Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales by Kim Place-Gateau

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Whenever one decides to re-imagine a bit of history, one must accept that in this alternative universe they’re creating, some of their favourite events might not have happened. But in exchange, something magical may have taken place instead.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Debo devotes a chapter to her relationship with the Kennedys. And no wonder; not only were she and Kick good friends, Debo and her sisters had moved in the same social circles as had the Kennedys when Joe Sr. was ambassador in the late 1930s, and they’d married into the same family. Thus her connection to this remarkable and tragic family endured.

John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’, certainly felt this same connection. He made a point of including Debo and Andrew in important Washington events, including his inauguration in 1961. He also visited them at Chatsworth. He sometimes called her at 3AM, just to talk things over. Some have speculated that perhaps Debo has fallen sway to Jack Kennedy’s famous charm, and that they were lovers. This writer remains agnostic on that conclusion; it seems far more likely that Jack, having been so very fond of Kick, simply saw Debo and her family as part of the Kennedy clan. (A terribly attractive, magnetic and utterly fascinating part of the family, perhaps, but still part of the family.) Bobby picked up the correspondence after Jack’s death, and continued to flirt amiably with her until his assassination in 1968.

So had Billy and Kick succeeded as the duke and duchess, it’s certain that Jack and Kick, as close friends as well as siblings, would have created a social and political alliance between their generation of Devonshires and Kennedys.

Let’s imagine this, for a moment. What if Billy Cavendish had returned from the war? He would have inherited the estate and the title in 1950, assuming Eddy’s drinking and wood chopping had continued apace. It’s tempting, however, to wonder if Eddy would have been as dedicated to drink as he was had he not lost Billy and Kick. This happy turn of events would have enabled the family to hang onto many of the real estate and art treasures that had to be sold to pay death duties on the estate, which leads us down even more alternative paths.

In any case, Billy and Kick would have already started a family by 1950. Jack and Jacqueline Bouvier, married in 1953, would have been frequent guests through the 1950s, as Jack was a dedicated Anglophile, and as his political career blossomed, Congressman Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, and eventually President Kennedy and his growing family would have likely had a suite waiting for them at Chatsworth. Once there was a president in the family, surely Uncle Harold would have been invited to these high-powered family gatherings. David Ormsby-Gore would have completed the picture. Chatsworth would have become the political, social and style centre of England. It would have served as a retreat for presidents and prime ministers and a backdrop for important summits. Perhaps Jack, infamous playboy that he was, would have found a way to stash a mistress there periodically (though I suspect he would have had to accomplish this without Kick’s overt co-operation).

Of course, in this alternative universe, it would still be the grand country house it is in reality, but in addition, it would be in the international spotlight as the impossibly beautiful home where the English aristocracy, with all its wealth and tradition, mingled with American power and youthful glamour. It would have been Camelot, brought back home to England.

The Jet Age is the perfect backdrop for this imagined scenario. Travel between Washington, D.C. and England was suddenly quite fast, though still very expensive – not a problem for the Kennedys or the Devonshires, of course. With a young, beautiful monarch on the throne; a handsome duke and his fetching, charming wife at Chatsworth; a prominent Kennedy on either side of the Atlantic and the easy availability of international airports, it’s difficult to imagine how the Kennedys and the Devonshires wouldn’t have turned Chatsworth into a hub of international intrigue, and the very centre of everything fashionable and modern. On the other side of the Atlantic, imagine the media coverage of Kick, Billy and their children playing American football at the famous Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port. Already a regular fixation of the US media, the addition of English nobility would perhaps have been more than the American public could bear.

Debo, of course, wouldn’t be duchess in this alternative universe, and that would be a loss. Andrew would have lived the life of a second son; making his way in business, or law, or perhaps taking up residence at Lismore Castle, which Andrew inherited in 1947. (Adele Astaire, presumably, would still have been a frequent guest.) But surely Debo and Kick would have remained close friends, since Kick would surely have admired Debo’s flair for business and entertaining, and would have found her fascinating and scandalous family an irresistible diversion. Debo and Andrew would have frequented the power gatherings at Chatsworth, different as it may have been from the Chatsworth they oversaw in the real world during this period.

One of the enormous challenges Debo and Andrew faced, of course, was paying off the death duties on the estate after the death of Edward Cavendish in 1950. Had Billy and Kick been the Duke and Duchess instead, perhaps some of Joe Kennedy’s millions would have been available to preserve more of the assets than Debo and Andrew were able to. What effect would that have had in England? Joe didn’t distinguish himself as ambassador, after all, as exciting as his family might have been to the English public. And what would Nancy have thought? New, American money invested in Chatsworth? It is a dreadful prospect, do admit.

And then there’s the children. Kick’s American children would have been part of the English aristocracy. Of course, English aristocrats were fond of marrying American socialites and heiresses, so this wasn’t an uncommon turn of events. But Kick’s great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, were working-class Irish immigrants to the United States, and had she lived, one of Kick’s children would have been in line to inherit one of the most valuable estates in England, along with a prestigious title. It’s heady stuff. As baffled as the immigrant Kennedys would have been by their descendants’ rise to such monetary and political success, surely being part of the English nobility would have been the second least believable part, right behind their great-grandson being the US president. And, of course, this means that Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children would be nearly as tied to England as their cousins, with an English duke for an uncle and a vast estate from which to base their foreign travels and social lives.

