Tuesday 26 September 2017

Obituary: Deborah Mitford - youngest Mitford girl

Charles Moore fondly remembers the youngest Mitford sister's gift with words, zest for life and perfect manners

Last Duchess: Andrew Cavendish and Deborah Mitford - the last of the famous Mitford sisters, who has died at the age of 94 — on their wedding day in 1941.
Last Duchess: Andrew Cavendish and Deborah Mitford - the last of the famous Mitford sisters, who has died at the age of 94 — on their wedding day in 1941.

A letter from Debo Devonshire inviting you to something always ended: 'PLEASE SAY YES'. To what life offered, she always answered in the affirmative. She loved inciting others to do the same.

This might seem surprising, because the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was also pre-war in her attitudes. She was generally addressed as 'Your Grace'. I even saw people curtsy to her. One somehow felt that one must wear a tie in her presence. I think of her, in fact, as the Last Duchess - the only survivor into the 21st century of the full idea of aristocracy, with its duties and its dynasties, its seasons and its splendours. This role was real to her, but she undertook it with a light heart, and with love.

Guests at Chatsworth would experience the full formality of ducal life, with a butler and footmen, and someone to unpack your suitcase, but also the charm of the unexpected. One summer, as we gathered in the drawing room before dinner, I noticed a great deal of conspiratorial activity in the dining-room. Suddenly the doors were flung open.

The huge table was decorated with three open glass tanks. In the middle one was a hen (probably Debo's favourite creature) and three chicks. In the others were Tamworth piglets, some squealing, some snoozing in straw.

Several of the guests were American, and therefore more anxious than the English about hygiene. It was "a wonder" (to use a Debo phrase) to see horror and delight contesting in their faces.

The greatest public achievement of Debo's life was the recovery of Chatsworth after its decline through war and death duties.

The house had probably never been more useful and delightful to county and country than she and her husband Andrew made it. This success reflected her energy, her nose for commercial success, her taste, her knowledge of rural life and the extraordinary fact that she really did like 600,000 people tramping through her house every year. Like a benign monarch, she loved to preside over festivity, and she had a Christian love of sharing.

When she and Andrew celebrated their golden wedding (a feat in itself, since he had been, for a large part of the marriage, neither faithful nor sober), they invited every Derbyshire couple married in the same year (1941) to come to tea with them: 1,500 people turned up.

By the time I first knew her, in the 1980s, all this had been accomplished. Debo was famous as the youngest Mitford girl, the chatelaine of Chatsworth, the host for Harold Macmillan, the dear friend of President Jack Kennedy.

Yet in some ways, she was a late developer. Her first book, The House, was not published until she was over 60.

It turned out that she could write as well as her more bookish sisters Nancy and Jessica, who teased her for being stupid. She always claimed to hate reading. "Oh Proust. Shall I try it now or later? I do hope it's too late". Though she loved military obituaries.

But she had a great gift of expression. I got her to write the Diary in The Spectator. She was genuinely diffident about this, but in fact she had the Mitford gift of writing in the same way as she talked. It flowed easily - observant, colloquial, funny, making the point best by never labouring it.

It seemed to me that she became, if anything, even better as she got older. Her love of life and of people became ardent in the face of death. In the society photographs of her youth, she looks oddly blank. This was utterly misleading. But she was never more beautiful than in her eighties, when her bone structure became more apparent, her wrinkles more characterful and the brightness of her blue eyes even more striking. She dressed with care and elegance - occasionally, with expense - but she liked practicality and being down to earth. In this, as in most of her tastes, she was country versus town, and this country versus the world. She was particularly caustic about people's love of foreign holidays. What could be better than England in August, with the fields white for harvest, or in winter, with good black hedges or stone walls to jump (though she herself had lost her nerve in her youth after her horse bolted)?

It was in winter that I saw her at Chatsworth for the last time. Andrew had died the previous year and she would soon be moving out. She had me to stay so that I could hunt with the High Peak Harriers. When I told her where hounds were meeting, she accurately predicted each covert they would draw ("You'll start at Once a Week Wood"). In the February dusk, she took me up above the house. I admired the lake constructed for a Tsar of Russia who never came and the view from Bess of Hardwick's hunting tower. She pointed out the great stones spelling out 'E II R' to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee, which the Peak District National Park Authority was trying to knock down because they were deemed in breach of planning rules. Then we descended to the hen house - a huge former game larder - and we fed her chickens. Later she talked about all the people she had loved who had died in the war, and the much more recent death of her sister, Diana.

It was a sad time of year, and a sad time for her. She was as witty and lively as ever, but I sensed she was nearing the end.

I was quite wrong. After the pain of moving out of Chatsworth after nearly half a century, she began a new life in the nearby village of Edensor. She lived in half of the Old Vicarage, and soon made it snug, with a mass of papers and letters and an elderly radio scattered over her large bed. I had just set up the Rectory Society, designed to foster interest in clergy houses of all kinds, and Debo became its enthusiastic patron, addressing us, attending our AGMs and having the members up for lunch in her garden.

She came to our house, a fairly small old rectory. "It's a palace!" she exclaimed as she entered. This was a typically breath-taking piece of Debo flattery, partly because she knew about real palaces, and partly because she was by now almost blind.

"So difficult to die, like so difficult to be born," was one of her aphorisms. In 2011, aged 91, she moved from total lucidity to dementia in a matter of weeks. She lingered, lovingly looked after, for three years.

Visiting her, I found everything had gone except her beauty and her "blinding charm" (the phrase she often used of others). She retained perfect manners without knowing who was who or what was what. Debo Devonshire once wrote to a sister about funerals:

"I suggest NO CREMATION, just an ordinary common or garden FUNERAL, I mean you have 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' & 'Holy, Holy, Holy' and then the stalwarts shoulder you and heave you to the graveyard . . . & everyone is in floods as you are lowered & a handful of earth is thrown on & the fellow says Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes, more floods & bowed heads & then all start screaming with laughter before they're out of the churchyard. That's what I'm after."

©Telegraph

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