CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe for £25 today CLICK HERE

Last but not least - Duchess of Devonshire talks about her life as a Mitford

PUBLISHED: 00:16 24 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:21 20 February 2013

Last but not least - Duchess of Devonshire talks about her life as a Mitford

Last but not least - Duchess of Devonshire talks about her life as a Mitford

Deborah Devonshire tells Jo Haywood about her life as a Mitford and her surprising passion for hens and Elvis

Deborah Devonshire tells Jo Haywood about her life as a Mitford and her surprising passion for hens and Elvis



The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, still devilishly stylish at 90, has been described as a lilac relic of a bygone age, but this could not
be further from the truth. She is much more vibrant than that, veering wonderfully towards a searing cerise rather than a limp, insipid lilac.
The Devonshire Arms Hotel in Bolton Abbey, where we met for lunch to discuss her highly entertaining new autobiography, was a-buzz with excitement as her arrival approached. Some of the nearly 100 people gathered to welcome her were there to shake hands with a duchess, while others were there to meet a Mitford, the last of this often controversial clan.
But controversy is not something the dowager duchess shies away from. Even now, as she strides purposefully into her tenth decade, she still prefers to court it than
avoid it.
Lets try to be controversial, shall we? she said as we sat down for our lunch of braised beef and sticky toffee pudding. I love to be surprised, and I love controversy and conflict. So, why dont you try to stick the knife in a bit and well both enjoy ourselves.
Not keen on the idea of harpooning a nonagenarian over lunch, I steered the conversation instead towards her early family life. When did she become aware that the Mitfords were not your common or garden tribe?
I dont think I ever did, she said. I never realised that my family was not entirely ordinary and normal. I thought everyone was like us. People describe our life as chaotic but it never felt that way. Maybe I was too close to it all, but it was just family life to us.
All the Mitford girls were home-educated (their brother, Tom, went away to school), but, it seems, they learned very little apart from how to copy a menu and keep house.
We were completely bored to death most of the time, said the dowager duchess. I think thats what got Nancy writing sheer boredom. If we had been allowed out into the world, no one in their right mind would have taken us on. We were fit for nothing.
They might not have had a conventional education, or any education at all come to that, but the Mitford girls were still a force to be reckoned with. Nancy was, and remains to this day, a highly acclaimed and much-read author; Diana was imprisoned during the Second World War along with her husband Oswald Mosley for their Fascist convictions; Pam, described by John Betjemen as the rural Mitford, married (and divorced) a millionaire scientist; Unity idolised Hitler and shot herself in the head days after war was declared; and Decca was a communist, human rights activist and celebrated letter writer and diarist.
And then, of course, there was Farve and Muv, their parents. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, married Sydney Bowles, daughter of a journalist and MP who founded Vanity Fair and The Lady, in 1904.
Both were undoubtedly eccentric Farve only ever read one book, White Fang, because he thought it could not be bettered; and Muv believed a Swedish massage was the cure for all ills and both, according to the dowager duchess, were serially misunderstood by the media.
I started writing my memoirs to put the record straight about my mother and father, she said. They were treated with hostility in the press because of what happened in the Thirties with Hitler and
Unity and people have read a lot of negativity into my sister
Nancys novels. But they were
truly wonderful people and I wanted people to know that.
Over the years, the dowager duchess has met numerous prime ministers, writers, presidents and stars, shes even had tea with Hitler (he was perfectly affable), and has a highly entertaining tale to tell about them all. Just dont ask her about a certain Mr Blair.
David Cameron is a very persuasive and charming person. But please dont speak to me about Tony Blair, she said, with a small shudder of emphasis. I always found it quite extraordinary how people were taken in by him. He always seemed so terribly transparent.
She has rubbed shoulders with almost all of the major players in 20th century history, with one glaring exception: Elvis.
I never met him, but I loved him from afar, she said. He was an absolute genius, the best entertainer ever and so beautiful too. I have a phone that plays Jailhouse Rock.
Its ringing used to drive my husband to distraction.
Her husband, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who died seven years ago, would also not have been pleased that the American version of his wifes memoirs appears under her maiden name of Deborah Mitford and not her married name of Devonshire.
He would have been so cross, said the dowager duchess. You have to bear in mind that this was a man who used to wear a yellow sweater emblazoned with the words Never marry a Mitford.
But he did and, because of the deaths of his older brother and father, both were unexpectedly thrust into the family hot seat, he as duke and her as duchess.
When I woke up one morning as a duchess I felt exactly the same as I had the day before, she said. It was just the same old me in the same old jersey and skirt.
People seem to think there is some sort of union of duchesses,
as if were all the same. But to tell you the truth, some duchesses
are absolutely dreadful and some
are charming. Thats the way of
the world.
The duke and duchess ran the Chatsworth estate, along with their properties in Yorkshire and Ireland, for nearly 50 years, but now Deborah Devonshire lives in a relatively small former vicarage, where her garden is a just a step
and not a car journey away and she has just enough room for her beloved hens.
At 90, most people would be forgiven for sitting back in their favourite armchair and doing little more than drinking tea and reminiscing for the remainder of their days. But Deborah Devonshire is not most people. So, what are her plans for the future?
Well, I suppose Ill have to die at some point, she said with a wry smile. But in the meantime I think Id like to write a little more. And Ill never give up my hens. They really are very entertaining companions. So much fun.



Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister by Deborah Devonshire is published by John Murray, priced 20.



From little sister to dowager duchess: a potted history of Deborah Devonshire
Deborah Vivien Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, was born on March 31st 1920 in Oxfordshire.
She is the youngest and last surviving of the six famous and infamous Mitford sisters, whose extreme political affiliations and romantic adventures kept England on the edge of its seat for the majority of the 1930s and 1940s.
Known to her family as Debo, she married Lord Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, in 1941.
When Andrews older brother William was killed in combat in 1944, he became heir to the dukedom and Deborah became the Marchioness of Hartington.
When the 10th duke died in 1950, Andrew and Deborah became the 11th Duke of Devonshire and the Duchess of Devonshire, taking over the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire and Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire.
Since then, the duchess has written several books about Chatsworth, has played a key role in restoring the house and developing its pioneering farm shop and, here in Yorkshire, has breathed new life into The Devonshire Arms, making it the countys premier hotel.
She became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2004 when her husband died and her son became the 12th Duke.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Yorkshire Life