If you give the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire a fiver, she'll show you round her house, an old vicarage in Edensor, Derbyshire. It would be tempting to think that she pocketed the money, but it goes towards the church roof fund.
Debo, as everyone calls her, was 90 this year. Having greeted me in her pretty garden, shaking my hand and looking me directly in the eye, she leads me into the apple-green-walled and flagstone-floored hall -- "do put your bags down, no burglars here" -- and shows me into her sitting-room, and we take to the floral sofa, where she positively lounges, looking at me brightly, waiting to be amused.
There have been many books about the Mitfords, both biographical and autobiographical, and now her own memoirs Wait for Me! are about to be published. Debo says she was motivated to write about her life because she had offers from other people to do it for her, and she didn't really want them "to fiddle about with it". She was appalled by some of the books about her sisters -- in particular David Pryce-Jones' book about Unity, and the books about Diana, who married the fascist Oswald Mosley.
"No one ever really got my sister, Diana," she says, "and she was such an incredible person. It was always a delight for me to see somebody who was prejudiced against her sitting by her on the sofa, like you and I, and ... melting, absolutely melting."
Debo became close to Diana, who was 10 years older, only later in her life, but now, she says, "hardly a day goes by when I don't say to myself, 'Oh, I wish I could tell Diana that -- she'd laugh so much.'"
It wasn't an easy book to write; it has taken her four years. Debo suffers from the eye condition macular degeneration and can no longer read, but she can write; she says it's because she knows the shape of the words. She does all of her writing in bed, early in the morning.
The book is full of stirring anecdotes, such as when a wounded soldier, repatriated from Italy during the war, brought home a lemon. "Such a luxury had not been seen in the shops for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post-office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell -- proceeds to the Red Cross." Or the dinner at Calke Abbey, where the Harpur Crewes lived. "The first course was melon; it was followed by cold beef; then melon for pudding."
Her host, Airmyne, whose best friend was a goose, then took her up to meet "Nanny", who, they said, used to be the Kaiser's nanny -- a tiny, ancient creature who was fast asleep. It was the strangest evening she had ever had. She writes: "The Harpur Crewe siblings were the only true eccentrics I have ever met."
Can this be true, I ask her. I imagined her life must be full of eccentrics. "Well, if you don't count all my sisters, but I never thought of them as eccentric. My father was a bit outlandish; he was the source of all jokes in our family."
The Mitfords -- there were six sisters and one brother -- were a defining family of their time; Debo says now that they always thought they were ordinary, but their celebrity and influence has endured. Extreme behaviour seemed to run in the family.
David Freeman-Mitford (Farve), later Lord Redesdale, married Sydney Bowles (Muv) in 1904. Their eldest child Nancy wrote several historical biographies and eight novels, the most famous of which, The Pursuit of Love, was, in her own words, "an exact portrait of my family".
There was Pam, the least well-known sister, described by John Betjeman as "the most rural Mitford". There was Tom, who used to pay his sisters a shilling an hour to argue with him and went on to become a barrister, but was killed in the war in 1945. Diana married young, then left her husband for the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, and was put in prison for three years for her beliefs; she was also one of the few people who knew Churchill and Hitler.
There was Unity, who moved to Germany in 1934 at the age of 19 and became devoted to Hitler, whom she got to know well; her dual loyalties to the Fuhrer and her country caused her to attempt suicide by shooting herself in the head at the outbreak of war. Jessica, known as Decca, became a communist and ran away at the age of 19 with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, and then moved to America. After Romilly's death, she married again and wrote several books, including The American Way of Death, which changed the way people felt about the funeral business.
And there was Debo, the youngest. "Everyone cried when you were born," Nancy, 16 years older, would enjoy reminding her (their mother had wanted another boy). Nancy went on to tease and torment her until it came close to bullying. "I should think the social services would be called in now,' Debo says mildly. "But I adored her. I used to sit on her bed for hours being mentally tortured. I would be in tears succeeded by roars of laughter. She was so funny, you see, and people don't seem to be quite so funny any more."
