I was going to write about another mildly notorious woman – an imperishably ladylike and competent professional gambler who was a figure of note in her day on the Texas frontier – for History Friday, but I noted the departure of Deborah, known to her family as Debo, the last of the notorious Mitfords, from this mortal plane. Yeah, it was in the Daily Mail website, but they had a number of lovely archive pictures of her, taken throughout her life – which through no particular fault of her own – was spiced with notoriety. Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – which sounds like a made-up title for one of those horrible regency romances – was privileged and burdened, I think – in about the same degree.
That she bore that burden with a fair degree of graceful competence – and added to that – wit, insouciance, and that indefinable quality called ‘class’ and remained stalwart under it for all of her life – is something that bears contemplation. She was home-schooled, as it seems, eccentrically under the rule of a very eccentric father. She and her sisters were only expected to marry well, into the peerage if it all possible, and be ornaments to their husbands various careers, much as Englishwomen of their class had been schooled to do since time immemorial. But unexpectedly, she and her sisters – all attractive, intelligent and charming – also turned out to be fairly strong-willed and wildly independent in thought. In the hothouse of the 1930s, that meant political thought. This led three of her older sisters down some very strange political and social paths; two into notoriously enthusiastic sympathy verging on the treasonous with the Nazis in the lead-up to and during WWII and one – a dedicated Communist – into eloping with her second-cousin and going with him to report on the Spanish Civil War. One older sister became a writer of considerable note, penning historical biographies and several popular novels based on Mitford family life, the dedicated Communist sister ventured into journalism and civil rights, while another married into relatively respectable obscurity … just as Deborah herself did in 1941, to Andrew Cavendish, the younger son of a duke. Likely they had also expected lives of relatively respectable obscurity, although that could not entirely be depended upon, due to their bonds of kin- and friendship with any number of newsworthy people on either side of the Atlantic.
Such expectations were shattered by the wartime death of Andrew Cavendish’s older brother, the expected heir to the honors and property, along with the responsibility and the crippling tax burden. Within another handful of years, they took it on; the huge, crumbling stately manor of Chatsworth, which had been neglected for many years. Together they worked to open it to the public, to restore and revive an architectural and cultural treasure. It took, according to the linked account, nearly a quarter of a century to pay off the death duties on the Devonshire estates. She and her husband were also keen gardeners, and the grounds of Chatsworth are at least a much of a work of living art as the house itself. Always a prolific letter-writer, and with the example of two of her sisters to inspire her, she also turned to writing books – chiefly to do with Chatsworth, but also a memoir of her husband, her own memoir of growing up Mitford, and a collection of letters between herself and Patrick Leigh-Fermor. Many of the comments attached to the linked story mentioned encounters with her in person; a gracious, charismatic and quietly formidable woman, and one of a sort that we will likely not see again.