My interest in the Mitford family is fairly recent and can be traced back to the day I first watched the wonderful BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Nancy’s portrayal of her family is more than slightly biased, however, and I found myself wanting to compare fiction with fact. Hence several weeks spent reading Selina Hastings’ biography of Nancy. It seemed that “unusual” was a massive understatement when it came to describing the Mitfords. Nancy, I thought (and still think) was the most interesting of the lot, but I nevertheless desired to learn more about her siblings. It was out of the question to read anything by or about Diana or Unity: as unrepentant Fascists, they were beneath contempt. Tom, the only brother, had died too young to make much of an impact. Pamela sounded too boring, and Jessica, as a Communist, was simply too unglamorous.
That only left Deborah, the youngest of the brood. And right on cue, she published her memoirs, Wait for Me!, just in time for me to ask for them for Christmas. I saw the words “Dowager Duchess of Devonshire” embossed on the dust-jacket and succumbed to the appeal of Chatsworth and the Cavendish family. It happens to me from time to time – I call it my Brideshead Revisited Syndrome, brief periods when I fantasize about quail eggs for breakfast and champagne drunk in the bath, dinner jackets and impassive butlers, stables filled with fifty glossy horses, and white gloves and waltzes at debutante balls. (This my father cannot understand, and when he caught sight of the black-and-white picture showing Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII hanging in the Chatsworth drawing-room, there were dark mutterings and something that sounded very much like “Les aristos, tous à la lanterne!”)
In the event, I was disappointed. All the ingredients for a good book are there: eccentric parents; a childhood spent in draughty manor houses; the Roaring Twenties and the rise of Fascism in Europe; then the long years of World War Two, following her husband from army camp to army camp and worrying about Unity, who had shot herself in the head when England declared war against her beloved Hitler and was now mentally retarded, and also about Diana, who was interned for several years as a result of her husband’s Fascist activities; life as the Duchess of Devonshire; the restoration of Chatsworth; and countless famous friends, including Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, to whom she was related by marriage, and Prince Charles. But it is all recounted in a monotonous, yawn-inducing fashion, which does nothing to dispel the general idea that memoirs are dreadfully dull affairs. It does not help that she should have chosen to organize her chapters thematically, making the chronology slightly confusing. A few anecdotes stand out – but mainly because of the unexploited potential they contain. There is just enough in the book to allow the reader to appreciate that a better writer could really have made it come alive.
The Duchess has had an extremely full life, and it is quite a remarkable feat for a ninety-year-old lady to be still actively writing and publishing. But the fact remains that she very obviously did not get any share of her older sister’s scathing wit and writing gifts. She is also very obviously not an intellectual – I was quite worn down by the sheer tediousness of endless hunting parties and charity work. The frank avowal that she did not ever read was incomprehensible to me, and I am afraid, elicited a curl of the lip. I wish the worthy Duchess many more years of happiness from the bottom of my heart, but I do hope she will do the literary world a favour and refrain from writing another book.
© Florence Berlioz 2011