22 February 2010

Debo Mitford

Debo Vivien Cavendish (nee Mitford)

Debo Mitford, now 88, is an absolute idol of mine. The youngest of the six infamous Mitford sisters, she manages to withstand all the contradictions her siblings provided.

'In the 20th century the Mitfords achieved contemporary notoriety for their controversial and stylish lives as young people, and later for their very public political divisions between communist and fascist. The six daughters of the family were known collectively as the Mitford sisters. Nancy and Jessica became well-known writers and Deborah managed one of the most successful stately homes in England. Jessica and Deborah both married nephews-by-marriage of prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan respectively. Deborah and Diana married wealthy aristocrats. Unity and Diana were well known during the 1930s for being close to Adolf Hitler. In the early 1980s, Deborah also became politically active when she and her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, became leading lights in the newly formed political party, the SDP.'

What is so striking about Debo is her tenacity. Growing up in the second wave of children for the Mitfords, her weekends were only punctuated with elder, ostentatious sisters arriving home with ridiculous suitors or newly cropped hair. Her parent's reluctance to have her formally educated and their stiflingly dysfunctional marriage meant her time as a Mitford was overshadowed with living up to a family name, and its growing infamy in the 1930s and 1940s.

However, Debo continues to run one of the most successful stately homes in England after turning it around from a destitute mansion. She is also obsessed with Elvis Presley. For all her sisters' contradictions, rivalry and eccentricities, I admire Debo's character the most, for her underated and understated brilliance and determination.

I wrote to her last year, via her biographer, to say how greatly her outlook had impressed upon me, and her letter back remains one of my favorite possessions. She may not have been a Bright Young Person, run a bar in Miami, fraternized with Hitler, spent languid weekends with the Kennedys, entertained Churchill or married a Guinness (or a Mosley), but as the youngest Mitford , she carved her own identity, and instead of burning out in a heat of controversy, remains a lasting gem of the dying breed of aristocracy.

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