Debo grew up mostly in Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire. "This was the calm background of a self-contained agricultural community," she writes, "regulated by the seasons, in an exceptionally beautiful part of England." The younger girls had extraordinarily close relationships with each other, and their own private languages; all the sisters had a complicated variety of nicknames, and, later, political alliances and rivalries (except for Debo and Pamela, who remained apolitical). The best and most revealing book about the Mitfords is Letters Between Six Sisters, 75 years of letters masterfully edited by Charlotte Mosley, Debo's niece, published two years ago.
Did Debo have a favourite sister? Growing up, she says without hesitation, it was Decca. "She was absolutely my boon companion; I couldn't imagine life without her and then suddenly she left, and it was never quite the same. Her husband Esmond just didn't like our family; he only liked her, and he jolly well did like her, and I'm quite convinced it would have been the happiest marriage ever, but sadly his plane went down in the Atlantic when he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force."
Decca's running away was a dark time for Debo. "It was so frightening; we didn't know if she was dead or alive. She was in such a state of euphoria herself that I don't think she considered that we might all be very worried." As a teenager, Decca had always had a Running Away bank account and became increasingly dissatisfied with her life and enamoured of the idea of communism (she and Unity would partition the schoolroom at Swinbrook, scratching swastikas and hammers and sickles on the windows).
When she met Romilly, who was her second cousin, she had already fallen in love with his reputation, and they made surreptitious plans to go to Spain where he would report on the war against Franco; Decca going along as his secretary. Under the pretence of going to stay with friends, Decca went to France but they couldn't get a visa for Spain, and for a while her family had no idea where she was or with whom. Nancy and her husband were sent to bring them back; they refused to come. By the time they returned to England, they were married, and in 1939 Decca moved to America with Romilly. She remained there after his death in 1941, marrying again, coming back only occasionally to England. But after 1937, Decca never saw her father again.
Farve, faithfully portrayed as Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love, was prone to "roaring" at everyone. On her birth certificate, according to Nancy, it gives her father's occupation as "Honourable". He enjoyed the occasional "child hunt", where he would chase his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds, but he was rude to all Nancy's friends who came to stay.
Their upbringing was an unusual one for the time. Their mother, Sydney, rejected all conventional forms of medicine, including vaccination, believing that "the good body" would cure itself. They were on a strict diet -- only wholegrain bread, nothing cloven-footed and no shellfish; only their father was allowed to eat sausages. When did Debo break those rules? "When I was 18 and free to do what I liked. Going to all the deb dances, there were marvellous suppers laid out --things like lobster, which were banned at home."
Her brother went to Eton but the girls mostly didn't go to school -- their father believed that they would be made to play hockey and might develop thick calves. Sydney taught them until they were six; she then engaged governesses, who she paid for out of the profits she raised from selling eggs and honey. By the time the last two sisters were teenagers, she had relented slightly: Unity went to two schools (and was expelled from both) and Debo went to one for a week ("it smelt of lino and fish and girls"), where she was so unhappy that she fainted in geometry and was sent home.
Muv was a meticulous housekeeper who lived frugally and recorded everything. After Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire in the Fifties and moved into Chatsworth, it became clear she had inherited some of Sydney's skills at household management.
Debo partly wrote this book, she insists, as a way of correcting what other people had written about her parents. "People who never knew them. I wanted to put it straight, and then of course it burgeoned into a much bigger thing." Her mother particularly has been portrayed over the years in books -- some by her own daughters -- as distant and vague, even callous if you believe Nancy. "People always thought my mother was miserable because of the things my sisters had done, but she used to say, 'I am perfectly satisfied with all my children,'" Debo says.
In fact she was an extraordinarily selfless woman; when Diana was interned in Holloway Prison, Sydney would visit her regularly; after a journey that took between four and six hours, she would be obliged to wait for an hour in the prison and then was allowed only 15 minutes with her. Her frequent and loving letters to Decca always began "My darling little D", even when she was so distraught about her and Esmond. When Unity was brought back from Germany with brain damage in January 1940, she was by then incontinent and needed a lot of supervision. "My mother washed her sheets every day," Debo says. "The little garden was completely taken over by the sheets drying."
