“Never marry a Mitford!” was the slogan emblazoned on a tee-shirt owned by Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, but worn only within the walls of his demesne. It was, of course, an in-house joke. When that unlikely piece of kit was worn at Chatsworth, he had been happily married for many years to Deborah Vivien Freeman Mitford, the sixth and last of the Mitford sisters. Her recently published memoir ‘Wait for Me!’ is far from being a model of opaque discretion and reveals much about the Mitford connections to Ireland.
She has been known since childhood to family and friends as ‘Debo’. That sobriquet was part of the language constructed by the Mitford girls for their private world, much as Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward constructed the private language of the ‘Mortemere’ stories for their private world. Private language was a very thirties upper-class thing.
So too was the habit of dynastic labelling; ‘the Guinness Girls’, the ‘Mitford Sisters’. Large portions of rainforests have been offered up in the quest to chronicle the lives of the Milfords. And now comes this autobiography from the last living, and sometimes mistakenly perceived as the least literary, of the Mitford girls.
Debo Devonshire’s reticence to rush into print is understandable when one considers the formidable literary output of her sisters. It is all the more welcome, therefore, because at the age of 90, it comes when she has had time to reflect on nearly a century of personal and public life.
She spent much of that life overshadowed by the reputations of her more controversial sisters, especially Unity and Diana. Unity was a scatter-brained Nazi sympathizer who worshiped Hitler and who, because of the family’s connection to Churchill, was taken up by the Furher. He gave her a flat in Munich which had been confiscated from a young Jewish couple. Her Nazi Party badge and signed photograph of Hitler were her most prized possessions. She left instructions for these treasured icons to be buried with her when she attempted suicide after war was declared between England and Germany.
There are several Mitford connections to Ireland. Diana Mitford was the mother of Desmond Guinness, the founder of the Irish Georgian Society. Her first marriage to Bryan Guinness, (2nd Baron Moyne), ended in divorce after she fell in love with the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. It was an enduring love but it saw her socially ostracised and caused her to be imprisoned during the Second World War. The Mosleys moved to Ireland in the early 1950s and lived in the rather grandly named Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert and when that was consumed in a great nocturnal blaze, they moved to a house near Fermoy. They moved largely in the world of Anglo-Ireland but there was much sympathy for Mosley among the plain people of Ireland because he had long been a supporter of Irish independence and hailed Michael Collins as a brilliant leader.
There are many other Mitford connections to Ireland. Clementine Lady Beit, wife of Sir Alfred Beit and chatelaine of Russborough, County Wicklow, was a Mitford and a cousin of the famous six. This does not save her from being described in these memoirs as someone ‘who struck up a close friendship with an SS officer (an episode in her life that was conveniently forgotten after her marriage to Alfred Beit).’ The legendary youthful meanness of the very rich Alfred Beit is not overlooked either. The Dowager Duchess tells us Beit is remembered for asking a companion with whom he was on holiday: ‘Will you buy the newspaper? I don’t want to break into another sixpence’.
Another Mitford sister, Pam, also moved to Ireland with her husband Derek Jackson. They lived at Tullamaine Castle in Country Tipperary where they entertained the racing set and held point-to-points across their land.
However the most abiding connection between the Duchess and Ireland is Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The house has been in the Duke’s family since 1753. It was, as Patrick Leigh Fermor observed, ‘built by King John, lived in by Sir Walter Raleigh and plumed by Adele Astaire’. Fred Astaire’s sister married, Lord Charles Cavendish, the uncle of Debo’s husband. Charles Cavendish was a handsome and charming man by all accounts but a hopeless alcoholic and when the couple lived at Lismore the butler, who ignoring doctors’ orders used to slip him whiskey disguised as tea in a china mug.
Fred Astaire was a regular visitor to Lismore while his sister was in residence and is still remembered in the town. Prince Charles has been a house guest along with Camilla Parker-Bowles before she became Duchess of Cornwall. But it is the endearing portraits of the engaging eccentrics remembered in this book that makes it special.
There is the lumbering figure of Clodagh Ansen who was utterly oblivious to the fact that the man sitting next to her at dinner, Hubert de Givenchy, was one of the most famous fashion designers in the world. She liked to do her gardening at night by the headlights of an old battered car and when the battery failed she wore a miner’s lamp on her head. Her mother wrote two volumes of autobiography rather brilliantly titled ‘Book’ and ‘Another Book’.
The splendidly named Horace Holroyd-Smyth was a neighbour at Ballynatry where he used the billiards table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The remains of each meal still on the table as the next one arrived. He drove to grand country house dinners on a battered old tractor dressed in a dinner jacket. When the hunting season ended he entertained himself by playing the recorded sounds of a hunting horn on a gramophone.
Fishing on the Blackwater played a big part in the life of Lismore Castle. There were famous gillies like Billy Flynn who once brought a salmon up to the record weight of 30lbs by stuffing its mouth with plumb pudding. When the faithful old retainer lay dying in hospital the Duchess visited him and he asked her if she thought would be fishing in heaven?
One of the most hilarious fishing anecdotes relates to
Debo’s father-in-law. He was fond of tying his own fishing flies and used to pinch bits of feathers from ladies hats and to test his handiwork he submerged himself in the bath and had his butler wave the flies over his head to behold from the underwater perspective what the fish were going to be baited with!
Very little of what was happening in Irish life escaped the keen Mitford eye for detail. In a letter from Lismore to the travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor the Duchess observed ‘the Irish Times has got a new trick of saving everything by reprinting several pages of itself of 50 years ago and except for a bit about Lindberg and an inflammatory speech of W. Churchill’s, its very hard to tell where those pages end and 1978 begins.’
For nearly a century the Mitford girls have come to represent glamour, wit, intelligence, privilege. They were sometimes controversial but never boring. Three of them chose to live in Ireland. The last of the line has now put us under the microscope of memoir from which we emerge with flying colours.
WAIT FOR ME! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
By Deborah Devonshire is published by John Murray at £20stg.