I like to imagine Kick and Billy, by then in middle age, smoking cigarettes on the South Portico of the White House, along with Jack, Jackie, Andrew, Debo and perhaps Bobby or Teddy, kings and queens of the 1960s landscape. It’s true, Chatsworth would likely have lost some of its essential Englishness had Billy and Kick lived, but imagining these two powerful, famous families jetting between our two countries, enjoying a shooting party in Scotland in September, a reception in the Rose Garden in May, and sailing off the New England coast all summer, almost makes up for the loss of Debo’s remarkable transformation of Chatsworth. Almost – but not quite.

Kim lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, cats and dog. A friend of hers in Scotland recently had her piano tuned by Decca’s son, a fact which gives her enormous pleasure.

Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV

Kick Kennedy-Part Two

[The introduction below is a recap from Kick Kennedy – Part One]

It is unusual for two biographies on the same subject to be released within a month of each other, but then again Kick Kennedy is an unusual subject. The second-born daughter of Irish-American parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, she is forever associated with her political family, most especially the American president John F. Kennedy. All of the Kennedy children had star quality, Lady Redesdale (Muv) had once remarked that JFK would one day become president of the United States. And so their charisma hypnotised London high society in the late 1930s, when Joseph Kennedy was posted there as the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The older girls were presented at Court, and Kick began to move in the exclusive circles of the aristocracy. She was an anomaly for her time: outspoken, forward-thinking, and silly. She could laugh at herself and openly joke with the gentry at a time when English girls, who adhered to formality, could not. Surprisingly, this won her a great deal of admiration and her greatest friends became Sarah Norton (daughter of the beautiful Jean Norton, Lord Beaverbrook’s mistress), Billy and Andrew Cavendish (sons of the Duke of Devonshire), and, of course, Debo Mitford.

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The acclaimed author Paula Byrne’s biography of Kick Kennedy first caught my attention before I realised Barbara Leaming also had a biography, written on the same subject, coming out. While both women know their subject extremely well, their respective biographies are entirely different. For instance, Leaming bypasses much of the Kennedy info to focus entirely on Kick and the aristocratic cousinhood, whereas Byrne explores Kick’s Kennedy forebears in remarkable detail. For someone who knows a little about the Kennedys but virtually nothing on their background and upbringing, this was helpful. It’s also a great insight as to how Kick, an American girl, shook up the aristocracy on the eve of WW2.

As with her previous books, Paula Byrne has undertaken a mountain of research to not only present her subject between the pages of this fabulous book, but to offer informative context. I felt as though I’d known Kick’s parents and siblings, and this shaped my understanding of Kick herself and why, even though I know a great deal about this era, she was viewed as a whirlwind by her future in-laws. We all know how the story petered out and how it ended, but what happens before, during and after is as magical as it is poignant.

I don’t like to parallel the two biographies too much in case I risk persuading a reader to opt for one instead of the other (honestly, purchase both), but I feel the need to highlight the difference in how the Kennedy backstory is treated. Here, we have the best of both worlds. Whereas Barbara Leaming has written several books on members of the Kennedy family, Paula Byrne has written about Kick’s English circle, and therefore both authors understand their subject’s backstory, albeit from different points of view – as demonstrated in their works.

Although she died at twenty-eight, this biography is not as pithy as Kick’s lifespan. As an individual, as well as the wife of a future duke, she managed to encapsulate many experiences in her short life. From Kennedy offspring, to debutante, to journalist and Red Cross army nurse, her own achievements were many. But it is, perhaps, the tragic love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish which stands out and the question, which I am sure Debo often felt, was ‘what might have been?’

Paula Byrne’s biography is a sympathetic portrait of a girl living during a complex time, and who might have been the queen of high society, had she been given the chance.

 

Kick Kennedy – Part One

It is unusual for two biographies on the same subject to be released within a month of each other, but then again Kick Kennedy is an unusual subject. The second-born daughter of Irish-American parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, she is forever associated with her political family, most especially the American president John F. Kennedy. All of the Kennedy children had star quality, Lady Redesdale (Muv) had once remarked that JFK would one day become president of the United States. And so their charisma hypnotised London high society in the late 1930s, when Joseph Kennedy was posted there as the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The older girls were presented at Court, and Kick began to move in the exclusive circles of the aristocracy. She was an anomaly for her time: outspoken, forward-thinking, and silly. She could laugh at herself and openly joke with the gentry at a time when English girls, who adhered to formality, could not. Surprisingly, this won her a great deal of admiration and her greatest friends became Sarah Norton (daughter of the beautiful Jean Norton, Lord Beaverbrook’s mistress), Billy and Andrew Cavendish (sons of the Duke of Devonshire), and, of course, Debo Mitford.

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Barbara Leaming’s book, Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter, explores the connection Kick shared with Andrew and Debo in great detail. The beginning of her book was a lovely surprise, with the elderly Andrew confiding his remembrances of Kick. And so her story begins and maintains its momentum as a portrait of a girl who moved at the centre of the British aristocracy. Through her research of Kick, she bypasses the Kennedy lore (only sprinkling Kennedyisms where necessary) to focus on the themes which shaped Kick’s life and her destiny.

The complex love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish dominates the plot, but the subplot of Andrew and Debo gives this story an interesting parallel. Here was a woman who had the world at her feet until WW2 destroyed her future and her happiness, as it did for so many families. With their long, drawn-out courtship happening on both sides of the Atlantic – often one-sided, and their battle to marry, it is bittersweet that they were destined only to be husband and wife for a short period. Billy, as the eldest son, was expected to inherit the Dukedom of Devonshire, and Kick was to be his Duchess (there are some interesting points on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire), but after his death she was deposed by Debo.

