The other month Book Depository sent along my copy of Wait for Me!, the memoirs of Deborah Devonshire, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, though on the cover, the author is styled as Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. Born in 1920, Debo is the youngest and last surviving of the celebrated, often notorious, and always entertaining Mitford Sisters and the one-time, long-time chatelaine of Chatsworth House, on which construction first began in 1552.
I’ve long been a fan of her writing, even before my marriage brought me to chickens and into what used the be the local Chatsworth school district (many English settlers here once upon a time); we can see the old Chatsworth one-room school building, now converted into a grainery by one of our neighbors, from our kitchen window. Last year I read her volume of letters with Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of my favorite writers and one of her dearest friends. I couldn’t bear to wait until the end of this month, at the earliest, for the Canadian publication of Wait for Me!.
Anyway, I had just started the book, when lo and behold, up popped Charlotte Mason [I’ve added some links]:
The years at Asthall [the family home] passed in a haze of contentment from my point of view. I was aware of The Others buy they were so old and seemed and seemed to Decca (Jessica, my daily companion [only three years older]) and me to be of another world. It was not until later that I got to know them. Unity, next up in age from Decca and not yet in the schoolroom, made her huge presence felt but, although always kind to me, she was not an intimate. Our life in the nursery consisted of the daily round, the common task, secure and regular as clockwork.
At the age of five we started lessons with Muv [Mother], who followed the admirable Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU) system with its emphasis on learning through direct contact with nature and good books and its disapproval of marks, prizes, rewards and exams. She taught us reading, writing and sums, and read us tales form the famous children’s history book, Our Island Story. She was a natural teacher and never made anything seem too difficult. At the age of eight, I moved on to the schoolroom and a governess (trained at the PNEU’s Ambleside College) and never enjoyed lessons again.
And from the previous page, also on the subject of education:
With foresight, or perhaps by luck, Farve [Father] converted the barn a few yards from the house into one large room with four bedrooms above and added a covered passage, ‘the cloisters’, to connect the two buildings. [Brother] Tom and the older sisters lived in the barn, untroubled by grown-ups or babies, and made the most of their freedom. My father, who was famous for having read only one book, White Fang, which he enjoyed so much he vowed never to read another, entrusted Tom, aged ten, with the task of choosing which books to keep from the Batsford [another family home, which had to be sold] library. Nancy and Diana later sad that if they had any education, it was due to the unrestricted access they had to Grandfather’s books at Asthall.
I laughed out loud. I can’t imagine a more ringing endorsement for White Fang!
Before you might dismiss Debo as a duchess swanning about an estate, you have to understand that when she married her husband Andrew in 1940, it was with the understanding that she was marrying the second son of the then-Duke of Devonshire. She and Andrew rightfully expected that his brother, William, would inherit the title and Chatsworth House. But when William was killed in action in World War in 1944, Andrew became the heir. He inherited the title and the pile in 1950, when his father died. He also inherited a pile of inheritance taxes, some £7 million, amounting to nearly 80 percent of the value of the estate (or (£179 million, or US $293 million, as of 2011). But it was primarily through his wife’s efforts that the estate was repaired, opened to the public, and became self-supporting (it is quite the going concern, one of England’s top tourist attractions). The Duke’s obituary in The Telegraph pointed out that while their marriage was a happy one, “for many years they were often apart” — “the Duke tended to prefer their house in Mayfair” while the Duchess lived at Chatworth, where she has been a very busy woman. She was instrumental in the estate’s preservation, and in its promotion and expansion, with the additions of a maze, kitchen, cottage gardens and several commissions of modern sculpture. DD is also, as you can see from her writing, modest and self-effacing, and has a soft spot in her heart for Elvis Presley and chickens.
Debo has written that she’s not much of a reader, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing. Some of her delightful prose, often with gorgeous pictures:
Chatsworth: The House; not just a lovely coffee table book, but a comprehensive record of the efforts to save the estate from rack, ruin, and taxes
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002); out of print
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003); from her introduction: “I haven’t cooked since the war. I hoped this would be the title of this book, but it was not well looked on by others. However, it is true and I am all for the truth. I told my old friend, the hairdresser from Chesterfield, that in spite of this lack of practical experience I planned to write a cookery book. He told his wife. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘that’s rich. It’s like a blind woman driving down the M1’.”
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
Coming in September: All in One Basket, a collection of Home to Roost and Counting My Chickens