The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Cavendish, youngest of the eccentric Mitford sisters and preserver of Chatsworth, a country estate established by Bess of Hardwick in the 1560’s, “passed away peacefully” Wednesday morning, according to chatsworth.org., the English manor’s website. The Mitfords were an aristocratic family that made headline news, spurred controversy in World War II and as described by eldest daughter Nancy, as quoted in “The Sisters”, “a very different cup of tea.”
Although separated by centuries, the Duchess of Devonshire and Bess of Hardwick shared more than a residence in common and Mary S. Lovell, biographer, knows the connections intimately. Author of several books, including “Bess of Hardwick” and “The Sisters”, Lovell knew the Duchess personally and through her was able to access many records of the Chatsworth family history. In fact, the Duchess was among those who encouraged Lovell to write about Bess, an ancestor of Lady Cavendish’s late husband.
Reached Friday by email, Lovell, who lives in Hampshire, England, spoke to the Examiner, of her admiration of the Dowager Duchess. “I absolutely adored her, ” says Lovell. “She was kind, witty, clever, unique, savvy, classless – a true successor to Chatsworth’s builder [Bess of Hardwick]. I feel privileged to have had her friendship.”
In “The Sisters” Lovell tells the captivating stories of six sisters who, after leading a sheltered life in various country manors, with little formal education, made their mark in society in extremely different ways, although several of them shared a talent for writing. Nancy wrote semi-autobiographical novels which poked fun of her family. Diana married a fascist and sister, Unity, was enamored with Hitler and shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany. Jessica was a communist, who married the nephew of Churchill and moved to the United States. Pamela, the least controversial of the Mitford girls, affectionately referred to as “Woman” by her family because of her domestic talents, was the only sister to avoid the spotlight, never writing a book or taking a political stand publicly. But, it was the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, who by marriage, became the Duchess of Devonhire, and future keeper of the centuries-old Chatsworth estate that once belonged to Bess of Hardwick.
Like Bess, whose skill and ambition made her the richest woman of England in her time, save for Queen Elizabeth I, Deborah Cavendish’s hard work and determination are credited for not only updating the 297-room mansion when her husband inherited the estate in 1950, but running it as a business to keep it viable. Chatsworth was burdened with inheritance taxes when the 11th Duke and Duchess took residence. Along with selling off other family properties and furnishings, Debora Cavendish set up gift shops, markets, and guided tours to draw more visitors. This eventually lead to other enterprising ventures including restaurants and hotels near the estate.
Today Chatsworth continues to attract new audiences and is the site of many movies, including its stand-in role for the fictional Pemberley in the 2005 film, Pride and Prejudice. The estate is open for touring March through December and visitors can enjoy an afternoon tea at the Cavendish Restaurant. Guests can choose from the following selections: Laurent-Perrier Champagne tea, the Traditional tea, the Cavendish tea or the Devonshire afternoon tea. Each offers a different menu and pricing, based on budget and appetite.
“Very different kinds of tea”, but like the Duchess of Devonshire and her family, all solidly steeped in British history.
Funeral services for the Duchess of Devonshire will be held October 2, and refreshments will be served at Chatsworth. Public is welcome. For more information, see Chatsworth on-line page Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.
For more information on biographer, Mary S. Lovell, visit www.lovellbiographies.com.
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