Monday, 17 October 2011

The Mitford Girls

Today I visited Chatsworth House.  Of course, the house tour ends with the shop.  I bought some biscuits for my next-door neighbour, and, naturally,  a book. I bought a new paperback copy of "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford.

It is hardly credible that Nancy, who was born in  1904 and died in 1973, the year I was twenty, still has a sibling surviving.  This is Debo, otherwise known as Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. She is 91, and lives somewhere nearby on the Chatsworth estate, since her husband's death in  2004.

Debo is largely credited with the enormous success of the Chatsworth brand, and with saving the house and estate from the tax-man.  It has been turned over to a Trust to keep it safe in perpetuity and the present Duke and Duchess (Debo's son and his wife) pay rent to live there, so the notices are careful to inform us.

Debo has written several books, some of which were on offer in the bookshop.  I sneaked a quick glance, and was impressed by her lively style, and sharp wit.  However, sticking to the classics, I bought Nancy's book, not her first, but the first to gain widespread acclaim.  It was published in 1945, a different era. 

What we love about the Mitfords is their eccentricity, and their effortless class.  I explained to my elder daughter, that a Dowager Duchess was the "Maggie Smith character in Downton Abbey".  This was immediately understood.

I also told her that she would love to read anything about or by the Mitford girls, on the basis that she enjoys Downton Abbey, and found my last-year's Christmas present, a book on etiquette, "hilarious".  I am half-way through the second-youngest sister's memoir "Hons and Rebels", and debated whether to buy my daughter a new copy for Christmas, or lend her my second-hand hardback edition picked up in a charity shop for £5.00.

This sister, Jessica, known to the family as "Decca" was as eccentric as the rest, and an equally good writer.  Her sardonic, tongue-in-cheek comments on her family and early life are laugh-out-loud funny.  You do have to have an appreciation of  the family as a whole to understand the truly shocking behaviour which saw her run away to Spain with her cousin, Esmond Romilly (a nephew of Winston Churchill, although some gossips said he was the illegitimate son) in the 1930's. 

The pre-war life of hunting, shooting and fishing, house-parties, home education for girls, news stories about napkin rings, is the background against which this honourable deb rebelled.  You have to love it.

I started my new book whilst sitting in the restaurant with my husband eating lunch at Chatsworth. I know it's rude to read at the table, but somehow, the whole Mitford family's grand reputation for eccentricity, rudeness, but overall charm, seemed to prevail, and hubby didn't mind a bit! 

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