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Cavendish [née Freeman-Mitford], Deborah Vivien (Debo), Duchess of Devonshirefree

(1920–2014)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines

Deborah Cavendish (1920–2014), by Bassano Ltd, 1938

Cavendish [née Freeman-Mitford], Deborah Vivien (Debo), Duchess of Devonshire (1920–2014), chatelaine and author, was born on 31 March 1920 at 49 Victoria Road, Kensington, London, the seventh and youngest child of David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, second Baron Redesdale (1878–1958) and his wife Sydney, née Bowles (1880–1963). She had one brother, Tom (1909–1945), and five sisters—Nancy Freeman-Mitford (1904–1973), Pamela (1907–1994), Unity Valkyrie Freeman-Mitford (1914–1948), Diana [see Mosley, Diana (1910–2003)], and Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford (1917–1996)—who, with her, became famous as the Mitford Sisters. Nancy told her often that everyone in the family had cried when she was born, because she was not a boy; but she was probably her parents’ favourite daughter and the only one not to bring them heartache. Chickens, ponies, dogs, and goats were her early loves. She had one term at Oakdene School, in Beaconsfield, but was otherwise unencumbered by schooling. Dora Carrington described her at the age of sixteen as ‘marvellous’, ‘a great botanist’, and with irresistible ‘high spirits and charm’ (Garnett, 473). She had tea with Hitler in 1937, but was not impressed. In June that year she won £1000 in libel damages from the Daily Express after that newspaper confused her with her sister Jessica and reported that she had eloped with a lover to Spain.

On 19 April 1941, at the church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, Debo Mitford married Lord Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish (1920–2004), younger son of the tenth duke of Devonshire. In November that year she gave birth to a premature son, Mark, who died five hours later. Another son, Victor, died of a brain haemorrhage seven hours after his birth in 1947 (his twin having been miscarried during the pregnancy). Her second daughter, Mary, died four hours after birth in 1953. A son, Peregrine (known as Stoker), born in 1944, and daughters Emma and Sophia (Sophy), born in 1943 and 1957, survived. Her husband became heir to the dukedom, and Marquess of Hartington, on the death of his elder brother in 1944. He succeeded as eleventh duke in 1950. For a time in the late 1940s, having accepted that her husband was an inveterate coureur des femmes, she felt an unsettling devotion to Antony Lambton, afterwards briefly earl of Durham.

Andrew and Debo Devonshire lived at Edensor in Derbyshire from 1946 until 1959, when they returned to occupy Chatsworth. She showed fine judgement in refurbishing and vivifying the vast house after a long vacancy. Thereafter the Devonshires marked family or historical events, such as their heir’s coming-of-age in 1965 or the tercentenary of the creation of the dukedom in 1994, by celebrations of bewitching elegance and splendour. Pageants, dances, feasts, fireworks, waterworks, tumblers, sword-swallowers, and players of obsolete instruments delighted their guests in scenes that were likened to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The duchess also had charge of Lismore Castle, overlooking the Blackwater river in county Waterford, which had been built by King John, inhabited by Sir Walter Raleigh, and plumbed by Andrew Devonshire’s Hollywood aunt Adele Astaire, Fred’s old sister. After visiting Lismore in 1956, Patrick Leigh Fermor described its chatelaine: ‘funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving … with … a wonderful and disarming unguardedness in conversation, and an intuitive knack … for people’s moods’ (Mosley, In Tearing Haste, 9).

With the exception of John F. Kennedy, whose sister had married Andrew Devonshire’s brother, and of ‘Uncle HaroldMacmillan, who had married Andrew Devonshire’s aunt, Debo Devonshire did not pretend to like or understand ambitious politicians. Although she claimed to be barely literate, she developed a taste for the company of literary intellectuals and artists. Bruce Chatwin, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, Evelyn Waugh, and John Betjeman indicate the range of her friendships. After her husband bought control of Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon Street, London, she showed glorious zest as hostess of the annual award celebrations at Chatsworth of the Heywood Hill literary prize (1995–2004). Pietro Annigoni painted her portrait in 1954, and she is the sitter in Lucian Freud’s ‘Portrait of a woman in a white shirt’ (1957).