Although both women were best friends, it was interesting to read about the hidden feelings Kick had about the new path her life had taken, and the (for lack of a better word) guilt Debo harboured for unintentionally usurping Kick.

Kick was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-eight, and although she had been widowed from Billy and had fallen in love with another man, the Devonshires continued to hold her close their hearts. Not only is this a story of an extraordinary young woman who took life by the scruff of the neck, it is an example of fate and how Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire. Perhaps it was Kick who paved the way and set the example of mixing informality with the pomp and grandeur of that lifestyle, which Andrew and Debo were renowned for.

Thank you to Barbara Leaming for sending me a signed copy of her book. Her narrative is informal and yet it draws one in, as though they, too, were sitting next to Andrew as he remembered his late sister-in-law. The beginning and ending were entirely original, given the acres of print written about Chatsworth and the Devonshires.

Part Two of my Kick Kennedy post will look at Paula Byrne’s biography, Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and Heir to Chatsworth (released 19 May 2016). Both biographies are completely different and are extremely good. So please buy and read both of them!

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The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Extracted from The Mitford Society Vol. II

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On the 3rd of May 2004, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, died following a protracted decline leaving his wife Deborah with a new title, the Dowager Duchess, and in need of a new home – but not just at once. Deborah remained at Chatsworth for a year-and-a-half following her husband’s death, but, as she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Wait for Me!: “The passages began to seem long and the stairs steep. It was time to move, to make way for the next generation.”

The Dowager Duchess wouldn’t be moving far to her dower house. Over the hill from Chatsworth about a mile lies Edensor, an idyllic English village. Deborah was no stranger to the village, having lived there from 1946-1959, before moving to Chatsworth. In December 2005 Deborah would take up residence in the Old Vicarage, an attractive fourteen room, eight bedroom stone building with parts dating back to the 18th century. “The house… has no architectural merit,” Deborah admitted, “but its atmosphere makes it a happy place – the influence, I believe of the devout men who occupied it for two hundred years.” It required extensive renovations before Deborah could move in, and on this endeavour she was assisted by her friend, the illustrious interior designer David Mlinaric, whose clients have included Lord Rothschild and Mick Jagger, and such venerable London institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum. He assisted her in seamlessly transforming the vicarage into a home fit for a 21st century duchess, and in placing “electric points, light switches, baths and so on”.

Much of the interior decoration, however, was left up to Deborah herself, who saw in her “mind’s eye” precisely what she wanted and was no stranger to outfitting homes of any size. Many might find it difficult to downsize from Chatsworth, one of the grandest of England’s stately homes, into what one might call a rabbit hutch, but not Deborah. In fact, she would take the design principles she learned there and apply them to the Old Vicarage. “One thing I learned from Chatsworth was what a good finish a fillet gives round the cornice, the doorcases, and skirting,” the Dowager Duchess told The World of Interiors magazine. This was employed in the soft pink drawing room, where Deborah would receive journalists, friends and family. An inviting floral covered sofa faced the fireplace, and before it was an upholstered ottoman, its surface home to books waiting to be dipped into. Flanking either side of the fireplace were baskets overflowing with firewood, a necessity during the bleak Derbyshire winters. Bric-à-brac covered the chimneypiece; everything from urns to framed personal family photos. The Dowager Duchess’s desk was placed in front of the window, affording her views of the garden. The dining room was informal, with a painting of a flower with a vibrant royal blue background, at home with more formal portraits on the adjacent wall. In her bedroom the bed sheets were stained with ink, a side-effect of her penchant for early morning writing in bed. Irreverent as ever, the wall colour of the guest bathroom, a cerulean blue, was inspired by a plastic bracelet she had worn during a recent hospital stay.

Her son and daughter-in-law graciously allowed her to pilfer pieces of furniture and artwork from Chatsworth in order to make her new home feel familiar, including White Tulips, a still life by William Nicholson. But Deborah had a formidable personal collection of her own. A painting of eggs in a basket by Lucien Freud, an old friend, was given pride of place. (Deborah always brought along a basket of eggs when she visited the painter in London.)

The Dowager Duchess’s family and friends quickly felt at home at the Old Vic, as Deborah referred to her new home. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” her granddaughter, the famed model Stella Tennant told Vogue in 2010, but added that the vicarage was less intimidating “because there aren’t so many precious things about”. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Tennant’s brood, were given the run of the place. “[T]he lift is great fun. She also had one of those chairs that tipped you out; it was quite useful because so many old people come to stay, but the children broke it. She’s very tolerant of all of us rampaging about.”

Edensor, the Dowager Duchess wrote, is decidedly not “sleepy” and “is as animated as the cross-section of people who live in it.” Family was at her doorstep: Deborah’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, was just steps away “at the top of the village”. Edensor, which is pronounced ‘Enza’, is a pastiche of architectural styles. It was rebuilt from 1840-1842 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton. (Paxton, who designed the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a marvel of engineering and design, would go on to design the building that was dubbed the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.) The village was originally situated near the River Derwent immediately below Chatsworth, but was moved out of sight. In the heart of the village is St Peter’s Church. It was enlarged by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860s, and contains a memorial to Henry and William Cavendish, the sons of Bess of Hardwick. The churchyard is the final resting place of most of the Dukes of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen (Deborah’s sister-in-law), and Deborah’s three children who were stillborn or died at birth.

