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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book of the Week... Wait for Me!

"The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire"...  The name makes one think of a rather starchy character, somewhat like the Dowager Countess of Grantham in PBS' Downton Abbey.  The reality is quite different. Reading Wait for Me!, the Dowager Duchess is anything but starchy.  Rather, she's a funny, charming and decidedly down-to-earth character who knows what it is to be a true aristocrat.

Wait for Me! is the latest in a long list of books published by Deborah Devonshire, and part of an even larger canon of works by the famed Mitford sisters, of which she is the youngest and only remaining.  At 90, "Debo", as she is called by those closest to her, is uniquely able to look back on a life lived in circumstances that simply don't exist any more.

Growing up in sometimes grand and, at other times, reduced (for an aristo) circumstances gave Debo the sort of realistic outlook that many of her contemporaries lacked.  Able to attend the grandest debutante balls, she was equally comfortable spending time with farmworkers and stable keepers.  In fact, it is said by those that know her that she treats everyone, whether king, president or charwoman, in exactly the same way.  She has spoken of the staff at her former home, and seat of the Devonshire dukes, Chatsworth as being the best of the best in every way.

The seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, and star of many
films including Pride and Prejudice...  Chatsworth house
in Derbyshire.

Far beyond her approach to life, the Dowager Duchess has led a most interesting life.  Youngest daughter of David and Sydney Mitford, Debo was the younger sister of Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity and Jessica Mitford.  Nancy became an accomplished novelist whose works drew heavily on the Mitfords for inspiration.  Some of her best known characters are highly exaggerated caricatures of her parents.  Pamela, the most retiring of the sisters, lived life as a true English countrywoman, surrounded by dogs and horses.  Diana, the beauty of the family, was famous for her marriage to Oswald Moseley, a man who shared her political views, both being Fascists in pre-war England.  Imprisoned for part of the war, Diana went on to live a full life in France, turning to writing history later in life.  Unity was, perhaps, the most extreme of the sisters having developed a close personal friendship with none other than Adolph Hitler.  So depressed by the declaration of war in 1939, Unity attempted suicide in Germany, eventually returning home to England to live out her remaining years, a much changed person.  And, finally, Jessica who moved to America and became a Communist.  Most famous for her book The American Way of Death, which blew the lid of the multimillion dollar funeral industry in the early 1960's, she was the polar opposite of her two Fascist sisters, Diana and Unity.  Not many families can claim to dance at debutante balls with the royal family while harboring pro-Hitler and pro-Stalin views.

The Mitford Sisters



Debo is as different from her sisters as can be.  Admittedly little interested in politics, the Duchess spent much of her adult life turning Chatsworth into a profitable, and very livable, stately home.  This was done in a time when many of the landed nobility were having to abandon, tear down or drastically reduce some of the greatest estates in Britain.  With death duties at 80%, even Chatsworth didn't escape with many of the houses greatest pieces of art handed over to the British government in place of cash.  Despite all of that, Chatsworth has turned into one of England's most popular attractions with the house and gardens visited by countless tourists and locals every year.  Additionally, Debo started the Chatsworth Farm store which sells produce, meat, cheese and countless other products made of the spoils of the estates farms, forests, crops and herds.  An entrepreneur, CEO and author, Deborah Devonshire is unique among her peers, and her family.

The people who populate the pages of Wait for Me! are as fascinating as the author.  Through her husband's brother, she was sister-in-law to John F. Kennedy's sister, "Kick", and was related to both Winston and Clementine Churchill through some of the rather interesting, and unconventional, relationships of her family members.  Accustomed to receiving international dignitaries and royals to Chatsworth, Debo played host to the Shah of Persia, British Prime Ministers and members of the royal family as well as the Kennedys and countless other luminaries of the day.  She is also, perhaps, one of the only people, certainly the only one living, to have taken tea with Churchill, the King and Queen and Hitler.  It should be said that the Duchess never shared any views with the Fuhrer, rather, she was introduced to the dictator by her sister as Debo and her mother travelled through Austria and Germany in the pre-war 1930's.  What do we learn about the leader of Nazi Germany?  He was rather dull, lived in the manner of any middle class German and wasn't able to converse with his visitors in English.

The two appendices are particularly interesting, describing in detail the Duchess' experiences at the inauguration, and funeral, of President Kennedy.  In fact, at several points in the later chapters we are given a unique insight into the fun and humor of the Kennedy family.  Funnily, after dancing with a young JFK in pre-war London, Debo writes in her diary that, in fact, he was really rather dull.  It seems that, later, she changed her views considerably.

And, finally, in a rather funny twist, you find this very English duchess regaling her readers with her experiences visiting Graceland.  That's right...  THE Graceland, home of the King himself.  It seems that, quite by accident, Debo became a devoted fan of Elvis Presley and found it very surprising that her very wealthy American friends hadn't seen fit to visit the star's Memphis mansion.

Debo today....

Debo Devonshire is a wonderful writer and it will be hard to put this book down once you start it.  From idyllic childhood to life as a very active nonagenarian, Wait for Me! is certainly a book I'll be coming back to in the future.

NOTE:  As a follow-up to Wait for Me!, I've started reading The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitfords, a book written with the help of Debo and her (at the time) remaining sisters.  One thing to note about all of the Mitfords, with the notable exception of Nancy, is their complete and utter disinterest in coloring their history.  No more honest memoirists will you find, even when it might be painful or uncomfortable.

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