There was a time when Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire could claim to be non-literary. When her friend Evelyn Waugh sent her a copy of his biography of the Catholic theologian Ronald Knox, he inscribed it “For Darling Debo, with love from Evelyn. You will not find a word in this to offend your Protestant sympathies”, and she noticed that every page was blank – “the perfect present,” as she described it, “for a non-reader”.
Her two masterly descriptions of her home, The House: a portrait of Chatsworth (Macmillan 1982) and The Estate: a view from Chatsworth (Macmillan 1990), showed her to be a charming, lucid and informative writer, with an unerring facility for the apt anecdote.
Since that time she has written extensively and has published an autobiography, Wait for me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (John Murray 2010), which is characterised by the candour that contemporary memoirs allow, discussing her miscarriages and her husband’s alcoholism, with the comment, “Sixty years ago none of this would have been discussed: it would have been swept under the carpet…in the pretence that it was not happening”.
(Andrew Devonshire, shortly before his death, wrote his own memoir, Accidents of Fortune [Michael Russell 2004], honest and modest, as befits a man who declared he won his Military Cross “for being cheerful”.)
In everything the Duchess writes, and in the interviews she gives, there is a characteristic astute common-sense, tipped with asperity – wondering, in a Sunday Times interview with Rosie Millard [September 7th 2008], if the media reporters who hounded her nephew Max Mosley had dull private lives, and vastly preferring Attlee to Blair among Labour prime ministers.
The survival of Chatsworth as a great house and a functioning landed estate is entirely attributable to the courage of Andrew, 11th Duke and to the business acumen of his duchess, Deborah. When Edward, 10th Duke, died in 1950 four months too soon to escape death duties, it would have been an easy option for his son to sell up, pay the 80% duty and live the life of a prosperous publisher.
Instead, Andrew Devonshire took the view that he and his wife were “life custodians of what has been at Chatsworth for centuries”: he sold outlying land, handed over Hardwick Hall to the National Trust and gave items from the Chatsworth collection worth four-fifths of the duty owed. The debt on the actual death duty was settled by 1967; paying off the accrued interest took until 1974. Then, with a further sale of a single Poussin and a collection of 69 Old Master drawings, he set up a £21 million trust to maintain Chatsworth. Visitor entry pays about one-third of the running costs; the rest is met by the Chatsworth House Trust.
His Grace was always the first to give credit for the way his Duchess turned the estate into an extremely effective cash generator. She took great pride in the fact that “there are no merry-go-rounds”; her personal interest has always been in making the house and the estate popular and good value: “I love shopkeeping better than anything.”
It’s Her Grace’s flair that created the Chatsworth Farm Shop [http://www.chatsworth.org/shop-eat/the-farm-shop], the Cavendish Hotel and Restaurant in Baslow [http://www.cavendish-hotel.net] and the Devonshire Arms Hotel, Bolton Abbey [http://www.thedevonshirearms.co.uk].
When the 11th Duke died in 2004 the title and the Devonshire estate passed to his son, Peregrine, and his wife Amanda. They are now making their own mark on the house and the estate: details of the Chatsworth Masterplan can be found at http://www.chatsworth.org/the-chatsworth-masterplan.
Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014 at the age of 94, and is buried with her husband at Edensor on the Chatsworth estate.
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