Several years after relocating to Edensor, the Dowager Duchess received unwanted attention from an elderly man whom she had met during a walk in the village in November 2010. She was forced to obtain a restraining order when he continued to make communication, even going so far as to propose marriage.

But with that small exception, the Dowager Duchess’s relations with the public in Edensor were just as harmonious as they were during her forty-six years spent at Chatsworth. Until recently when her health began to fail her, each year on Edensor Day, the village’s annual fete, Deborah would throw open the doors of the Old Vicarage and for £5 would allow the public to come take a peek inside (with monies benefiting the village in some way, such as a new roof for the church). Deborah would act as tour guide and show guests around her home – nothing was off limits – and was tickled by what the public found interesting. “What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, ‘You’re very brave to do this,’ and I say, ‘You’re very brave to come,’ because there’s always a queue. So funny.” But some visitors, expecting the grandeur of Chatsworth, were invariably left disappointed. “I came to see the chandeliers and all I found was Habitat [the UK home furnishings retailer],” one visitor said. “What is wrong with Habitat?” Deborah wondered.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014. Luella Bartley, the great fashion designer and magazine editor, once said of Deborah that “when she goes so will a part of England”. In the event, her words proved prophetic, and upon her recent death the media and the Dowager Duchess’s countless admirers mourned not only the loss of a woman who embodied a gilded age, but one who made her life count. It was a life that was undoubtedly enhanced by her final decade spent at the Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor.

Andrew Budgell is a Managing Editor and Community Manager for a Toronto company. He has a passion for theatre, film, writing, music, books, travel and design, and spent much of 2013 living in London, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He received an Honours BA in English Rhetoric and Literature from the University of Waterloo in 2010 and established DameElizabethTaylor.com, a tribute to the legendary actress in 2002.

Memories of Debo by Barbara Leaming

New York Times bestselling author Barbara Leaming talks to The Mitford Society about the special friendship she shared with Debo. Her memories are as follows…

If you are very, very lucky, someone comes into your life out of nowhere and changes everything. Debo Devonshire did that for me. I certainly didn’t deserve her—no one could deserve someone quite that wonderful. Actually it was Andrew Devonshire who first invited me to Chatsworth and it was Andrew who gave me the first incredible gifts I was to receive—and the greatest of those gifts was Debo. I shall always remember Debo that first night: that night she was performing for Andrew as well as for me. Sixty years into their marriage, Andrew was a rapt audience. It was not difficult to see why—though to me, during that first dinner at least, Debo was very scary. That night, it was Andrew who was the gentle one, Debo the one with whom I was sure I could never dare relax. But it changed—not least because that first night I realized that one of Debo’s greatest qualities was that she was interested in everything, really everything. She wanted details; she wanted to know how things worked; she wanted to know EXACTLY what you meant when you said something—and not an iota of that interest was faked. And she would ask questions that no one else would dare to ask. Alone together upstairs in her sitting room late that first night, she made me pull up my trouser leg to see if I had the “great legs all American girls have.” I didn’t, but I did pull up the trousers—actually SHE pulled up the trouser leg. It was an extraordinary night—not least because I fell in love with both Andrew and Debo that night—and completely unexpectedly the seeds of a friendship were planted.

I’m so glad that I had the luck to see Debo with Andrew for no matter how much I was later to hear about the two of them from Debo herself and also from their family and friends, I would not have understood the complexity of that relationship had I not actually watched him watch her and her watch him.

I was in England then to research my biography of President John F. Kennedy. My husband and I had a flat on Eaton Place not far from Debo’s Chatsworth Shop on Elizabeth Street. The little shop was a very special place—pure Debo—and she loved it and was deeply involved with it. My husband used to buy all of his lunches there and I still giggle thinking about how I would come home to find David on the phone with Debo in intense discussion of the merits of her soups and especially detailed reports about the prices of an item she was selling versus the price of a similar item in a supermarket on King’s Road. When the Chatsworth Shop closed later, I had an urgent phone call from her cousin Jean, warning me that Debo was so upset that I must be careful not even to mention the closing for a time.

After Andrew died, by which time Debo and I had become friends—initially, I believe, because Andrew made sure it happened—and by which time we had other deep friendships in common, Debo did not draw back, but rather expanded the wings of her friendship.

She and Andrew had been indispensable to my research for my biography of President John F. Kennedy and to my understanding of the man and the world in which JFK lived. But for the book I wrote next, about Winston Churchill, Debo, now alone, went much further. First she listened to what I hoped to do with Churchill—and then she took charge. Debo never had to be asked to help. She just offered—no rather, she ACTED. Before I knew it, she had made up lists of people I must talk to about Churchill, including her cousin Mary Soames—and then moved on to make sure they talked to me—and then made sure that I asked the right questions. She wrote letters; she made calls; she went over ideas with me. It was endless and she was incredible.

Debo loved to give advice—especially about how to do things cheaply. I still laugh thinking about her voice on the phone the day I moved into the flat I’d rented in Mayfair to do Churchill research. Our flat was not far from the Beau Brummell house she still owned, and she was full of detailed instructions about where to go in Shepherd Market—but better, still, about what to do cheaply. Debo loved the idea of doing things cheaply. “Keep your hands in your pockets!”, as she put it.

When I went up to stay with Debo at Edensor, it was strange at first to think that Andrew was gone—or rather, that he was next door, as she reminded me—in St Peter’s churchyard. But she was so funny, so over the top about everything as usual. So welcoming. There was, I think, more emotion now that Andrew was gone—more sense of time passing. And always, more reminders not to waste a minute—to grab everything you can, while you can.

