In March 2016 an extraordinary sale took place at Sotheby’s, London of the possessions of the late ‘Debo’, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died on 24 September 2014. The youngest of the famous (or infamous) Mitford girls, when she became Duchess she turned around the fortunes of one of Britain’s biggest and most famous stately homes, Chatsworth House, which had housed the fascinating and eclectic pieces that have now been sold. I didn’t need to attend the auction because I already own something unique: a letter she wrote to me in September 2008.
I was researching my first non-fiction book, The Voice From the Garden, about the Hambro and Cobbold families, and I needed to have access to the archives at Chatsworth. My main subject, Pamela, had a brother, John Murray Cobbold, always called ‘Ivan’. Ivan married Blanche Cavendish, a daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, so was very involved with the family. Pamela was a bridesmaid at their wedding, together with Blanche’s sister Dorothy Cavendish, who would shortly marry Harold Macmillan. I wrote to Debo and she replied with a lovely letter acknowledging the excitement of doing research – ‘I know what it is to try to find out about people long ago’ – gave me an amusing anecdote about Ivan, whom she remembered from when she was a teenager, and got the family archivist to contact me. A few weeks later, with the consent of her son, the current Duke, I was sitting in the Chatsworth archives delving into an exciting bundle of letters retrieved for me.
I also had the pleasure of talking to Debo on the ‘phone. About a year later I received a call from one of the Hambro family who knew her well, saying she had a query about the book she was writing, and he thought I could help her. Could I please phone her? Fortunately I was able to give her the information she needed and she chatted about her friend, the (now late) adventurer and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was then 94 – the same age as she was when she died – and said he was ‘marvellous for his age’. So was she. I had to phone her again a month later. They were chats I shall treasure.
If Debo had still been a duchess when she died, I like to think she would have agreed to take part in my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain, which was published just a couple of weeks before her death. A writer herself, and not afraid of speaking, I feel she might have seized the opportunity to take part in what I believe is the first composite record of any of our non-royal duchesses.