Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Last Hon

When thinking about a person who has had a really quite marvelous life that spans ten decades, and when one knows the person only at a great remove, it's probably not quite right to mourn, exactly, when at last they go on before.  Still, the death of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, does seem a particularly melancholy thing.

She was of course a Mitford, her first but in some ways her least interesting, in itself, claim to our attention.  She was far from the showiest of that vivid breed.  When it comes to her sisters, the really remarkable thing about Debo is that she managed to get along with all of them - no small feat, given (just to pick the most immediately evident bone of contention) that one, Jessica, was a lifelong Communist of the pinkest hue, while two - Unity and Diana - were more or less out-and-out Nazis, the former a nutter and the latter for a while poised, had history gone differently, to be the first lady of Fascist Britain.

Deborah, by contrast tended her chickens (of which she was inordinately fond), and her children, and her domain:  Chatsworth, her husband's cozy little family home (on 35,000 acres of prime Derbyshire land), which she ruled benignly but firmly throughout her tenure as Duchess, and to which she applied a surprisingly astute business sense that left the family in significantly better fettle than she found them at the time of her 1941 wedding.

We see her here at her most resplendent, decked out for the last coronation in the second-best Devonshire tiara (her mother-in-law wore the best; she was, after all, Mistress of the Robes).  The dress is also a bit of an improvisation (since, of course, her MIL wore the family's principal peeress's robes), made of some fine crimson velvet first worn by Georgiana, the very colorful fifth Duchess (Debo was number eleven) and found in a Chatsworth attic.

How many people are there left who remember the parties of the Bright Young Things?  Who had tea with Hitler?  Who have seen all that those pale, expressive, penetrating blue eyes saw?


  1. I had an interesting experience while visiting Los Angeles quite a few years ago. I was invited to join friends on a visit to the Museum of Art. There had been some mention of Chatsworth but it meant nothing to me . It turned out that we were going to a lecture by The Duchess of Devonshire and her designer followed by tea. It was an amazing day and she was was charming, warm, and amusing.

    1. How marvelous! She does indeed seem to be on the very short list of names who come to mind (along with the likes of Kitty Carlisle and the Queen) about whom one almost never hears anything less than superlatives...