WAIT FOR ME!: MEMOIRS
By Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28. 345 pages, illustrated
In the strange world of the Mitfords - eccentrics even with the high bar that existed among the English aristocracy - amid the shrieking laughter at the perpetual torrent of jokes for which anything, everything and anyone was fodder, there was a private network of terms and individual nicknames.
Not for them could a single nickname suffice for each of the six girls and one boy, but each family member had his own name for the others. So the Hon. Deborah Vivian Freeman-Mitford, later duchess of Devonshire, could be known almost universally to friends as Debo, but to older sister Pam she was "Stublow" and to Jessica, closest to her in age, "Hen." Trust Nancy, oldest and most waspish of the sisters, to bestow on her youngest sibling the withering sobriquet "Nine" - a reference to her permanent mental age. Not surprisingly, this still rankles, even after the best part of a century, judging by the 90-year-old duchess's references to it in her memoir.
Certainly, whatever its other merits - or its deficiencies - "Wait for Me" disproves Nancy Mitford's assessment of her sibling's mental capacities. There is nothing wrong with this Mitford's brain, nor with her memory, which reaches back through more recent times to great events and small. But what the reader will see - and perhaps this bears some relationship to that sororal put-down - is a remarkable detachment, a coolness that renders much of the narrative if not always bland, severely limited.
Whether describing such spectacles as the coronation of the current British monarch or various proconsular activities undertaken as a result of her husband's official positions in national and local government, this narrator allows everything to wash over her. The effect of all this is akin to what one might sometimes expect of a formal portrait - and she has been the subject of many, reproduced and discussed here - to say, rather than a flesh and blood human being.
Which is all the odder because amid all this bland custard, there are shards of acute observation and even of personal revelation that are all the more remarkable because they poke out in such sharp contrast. Scores with sister Jessica are briskly settled, her memoirs skillfully and authoritatively rebuked, even debunked - despite her obvious affection for the sister closest to her in age. Likes and dislikes of people, many of them famous, are crisply expressed, as are her generally conservative, sometimes libertarian, social and political views. And she speaks with surprising frankness of her husband's alcoholism and the desperate steps she took to induce him to embrace the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, leading to his sobriety in the final decades of his life. Here she can indeed write with a wit worthy of her oldest sister:
"To me 'in vino veritas' was the very opposite of what happened: 'In vino' brought out the nasty side; it was without the vino that Andrew was himself."
And unlike Nancy, she can reveal a fond heart, manifest in everything she writes about a husband whom she loved for more than 60 years, truly a portrait of a marriage warts and all but with admirable wisdom, restraint and loyalty.
But in "Wait for Me," loyalty can lead us into very choppy waters indeed. It is one thing to be loyal to her family but quite another to defend her Nazi sister Unity with the bland assertion that "she was not the only English girl to fall for National Socialism." Shame to those others then, but how many equaled Unity's fanatical- and requited - devotion to the fuhrer, with her unique mix of the frivolous and the rebarbative?
In characteristically bland fashion, the author recounts how she accompanied her sister and equally starstruck mother to have tea with Hitler: "He isn't like his photos, not nearly so hard-looking" was her judgment in her 1937 diary, quoted here. And all she can come up with by way of hindsight from the 21st century is: "Looking back, what is surprising is that he postponed his departure for two hours so as to be able to sit and chat to Unity and, through her, to us." Which rather goes against her "Unity wasn't the only one" line: How many of those other English roses cast such a spell on the Fuhrer?
Things only get worse when Ms. Mitford goes on to sister Diana Mosley, such an unregenerate Nazi that she was not only married chez Dr. and Mrs. Josef Goebbels (in Hitler's presence) but was staunch in her refusal to condemn Nazism until her death only a few years ago. Not only do we hear endlessly about her beauty - has the phrase "handsome is as handsome does" never occurred to Ms. Mitford, that what came out of Diana in all her chilling pronouncements was about as ugly (there is no other word for it) as you can get? - but we are treated to descriptions of how harsh conditions were when she was locked up in prison as a security risk during World War II.
Did they ever think about the treatment meted out to enemies of the state in Nazi Germany? And Nancy is roundly condemned for (truthfully) telling the authorities just how dangerous a person her rabidly Nazi sister was. So loyalty really is the rub here, the shoals on which this sisterly account runs aground. "Wait for Me," with its uncomfortable mix of bland acceptance and occasional sharp thrusts, discretion and revelation, induces a distinctly queasy feeling in this reader.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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