Meeting the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at The Devonshire Arms Hotel, Bolton Abbey
PUBLISHED: 08:50 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 20:22 23 October 2015
Joan Russell Photography
As the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is announced, we look back to a wonderful afternoon spent in her company at The Devonshire Arms Hotel in Bolton Abbey, where she told Jo Haywood about her life as a Mitford and her surprising passion for hens and Elvis
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire had been described as a lilac relic of a bygone age but, as she strode into view, still devilishly stylish in her 90s, it was obvious this could not be further from the truth. She was 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 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 was not something the Dowager Duchess shied away from. Even then, as she strode purposefully into her tenth decade, she still preferred to court it than avoid it.
‘Let’s 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 don’t you try to stick the knife in a bit and we’ll 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 Nancy’s novels. But they were truly wonderful people and I wanted people to know that.’
Over the years, the Dowager Duchess met numerous prime ministers, writers, presidents and stars; she even had tea with Hitler (he was perfectly affable). She wasn’t a big fan of a certain Mr Blair though.
‘David Cameron is a very persuasive and charming person. But please don’t 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 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 late husband, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, would also not have been pleased that the American version of his wife’s memoirs appeared 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 we’re all the same. But to tell you the truth, some duchesses are absolutely dreadful and some are charming. That’s 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, before Deborah Devonshire moved to a relatively small former vicarage, where her garden was just a step and not a car journey away and she had just enough room for her beloved hens.
In their 90s, 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 was not most people.
‘Well, I suppose I’ll have to die at some point,’ she said with a wry smile. ‘But in the meantime I think I’d like to write a little more. And I’ll never give up my hens. They really are very entertaining companions. So much fun.’