What the Mitfords' younger sister saw
BIOGRAPHY: ANN MARIE HOURIHANEreviews Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister,By Deborah Devonshire, John Murray, pp370, £20
AT ONE POINT the Mitford industry was so prolific, with the memoirs coming thick and fast and even a musical, that Private Eyepretended to discover a Mitford sister who had never been presented to the British public. “I, Doreen, Memoirs of the Unknown Mitford Sister” sounds very like a Mitford tease. In their turn the five surviving sisters worried about their ubiquity, not because they were embarrassed by it but because they feared being boring. They were, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote in another context, madly tough.
The fascination the Mitfords exert is hard to explain, even for those of us who feel it. I suppose we are interested in the Mitfords, across the boundaries of time and cultures, for their sheer verve, which was considerable. They were great fun. In the middle of the celebrations for his inauguration President John F Kennedy sent for Deborah, a friend from their teenage years, so that they could chat. He fancied her like mad – and no wonder: she was always the sexiest Mitford.
In their letters she and her sisters referred to JFK as the Loved One, and Nancy said that when a broadcast by the US president was announced she sat up all night, waiting for him to tell the world he was abdicating because he could not go on without the woman he loved by his side. Nancy was greatly disappointed when JFK announced the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis instead.
So the Mitford world is a female one full of gossip, of jokes, of schoolgirl crushes – Robert Kee was another crush of Deborah’s, although you wouldn’t know that from this latest book – and of a great many jokes and teases. This was all played out against tragedy, appalling politics and personal heartbreak. These were women who were reared to maintain an empire. Their letters, collected by Charlotte Mosley, who seems to have done very well out of the Mitfords, are irresistible.
Reading Wait for Me!was a mixed experience. I found myself alternately touching my forelock and muttering republican oaths – a common experience, I believe, for the Irish confronted with the English aristocracy proceeding at full steam.
The Mitfords’ toughness came from the absolute confidence of the English aristocracy before the second World War. They were unselfconscious, fiercely patriotic, strangers to self-doubt and extremely funny. In short they did not live their lives in a defensive or paranoid fashion, as rich people do nowadays. On the contrary, the Mitfords were very eager to take part in society; they had been brought up to believe it was their duty. The crowd held no fears for them.
Unfortunately, the six sisters and one brother ran straight into the machine guns of 1930s politics. Jessica became a communist, Unity became a Nazi and an intimate of Hitler, and Diana married the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.
In 1945 the eccentricities of the Mitford parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale – aka Muv and Farve – and of the girls’ childhood and early adult life were transformed into shimmering comedy by the funniest sister, Nancy, in her masterpiece, The Pursuit of Love.The book has never been out of print since, as far as I know. And no wonder, when so many of us have bought so many copies of it. Now only the youngest Mitford, Deborah, my favourite, is left alive. She is 90 and, being a Mitford, has written her memoirs.
In one way Deborah could be described as the most successful Mitford, and certainly as the sunniest. All their lives, it seems, nothing scared the Mitfords as much as each other, and during their rows Deborah was the peacemaker. She had neither the brilliance of Nancy nor the subversiveness of Jessica – aka Decca; the way of the Mitfords is strewn with nicknames – who seems to have become a very efficient communist organiser in the US as well as writing her seminal work, The American Way of Death, and, of course, her memoirs. Diana went to jail. Unity tried to kill herself. Pamela divorced. Every sister but Deborah went into exile from a postwar Britain where even their voices were an embarrassment.
Only Deborah fulfilled the role for which all the girls had been reared (their only brother, Tom, died fighting in Burma in 1945), becoming a duchess. Uniquely for a Mitford girl, she had never given her parents what my mother would call a bit of trouble, and was comfort to them at a time when, their mother said, as soon she saw the words “peer’s daughter” in a newspaper headline she knew it referred to one of her children.
Deborah met her future husband, Andrew, when they were both 18, and they were married when they were 21, the Devonshires proving as eccentric as her own family. Her father-in-law, Eddy Devonshire, then the duke, was an enthusiastic tyer of fishing flies, which then had to be tested. “He lay in the bath imagining he was a salmon while Edward, the butler, pretending to be a fishing rod, jerked them over his submerged head. The ones the duke judged the most attractive were used on his stretch of the Blackwater in County Cork at the start of the salmon fishing season.”
In fact two of the Mitfords, Diana and Pamela, went into exile in empty Ireland. “Oh Ireland, the niceness of it,” wrote Diana to Deborah in 1958. “We passed five cars in 95 miles’ driving.”
Andrew Devonshire, who sounds a generous and sociable man, owned Lismore Castle, beautifully situated bang on a frontier. Here is Deborah writing about Betty Farquhar, an English hunting lady living in Ireland: “Her garden was immaculate, as was her appearance; unlike some expats she never went to seed or lowered her standards.” Okey-dokey.
Both the Devonshires were conscientious landlords, and Deborah’s style and taste were poured into restoring their main house, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, making it a going concern well ahead of its time. So much of her life is commendable, but the book has problems. The Mitford childhood has been better reported by Nancy and Decca, two exceptional writers. There are places – many places – where these reminiscences tip into parody. “I have always voted Conservative and would never do otherwise”; “During the 1926 General Strike Pam came into her own”; “Ann could seat only eight in her small dining room . . . so there was no room for passengers”; “I find this guessing about the sex life of friends and relations tiresome in the extreme” (you are unusually high-minded, then).
Things are much better when Deborah wonders about whom she was going to be put next to at dinner. “I used to pray that it would not be Ted Heath.” Or when she explains how she used first hens and then pigs as a centrepiece for her table.
The best book about the siblings is The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. The best book by a Mitford is The Pursuit of Love. The photographs here are wonderful, but it is a strangely unforthcoming book. We still don’t know if she had an affair with JFK. I can’t help it: I am interested. And I know where my money is.
Ann Marie Hourihane is an Irish Timescolumnist