One of England’s great national treasures has gone to meet her maker serenaded by the king of rock & roll Elvis Presley. I am referring to none other than the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire one of my idols.
Her sudden death, age 94, hit the countryside hard, but it is great to have the opportunity to explain why Deborah meant so much to me and all who knew her.
Before Deborah, known affectionately as Debo, became a Duchess through her marriage to the Andrew Cavendish, she was the youngest of the infamous Mitford sisters.
To The World the famous Mitford Sisters dominated the tabloid press of the 1920’s to 1950″s
Raised in isolation on several Cotswold estates, the seven children of Lord and Lady Redesdale — six daughters and a son — were forced to depend on each other for ideas, companionship, and fun.
They invented elaborate family jokes and games that included an elaborate network of nicknames and private languages.
By the time Tom was at Eton and the girls ready for their London debuts, they had each developed their own highly individual, eccentric personalities.
As a result of their social and political exploits, the Mitford’s captured the British media spotlight, dominating the front pages of splashy tabloids — a public fascination that continues to this day, as new biographies try to reveal what kept these siblings burning bright.
Let us meet them once again
Nancy, The Author
The eldest of the seven children of David Mitford and Sydney Bowles, Nancy was born in London in 1904. Because her father did not believe in formal education for girls, Nancy and her sisters were instructed at home by governesses. (One reason he gave was that by playing field hockey, a common school sport, they would develop thick calves.) Both Nancy and Jessica longed to go to school, and at age 16 Nancy got her wish, spending less than a year at nearby Hatherop Castle. By and large, school did not play a large part in her childhood.
Books, however, did. By age six, Nancy was already reading Ivanhoe, and she went on to read voraciously throughout her teenage years. The strict house rules about books — children were not allowed to read in bed or to read novels in the morning, and library books had to stay in the library — made reading, especially the reading of novels, all the more attractive. Nancy’s own first novel, Highland Fling, was published in 1931, followed by Christmas Pudding the next year. But critics and the public took little notice of these frothy romps. She found success with her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love (1945), and its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Based like much of her fiction on her own experiences, their sentimental but satiric tone was irresistible to a nation fatigued by years of war, and the books became best-sellers.
Known for her style and elegance, Nancy was a great social success, as were her sisters in their turn. As a young woman in London, she worked away at her fiction and penned articles for Vogue, The Lady, and Harper’s. Released at last from the family fold, she took up residence with the author Evelyn Waugh and his wife and enjoyed a lively social life. Her first love was Hamish St. Clair Erskine, an aesthete who had been friends with her brother at Eton. When he threw her over, she quickly married Peter Rodd, son of an eminent diplomat, chiefly because he happened to be available. Undone by his philandering and profligate spending habits, the match was never happy; they would divorce in 1958.
With her husband posted overseas during the war, Nancy found work as an assistant at Heywood Hill bookshop in the Mayfair district of London, where she soon became a partner in the firm. Drawing on her work with Rodd in refugee camps during the Spanish Civil War, Nancy did her part in the war effort as an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) driver in London. By this time, Nancy had fallen in love with Gaston Palewski, a follower of General de Gaulle, who she included as Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love. Settling in Paris after the war, she moved from fiction to history, writing highly acclaimed biographies: Madame de Pompadour (1953), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970). She is remembered, however, as Britain’s most piercing observer of social manners. While her sheltered upbringing was the object of her scalding satire, she nonetheless continued to defend it until her death in Paris, of cancer, at the age of 69.
Pamaela, The “Woman”
Sister number two, Pamela (1907-1994), was the least rebellious of the older girls. Of all the sisters, Pamela developed a particular love of the country and went on to become a poultry expert. According to Mitford biographer Mary S. Lovell, for Pam the country “… was not just a ‘nice place to live,’ she felt a positive affinity with farming and animals…. It was her undisguised enjoyment of domesticated pursuits such as cooking, which the others regarded as boring and ‘womanly,’ that led to her lifelong nickname in the family, Woman, sometimes shorted to Woo.” Known as the “quiet sister,” she nonetheless attracted her share of suitors, and in 1936 she fell for Derek Ainslie Jackson, the good-looking son of Sir Charles Jackson and a world-renowned physicist in his own right. After divorcing his first wife, he married her that December. Pam and Derek would take in Diana’s two boys when she and her second husband, Oswald Mosley, were jailed for treason.