The bits about her parents in the book are some of the most moving. The family became riven by politics: at various times, Nancy wouldn't speak to Unity or Diana, Diana wouldn't speak to anyone who criticised Sir O, and Decca and Diana didn't speak or correspond for more than 35 years. Nancy betrayed Diana to the authorities (she effectively prolonged her time in prison by reporting that, in her opinion, Diana was a "ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler, and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general") -- a fact that didn't emerge until after Nancy's death in 1973. (Debo describes this betrayal as "extraordinary", and thinks Nancy was probably jealous of Diana.)
And although neither parent was directly involved in politics (although Lord Redesdale did attend the House of Lords), it was in the end politics that drove them apart. "My mother thought there never should have been a war and that they should have talked to Hitler. She thought it could have been avoided," Debo says. "My father took another view and wrote to the newspaper to say he was loyal to whatever the government was going to do, and that was enough to spark off rows, banging doors, all of that."
By this time, they were living in a small cottage near High Wycombe. Even though Debo was 19 and unofficially engaged to Andrew Cavendish, it affected her very much. "There really wasn't room for two people with such diverse views, so they quietly went their own ways, but still wrote to each other." Farve, who was something of a shadow of his former self by then, moved to Redesdale Cottage in Northumberland with their former parlour-maid Margaret Wright.
Unity seems more of an unknowable character. "It is difficult to explain why we all loved her so much," Debo says. "She was very difficult as a teenager, really sullen sometimes, and if something happened at the dining-room table which she didn't like, she would just very quietly slide underneath it and stay there until she thought the coast was clear."
After she shot herself, in the English Garden in Munich, days after the outbreak of war, Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler's expense, and then he arranged for her to be sent to Berne in Switzerland, from where Sydney and Debo collected her at Christmas 1939. "She was completely changed," Debo recalls in Mary Lovell's 2001 book The Mitford Girls. "She had an odd vacant expression ... the most pathetic sight ... but it wasn't just her appearance; she was a changed person, like somebody who has had a stroke ... her memory was very jagged. She recognised us, though."
Unity never recovered enough to live an independent life. She died in 1948 after an infection of the wound in her head turned into meningitis.
In August 1938, Debo met Andrew Cavendish in a restaurant off Curzon Street in London. "We met at a dinner party," he said in an interview, "and if it wasn't love at first sight, it was certainly attraction at first sight." They were unofficially engaged for quite some time; in 1941, she wrote to Diana, in Holloway: "I expect we shall be terrificly [sic] poor but think how nice it will be to have as many dear dogs and things as one likes without anyone having to say they must get off the furniture. I do so wish you weren't in prison, it will be vile not having you to go shopping with."
They were married at the church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in April 1941. Andrew was serving with the Coldstream Guards, and Debo moved around with him and then to a cottage in her parents-in-law's estate, Chatsworth. The war hit her hard; she lost her only brother, her four best friends, and in 1944 Andrew's older brother Billy, Marquess of Hartington (who was married to Kick Kennedy, JFK's sister), was killed and Andrew became the heir to the dukedom.
Andrew's father, the 10th Duke, set up a trust, the Chatsworth Settlement -- the law at the time stipulated that five years had to pass from the date of handing over the property for it to become free of death duties. But in 1950, he died of a heart attack, 14 weeks before the five years were up, and Andrew became the 11th Duke with an inheritance subject to death duties amounting to 80 per cent of the worth of his estate: £4.72m, with interest to be paid at a rate of £1,000 per day.
Apart from Chatsworth, the estate comprised Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Place in Sussex, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and Lismore Castle in Ireland, which he already owned. The Duke decided to hand Hardwick Hall over to the Treasury (it is now with the National Trust), and to sell thousands of acres in Scotland and Derbyshire. He also sold books and many works of art to various national institutions, though nothing left the country. The final debt was cleared in 1974.
