Review: the newest Mitfordian memoir

Friday, 24 September 2010

Every year it seems that a new biography, collection of letters or anthology of writings is added to the already wide-ranging library of books about the Mitford sisters.

Those who have no love for the fascinating family and their exploits tend to find this somewhat tedious, but as a fully paid-up Mitford fan I welcome them all. The past few years have seen a number of wonderful additions to the ‘Mitford industry’, from Mary S Lovell’s biography of all six sisters to a collection of their letters to each other and an enormous compendium of Jessica’s letters.

I’d been anticipating Wait For Me!, the memoirs of youngest sister Deborah all year and I know I wasn’t alone. Now ninety years old and more commonly known as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, she has always been one of the less controversial members of her family.

Eldest sister Nancy is famous for her books, Diana and Unity well-known for their unpalatable political affliations and Jessica infamous as an activist and journalist. But Deborah – always ‘Debo’ to her family and friends, has remained ambivalent about politics and followed a path much more conventional for an upper-class woman of her generation – marrying the man who was to become the Duke of Devonshire and spending decades as the face of Chatsworth House.

People have eagerly awaited what she has to say about her family and her connections to so many of the 20th century’s famous faces – Winston Churchill was a relative and the Kennedy family were close friends. They're certainly in for a treat with this treasure trove of history, hilarious anecdotes and surprising admissions.

The first few chapters of Wait For Me! take us through the author’s childhood, something which will be familiar to Mitford fans or anyone who has read Nancy’s novels – although here and there you’ll read snippets of new information. But as you read further on into Debo’s teenage years, the memoir really comes into its own with decades of intriguing encounters and exploits to tell.

One criticism of the sisters over the years is that they’ve seemed somewhat emotionally detached, almost cruel – and cold in their feelings towards their parents and children. It’s a theme brought up at several points throughout the book and it’s clear to see that certainly for Debo, this attitude was down to convention rather than anything else – the famed English ‘stiff upper lip’ and the fact that in decades gone by, you just didn’t ‘talk about your feelings’.

She writes movingly of her love for her parents and their support for the family, of her devotion to her late husband Andrew and the way she helped him battle alcoholism and most heartbreakingly, of the pain she felt at losing three babies within hours of giving birth to them.

Some find it hard to feel sympathy for those who have lived such privileged lives – and you don’t get much more privileged than the duchess. It might be hard for some to read of her sadness at the way life has changed since the Second World War, with the destruction of country houses, inheritance tax and the reform of the House of Lords all coming in for criticism. Hers has been a life of stately homes and hunting, parties with royalty and connections with the great and the good.

But it’s also been a life blighted by tragedy. The deaths of three children. The loss of her only brother, four of her closest friends and a brother-in-law in the war, not to mention the attempted suicide and early death of her sister Unity. Reading of her obvious strength and dignity through such tragedies gave me a great respect for Debo and an appreciation for her unique sense of humour.

If you want dirt dished on the sisters and all those famous friends, this isn’t the book for you. The duchess has a lot to say about the ‘Mitford girls’ and while she sets the record straight by stating she always disagreed with Jessica’s communist politics and the fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity, she sticks to writing about her love for them despite their views. She does, however, have a bit to say about the revelation that Nancy informed on Diana and recommended she be imprisoned. Sister Pamela, usually lampooned as the least exciting of the family, is the focus on many a hilarious tale and it’s good to see her receiving some attention.

Similarly, Debo writes at length about the Kennedy family and in particular her friendship with JFK, but doesn’t address the rumours of an affair which have surfaced over the years. She is also quick to criticise the media obsession with famous peoples’ sexuality, expressing disapproval at the way some of her friends’ relationships have been picked over by the press.

Lack of salacious gossip aside, Wait For Me! is a wonderful addition to the Mitford canon and a fascinating account of one life lived to the full. Behind the glittering gowns, parties and enormous houses you get a picture of a woman who loves life’s simple pleasures – nature, animals and family. A woman who has weathered many storms with steely resolve and a woman who is immensely thankful for the life she has led.

This piece originally appeared at BitchBuzz.


attackoftheraebot said...

I will definitely buy this at some point this weekend. I have a few Mitford books and Deborah is one that has always interested me the most.

sianandcrookedrib said...

can't wait to read it!


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