I can still hear her as we sat on the old-fashioned swing on the lawn in front of the vicarage talking about Andrew; talking about “the cousinhood”; talking about people that both of us knew—people she had somehow miraculously brought into my life—who were now gone. As she talked about all that she missed, suddenly the swing started moving faster because Debo also wanted to talk about the future. What she wanted to do next—and a reminder that I must not just be thinking about what I was doing now, but what came NEXT.

Debo and Andrew are also very much there in my new book on Jackie Kennedy [Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story]—all sorts of things they told me about the aftermath of the assassination—as well as about what was going on during the presidency. And I am going to return in detail to that world which they opened to me with unimaginable generosity in the book I am writing next. So much of what they shared with me has vanished now—but my mind is filled with images of that vanished world—a world that strangely enough has become part of my own future.

I can’t bear to think that there will never be another letter from Debo turning up in the post, that the phone will never ring again with her voice on the other end inviting me to stay with her in Edensor, that there will be no more long talks about the members of “The Set,” and, of course, that there will be no more books from her to treasure forever.

Everything about Debo had to do with life and what’s next, and for that reason it is just impossible to imagine she is not out there plotting some future project.

Barbara Leaming’s book Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story will be published in the UK on January 1st 2015. It is already available in the US.

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The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

Guest Blog: The Mitford Girls by Dr. Peter Hancock

The Mitford Girls

 

The Mitford girls, the Mitford girls

Not enmeshed in jewels and pearls

But decked with jibes and witty barbs

And silly names like muvs and farves

 

In France a writer we behold

Mocking love in climates cold

Pursing love in all its verdure

Gaining nothing but its urdure

 

Quiet Pam of Betjeman fame

Never in the ‘Mitford game’

Woman of deep caudle green

Seldom heard and rurally scene

 

Goddess fair we drink to thee

Toasting thy canardary

Paramour of Mosley

Chaste and caught so furiously

 

Bobo oh! you Valkyrie

Hitler’s girl and Nazi bride

Searched for Nordic Unity

But failed to practice suicide

 

Tempestuous, red sheep, little D

Leaning socialistically

Lost a husband in the sea

Fought for us right civilly

 

Duchess Debo Darling D

Not as tall nobility

But doyenne of the orangery

She kept a house you can now see

 

Swinbrook is a pretti-place

Of past indulgence little trace

In Mitford graves without a fence

Lies natural ends to decadence

 

 

Professor Hancock is the author of over seven hundred refereed scientific articles and publications as well as writing and editing fifteen books including: Human Performance and Ergonomics in the Handbook of Perception and Cognition series, published by Academic Press in 1999. Stress, Workload, and Fatigue, published in 2001 by Lawrence Erlbaum and Performance under Stress published in 2008 by Ashgate. He is the author of the 1997 book, Essays on the Future of Human-Machine Systems and the 2009 text, Mind, Machine and Morality also from Ashgate Publishers.

Kick Kennedy

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I’ve been invited on to BBC Radio Sheffield to chat about the Kennedys and their connection to the Cavendish family. Of course, the connection began with Kick, who in 1938, moved to London when her father accepted the post of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I suppose the Kennedys had a lot in common with the Mitfords. Each came from a large family where the siblings possessed star quality, the press were intrigued by their shenanigans, an element of scandal lurked in the background and each family was plagued by tragedy.

Kick and Debo met when they both were presented at Court in 1938. A few months later Kick caught the eye of William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington (known as Billy), and heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire. Similarly, Debo met Andrew, the Duke’s second son, at a supper party. Soon they became a foursome, attending parties and society events in and around London. Billy and Kick wanted to marry but their pending engagement was not greeted enthusiastically by their parents, mostly the Kennedys who were staunch Catholics. Likewise, Billy’s parents – the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – were not thrilled at the family establishment welcoming a Catholic. Given that Billy was his father’s heir, his choice of wife was important. What if Kick convinced Billy to convert? What if their first born son was a Catholic? A Catholic Duke, it was enough to dismantle the entire family. Luckily for the young couple meetings were held with both of their churches and an agreement was made: any sons born to Kick and Billy would be brought up in the Church of England and any daughters would be raised Catholic. This, in a way, solved the Catholic ‘problem’.

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The worries over religion seemed wasted, for a few months after their marriage Billy was killed in action. Ironically, the Cavendish family came to love Kick and given that her own mother, Rose, had more or less disowned her because of her marriage to Billy, they became the only family she knew. After the war Kick fell in love with a married man, Peter Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam. If a protestant son-in-law shocked Rose, a married protestant man outraged her. Kick and Peter were flying to Cannes when their small aircraft crashed into the side of a mountain, both were killed instantly. Rose, still unforgiving, apparently said upon receiving the news of Kick’s death: ‘God saw what was going on and pointed and said NO!’

In her 28 years Kick made quite an impact on London society and over 500 mourners attended her funeral. The Cavendish family arranged the burial and interned Kick’s body in the family plot in the churchyard of Edensor village.

Following the death of Kick the Cavendish family still kept in touch with the Kennedys. Shortly after the funeral, Bobby Kennedy stayed at Edensor with Debo and Andrew and amused Debo by wearing shorts and socks, she thought Bobby socks had been named after him. JFK was sympathetic to Kick’s plight with Rose and he formed a close bond with her. In 1961 he invited Debo and Andrew to his presidential inauguration. In 1963 he visited Kick’s grave for the first time (I go into detail about this in my previous blog).

