Deborah (Debo) Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire (DD) was the younger sister of Jessica Mitford. She was the youngest child of Lord and Lady Redesdale. Her book starts out in the most charming and unassuming manner:
Blank. There is no entry in my mother’s engagement book for 31 March 1920, the day I was born. The next few days are also blank. The first entry in April, in large letters, is ‘KITCHEN CHIMNEY SWEPT’. My parents’ dearest wish was for a big family of boys; a sixth girl was not worth recording. ‘Nancy, Pam, Tom, Diana, Bobo (Unity), Decca (Jessica), me’, intoned in a peculiar voice, was my answer to anyone who asked where I came in the family.
The sisters were at home and Tom was at boarding school for this deeply disappointing event, more like a funeral than a birth. years later, Mabel, our parlourmaid, told me, ‘I knew what it was by your father’s face.’ When the telegram arrived Nancy announced to the others, ‘We Are Seven’, and wrote to Muv at our London house, 49 Victoria Road, Kensington, where she was lying-in, ‘How disgusting of the poor darling to go and be a girl.’ Life went on as though nothing had happened and all agreed no one, except Nanny, looked at me until I was three months old and then were not especially pleased by what they saw.
Lady Redesdale was forty when Debo was born. It was her last chance at having another boy, so everyone was bitterly disappointed when Debo was a girl. If this happened in 1990 instead of 1920 and someone relayed the story of their birth in this fashion, social services would be called and the parents would be brought up on charges of child underappreciation and a thorough enquiry will have to be opened to ‘investigate’ the matter further. But this was 1920 and people just got on with life.
Debo was the sixth girl and seventh child of a large family full of strong and disparate personalities. They, especially her sisters, all teased her for being the unwanted, superfluous, extra daughter which nobody needed in a family of already too many girls. This was the 1920s after all, such sentiments weren’t taboo. Her mother didn’t do much to stop the teasing (which was a Mitford past time and usually ran rampant and unchecked). She was a typical mother of her time and social class, which left such matters in the capable hands of their staff (nannies, governesses and servants). Debo didn’t mind being unimportant and being at the bottom of the Mitford totem pole. She had many other things to occupy herself with: her hens, ponies, guinea pigs, dogs, fishing, hunting and the occasional school lesson. Her closest sister growing up was Jessica Mitford, but this is simply the function of birth order. Debo was too distracted by country pursuits to care much what her older brother and sisters were doing. She said besides Jessica, who was her ‘favourite’ sister growing up, she never got to know the others properly until she was grown up and married, when they all finally had something in common.
Jessica Mitford said in ‘Hons and Rebels’, her younger sister was interested, bordered on obsessed with her hens, their mother gave the younger girls some hens to raise and when the eggs were laid, they ‘sold’ the eggs to their mother to earn pocket money, it was their ‘only economy’. However, Jessica warned to not be fooled by her younger sister’s contentment with rural life, Debo was not a simple girl with no aspirations. Just because she was happy with rural country living (all her other sisters, except for Pamela, and brother hated it), it didn’t mean she was a simpleton and didn’t understand the complexities of life and people. Of all the sisters, Jessica would know Debo the best because of their close age.
But not to worry, this girl that nobody wanted or was excited about became the the favorite child of her parents, after her brother. Unlike her sisters, Debo loved Swinbrook House in the Cotswolds, which was a large draughty freezing house in a small village with nothing to do and they were under the strict rules of their mother. All her sisters hated it. Nancy called it ‘Swinebrook’, Diana was bored to tears there and got married at eighteen to Bryan Guinness to escape the boredom, all the others bid their time there until they could leave (usually when they are to be married). Not Debo, she loved it, she loved fishing and hunting with her father and she loved all the animals and the groundskeepers who worked for her father. The irascible Lord Redesdale also appreciated his youngest daughter’s love of the countryside and Swinbrook House as he was privately very hurt by the mocking and rejection of the house he designed and built by the other girls. Lady Redesdale came to especially adore her youngest daughter for her easy going nature and not challenging her rules too much. Also, Debo never incited any scandals which landed her in the papers, a major concern for the Redesdales in the 1930s.
Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire was a very unique and some would argue an important figure during her time. Because of her social class and the connections which came with it, she knew some of the central figures during a turbulent time in history. Some could say the same about her sister Diana Mosley but with one marked distinction, Diana Mosley’s aim was to help her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader to get ahead politically, Deborah Mitford from cradle to grave hated politics, never involved with herself with politics, never cared about politics but she cared about the people behind their politics.
