Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Last Sister

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and the last surviving Mitford sister, has died aged 94.

From a brilliant article about the "Mitford Girls" and the upbringing that made several of them into controversial characters (Diana married British Fascist Oswald Mosley, Unity was Hitler's greatest fan, Jessica eloped to Spain with a communist during the Civil War, and Nancy became a hugely admired authoress, but married a homosexual man and later ended up as mistress to de Gaulle's Chief of Staff), courtesy of The Evil Style Queen blog:
The parents of the Mitford sisters, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney Bowles, were described as handsome, eccentric, cold and remote. The Mitford children (six girls and a boy) grew up in relatively moderate circumstances deep in rural Oxfordshire. The parents didn't believe in education for girls, specifically not in formal schools. Lady Redesdale ran a chicken farm, the return of which was duly invested in her daughters' scant education. The children were brought up by a nanny who, as it happens so often in English upper-class families, provided their only stability and warmth. A string of hapless governesses was employed to convey what little knowledge the parents thought girls needed.

Contact with other children was very limited because Lord and Lady Redesdale were of the opinion that this might overexcite the girls. According to Jessica Mitford, Lord Redesdale wouldn't receive any "outsiders" such as "Huns", "Frogs", Americans, Africans and any other "foreigners", which included other people's children, most friends of the girls and almost all young men. An exception was made for some (but by no means all) relatives and some choice red-faced and tweed-clad neighbours.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity, and Pamela, 1935. The youngest, Deborah, is not pictured.
This cruel and eccentric environment was mirrored by the girls from an early age. Merciless bullying among them was rampant, an "art" at which specifically the oldest sister Nancy excelled, a precocious sign of her later whip-lash tongue, for which she became famous as a writer.

The parents split up after more than 35 years of marriage over the crucial question whether Adolf Hitler would be welcome as a son-in-law and whether a German invasion was appreciated or not. Lord Redesdale was against, his wife all for it.

Exasperated, he left her and moved to the tiny Scottish island of Inch Kenneth near Mull, about the only bit of estate that had remained in the family, and from where he returned only after the war.

Deborah Mitford by Pietro Annigoni
The youngest sister, Deborah (born 1920), married Lord Andrew Cavendish, second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, when they both were 21. At that time, Andrew was not expected to inherit the title. Because his older brother William (who was engaged to be married to Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK), was killed in combat in 1944, Andrew became Marquess of Hartington and 11th Duke of Devonshire after his father's death in 1950.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire never put a foot wrong. She was considered the most perfect of all Duchesses of Devonshire. There had been ten before her.

She [was] the public face of Chatsworth House, the Devonshires' seat in Derbyshire, for many decades... She [wrote] several books about Chatsworth and played a key role in the restoration of the house, the improvement of the garden, the development of commercial activities such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop (a business that employs a hundred people), and Chatsworth's other business operations. She [was] even known to man the ticket office herself if the need arose.

The Chatsworth Cookbook
She became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2004 upon the death of her husband when her son inherited the title. Andrew and Deborah had been married for 63 years.

Debo moved out of Chatsworth House to make way for her son, but said: "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."

Jessica, Deborah and Pamela. In the background Alexander Mosley (son of Diana) and Alexander's wife Charlotte, Editor of 'The Nancy Mitford Diaries' at a book launch party held at The Reform Club on the 23rd September 1993.

  • Andrew, Duke of Devonshire, often wore a jumper with the slogan "Never Marry A Mitford".
  • Nancy, her eldest sister, was cruel to Debs as a child. "Everyone cried when you were born," she would enjoy reminding her (their mother had wanted another boy).
  • She met John F Kennedy at a ball in 1938, and later became close friends with him; he would often ring her at 3am to chat, and she and Andrew attended his presidential inauguration in 1961 and, in 1963, his funeral.
  • One of her eight grandchildren is the model Stella Tennant.
  • Deborah was a big Elvis Presley fan: "Wasn’t he wonderful?", she said. "I never became a fan until after he was dead, otherwise I would have been a stalker."
RIP, Debo.

Deborah Vivien Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire DCVO (née Deborah Freeman-Mitford, 31st March 1920 – 24th September 2014)


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