turn the pages which were ALL BLANK, just lovely sheets of paper with gold edges & never a word on one of them. That’s the sort of book which suits me down to the ground.

“She hates books,” writes Fermor, she “has never read any of mine.” An ideal day was one in which all talk of literature was avoided: “I had a very jolly time in Scotland with Col Stirling, a visit after my own heart. No books were mentioned …” Writing, she explains in her memoir, came “unexpectedly” into her life. She’d “rather write a book than read one any day,” she once wrote to Fermor.

She avoided politics with a similar alacrity. Although Andrew was named parliamentary undersecretary for commonwealth relations in 1960 and Debo played regular hostess to political figures ranging from “Uncle Harold” (Prime Minister Harold McMillan and Andrew’s uncle) to Lady Bird Johnson to Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, she nimbly avoided politics. Recounting a conversation with an eager wife of a minister of state, she exclaimed to Fermor, “You see what it’s like. RUBBISH. Making women have anything to do with politics, it makes me very angry.” In her memoirs, she establishes her political persuasion, but offers little elaboration: “I have always voted Conservative and would never do otherwise.” Politicians are just another class of important people, useful for their gossip. “I talked secrets one day with the [prime minister],” she wrote to Fermor, “Most jolly & educational. He has become much more human all of a sudden and talks about things like Adultery quite nicely.”

Debo deploys a similar reluctance to engage with the heavier aspects of her personal life. A forced abortion for her sister Pam is described as a drive “for miles over bumpy roads with the inevitable result of a miscarriage.” Although she allows that the effect of Andrew’s alcoholism on his children “was dire” and that, at times, “Andrew’s behavior was out of control and frightening to watch,” the disease is covered in about four pages. Privacy obviously motivates part of this reticence. But, part of it also seems like ignorance of her place in history, a glib gloss on events of incontestable consequence. Looking back on tea with Hitler in 1937, she is surprised, not by her blithe oblivion to his horrific capabilities, but that “he postponed his departure for two hours so as to be able to sit and chat to Unity and … to us.” Unity, Debo writes to Fermor, “was a round peg in a round hole & was a casualty of the foul war like millions of others.” Is a woman who accepted, as a personal gift from Hitler, an apartment recently vacated by a Jewish couple a casualty “like millions of others” of the war? Not quite like those millions of others.

But one shouldn’t read these books for insight into literature, politics, tragedy, or encounters with evil. Even the hysterics of the Mitford household have been more comprehensively covered by Nancy and Decca. This is a book about shooting game and raising chickens, attending balls and renovating halls, matters of households and hedgerows, all of it recounted in Debo’s distinct and often charming voice. “I thought,” she wrote to Fermor in 1987, “a cut & laid hedge was a beautiful thing, but just a cut & laid hedge. I had no idea of the different styles, for instance Welsh is totally unlike Northamptonshire,” and on and on she goes; “They’re for keeping in (or out) different animals, see; steers & sheep & all the variants of them, v local like the breeds …” Only after she finishes her effusive appraisal of the National Hedging and Walling Competition does she mention the other matter at hand: “Have been in two minds or more as to whether to ring [Andrew] up & tell him Uncle Harold has conked.” The death of an uncle and a hedging competition are processed and recounted in due course. First things first.

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Chloë Schama is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic and the author of Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman.