Friday, December 3, 2010
Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire
The opening lines of Deborah Devonshire's enchanting memoir had me sinking deeper into the sofa, cup of tea in hand, with a smile curling on my face.
A more perfect blend of childhood antics, aristocratic couplings, door-slamming rants, tragedy, hilarity and celebrity name dropping would be hard to find. The writing flows from one event to the next as seamlessly as a conversation with a favourite Aunt or Grandmother over tea and cake. And just enough juicy bits to be revealing without being salacious.
Of a particular governess...'Miss Dell, encouraged us in the difficult art of shoplifting - stealing really. My mother found out (the shopkeepers did not, thank goodness) and Miss Dell disappeared.' And when the Dowager Duchess wrote about the wonder of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher's hair...'What made her visit unforgettable was the Force 9 gale that was blowing. I soon looked like the Wild Woman of the West, hair all over the place, as did the other women in the party. But not a hair on the PM's head moved. I was so interested in this phenomenon I could not pay attention to anything else.' You can just picture the look on her face and the image had me in stitches.
I was fascinated by the way this family of six girls and one boy wove their relationships together through youth, marriages, divorce, political affiliations, successes and loss. It seems to me that despite very strong words of caution or other protestations, this was a family whose members followed their hearts from quite a young age. Unity's idolizing of Hitler, Diana's divorce from Bryan Guinness to take up with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, would have provided many a heated discussion. At nineteen, Jessica put her family through despair with her disappearance leading to an elopement with Esmond Romilly, both were adherents of Communism. Her brother, Tom, a fascist, refused to fight against Germany but volunteered to fight Imperial Japan and was killed in Burma.
The chapter on childbirth and deaths is incredibly moving. There are three healthy children but in between was a miscarriage and the deaths of three babies shortly after birth which must have caused immense heartbreak. Despite her grief Deborah unselfishly writes that her loss was nothing in comparison to the sufferings caused by the war and daily deaths of young servicemen.
Hilarity rises yet again when Debo visits Lady Bird Johnson in Texas and is excited by an invitation to join cowboys on a cattle round-up. Thrilled to see men dressed just like in the Westerns on film with their leather chaps, Stetson hats and cowboy boots she is ready for adventure. To her amazement these cowboys escort her out to a waiting helicopter. Such is modern farming...'I enjoyed this new experience, but wondered why the cowboy pilot had bothered to put on his spurs.'
Elegant banquets, Chatsworth, her love of animals and the countryside provide wonderful stories full of breathtaking images. A snippet or two about her rambunctious Border Collie simply named, Collie, had me laughing in acknowledgement as I too own one. Despite loving this breed, Deborah admits it simply wouldn't do to have dogs nipping at the heels of paying customers strolling the grounds of their ancestral home. Indeed.
Nearing the end of the book and knowing that the Duke's death was imminent, tears were sliding down my cheeks. Again with unselfishness the Dowager Duchess writes...'Seeing him so deeply depressed and unhappy about the various indignities of his physical condition, no one could have wished him to go on living.' He died on May 3, 2004.
Moving into the Old Vicarage in Edensor where she had lived with Andrew sixty years earlier, this remarkable woman continues to lead a productive life at the age of ninety. And long may she do so. On my last trip to London in May 2009, I missed Deborah Devonshire at Hatchard's on Piccadilly by one hour. The young sales girl there said to try again on my next trip as she pops in several times a year. The thrill would be all mine and a dream I hold on to.
Wait for Me! is both a touching memoir and a riveting page-turner if you enjoy glimpses into English aristocracy or social history. Don't hesitate to add it to your Christmas wish list!