Mary Ronan Drew's Reviews > Wait for Me!: Memoirs

Wait for Me! by Deborah Cavendish
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Apr 08, 11

bookshelves: library-book
Read from April 02 to 06, 2011

What an advantage for an author of autobiographer to outlive most of the other people in one’s life so that one may be perfectly honest about one’s opinions of them. This is the case with Deborah Mitford (actually Deborah Cavendish) in this slightly unfocused memoir. No feelings are hurt when she points out that Evelyn Waugh was very witty when sober – but he was sober for such a short time and the rest of the evening he was miserably insulting. And she can be honest about her father’s having left her mother and taken up with a boringly unsuitable housekeeper. Fortunately he spent his days on an isolated Scottish island and nobody had to deal with the pair.

Time also gives some perspective on her family’s bizarre and occasionally tragic political activities. When she expresses a political opinion, it is very conservative, and yet when she was a girl she accompanied her mother to visit her sister Unity, who was a friend of Hitler, apparently a fairly close one, and makes little comment on his politics. Her description of the misery of living with Unity when she had tried to kill herself and was mentally unstable is honest and sad. She makes no attempt to explain her sister Nancy’s testimony to the government that their sister Diana was a danger to the state, which contributed to the decision to put her in jail during part of the war.

But you read the book not for the history and the sadness but for the charm and wit of the world in which the young Deborah Mitford lived before the war – the parties and nightclubbing, the word games with her sisters, her eccentric and financially unstable father and her patient and sweet-natured mother, the enormously wide acquaintance of the family, the joy she has always taken in dogs and horses (and sheep and hens and every other manner of farm animal.)

The war was in some ways particularly hard on people like Deborah Mitford. In 1939 theirs was a life of large houses (more than one in the case of the Devonshires, of course), warmth and luxury, staffs of servants, sumptuous dinners, stables full of horses, lovely new motor cars and chauffeurs to drive them, and a life of ease and entertainment. When the war came they were reduced to bicycles and walking, poor food and little of it, shortages and rationing like everybody else. Most of the upper middle class and the aristocracy like Deborah Mitford’s family and friends adjusted, learned to cook, chopped their own wood, and went cold like everybody else, but for them it was a much longer way down and the end of a way of life. Things were never remotely the same.

The duchess mentions a recent interview in which the journalist asks her if the war affected her in any way. She was taken aback. Her only brother was killed in the war. So were her four best friends. Her husband’s brother died, which is how Andrew, the second son, became the duke, and like George VI, he was unprepared for the position and had to learn fast. The author doesn’t say it but I have the impression that, like Virginia Woolf, she thought somehow that they were only dead for duration and after the war the realization that life went on without them was just as difficult for her family as for everyone else in England.

Then came the socialist government and the 85% death tax on the Devonshire estate. Her husband, the new duke, spent his life, full-time, for 20 years, clearing the debt in order to hold on to a part of the family’s inheritance. Whatever the unfairness of one family holding such riches when people in the East End were near starvation, it was extremely difficult for people with any property at all to hold on to even a fraction of it. This was the time when thousands of houses in England were torn down or abandoned because of confiscatory taxes. Hundreds of significant houses were lost because of the punitive government policies. It’s sad to see a nation destroying its own history.

The Devonshires managed after 30 years to pay off the taxes by selling land and houses and giving a good many treasures to the state, including Hardwick Hall. The duchess opened Chatsworth to the public and made it available for rental, she wrote books about the estate, she organized the farm as a paying endeavor, and brought in enough money to pay for repairs and maintenance of the house, a remarkable thing for such an uneducated and inexperienced woman to do so well. She is now the dowager duchess and lives in the dower house on the Chatsworth estate.

2011 No 60
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Reading Progress

03/14/2011 "This had to go back to the library before I had a chance to finish it. I'm going to remove it from "my books" and re-request it. It will be back."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol I've read some about this family but this sounds like the 'must" read. Your comments are thorough and very well thought and I enjoyed reading them.


Mary Ronan Drew Thanks, carol. I don't think there's anything by or about the Mitfords that isn't worth reading.


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