The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Victoria, here, lately reading several memoirs by Deborah Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.  I find them delightful. When I put the book down to attend to other matters, I feel like I’ve been chatting with a friend.

Now, most of my friends are not quite duchesses (more like countesses and baronesses, don’t cha know?), but Debo’s breezy style just feels like an old pal has been telling me about her very long and full life.  Don’t all of your friends cavort with Prince Charles, care for many of the Chatsworth Estate affairs, and feed their chickens?  Actually, I really do have a few friends who feed their chickens, come to think of it.  And Kristine waved at Prince Charles once as he passed her in his limo.

All in One Basket (immediately above) combines two of the Duchess’s previous memoirs into one volume.  They were entitled Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost, collections of stories and essays she wrote earlier.  Wait For Me (top picture) is a memoir of her childhood and marriage to nearly the present. 

The dowager Duchess speaking to Charlie Rose

At the age of 92, she is living near Chatsworth in a house she redecorated — with a few spare pieces from the Chatsworth attics — after the death of her husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, in 2004, Chatsworth became the home of her son Peregrine Cavendish, known as Stoker, 12th Duke of Devonshire. and his wife Amanda, the Duchess.


The excellent website for Chatsworth is here.  We’ve written about Chatsworth on this blog, as have many others.  It is a favorite target of tourists and residents of the British Isles as well.  The first time I visited Chatsworth, quite a few years ago, I was amazed to be greeted by flocks of chickens wandering the parking area.

These were not just ordinary chickens, but lovely exotic feathered works of art — which walked around and seemed hungry.  My suspicion is that the visitors frequently bring treats for the hens and roosters.  When we entered the main house, the doorkeeper cautioned us not to let the creatures inside. “The Duchess,” he said, “does not like her chickens in the house.”

I have visited Chatsworth several times and I would love to go again. And again.  It is the quintessential English Country House and has been in the forefront of developing the Stately Home Industry, if I dare to call it that.  Debo would not approve. However, she has been an inspiration and a guiding force for the movement.

Deborah and Andrew at their wedding in 1941

Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford was the youngest of the seven children of Lord Redesdale, thus one of the famous Mitford Sisters, of whom so much has been written.  Nancy, eldest of the seven, wrote several novels which are very popular and have been turned into films or tv series; some of these have autobiographical overtones of the sisters’ lives.

Jessica, is famous for her book The American Way of Death, criticising the funeral business. Two other sisters developed fascist sympathies, with Unity trying to shoot herself over the British declaration of war against Germany.  Diana married the head of the British fascist party, Sir Oswald Moseley.  Through it all, Debo ignored politics and remained devoted to each sister in her own way.

Marquess of Hartingdon and bride Kathleen Kennedy in 1944
Joe Kennedy jr. stands behind his sister

When Debo married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, he was not expected to inherit the dukedom. But only four months after his elder brother William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartingdon married Kathleen Kennedy in May, 1944, the Marquess was killed in action  in WWII. Kathleen, sister of future U. S. President John F. Kennedy, died in 1948 in a plane crash.

Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire 1920-2004
Picture: BBC
Thus Andrew and Debo had to prepare for their eventual roles as Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, along with all the responsibilities of many properties, tenants and enterprises. Andrew’s father, the 10th Duke died in 1950.  Though she writes with the advantage of hindsight, the reader of Debo’s accounts can easily see what difficulties the family had with death duties and the establishment of Chatsworth as a profitable business capable of sustaining the house, its contents and activities for the public. Though she pooh-poohs the idea, Debo is largely responsible for Chatsworth’s success.  Thanks, Debo!

For a review of Wait For Me from the Telegraph, click here.

4 thoughts on “The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire”

  1. You are quite wrong about Jessica cbeing the oldest sister. The birth order of the Mitfords is:

    Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973)
    Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994)
    Thomas Mitford (2 January 1909 – 30 March 1945)
    Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003)
    Unity Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948)
    Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996)
    Deborah Mitford (born 31 March 1920)

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