Friday, September 4, 2009

A flowery chair for the Duchess of Devonshire

For Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, aged 88, formerly Debo Mitford, chatelaine of Chatsworth since 1950, keeper of chickens, lover of dogs, grandmother to model Stella Tennant, sister to five famous sisters and one brother who died young, daughter of reasonably nutty aristocrat who whose idea of fun was calling gentleman callers 'swine' and a woman who, ahead of her time, was into organic food and home education, reader of no books (apparently), inveterately optimistic, warm and friendly lady, possibly the most normal of all Mitford sisters, here you are.

I have found you a flowery chair to sit in and rest for just a minute.
I do love those Mitfords. I can't help it, even though, as has been pointed out, they were all slightly creepy. Here is a poor quality photo of part of my Mitford book collection.

However the creepiness does not extend to the Duchess. She seems pretty normal to me. I have just finished reading 'In Tearing Haste' which is a touching collection of the letters between DD and Patrick Leigh Fermor, war hero, generally brave person and a gregarious kind man who loved to travel, visit with people and appreciates the Mediterranean way of life. He is a man who is interested in just about everything and it shows in his chatty vibrant letters.

This is an uplifiting book about people who enjoyed life and made the most of it, in spite or maybe because of the war horrors they lived through. Patrick Leigh Fermor was a hellenophile - he lived in Crete disguised as a shepherd in WWII, he kidnapped the commander in charge of Crete General Krieke and then ultimately moved to Greece and still lives there, aged 94 in his stone house.

These were people who had desperately close friendships, their letters are full of declarations of platonic love, compliments, thankyous for some little weekend away in a castle or cottage and 'do please join me in Paris's.

Here is the Duchess now:

And here she is in the 1950s.

Who knows why so many are entranced by those MItford girls. The beauty is part of it, although it is only Diana who was truly beautiful (you know when people talk about a 'great beauty' of the past and you look at a photo and think I don't really get that, tastes must have been different then? Well I think when you look at photos of Diana you can see that she was really beautiful in all senses of the word).

I have a theory. It is not just to do with beauty. For me at least I am entranced by these sisters because:

(1) By and large, they did what they wanted. That makes them very modern. Whilst we may not agree with their politics or actions, they were strong minded, pig headed, determined ladies, and I love that. For the Mitfords, doing what they wanted didn't involve staying out all night after a debutante ball in South Kensington in 1934. It involved striking up a friendship with Hitler for possible purpose of a radio station between Germany and the UK. Or eloping with one's cousin, not to Venice, no, but to Spain, to help out in the Spanish Civil War.

(2) they can all write. Whether it be a pithy thank you card, a long letter of recollection, a childhood memoir or a full blown book a la Nancy. Of course in those days, people got a lot of practice writing, a skill we have slowly lost since 1980.
I will finish with a letter the Duchess wrote in 2006 when UK Vogue shot her and Stella Tennant at Chatsworth for their 90th anniversary. Unfortunately I cannot find the photo. This is how the Duchess describes it:
'Stella came. We had to be together in a photo for Vogue's 90th birthday come Christmas. So one Mario Testino, famous photographer, came in a helicopter with a crew of helicopter with a crew of makeup, hairdresser, 'fashion editor' etc from London
I've got a really beautiful dress, grand evening, given me by Oscar de la Renta, so that was my kit. They bound Stella's legs, up to where they join her body, in tartan. A Union Jack flag hung from her waist and her top was what my father would have called meaningless...
We looked just like that Grandville drawing of a giraffe dancing with a little monkey. I was the monkey'.
Images (1) Cote Maison (4) (5)(6)


Lee said...

Jane, I loved this post! So full of interesting information. Of course I know of the Mitford girls and their origins but I have never read any of the books you've shown here...but, being an avid reader, I am off to the bookshop this afternoon to see what I can find to read about Mitford girls & esp. the Duchess of Devonshire - she sounds wonderful. Thank you for enlightening me. Have a lovely weekend. Lee :)

jane said...

what a great post. i know someone who really enjoy this. she loves reading about the sisters. thanks for this! besos-jane

A Super Dilettante said...

It's so lovely to know you like reading about Mitford sisters. Debo is not much of a writer (if you compare to her sister, Nancy who was a prolific writer). But I enjoyed reading her journal, "Counting my chickens". Have you had a chance to get the recent publications of Mitford sisters letters? They are superb. Nancy was such a tease! She would tease her father and sisters until they got into a big row (just like any other family, I suppose) "snip, snip until he snaps", one of the sisters wrote in the letter. As for Debo, she was intrigued by the facial experssion of a hen before laying an egg. She carefully observed and demonstrated how a hen lays an egg in front of the whole family. Diana was one of the most well-read (she was also the closest to the brother, Tom).

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

What a insightful post. I too love the Mitfords. Diana was definitely a beauty. I think you hit the nail on the head about their

cj said...

just discovered your site, lovely. I lived in Melbourne in the 70's and revisited in 2001, lots of changes but basically still a great town with a spectacular botanical garden and art museum. I live in Oakland, California the home of the late Jessica Mitford who was known in the usa as a "muckracker" for her famous book about the funeral home world. It is amazing how they all left their mark but Jessica, to me, was the most down to earth one. Thanks for the blog!

Jane said...

Hi all - yes I forgot to mention my favourite Mitford was Decca (Jessica), she of the elopment to Spain with her (first!) cousin. She then did move the US as CJ says - married an american lawyer Bob Treuhaft as Esmond Romilly died in the war (as he always thought he would). Her book Hons and Rebels about her childhood is really lovely. I am always amazed at how much people can remember. I think the saddest Mitford was Nancy she died a painful death and I always felt she was unfulfilled living in Paris as a mistress of that French army man. I am meaning to buy that letters collection - maybe for my next holiday!

Laura said...

You have convinced on my reading list! These most certainly do sound like my sort of women. And I couldn't agree more about the decline of the letter. I just finished reading My Three Fathers which was full of excerpts from well crafted letters and thought that I could never write that well, nor do I know anyone who could!

24 Corners said...

I just happened to click on this by chance (the little thumbnail looked pretty) and I was thrilled because I'm just now reading my first book on the sisters and I'm just getting to know them. Right now, very early in the book, I think I like Pamela the best...but we'll see how things move along. I read way to late last night...hard one to put down!
xo J~

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