Wait for Me by Deborah Mitford – book review

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by Amelia Gordon

What more is there to say about the brilliant Mitford sisters who reigned in England and America in the mid 2th century? Six sisters, they were an eccentric British lot, raised by an extremely eccentric father and rather more conventional, long suffering mother. Nancy, Diana, Pamela, Unity, Jessica or Decca and Deborah or Debo. They invented their own language in childhood and each grew up into an arresting personality. Nancy became a famous novelist, drawing on her family for portraits of characters. Diana married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of fascists. The couple were imprisoned during World War II, considered “dangerous” to the British nation, in fact denounced by the elder sister Nancy. Unity was a fascist, met and fell in love with Hitler and tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide when World War II broke out. Jessica (Decca) became a communist and eventually emigrated to America where she wrote, cadged dinners and drinks from capitalist acquaintances and developed a circle of like minded communist friends. Pamela was the calm and serene one, a British country woman and finally Deborah (Debo), the author, the youngest and ultimately luckiest one, who married a young sweetheart and unexpectedly became a duchess with enormous wealth and properties. Much has been written about this group, but, it turns out, there is much more to write. Now in her nineties, Debo Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, looks back on a long life in  this autobiography with a wry eye. She recounts how she was raised among her gaggle of sisters and married a second son of a duke, Andrew, which meant that he would inherit nothing under the British aristocratic rule of primogeniture. Andrew’s elder brother was killed in the war and Andrew thus  became the Duke of Devonshire on the death of his father. Subject to 80% death duties on the enormous estates, the Devonshires had to work for over 20 years to pay them off, turning an ancestral home Chatsworth into tourist site and opening a farm store and restaurant, all successful.

What strikes one is the enormous wealth that some of the old aristocracy still maintain. The lands of the Dukes of Devonshire include 4 ancestral castles, in most of which the Devonshires resided at some point in the year: Chatsworth, Bolton Castle, Lismore Castle and Compton Place. In addition, they had palatial digs in London.  They managed to keep up all of these properties and live a golden life frequented by royalty and high society.  The wealth of the Devonshires was largely accumulated by a female ancestor, Bess of Hardwick, the shrewd third wife of Sir William Cavendish, who himself  had gained great wealth from his 16th century position in the exchequer.

Debo displays the Mitford wit along with her own love of the English countryside in this interestingaccount of her life. It is full of the many social events she hosted or attended but also deals with the travails of making ends meet in the face of crippling death duties, and her  husband’s alcoholism. Although her father was a baronet, the Mitfords were of relatively modest means. Her mother used to run an egg farm, shipping eggs to clients in London. The duchess recounts the odd fate of living one year in a cold damp estate house with her husband  and inheriting great wealth and titles the next.

Of all the sisters, with the possible exception of Pamela, she ended up with the most stable lifestyle and seems satisfied with her life. In 2004, her husband died and 18 months later she moved out of Chatsworth to allow her son, now the Duke to take up residence with his family. The title of the book harkens back to her childhood, when she was always calling “Wait for me” to her sisters, as she was unable to keep up with them on her short, stubbby legs.

Indeed, there is much more to say about the lives of the Mitford sisters. Debo writes well and thus makes this biography a very interesting read.