Though Kick was not considered beautiful she possessed star quality, she was lively, bright, charming and full of life. As Debo attests, all of these radiant qualities shine through in her photographs. Kick’s love for life only made her untimely death all the more tragic.

An interview with Tessa Arlen

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Gladys Marchioness of Ripon

I could not resist asking Tessa Arlen for an interview, partly because I’m always very nosy about what fellow authors are up to, and partly because I always feel inspired after I read their journey to publication. Although Tessa’s own life, as she kindly told it to me, reads like one of Nancy’s postwar novels, I am most intrigued by her debut novel, The Countess and Mrs Jackson, the first in the series which is set for publication in January 2015.

How long have you been writing for and what inspired you to write The Countess and Mrs. Jackson?

I have been writing in some form or another for most of my life: unpublished short stories, lengthy letters to my family when I first moved to America thirty years ago. When our children grew up and went about their own lives, I decided to write a full length novel. I never imagined when I set out to do this that it would be published.

I was inspired to write a historical novel because it was the only subject in school, apart from English Literature that held any genuine interest. I was a terrible student; a real day-dreamer! My parents lived abroad and I was sent home to school in England when I was ten. The contrast between my boarding school at the top of a windy hill in the Chilterns with its drafty dormitories and frightful food was a stark one to my earlier life in the lush, easy-going tropics. I was in such culture shock I just disappeared into my own world. I was rescued from complete academic disaster by my history teacher, Lady Elfreda Neale. She was a strange old lady: tall, rather stooped with straight, iron-gray hair. She spoke in such a low tone we had to lean forward to hear her. But my goodness she made history come alive! She was very fond of telling us that history was simply “very old gossip.” I have been a fascinated amateur historian ever since.

The years before the Great War have always been intriguing, so it was easy to choose this era for my book. It was a colossal time of change politically and socially in Britain. Life for the privileged few was idyllic thanks to their money and the rigidity of the class system.  But a long agricultural depression was beginning to take its toll on the landed gentry, and there was a strong Liberal government hell-bent on much needed social reform and looking to tax the landowners to fund them. An arms race with Germany; strikes, strong trade unions and socialism; the loss of the power of veto in the House of Lords and a women’s movement that had turned decidedly nasty were events that heralded a new century in England. I thought all this wonderful conflict would make a good back drop to my story.

It was important to me to write a story featuring two women, who struggle with issues in context with their time in history. My two protagonists come from opposite ends of the class system and work together to discover the identity of a murderer, each motivated by different reasons, and who build a sort of friendship in the process.

Was your manuscript accepted on the first attempt, and if not, how many times were you rejected before receiving an offer?

Yes, it was! I have a wonderful agent, she submitted to nine publishers and we had two offers within five weeks. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press bought The Countess and Mrs. Jackson and the next book in the series. But I had my share of rejects; finding an agent took me well over a year. I submitted to a hundred and twenty four agents and tons of rejects later, eight asked for the full manuscript, and two of them offered to represent me. This was a huge turning point, it did so much for my confidence to have someone as professional and well respected in the industry as Kevan actually want to work with me.

What is your writing routine and do you religiously stick to it?

I do have a routine but I don’t force the issue, otherwise I would get neurotic about it.  We live on an island in the Puget Sound and our winter days are short and it rains a lot, so I write full-time pretty intensively from October through to April. I have a large garden and in the summer months I have to split my time between writing and gardening so I spend less time on writing.

How do you overcome writers block?

It helps if I plot out my storyline very thoroughly before hand. Then I write minutely detailed descriptions of my characters so that I am really familiar with them. I do the same thing with the time I’m writing about and the place. When these elements are squared away that’s when I start to write.  As the story unfolds on paper other ideas just sort of crop up as I go along, and the story takes over and almost writes itself. I keep going until I have a first draft. Only then do I start my re-writes and revisions, never during.

Who are your literary heroes?

In my early twenties I read all of P.G. Wodehouse’s books one year and absolutely adored the inimitable Jeeves, with his deferential respect as he wields the upper-hand. I love the way he punishes Bertie when he gets out of line and wears the wrong color socks, or a cummerbund with his white tie and tails! Bertie is a delight, he is such an affable twit, but I absolutely respect and admire Jeeves.

E. F. Benson’s Lucia stories. I know so many Lucias! I love all her pretensions and her wonderful ‘friendship’ with Georgie and how ruthless she is about running Riseholme. I adore her morceau of Beethoven and her conversazione larded with cunning little Italian phrases. There is something so admirable about women who relentlessly go for what they want, and incidentally make so much happen for everyone else.  They aren’t awfully comfy to be with, but they are compelling.

Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Jack Aubrey.  I wish I knew Jack Aubrey. Apart from his tendency to philander and his lengthy periods of time at sea, I would like my daughters to marry someone with his qualities. He genuinely likes women and he has a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s compassionate and courageous leader, self-aware and completely without guile; so honestly at ease with himself. Not without his frailties though, his life always falls apart when he is on dry land – so perhaps not son-in-law material!

One of my most favorite characters in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Mole. I admire his loyalty, his steadfast kindness and his courage to chuck aside his dull underground life for adventure in a wider world.  He wants to make everything work for all the best reasons, which makes him an exceptional and good friend. He also has great humility and in his humble way he is immensely valiant. I wish there were more Moleys in the world.

What attracted you to the Mitfords?

