Deborah Mitford, who died this week, was the youngest and last surviving sibling of a controversial generation of aristocratic mavericks who lit up and shocked pre-war London society
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford on March 31, 1920, the sixth daughter of the eccentric 2nd Lord Redesdale, well-known to readers of Nancy Mitford's novels as "Uncle Matthew". "Debo" (as she was always known) was repeatedly assured throughout her childhood by her eldest sister Nancy that "everybody cried when you were born" on account of her being yet another girl.
Debo took refuge in quaintly odd pursuits. Another sister, Jessica ("Decca") Mitford, described her spending "silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen's face when it is laying an egg."
She was passionately fond of the country and country pursuits, and did not suffer from the restless boredom so well-documented by her sisters. None of the girls was sent to school, as their father thought education for girls unnecessary; a succession of governesses was employed, one of whom, Miss Pratt, had her charges playing the card game Racing Demon daily from 9am until lunchtime.
As a girl, Debo was a fine skater, and was invited to join the British junior team, but the idea was vetoed by her mother. As an adolescent she witnessed several scandals surrounding her sisters - Diana's divorce from Bryan Walter Guinness and remarriage, Jessica's elopement, Unity's involvement with Hitler - as well as the disintegration of her parents' marriage.
She was famous for having chanted as a child, in moments of distress: "One day he'll come along, the Duke I love." When she married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, however, he was a mere second son. Debo wrote to her sister, Diana Mosley, then in Holloway prison: "I expect we shall be terrificly [sic] poor but think how nice to have as many dear dogs and things as one likes without anyone to say they must get off the furniture."
Debo remained surrounded by dogs for the rest of her life. In The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth (1982), the bestselling book she wrote - in between doing a lot of sums to illustrate that 365 ordinary-sized residences could fit into her stately home in Derbyshire, with its 7,873 panes of glass and 53 lavatories - the Duchess took care to inform the reader: "It's a terrible place to house-train a puppy."
Lord Cavendish, the 11th Duke, once observed: "My wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am." He added: "She is on the bossy side. . . but I've always liked that in a woman." She dealt heroically with her husband's philandering nature and his weakness for alcohol, and the marriage was a happy one.
In 1944, Andrew's elder brother was killed in action and in 1950, the 10th Duke unexpectedly died. The Devonshires were left with 80pc death duties which took 17 years to settle. In 1959 they moved to Chatsworth, uninhabited since before the war. When she had first seen the house after the war she had thought it "sad, dark, cold and dirty." But Debo set about redecorating the house. "Debo has become the sort of English duchess who doesn't feel the cold," reported Nancy, disconsolately.
The Duchess was both beautiful and deceptively literate, although exceptionally modest. Lucian Freud painted her when she was 34. She also sat for Annigoni, to whom she found herself apologising for her face: "I know it's not the sort you like." The artist replied, not very graciously: "Oh well, it doesn't matter, it's not your fault."
The Duchess kept aloof from her family's literary and political pursuits. She visited her fascist sister Diana in prison, and her Communist sister Decca in California, keeping a light touch with both. After visiting Decca, Debo sent her a photograph of herself and her husband, dressed in their ducal robes for a coronation. Beneath the photo she wrote: "Andrew and me being active."
The Duchess always maintained that she never read books and that her favourite reading matter was the British goatkeepers' monthly journal and Beatrix Potter. The epigraph in her book The House is taken from Hobbes, who was tutor to the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Devonshire: "Reading is a pernicious habit. It destroys all originality of sentiment."