I was really sad to learn earlier today that Deborah Devonshire (or, to use her title, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) has died at age 94. She was the last of the famed Mitford sisters, whose family was fictionalized by Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love. One of the most infamous passages is perhaps this one:
“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.”
Just a few days ago, I bought several of “Debo’s” books, including Chatsworth: The House and All in One Basket: Nest Eggs by Deborah Devonshire (which includes the books Counting my Chicken and Home to Roost). I love her wry observations about life in the country and life in a giant country house:
“The joys and difficulties of living in such a huge house are all magnified. […] A bag put down in a rare bit of house can be lost for months. The master key can be forgotten in an attic door until panic sets in. It is a terrible place to housetrain a puppy. Letting a dog out in the night is quite a performance, with thirty-four stairs to go down and up again and the complicated unlocking of monster doors. […] On the good side, children can roller skate for miles without going out of doors; on a wet day you can walk for hours, be entertained and keep dry […].” (from Chatsworth: The House)
“A new heating system was installed [at Chatsworth] when we moved in and it works pretty well. Even so, the wind can penetrate huge old window frames which don’t fit exactly. In September we go round with rolls of sticky brown paper to stop the gaps. When the front door is open and people with luggage dawdle, all our part of the house feels the blast […]. There are zones of intense cold, seldom visited in winter: the Sculpture Gallery, State Rooms and attics, where a closed-season search for forgotten furniture can feel colder than being out of doors.” (from Home to Roost)
If you wonder at all the references to poultry in many of her book titles: she kept chickens and apparently loved them very much. There is one fine picture of her, showing her in a ballgown among her flock. On at least one occasion the chickens also came in handy as an alternative to flower arrangements on the dinner table: one cockerel and two hens – all freshly washed for the occasion – were put in glass containers on each end of the table, with little chicks snuggled up in hay-filled china baskets in between.
Obviously, she was rather unconventional (a bit of an understatement) and had a great sense of humor. All of this shines through in her writing and makes her books truly enjoyable reads.