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.
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.