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 the 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 bit 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 print 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.