Diana, The Beautiful One
The third sister, Diana (1910-), was always considered the most classically beautiful. She ended her first season as a debutante by becoming engaged to Bryan Guinness, heir to the fabulous Guinness Brewery fortune and one of the most eligible bachelors of the day. Several years and two sons later, she caused a scandal by divorcing him. Evidently theirs was a less-than-ideal marriage. They had only known each other three months when he proposed. Bryan mistook her for a fresh country girl while Diana had jumped into marriage to escape from her family. Truth be told, Diana was love with Sir Oswald Mosley.
Leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and its “defense force” of thuggish Blackshirts, Mosley was a sinister character, but also something of a buffoon. He may be best known as the model for P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal character Sir Roderick Spode, leader of a fascist organization called the Black Shorts. Mosley was also lampooned by Nancy in her farcical novel Wigs on the Green (1935). More disturbing to her friends and relatives than Mosley’s politics was the fact that Diana was divorcing one man in order to live as the mistress of another. When Mosley’s wife died unexpectedly, he and Diana wed. During their life together, they shared the same beliefs, campaigned together, and suffered the ignominy of being imprisoned together by the British government as German sympathizers during World War II. Nancy had informed on her sister, while Jessica never forgave Diana for her fascist views.
Unity, The Fascist
As girls in the 1930s, Jessica and Unity (1914-1948) shared a room. One end was decorated with Unity’s fascist insignia, while at the other end Jessica displayed her communist library, copies of the Daily Worker, and a small bust of Lenin. The rest of the family regarded this ideological war as an amusing childish game rather than as an early sign of the division the family would face in the future.
Rather boisterous as a teenager, Unity tormented the family’s governesses and was expelled after a brief stint at school. At home she practiced the art of sitting silently at meals and fixing her father in a stare until he exploded with irritation. Later, as a debutante, she horrified the London social scene by taking her pet rat to dances and wearing a flamboyantly fake tiara. She so enjoyed herself and amused her sisters that later, when she greeted everyone with the Nazi salute, they regarded it for a time as another one of her pranks.
Unity Mitford’s admiration for Hitler is well known. She liked the spectacle — the oratory, uniform, marching, and music. As it did for so many young people in Germany, the pomp gave her a sense of identity, of belonging to something important. For his part, Hitler saw Unity as a perfect example of Aryan womanhood, and her connections with important people in English society were obviously useful. She became a member of his social circle, drawing Diana into it as well. Early in 1936, Diana married Mosley while staying with Unity at the Goebbels’ house outside Berlin. When World War II came, Unity was so appalled at the idea of her country being at war with Germany that she tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head. Although Hitler got her to the hospital and she recovered enough to be taken back to England, she was a semi-invalid for the rest of her days.
Jessica, The Communist
Jessica, or “Decca” (1917-1996), was the sister who least enjoyed her upbringing. As a young girl, she had a “running-away account”; she had a habit of saving up her pocket money, frequently informing her family that she would soon have enough to escape. Even her short education in Paris and her first London season left her feeling at odds with her family background. She was looking for a way out when she engineered a meeting with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s 19-year-old “red” nephew who had run away from school to join the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He was her soul mate and hero, and Jessica eventually joined him in Spain, where they were married. (Although Nancy sympathized with Jessica in her love for Edmond, she advised her not to run off to Spain with him.) Throughout their time together, they shared a passionate commitment to communism. When he was killed in World War II, shot down by Germans over the North Sea, Jessica was crushed. She emigrated to the United States (later marrying progressive Oakland lawyer Robert Treuhaft) and began a series of written attacks on the establishment, most famously her scathing indictment of the funeral industry in her book The American Way of Death.
