Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Remembering Deborah Mitford...

Those who love literature – and literary families – will be greatly saddened to hear of the death of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (also known as Deborah Mitford), who passed away on Wednesday morning, aged 94.

The youngest daughter of the Mitford siblings – arguably the defining family of their time – Deborah may have, in her early years, been overshadowed by a highly creative, highly productive and sometimes highly eccentric clan, but in the end she made her life her own. And in doing so, perhaps became the most impressive Mitford of all.

Deborah Devonshire's métier was managing Chatsworth, the family home of her husband Andrew, the Duke of Devonshire, and one of the largest private estates in England. They moved to Chatsworth in 1959, after Andrew inherited it and half a dozen other Devonshire-owned estates, including Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Place in Sussex, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and Lismore Castle in Ireland. (Before they moved into Chatsworth, Debo would often quip as they drove past: "Oh, look at that lovely house, I wonder who lives there?" To which Andrew would reply, "Oh, do shut up!"). 

It may have seemed idyllic but the task before them was enormous. For a start, the house had 175 rooms, 17 staircases and 3,426 feet of passage, and much of it required renovating. To make things worse, the couple was already saddled with a staggering debt. After Andrew’s father, the 10th Duke, died, the family faced death duties amounting to 80 per cent of the worth of the estate: £4.72 million, with interest to be paid at a rate of £1,000 per day. However, Deborah, who had inherited her mother's business sense went to work. One estate was given to the National Trust, thousands of acres were sold, and many books and works of art auctioned off. The final debt was finally cleared in 1974. 

Deborah always credited her mother for her frugality. Sydney (known by the Mitford girls as 'Muv') had been a meticulous housekeeper who had recorded all the family's expenses in a small book. "My mother’s account books were fascinating," Deborah once confessed in an interview. "She always wrote down every penny spent on household things, every penny. She loved figures and adding up." 

Deborah also revealed that her sister Nancy had not inherited the Frugal Gene. Once, when the siblings were receiving housekeeping lessons, they were given an imaginary budget of £500 a year and asked to budget for heating, food and so on. Nancy wrote, 'Flowers £499. Everything else £1.’

Deborah's money-saving ways even extended to clothes. She loved fashion and photo shoots often featured gowns by Oscar de la Renta (the perwinkle blue one on the above cover is by Oscar de la Renta) and Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquirè. However, when it came to day-to-day gear, she preferred hardy garments bought from agricultural stores. Fancy gardening gear purchased from Harrods and other fine establishments never lasted, she claimed – and always cost far too much anyway.

After Andrew passed away, she moved out of Chatswoth to make way for her son Peregrine, the 12th Duke, and his family. "I was 85, it was high time to go!" she said, with dignity. Together with her beloved butler Henry, who had been with the Devonshires for more than 50 years, and her personal assistant Helen Marchant, who had been with them for 25 years, Deborah moved into the smaller residence, Edensor House, on the Chatsworth Estate. She also took her beloved chickens, which were so cherished they were featured on the cover of one memoir. (When John F Kennedy visited Chatsworth to pay his respects to his sister's grave – Kathleen Kennedy has been married to the Duke's elder brother – Kennedy's helicopter blew away some of the chickens and Deborah said she never saw them again.)

Last year I wrote to the Dowager Duchess to see if I could interview her for a new book on horticulture, haute couture, and high society. A mutual acquaintance at Heywood Hill bookshop in London (which I often shop at and which the Mitfords own), kindly passed her details on.

(This same acquaintance told me the wonderful story of how Nancy Mitford worked in the bookshop in the 1940s, turning it into a lively social and literary hub for friends and book lovers. Unfortunately, she lacked the sense of her younger sister, and one night forgot to lock up. The next morning she arrived at the bookshop to find people everywhere, chatting, offering recommendations and trying to sell books to each other. The Devonshires were majority shareholders in Heywood Hill until last year, when Andrew's son Peregrine 'Stoker' Cavendish, bought the bookshop outright in order to save it.)

So I wrote a humble letter to Deborah at Edensor House. I'd been told that Elvis (her idol) was the key to  gaining an audience with her and so I mentioned how a lovely friend in California had once dated Elvis when she was young, and relayed a funny story about him – which he no doubt would have approved of, too. The request was a few months too late. Deborah had already become frail and the request was politely declined, although I didn't realise how serious her health was. Her beloved butler Henry had even been allowed to retire. 

I thought of her life, her legacy, all those memorable memoirs – and her energy! It seemed unthinkable that she would ever pass away. 

There are some people in our lives, and in history, that we wish we'd met, even briefly. I would have like to have laughed with Robin Williams (and perhaps given him a shy hug), chatted to Churchill, and shared a stroll through a French garden with Nicole De Vésian. I would have been awed to have been in the same room as Givenchy, and still pay my respects to Hemingway whenever we go to Key West. But for many of us, Deborah Devonshire remains the one person we wished we'd had the opportunity to meet, even for a few minutes. She just seemed like so much fun!

Let's hope the Mitford girls are now happy to be together again, laughing in Heaven.

One of the best books about the Mitfords is Letters Between Six Sisters, featuring 75 years of letters between these witty, humorous siblings. The book was edited by Charlotte Mosley, Debo’s niece, who clearly knows the family better than anyone.

Another great insight into the sisters is The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford's bestselling novel, which was, in her own words, "an exact portrait of my family". Both are still available on Amazon, as are Deborah's books, including The Garden at Chatsworth. {Above images from her books.}


  1. What an interesting and gifted family. I already have Nancy Mitford's books on my to-be-read list, as well as Deborah's Wait for Me!, and I'll have to add Letters Between Six Sisters. Thank you for sharing this information about the Duchess.

  2. I was very sad to hear of the Duchess' passing. I hadn't known of her devotion to Elvis until reading about her death and thought it ironic that we were on holiday and had just visited Graceland that same day she died. We only visited Chatsworth earlier this year. That house, not Graceland, was on my bucket list, but it seemed almost mandatory to visit Graceland since Bill's son in law is a true blue Elvis fan. I read a biography of Nancy and knew she'd worked at Heywood's but didn't realise the Devonshire's owned it. The Mitford's were an amazing family, weren't they? I've always thought 'Debo' lived the life she ought to have, while the others went off and did radical things. Reading about their lives taught me about the history and quite a bit about politics of their day. It struck me that when we were at Chatsworth that I felt I was at the home of Georgiana,'Kick' & Deborah, I wasn't particularly interested in all those Dukes! I found I like reading books about Nancy but her novels are not to my taste, while Jessica's Hons and Rebels was a great read even though I knew the story from other biographies. I'm really sad you didn't get to meet the Duchess but I'm pleased that she had such a long and interesting life. Thank you for this lovely post about her.

  3. The Duchess seems like a fascinating woman from an equally interesting family. I can't wait to read more. Thanks for sharing!
    xo. Leslie
    Segreto Finishes


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