I fell in love with Nancy right off the bat when I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate in my twenties. They remain at the top of my re-read list, together with Jane Austen and Watership Down. If I feel low these are the books I reach for. I love Nancy’s deft, wicked wit and appreciate her insightful, unsentimental view of life.

I didn’t know about the other sisters for years. My parents had a house near Bolton Abbey, and it was my mother who filled me in on the Mitford family, as they were a far closer to her generation than mine.  She was very impressed by Debo’s entrepreneurial skills and told me that she had rescued Chatsworth and the Cavendish family from financial ruin with her clever plan to restore Chatsworth to its original glory, so that it could be on the ‘stately home round.’  In a less enthusiastic vein she told me Sir Oswald Mosely was married to Diana. Mosely and Diana, in her opinion, were a real no-no. She was a teenager during the war and her parents were appalled by the Blackshirts!  However, I admire Diana’s loyalty to her husband who sounds quite awful.

So far as Unity is concerned, I read a fascinating book about her by David Pryce-Jones. Part of me was astonished that anyone could be so stupid to be so wrapped up in someone as frightful as Hitler. I delved a bit deeper into the Mitford sisters and their strange rather isolated upbringing and their deeply eccentric parents; today they would be considered neglectful. I realized what a heartbreaking story Unity’s was. I felt she never fit into her family and she was very much at odds with herself. I think the Hitler business was her desperately trying to find herself, and because she was so naïve she didn’t quite see what she had got herself into. I think her’s is such a cautionary tale; we are often capable of such thoughtless actions when we are young and sometimes pay a terrible price.

Who is your favourite Mitford and why?

Well it has to be Nancy because she makes me laugh so much. I have just finished re-reading The Blessing and it is as fresh and funny as it was when I first read it.  I love Don’t Tell Alfred, because it rather reminds me of my own childhood and how difficult it was for my parents when my sister and I joined them abroad for school vacations at whatever Embassy or High Commission they were with at the time. They were such fuddy duddies and we were such products of our generation; looking back I feel quite sorry for them.

Who is your least favourite Mitford and why?

I have never felt especially drawn to Decca.  Not because of her politics, but in my view there is something rather cold and sarcastic about her. She lost so much in her life: her young husband Esmond, their baby and her son with Treuhaft and maybe this is the way she dealt with grief.

And last but not least: if you could swap lives with anyone in history (it can include a fictional character) who would it be?

Well I would say Clementine Napier, Countess of Montfort because she conforms to my ideal: a woman of her time unhampered by our contemporary sensibilities, but hugely aware, vigorous and imaginative! But that would be a cheat

I am attracted to lots of historical figures, and then shy away from swapping because some of them were either desperately unhappy or died rather horribly or too young!  So given this considerable reservation, I’m going to plump for Constance Gladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a British patron of the arts who was at the height of her fame and power at the time of my book The Countess and Mrs. Jackson.

Lady Ripon was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance to her, which just goes to show what bright spark she was in the first place. Other celebrated friends included the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, whose success in London was largely due to Lady Ripon’s support.

Lady Ripon was six feet tall and considered to be a stunner; she was so beautiful that according to the writer E.F. Benson even the most glamorous in her company looked like ‘they needed a touch of the sponge and the duster.’

Her first marriage had been rather horrid; her husband the Earl of Lonsdale had died of a heart attack while busily engaged in enjoying his own private brothel (point proved about never swapping lives with someone else!) She next married the exceedingly rich Marquess of Ripon and was lucky enough to live in the incomparable Studley Royal, a perfect Palladian jewel of a house surrounded by beautiful gardens and with the exquisite ruins of Fountains Abbey in its grounds. But Lady Ripon was a sophisticated individual and preferred not to isolate herself in North Yorkshire, and set up house at Coombe Court in Kingston so she could be on hand for her pet project the Royal Opera House.

It was Lady Ripon who was entirely responsible for making a night at the opera a desirable occasion at this time. She rescued the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden from financial ruin and was undoubtedly responsible for Nellie Melba’s success as its star performer. But it was the Ballet Russe, invited by Lady Ripon to London in the summer of 1911 to perform in front of the new king and queen on the evening before George V’s coronation, which swept society off its feet. Lady Ripon organized a truly gala event. None of the illustrious company gathered together at the Royal Opera House that evening were quite prepared for the spectacle that was the Russian Ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky. Thousands of roses decorated the tiers of the boxes in which they sat dazzled by the sets and costumes, and then Nijinsky leapt onto the stage, wearing only a tight, skin-colored silk tricot onto which were sewn hundreds of pink and red silk petals for his performance of Spectre de la Rose.  But it was the dancing that enthralled. The following day it was reported in the Times: ‘Nijinsky seems to be positively lighter than air, for his leaps have no sense of effort and you are inclined to doubt if he really touches the stage between them.’ To attain this astonishing leap, Nijinsky told Lady Ripon, he made the air his medium ‘It is very simple, I just jump and stop in the air for a moment.’

Her introduction of the Ballet Russe started a new fashion of Bakst inspired vibrant colors, and it became awfully chic to lounge around in scarlet and pink chiffon Turkish trousers in a boudoir made over to look like an Ottoman seraglio. The ballet was a triumph and returned to London for years.

I chose Gladys Marchioness of Ripon because she was clever, witty, resourceful and beautiful with a flair for organizing spectacular events, as well as an exceptionally astute business woman. She was also tall, which is something I have yearned for all my life.

Click here to Like Tessa’s facebook page where you can find more information about The Countess and Mrs. Jackson.