She was one of the few people who knew Winston Churchill (Lord Redesdale was a first cousin of Clementine Churchill) because he was a relation. She knew Sir Oswald Mosley because he was her brother-in-law, a rather awkward situation for a long time. She met Adolf Hitler once for tea with Unity and her parents, his flat was ‘ugly and brown’ she noted, and found him to be rather dull and lacking in charisma and he didn’t look like he did in his pictures (she didn’t clarify if it was a good thing or bad thing) – she didn’t understand the waving and spontaneous weeping at the Nazi rallies. She was a very good friend of President John F. Kennedy because his sister Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy was married to her brother-in-law, William Cavendish. Even after the tragic death of William (killed in action), Kathleen Kennedy remained very friendly with her in-laws and was even buried at Chatsworth, the ancestral home of the Devonshires when she met her early and untimely death. She and her husband, the Duke of Devonshire were invited by JFK as his personal guests to his inauguration in 1961.
Many journalists and Mitford family biographers love to focus on the two hours she met Hitler, which she finds boring and tedious. She was 17 years old, still regarded as a child, didn’t know a word of German and Hitler wasn’t interested in her or really speaking to her, Hitler was interested in her sister Unity and their mother. She can’t even recall what the conversation was about with one of the most evil men in history, but that he had an ugly flat for someone of his stature and had monogramed bathroom towels. They had tea, and he shook her hand twice. She can’t even recall if the tea was any good.
Besides people in politics, she knew all the leading literary figures and artists of her time. They were all her friends and she cherished each and every one of them for who they were, not what they did. One bit of irony is, though she was good friends with Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Betjeman and others, she rarely reads and considers herself a literary idiot, especially when compared to her more sophisticated sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica, who read and wrote prodigiously. Her sister Nancy was convinced she was totally half-witted and one of the nicknames Nancy had for Debo was ‘Nine’, the mental age in which she stopped developing (according to Nancy). When Debo’s letters were not frequent enough to Nancy, who lived in France after the war, she wrote to her youngest sister lamenting about how her nine year old ‘fist is incapable of holding a pen.’
Debo never minded being the butt of the family jokes, even as they were teasing her, as she matured from a child into a young woman, she was proving her mettle and her sisters took notice too (her brother, Thomas Mitford died while fighting in Burma during World War II). From the beginning to the end of her book, she was self-deprecating and humble throughout. For all of her achievements, she always recognized those who were smarter or more capable than her. She praised Jessica for her academic aptitude as she was ‘too stupid’ to know what teachers wanted on the few occasions they did attend school. She praised Nancy, Diana and Tom for their intellectual prowess, devouring volumes upon volumes of books, teaching themselves whole languages in the process. Her second eldest sister Pam was described as the ultimate country woman with an innate understanding of the land and the animals which reside on them and Pam was also an excellent cook. Unity though always a bit awkward and a bit of an oddball at times, but beneath all that she recognized a vulnerability in Unity which made one want to protect her. She never defended the beliefs or actions of her sisters Diana and Unity, their views were not her views but they were her sisters and as such, she loved them.
No doubt her greatest achievement and claim to fame is transforming her husband’s ancestral home Chatsworth House from a family home which sat empty through the two World Wars into a thriving business entity. She refurbished the entire building from roof to basement. Started a farm shop, orangery and tea house. She describes in her book:
The total living space, I learned, was 1,704,233 cubic feet. There were 1.3 acres of roof. Of the 297 rooms, 48 were very big indeed and some were no more than glorified cupboards. I did not employ a decorator; I was too mean to pay for something I could do myself and cannot imagine living surrounded by someone else’s taste; and besides, I loved every minute of it.
It was decided by their estate agent, in order for Chatsworth to be a self-sustaining and profitable entity, it must be a family home as well as a museum opened to the public. It needed to feel cozy and lived in, so they made the decision to move their whole family to Chatsworth and divide the home into private and public quarters. Since the 1990s the estate is self-sustaining and turning a profit each year. Through sales of the estate’s artwork, the viability of Chatsworth has been guaranteed for in perpetuity. It’s one of the few grand ancestral homes in the UK which has achieved this status. But the duchess didn’t take all the credit for herself, she gave credit to the hundreds of sewers, seamstresses, painting and art restorers, gardeners, artisans and builders as she is unqualified to do all these tasks. Her eldest sister Nancy, her chief teaser, when she saw the finished and newly restored Chatsworth House for the first time paid her youngest sister a sincere and heartfelt compliment. But, Nancy Mitford being the ultimate jokester had to add ‘who is my sister going to wash in all these bathrooms?’ Debo added 17 bathrooms during the remodel and refurbish.
