Down and Out in Denver

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. IV

Posted in books by Blake on April 9, 2011

I am one of those people who suffers from an ailment called Mitfordiana.  I am obsessed with the Mitfords, and this volume of Blake’s Book Nook is devoted to the recently published autobiography of Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, called Wait for Me! … Memoirs.

For those not in the know, a brief word first on the Mitfords, six sisters and one brother born into an aristocratic English family (their father was the 2nd Baron Redesdale) between 1904 and 1920: Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Perhaps best known now for the nominally fictitious and riotously funny portrayal of the family in eldest sister Nancy’s classic novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the Mitfords were also famous in their own time, for these many reasons: Nancy was a successful novelist and biographer.  Diana, a great beauty, married and then divorced the heir to the Guinness fortune, leaving him for the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley (they were both imprisoned during World War II).  Unity became a devotee and friend of Hitler and shot herself in the head in a Munich park when England declared war on Germany (she lived for nine years afterwards). Jessica (called Decca by all), first eloped to the Spanish Civil War with her first husband (who later died in WW II), then became a Communist and moved to the United States, eventually writing the classic expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death.  Deborah, the youngest, married the second-in-line to the Dukedom of Devonshire; the first in line (married to Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister to JFK, et al) died in WW II and Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire when her father-in-law died. Pamela, often called “the rural Mitford,” married and divorced a bisexual millionaire scientist and eventually ended up sharing her life with an Italian horsewoman.  And Tom, dashing man about town in his youth, died tragically young, also in World War II.

The Mitford sisters and brother with their parents

So with all that you can imagine why I, and millions of others over the years, have been avid consumers of the novels and memoirs and autobiographies and collected letters and movies that can only be described as the Mitford Industry.  Four of six sisters wrote books and Mary Lovell published a great group biography, The Sisters, in 2002.  Their letters to one another are also collected in The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, which is edited by Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley (and which is next on my list of Mitford lore to consume). Other Mitford epistles are collected in many other volumes.

The Mitford sisters (minus Deborah)

The latest is the memoir by Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, which she calls Wait for Me! because she was the youngest and always being left behind.  This needs to be said right off the bat: she doesn’t write as well as her sisters, at least Nancy and Decca, who did most of the writing.  She is best when she’s describing her upbringing, but even then she relies on the published words of those sisters from time to time.  By the final third of the book, it’s become a long list of events and celebrated people whom she’s entertained and it gets both a little confusing and a little boring. As Janet Maslin noted in her review in the Sunday Times in December, when you get to a paragraph that begins with “Poultry has been important to me since childhood,” you know you’ve reached the end. All that said, however, it’s fascinating to hear her take on her sisters and their famous disputes with one another, to understand how one family produced a Communist, a Fascist, and a Nazi-sympathizer, as well as a Duchess.  She’s also eloquent on the subject of English country houses, especially the ones that come with titles and what happens to such a house when the title and house pass from one generation to the next and the death duties of 80% of its value will bankrupt it entirely.  The answer (what she and her husband did with Chatsworth): sell and donate the greatest artistic treasures, open the house to the public, and run it like a business, writing charming books about it all the while.

In the end, while Wait for Me! is not the best of the volumes on the Mitfords (fiction or non), it’s still about the Mitfords and that’s good enough for me.  Novices should probably start with Nancy’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (usually bound and sold together; they are sequels) or Decca’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  And enjoy!


2 Responses

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  1. ej said, on April 11, 2011 at 6:36 am

    Thanks for the review. I’m sure I’ll read, though with tempered expectations. I too love me some Mitfords!

    And I’ve been thinking about those ladies of late since I’ve been teaching about WWII. Do you know if any non-Mitfords have written about their fascination with fascism? Other than the “Sisters” book, which I have read.

    • Blake said, on April 11, 2011 at 8:18 am

      Good question and I’m not sure I can think of anything off the top of my head. Of course Diana wrote her own memoir, A LIfe of Contrasts, and there is a big volume, The House of Mitford, but it’s a little old, I think. Someone recently published a biography of Decca, but again, wrong sister for fascism…

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