The Duke and Duchess moved into Chatsworth in 1959. They embarked on a huge programme of renovation and improvement, most of it orchestrated by Debo (the house had 175 rooms, 17 staircases and 3,426 feet of passage) -- including the installation of 17 more bathrooms.
Chatsworth last year attracted more than 623,000 visitors; it is one of the most popular country houses in England. Debo has played a huge part in its administration and all its initiatives. The achievement at Chatsworth of which she is most proud is the farmyard, which she instigated in 1973, a very avant garde idea, now very fashionable -- to show town children how the country worked and where their food came from. "The city children were amazed and so were their teachers, because they were the first generation of teachers who hadn't got relations in the country."
And 1977 saw the establishment of the farm shop, also way ahead of its time. In 1991, for their golden wedding, the Duke and Duchess asked everyone in the county whose golden wedding anniversary fell the same year to a tea party -- 3,700 people attended. This was a typical gesture; there is very much a feeling that they created a sort of magic kingdom during their reign at Chatsworth.
Debo has an extraordinarily youthful spirit, and she is, says an old friend, just as impressed by the local milkman as by JFK. She got to know JFK quite well, and says he was one of the funniest people she ever met.
Deborah Devonshire is not a self-pitying kind of person but her life has not always been easy. She has three children -- Emma was born in 1943, Peregrine in 1944 and Sophy in 1957 -- but she also lost three babies shortly after birth. And in her middle years, one gets the impression that life with Andrew was not always a bed of roses; he was an alcoholic.
He gave up drinking twice -- once in the Seventies for two years, and again for a short time in the early Eighties. In 1983, after a particularly terrible weekend when "Andrew's behaviour was out of control", she left Chatsworth and went to stay with her son, agreeing to return only if he stopped drinking. He did, with the help of the drug Antabuse, and never drank again. He died in May 2004, aged 84.
Debo never stopped appreciating Chatsworth. "Waking the first morning in the bed I was to come home to for the next 46 years and one month was a joy and I never tired of the incomparable view west across the park," she writes. "In all those years, I never took the place for granted, but marvelled at it and the fact that we were surrounded by beauty at every turn." She stayed on there for 18 months after Andrew's death, and then decided it was time to go, handing it over to her son Peregrine, the 12th Duke, and his wife, Amanda. "I was 85, it was high time to go and high time for the others to come." She now has eight grandchildren (the model Stella Tennant is one of these) and 17 great-grandchildren.
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has her own exhibition at Chatsworth, in celebration of her 90 years. There is a display cabinet with her diary open at the page where she writes about having tea with Hitler in 1937. There are paintings and photographs of her -- by Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber -- and some of her clothes on display, including a Philip Treacy hat, dresses by Dior and de la Renta, a boucle skirt by Givenchy, and her trademark uniform in the Eighties and Nineties, wool cardigans by the Natural Dye Company. There is her collection of insect and spider brooches, and also what can only be described as an Elvis shrine, including a piece of picket fence with a nail that may or may not have been knocked in by the man himself.
When the talk turns to Elvis, she brightens considerably. "Oh, don't speak about Elvis," she says looking delighted. "Wasn't he wonderful? I never became a fan until after he was dead, otherwise I would have been a stalker."
In her office, Debo shows me a lovely little Lucian Freud picture of eggs in a basket. She sees him often. "Good old Lu. I take him eggs every time I go to London." What does she think of Woman in a White Shirt, his picture of her, painted when she was 34? "When Andrew went to see the finished picture at Freud's studio, there were two men there, one of whom, looking at the painting, asked him, 'Who is this woman?' 'My wife,' Andrew replied. 'Well, thank God it's not mine,' the man said."
Debo thinks the older she gets, the more like the picture she becomes. "Lucian's great and extraordinary talent when he was doing that style of painting is making a person aged 34 look like I do now, and I'm 90. You know, yellow skin, green moustache. So funny."
Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, published by John Murray at €26.40, is now out