A tribute to ‘9’ – Debo Mitford, 1920 – 2014

It seems strange to mourn the passing of a public figure like Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire who died today, aged 94. How can you feel upset over the loss of someone you didn’t really know? But if you admire someone’s work, or the way they carry themselves, then it does feel like loss. I admired Debo because she seemed like an ordinary person who lived through extraordinary times, surrounded by colossal personalities. By ‘ordinary’ I don’t mean banal or uninteresting, but rather human and relatable.

Because of the family she was born into and the man she fell in love with and married, her path crossed those of some titanic Twentieth Century figures, from Hitler and Churchill to JFK and Evelyn Waugh. But she wasn’t crushed by the historic events and personalities who often overshadowed her own private life, which included pain and loss just like anyone else. Beautiful and clever (despite the nickname her sister Nancy gave her – ‘9’ – denoting her supposed mental age), she was also a realist who pragmatically coped with any situation she found herself in.


Eminently practical, when crippling death duties threatened the very existence of Chatsworth – the house that came with the husband (Andrew, Duke of Devonshire), she simply rolled up her sleeves and set to work devising a way to save the estate – kickstarting the great British pursuit of visiting stately homes and buying produce in their farm shops. From her writing and her rare filmed appearances you could discern a dry sense of humour and a quirky streak – as evidenced by her obsession with Elvis Presley and lifelong affection for chickens.

I would recommend reading In Tearing Haste – a collection of letters between Debo and Paddy Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Moseley. While Paddy’s letters are lyrical, poetic sketches of exotic places, Debo’s are fabulously gossipy, often prosaic, dashed off in a hurry – and all the more entertaining for it. She reveals the highs and lows of managing her estate, her family, their eccentric and enormous circle of friends and because this is correspondence between two lifelong friends, between the in jokes you get real insight into their personalities.

It has been said that Debo was one of the last of her kind – an aristocrat who lived her life on the world stage and had great responsibilities on her shoulders, yet somehow stubbornly retained a sense of freedom and independence. It’s not only that she was born into a world of privilege and had access to famous figures and great wealth – she was much more than her title and her background, as anyone who ever met her will attest.

She belonged to a generation that endured loss through war but didn’t complain. Generous, thoughtful and dignified, Debo was the last of the (in)famous Mitford sisters and by going her own quiet way and being that rarest of things – a thoroughly good egg – her legacy may well endure longer than any of her controversial, colourful siblings. She earned the respect and affection of everyone who knew her and many who didn’t, including me.

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Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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