Interview with Deanna Raybourn

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I’ve been anticipating this interview with Deanna Raybourn; friend of The Mitford Society, massive Mitty enthusiast and most importantly, a New York Times bestselling author! I’ve been racking my brain, wondering what I could ask her (that she hasn’t been asked already) and I came up with a list of questions that would require detailed answers. Some Mitford related, some about writing fiction etc. Surprisingly, given her busy schedule, she replied promptly- within 24 hrs-which puts most to shame! Read on for her informative advice on getting published, her favourite subjects and which Mitford girl she loves most of all…

What authors influence your work and what made you decide to write historical fiction? Can you name your earliest influences (i.e. books/authors/films)?

I honestly don’t remember a time I wasn’t making up stories. I know in childhood I was absolutely enthralled with Marie Antoinette, Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel—and as a teenager I loved Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Agatha Christie. When it was time for college I majored in English and history because I was planning to write. I just love the sense of escape to another time and place that comes with historical fiction; I love delving into memoirs and letters to find out what people were thinking and doing. Most of all, I love finding the connections between “us” and “them”, the things that are universal to everyone, no matter when and where you live.



What is your favourite era and what draws you to this?

I have several pet time periods, but right now I’m immersed in the 1920s. The series I’m currently working on is set immediately after WWI, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the era—I’m a sucker for a little cultural revolution, and the 1920s saw an astonishing amount of change. Tracking the evolution of fashion, of language, of map boundaries, it’s all exhilarating. I’m always intrigued by periods that marked a shift in women’s roles in particular, and the 1920s were one of the most significant in that respect. The Great War really closed the book on the Victorian ideal of the hearth angel and opened up an entirely new world for women as voters, as workers, as people in their own right instead of decorative appendages.

Can you describe your journey in getting published, how many rejections did you receive before a publisher said yes?

I wrote my first novel at twenty-three, then spent fourteen years getting rejection letters before I sold my first novel—I never stopped to count how many. I wrote six or seven books in that time, several of which made the rounds of publishers, none of which sold. I finally took some excellent advice from my agent and stopped writing for a year. I just read. By the end of that time, I looked at the stack of books I’d read, and I realized they all had common threads running through them. They were historical with elements of mystery and romance, they had delightful little surprises, and they were British. That was a blueprint for the book I needed to write, so I started putting together things I loved—Victorian London, aristocrats, Gypsies, poisons, ravens—and at the end of it, I had SILENT IN THE GRAVE. It took us two years to find a publisher, but when we did, we sold three books at one time. I haven’t looked back since!



What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Write the book you want to read. The books you read for pleasure are the books that inform your taste and shape your perspective. Those are the books that tell you who you are as a writer. The worse piece of advice is “write what you know”. I think it limits fledgling writers who take it far too literally. We are creatures of imagination. It’s alright to go and find things out or to conjure them out of thin air if you want to write about them. You don’t have to write only the things you’ve experienced personally.

Are you a full time writer? And how long did it take before you could achieve this?

I am a full-time writer, but I’m also part of a two-income household. I quit teaching in order to have a baby and write full-time, and it took eleven years for me to get published—fourteen years after I wrote my first novel!

When did you become interested in the Mitford girls and what started this interest?

I honestly can’t remember when I first heard of them, but I know the love was really kindled when I saw the 2001 PBS miniseries adaptation of LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE and THE PURSUIT OF LOVE. That was when I started digging further into their lives and realized that, as interesting as Nancy Mitford’s writing might be, the real Mitford stories were even more enthralling. That’s when I started reading letters, collected biographies, anything that would tell me more.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I have a very soft spot for Debo. There are interesting parallels to the Queen Mother’s life—lively girl marries a second son expecting a pleasant life and through tragedy gets thrust into a much more demanding role. They both rose admirably to the occasion, I think. I am a fan of Nancy’s also, although I think she must have been far too sophisticated and sharp to be really friendly with. And I think Pamela is the most delightfully mysterious. I like her quiet devotion to the things that interested her even if they might seem small in comparison to her sisters’ lives.

Who is your least favourite Mitford girl?

A tie between Jessica and Diana, although I think Decca was a gifted, unflinching writer. They had the courage of their convictions, but there was a fair bit of collateral damage that came along with that. I find Unity deeply interesting and tragic. Having said that, I still think these three are far more intriguing than most people.

And last but not least, if you could swap lives with any of the Mitfords who would it be?

Debo! The reclamation of Chatsworth was an unspeakable amount of work, but it must have been great fun as well. When you read her essays on the subject and look at how far the estate has come, it’s incredibly apparent how much effort and how many wonderful ideas when into it. Plus, all those forgotten treasures they unearthed! There’s a shivery sort of delight that comes from thinking about forcing open an elderly cupboard to find a bit of fabulous porcelain or a tiara no one remembered. Recovering those objects must have been tremendously exciting—rather like having a lost museum to bring back to order. I’m also tremendously interested in the business aspects of running a stately home, even a ruin. I’ve visited Bolton Abbey, where I had one of the best meals I ate in that corner of England, incidentally. I was struck by how thoughtfully everything had been arranged. It seemed as if the family, the managers, the designers, everyone had done what they could to preserve the magnificent ruins of the Abbey but also to make it as pleasurable as possible for the visiting public. It must be a thankless task to balance all the competing interests of environment, public, posterity, bureaucracy, but what an interesting one!

Additional reading:

Deanna’s official website

Deanna’s book list