Tom, The Son
Tom (1909-1945), the only Mitford son, became a lawyer with a passion for music. As a youngster, he participated with the girls in schoolroom lessons at home, where he was taught Latin and math, subjects essential for his admission to boarding school and that were thought necessary for the girls. At the age of nine, he was sent to a preparatory school, which eventually lead to his enrollment at Eton. Although not often at home, Tom played an important role in the education of his sisters, as he brought them a glimpse of the wider world.
After Eton, Tom went on to study German and music in Vienna. He loved Germany and everything about it. Although he was not known to be anti-Semitic, he was impressed by Hitler when he met him, as were both his parents when they visited Berlin. In the end, however, he fought for England in World War II and was killed in Burma in April 1945. When the news came through, Diana was granted leave from prison, and the family gathered together in their London house to comfort each other. David would never recover from the loss of his only son.
Deborah, The Duchess
As the youngest, Deborah, or “Debo” (1920-2014), was less energetically competitive than her siblings. Nancy called Debo “Nine” until she married, saying it was her mental age.
She took advantage of Debo’s sentimental nature by writing poems and stories to make her cry. Eventually, Nancy had only to hold up a box of matches to make tears well in Debo’s eyes.
Much like Diana, Debo found her match shortly after coming out to London society. She’d met Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, in a restaurant off Curzon Street. “If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was certainly attraction at first sight,” he later reported. They became engaged in 1939 but kept their pledge secret, as, at age 19, they were considered too young to marry.
They made it official the following April amid the bombed-out remains of the family’s London home at 26 Rutland Gate.
When Deborah’s brother-in-law Billy (husband of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister to Jack, Bobby, and Ted) was hit by a sniper on the Belgian front, Andrew became heir to the dukedom, including the neglected family estate Chatsworth. Restoring and preserving this heirloom home would soon become their mission. Debo even joined the ranks of her published sisters, authoring The House, part autobiography, part history of Chatsworth.
Chatsworth House is a grand county pile in Derbyshire, made famous by being repeatedly used as the setting for Pemberley, Darcy’s house in various adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. It was also the residence of Bess of Hardwick, who was portrayed by Hayley Atwell in the 2008 film, The Duchess.
When our beloved and now departed Debo took over at Chatsworth, the estate was not profitable and she knew that she had to turn Chatsworth into a viable business if both house and the surrounding tenants were to survive. A country girl at heart, she put her knowledge of animals to good use and learned as much as she could from the farmers. She then set about opening up Chatsworth House to the public, and created a farm shop that sold produce from the estate.
Both House and shop were a roaring success, and although Debo always modestly denies it, she is credited as the brains that turned Chatsworth’s fortunes around.
Today, people visit the estate from across the world and it is one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions. The Chatsworth business model, created by Debo, has been emulated by many other properties, most notably by Prince Charles at his Highgrove estate, with the Duchy Originals line.
Prince Charles was a close friend of Debo, leading her to take a dim view of the late Princess Diana. Like the other Mitford sisters, Debo was never afraid to be opinionated, and while she generally stayed neutral on politics, she was a keen member of the Countryside Alliance.
Although I didn’t always share her views, I could admire the way she stood up for what she thought was right, and was an active member of her community.
To me, Deborah Devonshire was far more than an aristocratic beauty. She was a shrewd businesswoman who put the needs of her staff and tenants first.
This is the legacy that Deborah Devonshire will leave behind, one of hard work, good brains, and kindness.
Hundreds of liveried staff, the heir to the British throne and the music of Elvis Presley have formed part of a final farewell for Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, last of the unconventional Mitford sisters.
Deborah, died last week aged 94. She was buried Thursday on the estate grounds.
More than 600 Chatsworth staff in traditional livery lined the cortege route to St Peter’s Church.
The mourners included Prince Charles, who said he “adored and admired” her.
Music at the service included “How Great Thou Art,” sung by Elvis, the duchess’s favorite entertainer.
The Dowager was the light that filled each room she entered. She has a rare gift not seen today.
The worlds salutes and morns her passing, but we celebrate what renovations she is working on now in the heavens.