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Duchess of Devonshire: Deborah Mitford

Updated on September 24, 2014
Deborah Mitford. The Duchess of Devonshire.
Deborah Mitford. The Duchess of Devonshire. | Source

The Mitford Sisters: Deborah

The photograph on the left shows the Mitford brood - the six sisters and one brother who, between them, provided most of the juicy scandal during the period between the two world wars. The youngest of these, Deborah, was less sensational than some of her sisters when it came to appearing in newspaper headlines but was nevertheless a completely fascinating character.

The family was, let's say, somewhat eccentric, so it was hardly surprising that these forceful characters made the headlines.

All the family teased each other unmercifully but Deborah (who was known by the family nickname 'Debo') seemed to receive the brunt of the teasing, because she was in youngest. And her parents weren't entirely happy with producing multitudes of females and only one boy.

Indeed, Deborah says in her memoirs that one day, she decided to look at her mother's journals to see the entry for the date of her own birth - 31st March 1920. There was no entry at all. With her wry wit, Deborah concludes that her birth was rather a negligible feature of the family's history.


Family and friends

In the nineteen thirties, the Mitford bunch became acquainted with another large family. Joseph Kennedy had been appointed as the USA ambassador in London and as Debo says, caused quite a stir as no former ambassador had arrived 'with nine children attached'.

Debo became very close to JFK's sister Kathleen (known as 'Kick' - I just love the way everyone had nicknames in those days). The two girls went on to marry brothers, becoming sisters in law.

In her diary, when she was eighteen years old, Debo wrote 'Danced with Jack Kennedy. Very nice but very dull.' Little did she know that he would eventually become the president of the United States and that she would attend the inauguration with other members of the family.

However, she was close to both Jack and Bobby and describes them in later years being amazingly kind people, each with a great sense of humour.


Not all the same

The family however, didn't only consort with wealthy British aristocracy and foreign ambassadors, as you can see from the photograph here. Yes, Adolf Hitler was also a part of their lives.

Debo's sisters Diana and Unity were ardent followers of Adolf Hitler, prior to the Second World War. In her memoirs, see below, she recalls her meeting with Hitler in 1937 when she, her sister Unity and their mother were entertained by the Fuhrer to afternoon tea during a visit to Germany.

It was Unity who completely besotted by Hitler and they became close friends.

However, Debo has always hotly denied the rumours that Unity was Hitler's mistress and had a baby by him. However, the rumour persists. Will we ever know the truth?


Wait for Me!: Memoirs
Wait for Me!: Memoirs
The information above and below is largely taken from this fascinating book. Here Deborah describes her early life, her parents and the unconventional life they all led. Don't imagine for a moment that these are dry and dusty memoirs by an aged duchess (she became a duchess when she married). These are sparkling memoirs full of fun and wit.

More acquaintances & family

In the photograph on the right, you see Sir Oswald Mosley (always known as 'Tom'). He became Debo's brother-in-law. Her sister Diana was married to a member of the Guinness family but embarked upon a scandalous affair with Mosley. Divorce as uncommon in those days and invariably a messy affair. Diana and Tom Mosley were later married and were very devoted to each other.

He was the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Debo's sister Decca (Jessica) ran away from home with her lover (a member of the Churchill family) to Spain during the Civil War. She was a lifelong communist.

As you can see, Debo's life has been one of the greatest contrasts. There can't be many people who have such a variety of people in their background and in their family



Debo married Andrew Cavendish. He was the second son of the Duke of Devonshire so therefore not an heir to the family title or property. However his older brother was killed in World War Two making Andrew the new duke and Debo the duchess when her husband's father died.

This made her the mistress of one of England's finest stately homes (Chatsworth House - see below) and she has written several books about the property which she has carefully maintained and restored.

Her marriage was incredibly successful despite what she refers to as a few 'bumps'. Her husband went through a time when he had a drinking problem and was, like many aristocratic men in those days, disinclined to give up his mistresses but as Debo says 'divorce is just too easy'. Interviewed at the age of ninety, she said that putting up with her husband was better than being divorced.


The housewife

The property they inherited in Derbyshire is known now as probably the finest home in the United Kingdom. Debo devoted herself to the home and the grounds.

It's said that it's thanks to her that the property is in such good shape today - not just physically; she has created the property so that it is self-sufficient financially, until the majority of Britain's fine homes of yesteryear.

Indeed, the majority of similar homes are no longer in the hands of the original family owners; they have been sold for use as colleges, hotels or luxury spas.

Because of her devotion to the property,Debo says that if ever she needs to fill out a form with her occupation, she puts 'housewife'.

Debo, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died on 24th September, 2014.


Chatsworth House

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Further reading

Chatsworth the House
Chatsworth the House
The images above give you some idea of the beauty of the house and its land. It's a fabulous place to visit and I highly recommend it - luckily it is open to the public. If you plan on going, this is the ideal preparation. If you won't be able to make it there, at least you can feast your eyes with this beautiful book.

The images above of Chatsworth House are all from Wikimedia Commons and are copyright free.

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
This is THE definitive book about the sisters. My copy is almost falling apart -I've read it and referred to it so often. I highly recommend this book if you'd like to learn more about the six sisters, their eccentric family and aristocratic society in times gone by.

The sisters were prolific writers. Probably the best known was Nancy, a witty and perceptive novelist.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
Nancy's books are the best known, but all the sisters expressed themselves in writing at one time or another. What is particularly fascinating though is the series of letters that the sisters wrote to each others. As you've seen above, they were so very different in many ways but there were also common bonds between them.

In some circles, particularly when you get a group of people together who are interested in twentieth century British history, someone will ask 'who was your favourite Mitford sister?'

Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler's Angel
Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler's Angel
It's a difficult question to answer because each had their own personalities. But if I really had to choose a favourite, it would be Diana. Beautiful, spirited and elegant, she lived an incredible life which reads like a racy novel. She went against convention at almost every turn and yet I suspect that she was also the happiest of the girls.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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