Deborah Devonshire, “Wait for Me!”

I think it’s time to admit that I am a Debo completist.(Don’t you love that term?) Possibly even a Mitford enthusiast: after all, I did read Wigs on the Green. And, earlier this year, Home to Roost. So there was no way I was going to let Wait for Me! pass me by. This is the full-scale memoir by Debo, here credited as Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. And the way I know I’m a completist is that, even though it’s not her best work, I’m glad I read it.

The fundamental flaw of  the book is possibly a strength of the author’s: she does not seem to find herself all that interesting. This characteristic has worked in her favor in essays and in her writing about Chatsworth. She has a nice way with words and a real gift of enthusiasm. She could almost make you like chickens, for instance. (Live, as in cluck-cluck and pecking your toes.) And the famous Mitford sense of the absurd is certainly present in Wait for Me! Describing her father, she says, “He had a horror of anything sticky. I once asked him what his idea of hell was. ‘Honey on my bowler hat,’ was the answer.” But sustaining the narrative in this memoir proves to be something of a problem. Granted, it’s a long life, and surely structuring an account of ninety action-packed years is challenging. There are thematic sections in the middle that clump together highlights, like a chapter on the Kennedys and a chapter on her duties as a politician’s wife. I found these quite dull, more or less an assemblage of anecdotes.

at the Duke's funeral procession

But on the whole, I’m interested enough in Debo’s life to have enjoyed the book. Her passion for English country life is tremendously appealing. She makes a very strong case for the preservation of entities like Chatsworth and one of the most moving passages in the book concerns the funeral of her husband Andrew, the Duke of Devonshire. The route from the house to the church where the funeral took place “was lined on either side by members of staff, pensioners, friends and strangers who stood, heads bowed, in silence.” After the funeral, casual visitors to Chatsworth’s grounds joined the wake: “Ramblers with backpacks, women with babies, men in shorts and little else mingled with bishops and members of the House of Lords. No one was turned away and it became a party after Andrew’s own heart.”

This is not an introvert’s memoir, full of sharp perceptions and emotional exploration. Debo, after all, was an upper-class woman born in 1920 and that was not the way of her generation. But she has lived a rich, full life and she is, in a self-effacing way, good company. A final anecdote: in 1991 she and the Duke celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. They invited every couple in Derbyshire who had married in 1941 to join them for a party at Chatsworth. A nun from a local convent “wrote to say she had been a bride of Christ for fifty years and could she come. Of course Andrew said yes. (There was a great deal of speculation as to whether she would bring her bridegroom, but in the event she came with her brother.)” That is vintage Debo.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in anglophilia, memoir and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Deborah Devonshire, “Wait for Me!”

  1. Loraine Grover says:

    Carol:

    What a delight ! I love your work, your readings, and will follow you avidily. You write so well! Your humor and critiiques are thoughtful and smart without being snarky.

    I cannot seem to get through Franzen . Am just starting The Finkler Question after long delays. and how about Room.? Astonishing good writing. Hope it short lists on the Booker !

    Congratulations for all your successes. You have a new fan. With Love, Loraine

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Loraine, what a great way to find you! Glad you like this — I’ll be very curious to know what you think about Finkler: I tiptoed into it & could get no further, ditto Franzen. Ditto Room for that matter — some stuff is just too hard to read! XXXX

  2. Katherine Fuller Mendez says:

    Being obsessed by the Mitfords my critical eye is obscured. This latest addition is likely the last word on the family don’t you think? While the Dowager’s discussion of her husband’s alcoholism was oblique, it did fill in some holes in their history. In this day of the whining, air out
    your dirty linen memoir her straight forward approach was a relief. The discriptions of the shoots to which women were finally welcome once Andrew was duke intrigue me. Upon further research I have discovered women are naturally better guns than men. As a shooting friend of ours said the difficulty is not in shooting the birds; it is not shooting your fellow guns.

    What do you think about visiting Chatsworth?

    Katherine

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, I agree that the tone of this book is always becoming; there is no airing of dirty laundry. If you follow the link on the blog entry there’s a good Guardian interview in which the Duchess touches on the Duke’s infidelities — insignificant. It’s a different world! Yes, we should definitely go to Chatsworth! XXX

  3. cousinsread says:

    I’ve seen this book so many places in the blogosphere lately, but I have no knowledge of the Mitfords. Do you think it is a good place to start learning about them or for aficionados only?

  4. carolwallace says:

    Actually, this is a great place to start since she summarizes the family history in the first part of the book. But for sheer pleasure, read Nancy Mitford’s “Love in a Cold Climate” — it will count for your Reading Between the Wars!

  5. Nicki Boyd-Clouston says:

    Am just finishing Wait For Me and I find it a delightful book. Debo is a wonderful woman and a Duchess to her fingertips. The Cavendishes were very lucky to have her.
    I doubt Kathleen Kennedy could have done the job.

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, Nicki, I second your admiration for Debo. She was the woman at the right time for that job. I find it fascinating, too, to mull over the question of discretion and revelation — she seems to hit the balance perfectly, which is remarkable in a public figure.

  6. Pingback: Miranda Seymour, “Thrumpton Hall” « Book Group of One

  7. Pingback: Dorothy Whipple, “Someone at a Distance” « Book Group of One

  8. Pingback: You May Not Thank Me for This « Book Group of One

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s