Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs read remarkably like a novel — unsurprisingly, perhaps, as sister Nancy is so famous for turning great swathes of them into just that. In a ramshackle house in the Cotswolds, she and her five sisters, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, and Decca, and one brother, Tom, were largely left to their own devices. Lacking more conventional sources of amusement, the siblings developed habits of independence and creativity that would render them individually distinguished, and collectively renowned.
Devonshire doesn’t have any pretensions about her role in the household. She was the seventh child, the sixth girl, and she admits readily that after her birth “life went on as though nothing had happened and all agreed that no one, except Nanny, looked at me till I was three months old and then were not especially pleased by what they saw.” There was such a gap between her and first-born Nancy — sixteen years — that Devonshire didn’t get to know her older siblings until later in life.
Due to their proximity in age, her closest companion was Decca, who kept a “running away” bank account which she maintained with the utmost seriousness. Her father, “Favre,” so colorfully portrayed as a despot in Nancy’s books, was especially fond of his youngest child, and receives much more generous treatment here. Perhaps because she wasn’t one to complain, Devonshire says, she became a clear favorite in her father’s eyes, and cherished his attentions.
The beginning of World War II was a divisive, well-documented moment in the Mitford’s history. Diana was by then a devastatingly beautiful fascist, married to the leader of the British Union of Fascists (a scandal in itself, since she left her first husband for him after only three years of marriage), and Unity had already decamped for Germany, where she stalked Hitler until becoming part of his inner circle. Diana and Unity’s devotion to the Nazi regime wreaked predictable havoc on the family, especially with Decca, a socialist since her late teens, for years to come.
Famously, Unity warned that if England declared war upon Germany she would shoot herself with a mother-of-pearl pistol, and she did. While disagreeing with Unity’s politics, Devonshire treats this well-known incident and it’s fallout with sensitivity, and a small measure of justification. When Unity survives her suicide attempt but with mental disabilities, Devonshire accompanies her mother to bring Unity back to England. She describes her horror at finally seeing her invalid sister, and implies that the “hostile press” did not fully appreciate how disabled Unity had become.
Devonshire is the last remaining Mitford sister. In her later life with her husband Andrew, she became intimately involved in restoring their estate, Chatsworth House, and making it a premiere destination for tourism. Though this is not the most dramatic portion of her memoirs, her delight in the house and it’s success are easily apparent. Devonshire left Chatsworth a few years ago, and at ninety years old, still maintains a full diary. “I suppose things ought to slow down, ” she muses, “but it does not seem to happen.”