Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, Counting My Chickens
“The behaviour of poultry is like human behaviour and it is just as predictable. They fight, they resent newcomers, they hate wind and rain. Some are bold and forage far from home and some hardly bother to go out of doors.”
Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, Counting My Chickens
A copy of Counting My Chickens signed by the Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire is available (and currently on sale) via the Nick Harvill Libraries store.
Who is the man in the photograph with President John F. Kennedy and why did JFK refer to him as uncle?
HINT: They carried on a special relationship.
The answer is after the JUMP.
“My sisters, discussing face lifts: Debo: ‘I’m afraid I’m not vain enough to have mine done.’ ‘Diana: I’m afraid I’m too vain to have mine done’—meaning she’s eternally beautiful enough already.”
--Jessica Mitford, Decca, The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Jessica Mitford had almost no contact with her sister Diana in the post-World War II era. She is surely summarizing information she learned from her sister Deborah. The gist of which is slightly different in this 1966 letter from Diana to Deborah (via The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters):
"Bettina [Bergery] has had her face lifted just a bit, it seems a great success if it lasts, all the sort of pouches gone if you know what I mean. The Lady [Nancy Mitford] & I discussed doing ditto & decided we were not vain enough to make it worthwhile. (Or perhaps SO vain that think think people will love us with our wrinkles.)"
Image Credit: The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters
What is the provenance of the vintage Worth dress that Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire wore to her eightieth birthday celebration?
HINT: Duchess + Duchess = ?
Image Credit: Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
The answer is after the JUMP.
“History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”
The events of the past seem so obvious, so easily predictable when reviewed from the vantage point of the present. To take from the past all the lessons it has to offer, however, means forgetting for a moment its eventual outcome. Retrospective histories do not permit this. One book that avoids this paradox is The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters. This collection of correspondence of the six lively and intelligent Mitford sisters begins in 1925 and does not conclude until the first decade of the 21st Century. All six were gifted writers with distinct points of view. Moreover, they were on intimate terms with Churchill, Kennedy, and a great many others who gave form to the 20th Century. Their letters reveal history as it occurs, in real time, and offer extraordinary perspective on how we might better live our lives today.
I visited Chatsworth House, home of Deborah Mitford (who became the Duchess of Devonshire), in the fall of 2008, when she was still living and remained a powerful presence at the Devonshire family seat. There were a stack of copies of Letters Between Six Sisters in the gift shop, all signed by the then-Dowager Duchess, Deborah Mitford. Having read the book and understanding its significance to the 20th Century, I bought every copy. It is heavy (three pounds), and a dozen of them were more than I could comfortably carry with me on the thirty minute walk back through Chatsworth Park. My arms were aching as I raced to back in time to catch the bus to my hotel in Buxton. Of course, now I am glad I did. One of the few remaining copies from that cache is available for purchase here.
Image Credit: The Mitford Family Album
The concepts for the American and English editions of Wait for Me! by Deborah, the 11th Duchess of Devonshire are quite different. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux decided the book would be more appealing to the American audience with a vintage glamour shot of the Duchess by fashion photographer Norman Parkinson. The title is abbreviated to simply Wait for Me! Memoirs. Her rank, absent from the English edition, was given prominence, likely on the assumption that her status as a duchess would capture the attention a browser who never heard of her or the Mitford family.
The English audience knew the Duchess as a contemporary public figure, and as such, the English edition featured a recent photograph. In it, the Duchess proudly displays the prize-winning hens that by this point were as much a part of the Mitford legend as tea with Hitler and cozy dinners with John F. Kennedy.
Tie. You cannot go wrong with the Duchess of Devonshire. Youthful glamour or earthy patrician are equally acceptable.
A copy of Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister signed by the Duchess is available here.
By the time her memoirs were published in 2010, the Duchess was officially a dowager duchess and a nonagenarian. Advanced age, however, did not prevent her from traveling across the Atlantic to promote her book. Below is a video of her appearance at the Frick Collection in New York City, "Fizz and Sparkle: The Effervescent Life of Deborah, The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire."
One of the frustrations of bookselling is the challenge of connecting with those who would benefit from one's services. For example, consider the case of the singer Madonna’s 2007 visit to the Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at her dower home, the Old Vicarage. Nick Harvill Libraries had the perfect hostess gift for the occasion: a letter of literary significance written by the Duchess's sister Nancy.
Instead, Madonna gifted the last surviving Mitford sister with a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, inscribed not by the author but by Madonna herself. Curiously her third party gift inscription does not appear on the flyleaf as one might expect. Rather, it is wedged on either end of page containing a photograph of the author Joan Didion and her family, as if Madonna were part of their clan.
The inscription reads, “For the duchess, I hope this book inspires you as much as it inspired me! Thanks for the hospitality, all the best Madonna.” One wonders if Madonna's sentiment might be a trite sincere for an octogenarian English duchess known for combating life’s challenges with a sharp sense of humor and a stiff upper lip. A more interesting approach with the inscription might have been to note the attenuated Mitford link. The Year of Magical Thinking was the most celebrated book on bereavement since the Duchess’s sister Jessica Mitford’s sardonic exposé The American Way of Death became a runaway bestseller in 1963.
An even better choice would have been to call Nick Harvill Libraries. We then had in our inventory a perfect gift for the Dowager Duchess: a two-page handwritten letter by her eldest sister, the author Nancy Mitford. As Nancy's literary executor, Deborah housed Nancy's papers, along with an impressive archive of Mitford family material, at Chatsworth, the Devonshire family seat. One item missing from that archive was a droll handwritten letter Nancy wrote in response to a factual error in her bestselling book, The Sun King, which we included in a 2007 catalogue (we were not yet online).
The original recipient of the letter was a descendant of the American branch of the Francine family. He complained that Nancy erred when writing that his family died out when the last of the Francines was guillotined during the Terror. She offered a poison-tipped apology in a handwritten two-page letter, archly suggesting that immigrating to America was equivalent to extinction. “One must say that in the eyes of the French the New World counts the same as the Next World,” she wrote. It is a classic Mitford tease and would have delighted the Dowager Duchess who surely would have deposited the letter into Chatsworth's Mitford archive.
The copy of The Year of Magical Thinking inscribed by Madonna to the Duchess of Devonshire is part of the March 2, 2016 Sotheby’s London sale, “The Collection of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire.” The photographs are from Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.
"What other family, apart, perhaps, from the Osmonds, has produced such a treasure of talent in a single generation?"
--Jane Shilling, The Times (London)
Photo Credit: The Mitford Family Album