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Deborah Devonshire: JFK’s friend, Hitler’s antagonist, The Spectator’s columnist

25 September 2014

6:34 PM

25 September 2014

6:34 PM

The lives of the Mitford Sisters have riveted, and repelled, anglophiles since the thirties. Diana Mitford once wrote, ‘I must admit “the Mitfords” would madden ME if I didn’t chance to be one’. Their hold on the public imagination can be attributed to a mixture of aristocratic eccentricity, romance, rebellion, devotion, betrayal, estrangement, tragedy, and loss; and through it all, a uniquely irrepressible wit. And although much of it will survive in the memoirs, biographies, novels, and collected letters they and others have written, the last living link has been lost with the death of Deborah, the youngest of that astonishing sextet.

Between 1904 and 1920, Lord and Lady Redesdale produced a son, Tom, and six daughters – Nancy, the novelist and Francophile; Pam, a horsewoman, farmer and cook; Diana, a Fascist beauty; Unity, a besotted Nazi; Jessica (‘Decca’), an American communist and writer; and Deborah (‘Debo’). They were six variations of the same face and voice with an obsessive dedication to a person or cause. Nancy’s love for Gaston Palewski, Unity’s for Hitler, and Diana’s for Oswald Mosley blighted their lives; although none of them would ever admit it. Jessica’s dedication to Communism and Deborah’s to Chatsworth were just as strong but cast no shadows. For her, politics held no magic. Like most of her family she met the führer, but she merely noted, ‘We’ve had tea with Hitler and seen all the other sights’. She had no time for their ugly dogmas but her love for her sisters never wavered.

Deborah had been the Redesdales’ last chance for another son. Mabel the parlour maid recalled, ‘I knew it was a girl by the look on his lordship’s face.’ Nancy never let her forget it. She called Deborah ‘Nine’ (her supposed mental age) and yet she would write almost as many books as her green-eyed eldest sister. When Jessica heard Nancy had said that sisters were a shield against cruel adversity, she countered that sisters were the cruel adversity. While her elder sisters wrote of their father’s rages and philistinism and their mother’s supreme detachment, Deborah saw them as more lovable and less like Nancy’s Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie. Unlike her sisters, she loved life at home in the country so much that boarding school was unbearable. Within two days she had ‘fainted in geometry, failed to understand the point of netball and been sick several times’. She became a day girl by the end of the week and, after a term, returned home to her ponies, dogs, hens – and a governess.

By 1940, home life had crumbled – their house at Swinbrook had been sold, Diana was in jail for supporting her husband Mosley’s cause, Jessica had eloped with her cousin and gone to America, Unity had shot herself on the outbreak of war and the Redesdales had separated over the strain of her care and differences over the war. Deborah had fallen in love with Lord Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, and they married in 1941. By the end of the war, she  had lost two babies, her four best friends, her brother, Tom, and two brothers-in-law, and Andrew was heir to his father and Marquess of Hartington.

In 1950 his father died – 14 weeks short of the critical tax deadline, which meant that £7 million were owed in death duties. He sold off land, the Elizabethan jewel, Hardwick Hall, and other treasures. Together, the new duke and duchess saved Chatsworth, Derbyshire seat of the Cavendishes since 1549; possibly the original of Darcy’s Pemberley, a splendid ochre pile under an acre of roof that today attracts 500,000 visitors a year. Chatsworth was her life’s work and she was arguably the greatest English chatelaine of her time.

Andrew Devonshire was a man of many parts – a countryman and clubman, a gambler and bibliophile, a knight of the garter, a politician, a dandy, a collector and a patron of many causes.  He was also an alcoholic, a Cavendish curse, which blighted family life for decades until he conquered it in 1983. Their old friend, the diarist James Lees-Milne, described them in the nineties ‘like Darby and Joan’. The duke credited it to his wife’s tolerance and the fact that they had no secrets.

She had a genius for friendship – JFK would phone in the middle of the night; Aly Khan gave her a racehorse; Evelyn Waugh bought her a hat and inscribed his life of Ronald Knox (‘For Darling Debo, with love from Evelyn. You will not find a word in it to offend your Protestant sympathies.’ Every page was blank). Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote sparkling letters to her for more than fifty years; Lucien Freud painted her and the Prince of Wales was a constant visitor and confidant. Her enthusiasms included chickens and Elvis. Her great regret was that they never met. Her favourite song? Aint’t it funny how time slips away.

By December 2005, widowed and sisterless, she left Chatsworth to her son, Stoker, the 12th Duke, and his wife, moving nearby to the old vicarage at Edensor, which she soon made her own. She continued to contribute to The Spectator as a columnist and reviewer. At the age of ninety she published her memoirs, Wait For Me, perhaps the most reliable and rational account of life as a Mitford Sister.

She is survived by her son and two daughters. Deborah Devonshire’s lived a dramatic, dazzling life of real distinction and, although she would have denied it, proved to be the most remarkable of a remarkable brood.

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