Last month saw the sad news of the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has personal heroine of mine since I began to read the novels of her sister Nancy Mitford at school. As I learnt more about anecdotes and antics of her family, I developed a real soft spot for their youngest daughter, Deborah. I thought a short piece on her life might be interesting. Variously known in society as ‘Debo’, as the saviour of Chatsworth House, and as an all round ‘good egg’, Debo was a national treasure; and shall be remembered warmly in the hearts of many.
Our heroine was born the Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford. She was the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, who became stars of the literary and political social scene in pre and post war London. Daughter to the 2nd Baron Redesdale, the ever growing Mitford family grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, They enjoyed a rough and tumble kind of life, surrounded by numerous ponies, dogs and chickens. With six older sisters and one brother, Debo was reminded at every opportunity that the Mitford’s would have loved another son. None of the sisters were educated beyond reading, writing and learning to hunt, but luckily they all ended up highly proficient in all three disciplines. Always happiest out of doors, Debo adored all animals. The younger children concocted many secret languages, stories, family jokes and nicknames with which to entertain themselves. Their unique humour and sharp wit made them a hit with friends and peers alike. Debo was routinely terrorised by her older siblings, especially by the acid tongue of the eldest Nancy; who was soon to become a successful novelist. Nancy (pictured below) had a wickedly sharp humour, and was idolised by Debo.
The family already knew the Churchills, the Kennedys and Evelyn Waugh. As Debo’s older siblings, Nancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, and Jessica (known as Decca) grew older and began to socialise in 1930’s London, Debo was introduced to even more extraordinary characters. But the political scene in London was changing, and two of the older sisters, Diana and Unity, became infatuated with the cause of the right wing Nazi movement in Germany. Both went to stay for a time in Germany, and Debo and her mother visited Unity there. It was at this time, in 1937, that Debo took tea with none other than Hitler himself. Unity had fallen deeply in love with the despotic ruler, and the pair chatted away for hours. However but Debo recalled that the ‘atmosphere was rather awkward because neither my mother nor I could speak German’. Hitler made little impact on Debo, and in general she did not take an active interest in politics, saying to one newspaper ‘Well, I’ve never been very interested in politics, you see….and the truth is that I didn’t give it much thought. If you sat in a room with Churchill you were aware of this tremendous charisma. Kennedy had it, too. But Hitler didn’t – not to me anyway’.
Diana Mitford caused a tremendous scandal when she divorced her Guinness husband, and married instead Oswald Mosley, Leader of the British Union of Fascists. During the Second World War both Diana and her second husband were imprisoned for their extreme right wing views. Unity was in Berlin when Hitler declared war on England, and in despair of the thought of her beloved Germany at war with England, she shot herself in the head with a gun Hitler had given her. She suffered severe brain damage but the family were able to get her back to England and care for her. Never fully recovering, she died in 1948.
Debo had always been particularly close to her sister Decca, who was only a few years older than her. Decca grew into a very left wing mindset, often clashing with Diana and Unity. At the age of 17 she ran away from home, eloping to America with Esmond Romilly, a committed left wing activist. One newspaper reported wrongly reported that it was Debo, not Decca, that had run away to marry across the pond. The Mitford’s jumped into action, suing the newspaper for damaging Debo’s marital prospects; for which they were made to pay her the grand sum of £1000. Debo later admitted ‘That really was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Just wonderful: £1,000 was a huge sum of money in those days’. But her relationship with Decca was never to recover from this betrayal. In the end greater sadness was in store for Decca, as her young husband was killed in the war in 1941. She never returned to live in England, choosing to stay in America.
It was during the war that Debo ‘came out’ and enjoyed her first London season. It was at one of these grand parties that she met her future husband, Andrew Cavendish: ‘That was it for me’, she later wrote, ‘the rest of the Season passed in a would-he-wouldn’t-he be there sort of way; nothing and nobody else mattered’. They married in London in 1941 during the Blitz, in a ball-room with shredded curtains, the floor covered in broken glass. Andrew was the younger Cavendish heir, and Debo married him in the belief that they would probably be ‘terrificially poor’, but at least they could enjoy having lots of dogs. Debo lost many close friends to the war, as well as her only brother Tom; who was shot dead in Burma by a single bullet through the neck. Andrew’s brother was also killed in the war, meaning that Debo and her young husband faced a future as Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. When Andrew’s father died in 1950, the couple were saddled with not only grand titles and the gorgeous house and estates of Chatsworth, but with millions of pounds of inheritance tax and death duties.
After moving into Chatsworth, Debo developed a real prowess for business, a talent never considered a necessity in the pre-war partying years of her youth. The Mitfords were from a class of English family had rarely been forced into work. But as a Cavendish Debo proved her worth. The couple set about opening Chatsworth to the public for the first time in its long history, setting a precedent for many other country estates which had fallen on hard times since the end of the war. Restoring the house to its former glory and opening a farm shop, cafe and restaurant on site, Debo worked tirelessly to improve the management of the estate and make Chatsworth self sufficient. It it now a shining example of how a stately home with a large amount of land can be an important provider of jobs and tourism to rural England.
The Duke and Duchess entertained many eccentric and influential people in their home. Debo became very close friends with Lucian Freud, and used to bring him eggs from the country when she visited his flat in London. His portrait of her has become very well known.
Despite her lack of education, and the fact that she claimed never to have read a book in her life, Debo proved a dab hand at writing. She published several popular books over the years, including several books about Chatsworth House, ‘The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters’ (2007), ‘Home to Roost, and Other Peckings’ (2009), and her excellent biography ‘Wait for me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister’ (2010).
The Duke once told an interviewer ‘wonderful things have happened in my life…When I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what. Now my idea of Heaven, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the hall of Brooks’, having tea’. After he passed away in 2004, Debo became the Dowager Duchess, and moved into a house on the estate. Her son Stoker, became the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and continues Debo’s hard work with his wife Amanda. Debo was still involved in the management of the house and estate, and continued to write and give interviews until very recently.
At her passing, the Prince of Wales offered this unusually personal and moving epitaph: ‘My wife and I were deeply saddened by the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whom both of us adored and admired greatly. She was an unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality. The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we can miss her so very much.’ Couldn’t have said it better myself.