In 1973 the duchess started The Farmyard at Chatsworth to teach visiting schoolchildren about animals, agriculture, forestry, and husbandry. She made a roaring success of Chatsworth farm shop, which opened in 1976. Other enterprises, including Chatsworth garden furniture, were instigated. The London outlet of the farm shop, which was opened in Elizabeth Street on the edge of Belgravia in 2000, however, proved unviable. Realizing that books written by her would sell well in the Chatsworth shop, the duchess wrote The House: a portrait of Chatsworth (1982). There followed a series of charming, informative books on the Chatsworth estate (1990), its treasures (1991), its farm animals (1991), and its gardens (1999), and on ducal cookery recipes (2003). She published three collections of occasional writings: Counting my chickens, and other home thoughts (2001); Home to roost, and other peckings (2009); and All in one basket (2011). She also published Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007) and Wait for me! Memoirs of the youngest Mitford sister (2010). Charlotte Mosley edited her correspondence with her sisters in The Mitfords: letters between six sisters (2007) and with Patrick Leigh Fermor as In tearing haste (2008).

Her letters show her life-enhancing vivacity, generosity of spirit, and splendid sense. She never repined. She liked scythes, Invalid Bovril, brogues, mourning, silence, telegrams, spring-cleaning, nurses in uniform, muffins, the 1662 prayer book, pinafores for little boys, fish shops, Bud Flanagan, Ethel Merman, and Elvis Presley. She disliked complainers, hypochondriacs, prigs, flower arrangements in fireplaces, motorists who slow down to drive over cattle-grids, audience participation, and punning newspaper headlines.

The duchess was a favourite of both Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Charles, the Prince of Wales. She was appointed DCVO in 1999 and received honorary degrees from Middlesex, Sheffield, and Derby universities. Widowed in 2004, she left Chatsworth eighteen months later for a house in the Cavendish-owned village of Edensor. Some of the subsequent changes in the staffing and management of the estate disappointed her. She died of old age and dementia on 24 September 2014 at her home in Edensor and was buried in a wicker coffin in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church, after a funeral service on 2 October.

Sources

  • {D. Carrington} Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries, ed. D. Garnett (1970)
  • J. Guinness and C. Guinness, The House of Mitford (1984)
  • {A. Fleming} The Letters of Ann Fleming, ed. M. Amory (1985)
  • D. Devonshire, Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2001)
  • C. Mosley, ed., The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (2007)
  • D. Devonshire, Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)
  • C. Mosley, ed., In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008)
  • D. Devonshire, Home to Roost and Other Peckings (2009)
  • D. Devonshire, Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010)
  • D. Devonshire, All in One Basket (2011)
  • The Times (25 Sept 2014); (26 Sept 2014); (27 Sept 2014); (30 Sept 2014); (3 Oct 2014); (9 Oct 2014)
  • Daily Telegraph (25 Sept 2014); (26 Sept 2014); (3 Oct 2014)
  • The Guardian (25 Sept 2014); (27 Sept 2014)
  • The Independent (26 Sept 2014)
  • Sunday Times (28 Sept 2014)
  • WW (2014)

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Likenesses

  • Pietro Annigoni, portrait, 1954, Chatsworth House
  • Lucian Freud, oil on canvas, ‘Portrait of a woman in a white shirt’, 1957, Chatsworth House
  • D. Grant, oil on canvas, Chatsworth House
  • photograph, 1941, at wedding to Andrew Cavendish, Chatsworth House
  • D. Dawson, photograph, 2004, Bridgeman Images
  • photographs, 1941–1963, Bridgeman Images
  • Bassano Ltd, five nitrate negatives, 1938, NPG [see illus.]
  • N. Parkinson, colour print, 1952, NPG
  • F. Goodman, three film negatives, with Pietro Annigoni, 1954–1955, NPG
  • bromide print, 1964, NPG
  • T. Heinemann, resin print, 1982, NPG
  • H. Borden, colour print, 2003, NPG
  • photographs, Alamy
  • photographs, Getty Images
  • photographs, Rex Features
  • obituary photographs
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)