I have been reading Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire for (approximately) forever. I started it the day it arrived, back in September, but a combination of it being too heavy for my bag, and not being able to cope with the idea of finishing it – not to mention that somewhere towards the middle of each month I realise that I’ve not read the books for either of my book groups, and have six days to do so – mean I only turned the last page earlier this month.
For those of you who won’t get to the end of this post – and it will involve whatever the written equivalent of squawking is – I shall mention now that I have a copy to give away. Tell me your favourite autobiography, in the comments, for a chance of winning. This is open worldwide, so pop your name in. For many reasons to do so, dear reader, read on…
The Mitfords have been of great interest to many from their childhood onwards. They skirted around the outside of my consciousness, with Nancy taking occasional leaps forward, until I read the collection of their letters, expertly edited by Charlotte Mosley. Now – and I suspect most of you know this – I am rather besotted by some of the sisters. Unity and Jessica remain outside my affection, but I rather love the rest, and am devoted to Debo. So much so, that I am going to be hugely unprofessional and refer to her as ‘Debo’ throughout this review.
So, of course, I was delighted when she published her autobiography. Earlier works include collections of articles and musings (Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost) as well as lots of books about her home, Chatsworth, which I haven’t read. Those collections I have read, whilst entertaining and joyous, did little to suggest that Debo would be able to sustain a full-length autobiography. How wrong I was to worry.
Perhaps there isn’t much that will surprise in Wait For Me! Anybody who has read about the sisters before will find they know many of the anecdotes and stories already. What this book brings to the table is Debo’s perspective, and her wonderfully calm way with words. I hadn’t noted down any quotations to share, but having just flicked the book open at random, I came across a paragraph beginning thus:
Unity was always the odd one out. She arrived in this world in August 1914 to the sound of troops marching to war and departed it thirty-four years later in tragic circumstances. Larger than life in every way, she could have been model for a ship’s figurehead or Boadicea, with her huge navy-blue eyes, perfectly straight nose and fair hair worn in two long plaits. Perhaps because of her teenage diet of mashed potatoes, her teeth were her only bad feature.Debo hasn’t allowed familial closeness to cloud her judgement or provoke over-sentimentality; yet, who but a sister would choose those images and those details? Unity, who later befriended Hitler, and tried to kill herself on the outbreak of WW2, comes alive with these much more prosaic details. It is Debo’s complete unflappability which charms me through the account. Nowhere – except, of course, the title – would Debo dream of using an exclamation mark. It would be poor manners to get over-excited about something.
I was worried that Wait For Me! would pall once Debo had left home, and once the sisters were no longer centre stage – but I was wrong. Some of the most moving pages come when Debo describes her husband’s alcoholism, or their miscarriages and stillborn children. This isn’t done remotely gratuitously, or like those ghastly misery memoirs, but truthfully and unsensationally. And it is evident that Debo is far more interested in the businesslike running of Chatsworth than she in the doings of her sisters in their youths – her enthusiasm is contagious.
Don’t worry for my sanity. I am under no delusion that Debo and I could really be friends. My vegetarianism might put paid to that, for a start, let alone our fairly divergent views on hunting. Debo is occasionally unconsciously hilarious – like when, after a chapter devoted to the joys of hunting parties, she writes that ‘a fox came in daylight and murdered [chickens] for fun, as these serial destroyers do.’ Takes a beetle to know a beetle, Debo, m’dear.
But none of this really seems to matter, and it certainly doesn’t stop me adoring Debo and loving her book. Along with the spectacular collection of letters edited by Charlotte Mosley, Wait For Me! is a unique piece of social history, as well as an honest and entertaining personal memoir. The Mitfords are not everyone’s cup of tea (my own dear brother has a violent prejudice against them, based not on their Fascism or Communism, but rather Nancy’s refusal to use air-mail and their nicknaming of the Queen Mother as ‘Cake’) – but Debo’s book confirms that they are very definitely mine. In a china cup and saucer, naturally, with ginger cake on the side.