To Holy Cocktails with the Rector of St George’s Hanover Square last night and the conversation was dominated by the death of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, last of the celebrated Mitford sisters, aged 94. Having spent a large part of my youth growing up in a village on the Chatsworth estate that she and the 11th Duke Andrew Cavendish gave the kiss of life to in the 1950s, the Duchess was was a figure of great fascination.
As the youngest sister, Deborah Mitford’s were a pair of piercing blue eyes that watched her extraordinary family cause mayhem in the 1930s. I suspect she learned to play the innocent if not the fool. Brilliant, caustic eldest sister Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) painted an affectionate, absurd picture of growing up under the same roof as her parents Lord and Lady Redesdale. But remove the filter of wit, and the truth was probably no laughing matter.
As the Duchess said with dry understatement, with the exception of Pamela her sisters were ‘unshakable in their views and politically inclined as you may have noticed’. Blonde valkyries Diana and Unity worshipped Hitler. The former married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and was imprisoned for the duration of World War Two. The latter shot herself. Jessica, the closest sister in age to Deborah, ran away from home to join her Communist beau Esmond Romilly fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The only Mitford brother, Tom, was killed in war.
As chatelaine of Chatsworth House, Bolton Abbey and Lismore Castle in Ireland, the baby of the family would become the peacemaker who could offer each sister sanctuary in her many homes. The Duchess (who as a child had said she’d like to meet ‘the Duke of Right’) married Andrew Cavendish in 1941. He wasn’t the heir to Chatsworth and as Lady Cavendish she could look forward to the life of a countrywoman counting her beloved chickens, training sheepdogs and living a rural life.
But in 1944 her brother-in-law the Marquess of Hartington was killed in action. Six years later the 10th Duke died and Deborah became Duchess of Devonshire. Though the 11th Duke gallantly said ‘my wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am’, it was together that the Duke and Duchess accepted the burden of 80% death duty on the estates, took their place at Chatsworth and worked for the rest of their lives to secure the legacy for the nation. Properties such as Hardwick Hall and a handful of Old Masters were judiciously bartered or sold to bring Chatsworth back to a glory not seen since the 6th ‘Bachelor’ Duke’s day.
The Duchess became affectionately known as the ‘Housewife Duchess’ but she was a skilled entrepreneur. With a manner part Mary Berry and part Boadicea, she led money-making enterprises such as the restaurant in the Stables, the Chatsworth Farm Shop and the carpentry workshop that made garden furniture she would sell from a stall at the Chelsea Flower Show. The Duchess would always acknowledge that estate workers were the heart of Chatsworth House and they loved her in return.
The title of Lady Mosley’s biography A Life of Contrasts does not apply to the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Rather she was a lady who was the sum of her parts including a curious obsession with Elvis Presley and a preference for clothing bought at agricultural shows. Though the Duchess claimed her favourite book was Fancy Fowl and her favourite artist Beatrix Potter, she wrote prolifically and was painted by Lucien Freud and Pietro Annigoni. Her friend Patrick Leigh Fermor suspected that the Duchess read prolifically in secret like an alcoholic taking surreptitious sips of whiskey.
The Duchess may have said she preferred M&S fashion to Paris but when Vogue photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino came to Chatsworth to shoot she and granddaughter Stella Tennant, the stylists were absolutely overwhelmed by her collection of couture designed by Schiaparelli, Dior and Balenciaga. Though she demurred, the Duchess was the epitome of English elegance. I recall the Duchess attending church at Edensor with a swarm of 19th century jewelled insect and bee brooches pinned to a ‘much loved’ cardigan. That’s style.
As you will read in any of her published work, the Dowager Duchess had a sense of humour that was kinder and wiser than her sister Nancy’s. Her family life was not without troubles but now is not the time to rake over difficulties the Duchess finessed. One can only imagine her thoughts and feelings on leaving Chatsworth House when the 11th Duke died in 2004. But being a stoic, I’d imagine she would have hooted with friends like Alan Bennett or the Prince of Wales about not having to remember where she’d left the Derbyshire Times.
I saw the Duchess of Devonshire on countless occasions, met her seldom (as I suspect did many people who delighted in calling her Debo) but treasure a signed copy of her 2010 autobiography Wait For Me! and a letter giving me permission to use a photograph of she wearing the most glamorous ocelot coat and extraordinary feathered deerstalker in 1936 at her first Royal Ascot. Nancy Mitford’s last words to the Duchess were ‘I just wish I could have one more day’s hunting’. Chatsworth’s last words to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire will simply be ‘thank you’.