Reading Note:
Do Admit
Wait For Me!

It’s no use; I can’t tear myself away. I spent an hour poring over the Google Maps view of Edensor, trying to identify the Old Vicarage — in vain. I’m pretty sure that I located Edensor House, though. That’s where the Marchioness of Hartington lived when she received Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, in 1948 — the only photograph that I’ve ever seen in which Her Majesty the Queen looks (painfully) overdressed. Do admit: the memoirs of Deborah Mitford, dowager Duchess of Devonshire, can’t be put down. Wait For Me! is one of the most aptly titled books that I’ve ever encountered, because that’s what you’re going to do once you’ve got the book in your hands. You’re going to wait until Debo has told you everything that she has to say.

That’s what you’re going to do if, like me, The Sun King, Nancy Mitford’s book about Louis XIV, was one of the first books that you owned. (It was also, arguably, the first coffee-table book.) If, in your twenties, you found Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels to be a profoundly simpatico but life-affirmingly positive account of family dysfunction. If, in short, you’ve known about “the Mitford Sisters” for a long time, longer, even, than Charlotte Mosley has been annotating the family correspondence. (Charlotte’s mother-in-law, Diana Mitford, was the beauty who left a Guinness for Sir Oswald Mosley — almost as rich — and a wedding chez Goebbels.) You’ve forgotten more stories about these six girls and their crazy parents than most people ever know about their own families. You feel as though you must have met Nanny Blor herself in some dim childhood playroom.

What makes the Mitfords fascinating has changed over the years. As girls (they were born between 1904 [Nancy] and 1920 [Debo]), they were madcaps out of Waugh; when their mother opened the newspaper and saw a “peer’s daughter” headline, she knew that the story would probably concern one of her brood. Then Nancy began writing novels, and became something of a literary lodestone. She knew everybody and everybody knew her, and she couldn’t wait to get out of England. So she went to France and became what her sisters called “the French lady writer.” This was a sweet way of suggesting that Nancy could be really nasty and unloving. (Just how unloving, her sister Diana wouldn’t find out until decades after Nancy’s gratuitous testimony stuck her in Holloway Prison, during the War. Perhaps if Nancy had been a boy, she wouldn’t have been so envious of Diana). When Nancy lost interest in dreaming up novel plots, she turned to great figures of the good old days in France, and found them to be wittier and better-dressed versions of the aristocrats whom she’d grown up among. Voltaire. Madame de Pompadour. Louis le grand. Frederick the Great.  She wrote about these characters as though she had lived down the hall from them at college (as if, indeed, she had had any kind of education), and her impertinence was delicious. Don’t confuse impertience with disrespect: Nancy Mitford genuinely admired her subjects, and that’s what makes her four histories so supremely delightful. What’s impertinent is her intimation of intimacy, which is wholly, modestly implicit. There’s a passage in which Nancy says that doctors are no better today than they were in the Seventeenth Century. That’s as close as she gets to interposing herself into the narrative. These were the books that made her famous.

Shortly after The Sun King appeared, Jessica Mitford (the fifth of the six) came out with The American Way of Death. A book with less in common with The Sun King cannot be imagined — except that it, too, is impertinent. Flagrantly so. Jessica had already published the profoundly disrespectful Hons and Rebels, but her new book was, as its title indicated, American, and it was of those riveting exposés (The Making of the President 1960 and Silent Spring were contemporary examples) that announced the new world order of the 1960s. Jessica’s sisters did not take to calling her “the American lady writer,” possibly because she was a card-carrying Communist who seemed, despite all protestations of love and affection, to dislike them. Jessica heartily disliked England, even as she floated on a personal confidence that only an Englishwoman of her background could have possessed.

By this time, in other words, the Mitfords were literary. There were two of them, Nancy and Jessica. They were discovered to have interesting sisters. One was dead. Unity shot herself when England declared war on her beloved Führer. (She lived for nearly ten years, in reduced mental circumstances.) Another — Diana — was a virtual Nazi, having married the head of the British Union of  Fascists in 1936. So: Communists and Nazis. Very inter-esting. And then there was the duchess.

Deborah Mitford and Andrew Cavendish did not anticipate a ducal future when they married, in 1941. Andrew had an older brother, Billy, and guess who he married! None other than Kathleen Kennedy, doomed sister of our own JFK. (It really doesn’t stop with these people.) Billy, like Jessica’s husband Esmond and the sisters’ own brother Tom, perished in the War. That’s how Andrew Cavendish became the Marquess of Hartington. (Which is exactly like being the Prince of Wales, but with respect to the ducal Devonshires. You’re next — if you live.) When Andrew and Deborah became duke and duchess in their own right, they were poor as churchmice, with a colossal tax bill that must have seemed something like today’s American national debt. The common wisdom about great houses like Chatsworth was that they ought to be pulled down, and lots of grand houses were pulled down. But something about the new owners committed them to fight for their inheritance. In her memoirs, the duchess generously says that it was her husband’s doing. But she acknowledges that the world believes that it was hers, and it’s hard to imagine how the whole thing could have been pulled off without Deborah’s inborn entrepreneurial zeal.

We have come a long way from writing books — something that the duchess was famous for not doing until she took it up (just as she put it out that she couldn’t speak French and wore nothing finer than Barbour coats). Nowadays — long after Nancy’s death (in 1973) and Jessica’s famous books — Debo has blossomed into a sort of alternative Queen. Actually, she’s a replacement for the Queen Mother (to whom she refers, in her letters, as “Cake,” having been tickled by the late royal’s eagerly remarking at a reception that “she’d been told that there would be cake.”) Like the Queen Mother, the dowager duchess is one of those grandes dames whom the common people adore with medieval zeal, but exactly how the youngest daughter of a middling baron acquired this royal touch is even more intriguing than her sisters’ careers as notable scribes. She’s that rarest of creatures, the conservative who, by ruthlessly distinguishing the important conventions from the silly ones, can marinate herself in everything that’s admirable about the comme il faut, while daringly rejecting everything that’s fade.

The appeal of Wait For Me!, for one such as me, is that Deborah writes about the people in her life with a deep civil humanity. There are none of the caricatural arabesques that make Wigs on the Green and Hons and Rebels such fun. Deborah has very little to say about people whom she doesn’t like, which almost makes you wonder if she can really be Nancy’s or Jessica’s sister; but then you run into a crack about modern manners that makes you sit up straight. The people whom she does like are good, capable types who get up in the morning with clear heads and a sense of the day’s work. This means that they’re either dependable employees or reliable friends, and it’s obvious that you don’t get to be the chatelaine of Chatsworth without a mastery of the art of cooperation, even if you’re the one giving the orders. There is also the charm of watching a pretty but determinedly unremarkable girl become a monument with a sybil’s blue-eyed gaze. Deborah Mitford’s memoirs make the mystery of the Mitfords thicker and deeper than it ever was.