‘I had letters from you & the Lady (Nancy) & Henderson (Jessica) today, wouldn’t it be dread if one had a) no sisters b) sisters who didn’t write.’
– Deborah Cavendish to her sister Diana Mosley, July 1965
‘Debo’ as she was known to her loved ones, was always willing to correspond with those wanting to talk to her about her remarkable relatives, and her extraordinary life as the Duchess of Devonshire. With the laying to rest today of Her Grace, in the ducal churchyard at Edensor, the iconic Mitford sisters who came to occupy an almost mythical space in British culture are no more.
In reading the host of obituaries following the death last Wednesday of Deborah Freeman-Mitford, at the age of 94, a more genuine picture of the bonds that united the Mitfords in the face of Fascism, Communism, war and death, emerges from their own personal recollections. The sisters resist any contemporary comparison, because of their background and upbringing within a uniquely select world, one evolving for a thousand years then finding itself undergoing a period of rapid decline.
It was to be a process of radical political change in England, with which history will always associate the Mitford name. As was common in those of their class, the sisters wrote to each other for the duration of their lives, on occasion penning correspondence to their siblings several times a day. Offering a unique record of an age gone by 12,000 letters survive, presenting a profound insight into how their experiences of life in their childhood homes, would shape destinies subject to public notoriety and historical fascination ever since. What also emerges from their letters is the constant role of Debo as peacemaker, the preserver of a pastoral idyll tarnished and faded by crisis. In the life ahead of her she would need all the compassion and tact for which she would become renowned.
The Honourable Deborah Vivien was born on 31st March 1920, the youngest child of what were by then Lord and Lady Redesdale, of Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford and his wife Sydney Bowles. Debo’s elder siblings were Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity and Jessica. Known as Decca, Jessica had been born three years earlier at the sprawling Batsford House estate in Gloucestershire. Batsford was the home of Algernon Bertram ‘Barty’ Freeman-Mitford, David’s father with whom Sydney and their children lived after David joined up in 1914, the family having previously moved around various parts of London and Wiltshire. Continue reading