Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire, called Debo by her family, writes a great memoir at age 90. (Technically, she is "The Dowager Duchess," as her son has succeeded to the title and his wife, Amanda, is the Duchess.)
The title of the book is explained by Debo on the first page. "I was Stubby to Muv and Farve (Mother and Father), after my short fat legs which could not keep up."
Over her lifetime, Deborah Mitford strode to the head of the clan. She married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When the first son died, Debo's husband inherited the title and vast estates of his deceased brother who had married Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, a sister of John F. Kennedy.
By 1959, the duchess checked into Chatsworth, the 400-year-old family pile, and began the rest of her life's work: upgrading the beloved English landmark, the seat of countless paintings, tapestries and sculptures.
Deborah Mitford is a first-class story teller. Every page of her memoir is worth reading. For those with a penchant for trenchant and endearing letter writing, her correspondence "In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor," published in 2008, rivals her sister, Nancy's, 25-year correspondence with Evelyn Waugh.
The English seem never to get enough of the Mitford clan, Nancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, the youngest. Their zany and privileged upbringing meant that they came in contact with a vast array of people: writers, painters, poets, members of the Bloomsbury set, even an arch-fiend like Adolf Hitler.
Sister, Diana, for example, married the English fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, in the Goebbelses' drawing room in Berlin, with Hitler as guest of honor in 1936. Earlier, in 1929, Diana married and, after two sons, Jonathan and Desmond, in 1932, divorced Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune and went to live with Mosley as his mistress.
Another time, Debo tells the story of her mother's sister, Weenie. (Everybody has a nickname in the book; you just have to get used to it.) Around the end of World War I, "Weenie soon became engaged to Percy Bailey but knew nothing of what was in store. Grandfather was told that someone must explain the facts of life to her before she married. When these were disclosed, she exclaimed, 'Surely no gentleman would ever do a thing like that!' "
Once, Debo's mother Muv decided upon a test of future housekeeping skills for her five girls. "Under the headings of 'rent, rates, wages, heating, cleaning materials, food, clothes, traveling and other necessities', she instructed us to account for an income of 500 pounds a year Nancy finished almost before the rest of us had started She waved her paper and said, 'Flowers: 499 pounds. Everything else: 1 pound. Muv gave up."
The Mitford girls gave parents and each other plenty of trouble. For example, Unity got expelled from school and later shot herself in the head in a public park in Munich, distraught when England and Germany went to war with each other. Even Decca (Jessica) "opened a 'Running Away' bank account with her pocket money and the Christmas envelopes from aunts and uncles."
This book is a bit like those short subject movie trailers at the theater in the 1940s. You never know what's coming next. There's seems to be a shooting, a wedding, a missed train or a cow being milked on every other page.
"Wait for Me!"" is weirdly, strangely, captivatingly English, a memoir of an age and life that I'm glad I caught up with.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of English memoir.
Wait for Me!: Memoirs by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire
Farrar, Straus And Giroux
345 pages, $28