Friday, December 17, 2010

"Wait for Me!" by Deborah Mitford Cavendish

I just finished reading Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. I recommend that everyone - not just Anglophiles and fans of Mitfordania - read it.

Debo, as she was known to friends and family, was the youngest of the Mitford brood. Although her oldest sister, Nancy Mitford, nick-named her Nine (the mental age beyond which Nancy teased she never matured), she went on to be a prolific authoress who graces the page with humor, poignancy, and interesting tidbits of information.

This is one of the few books I've read that is literally laugh-out-loud funny, and I frequently found myself having to get up to close the door to my bedroom so I didn't disturb my mother, asleep across the hall, as I hooted hilariously upon reading her anecdotes.

The book is Deborah's memoir, and gets its title from the fact that she was youngest, and as a child had short legs that meant she couldn't keep up with her older siblings (she had one brother, and five sisters). Her father nicknamed her "Stubby" for her short little legs, and called her that until his dying day.

I first began reading about the Mitford family - all fascinating characters - when I received The Sisters as a Christmas gift. I have since gone on to read the collection of their letters to one another, and own a rare copy of Unity's biography, now out of print. I have two novels by Nancy (and look forward to buying the re-released Wigs on the Green, last published in 1937 as a parody of her sister Unity's Nazism), and Communist Jessica's memoirs. I have yet to purchase sister Diana's memoirs, but they're on the list, too.

Deborah was married to her husband, Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, during World War II in a ballroom, the windows of which had been blown out by a bomb, and whose curtains were destroyed in the air raid. Her creative mother bought rolls of silver and gold wallpaper and pleated them to look like curtains, before nailing them to the walls. Her wedding cake had a cardboard cover in lieu of icing, because sugar was rationed (along with everything else).

She talks at length of the fight to keep one of the Cavendish family's homes, Chatsworth, from being sold to pay death duties when her father-in-law died, leaving her husband to wear the mantle of Duke. He was not supposed to be duke, but his older brother was killed in World War II, along with many of Debo's friends. She discusses these young men in detail prior to the advent of war, and it's tear-jerking when she describes their deaths.

Debo was friends with everyone. She attended John F. Kennedy's inauguration and funeral. She attended Elizabeth II's coronation, only weeks after the premature birth of her fifth child, followed hours later by that child's death. She gave birth in all to six children; only three of them survived.

She talks about being a duchess, living in a huge house, and how she and her husband used to wander the grounds of Chatsworth before they moved into it, and she teased him by exclaiming "What a lovely house! I wonder who lives here?" (His response, "Oh, do shut up.")

She discusses with candor and yet with respect her husband's battle with alcoholism, only won when she deserted him in the middle of a house party, only agreeing to return if he took sobriety seriously and vowed never to touch a drop of alcohol again.

Such was the force of her attraction and her character that she was not forced to follow through on her threat; Andrew never touched a drop again, and they spent the next 20 years happily married.

She discusses her sister, Diana, and her marriage to the leader of the British fascist movement, Sir Oswald Mosley (father of Max Mosley, former head of Formula One Racing), and their subsequent imprisonment as enemies of the nation during World War II, as well as sister Nancy's treachery in trying to convince MI5 not to release the couple from prison. She makes no apologies for the fact that, despite their politics, she continued to love and cherish Diana and Unity (who was great friends with Hitler), and somehow you don't blame her for this blindspot. They were, after all, her sisters.

Fascism served to end her parents' marriage, and she discusses this with her brilliant clarity and incredible empathy; her mother had met Hitler and admired him, as did her father, but when World War II broke out, he renounced his admiration, whereas her mother did not do so. They separated, only finally reconciling when Debo's father was on his deathbed.

If you have the money, I highly suggest you buy a copy of Wait for Me! It's one of those biographies that I already look forward to reading again and again.

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