The duchess did all of this on no formal education. She had no business school training or experience. According to Debo, they (Mitford sisters) were unqualified and untrained to do any paid work. She hated school, she never understood her lessons, she learned to read, write and do basic maths and the rest were all a blur. It is her sister Diana’s theory, which, for all of Debo’s plea of ignorance of the written letter and anything associated with it, she was actually a secret reader who spent many hours devouring books. All of her sisters, including Nancy who called her ‘Nine’ knew there was more than meets the eye when it came to the intellect of their youngest sister.
In her book, she recounts her childhood, her adolescence, adulthood and motherhood with deep emotion, at time sadness but without sentimentality. She spoke of the deep pain she felt (like an amputation) at the sale of her childhood home Swinbrook and the separation of her parents in the 1940s, her sister Jessica running away without telling her thinking she was never to see her again, her sister Diana being imprisoned without charge or trial for most of the war and missed her wedding to Andrew Cavendish, the future Duke of Devonshire. During the war, there was a four week period where she lost 4 of her best friends and cousins and her brother-in-law died shortly after. Though she disliked Jessica’s husband Esmond Romilly, when his plane went down in the North Sea, she was deeply upset and hurt for Jessica and Constancia Romilly. And then of course there are the losses of her children, her first child was stillborn, three others were lost at various stages of pregnancy, including a set of twins. Even at old age, she thinks about what might have become of these children. She eventually had three surviving children. As she approached old age, as her sisters died one by one, she missed them all, sometimes forgetting they’ve gone and was about to take a pen and paper and write them about something amusing which happened only to realize the futility of it.
The one area she didn’t touch too much on was her long marriage to her husband Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. They were married for sixty-four years until he died. They married in the middle of the Blitz in 1941, right before clothing rationing came into effect, she was nearly out of a white wedding gown. Many journalists ask Debo directly just how she felt about her husband as she was rather vague about him. He was a recovering alcoholic, his alcoholism caused much turmoil in their marriage. He also had affairs, but she accepted it as part and parcel of married life. She didn’t like it but she had enough to occupy her time with. She never sought to rewrite the history of her marriage after her husband has died, nor did she make her marriage out to be some sort of a fairytale. They were in love when they married, the war happened, people they knew and loved died, life happened, but all in all, in the final analysis, Andrew was great company. He had great humor, and he was ‘never boring’, which to any Mitford, being a bore is a cardinal sin. When asked, ‘I adored him.’
She belonged to the stiff upper lip generation, she lived and died by it. But it doesn’t mean the tragedies in her life were insignificant or wasn’t deeply felt. She was also deeply funny and humorous. She said the funniest people she knew were her father, her sister Nancy followed by Jessica, but she isn’t too shabby herself in the humor department.
About her engagement to her future husband:
In late 1940, on a visit to Andrew’s parent’s house in Derbyshire, we became officially engaged. My future mother-in-law said to Andrew, ‘You have either got to marry that girl or stop asking her here.’ So that is how it happened.
About her experience with a dimwitted young journalist:
Recently a young journalist came to interview me about what I was doing the day war broke out. During the course of the interview, I recounted the deaths of my only brother, Andrew’s only brother, a brother-in-law (Esmond Romilly) and four best friends. ‘So,’ she said, ‘did the war affect you in any way?’
About Americans and our penchant for divorce (my personal favorite):
“It was absolutely fixed that we shouldn’t divorce or get rid of each other in any way. It’s completely different to Americans, who all divorce each other the whole time. Such a bore for everyone, having to say who’s going to have the dogs, who’s going to have the photograph books.”
Yes, I am afraid Americans are a real bore when it comes to divorce.
Lastly, the duchess’s view about the all important self-esteem, she talks about it as though it’s some bizarre esoteric concept.
I read about the necessity of self-esteem in children. We would have become impossibly pleased with ourselves had we been indulged with such a thing.
The duchess died on September 24, 2014 at the grand old age of 94. She is survived by her three children and many grand and great-grandchildren. Chatsworth Estate is thriving, her son the new Duke of Devonshire has taken over the running of the estate when his father passed away in 2004. Chatsworth is still open to the public to see and is considered one of the gems of United Kingdom.