Debo, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Click here to see a slide show. Today I have an invitation to lunch from a lady who has written several books but claims not to read them. She is the dowager duchess of Devonshire, now 85, known to family and friends as “Debo,” the youngest and last surviving of the notorious and endlessly fascinating Mitford sisters. The duchess would like to read more but finds herself too busy tending to her garden, her chickens, and her house, Chatsworth, which has 175 rooms and a staff of 600 and is set on an estate of 35,000 acres. I have come today to meet her and see her library.

Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, a two-hour train ride from London, is extraordinary in any number of ways. It is, first of all, one of the grandest and most beautiful houses in the world, with one of the greatest gardens (designed by Capability Brown and Joseph Paxton) and a vast collection of stuff accumulated by the dukes of Devonshire over the past 500 years. This includes a collection of paintings that spans from a Holbein-esque Henry VIII to several Lucien Freuds, including his portraits of various family members. Thanks to the taste, acumen, and enthusiasm of the dowager duchess, Chatsworth is also a huge, thriving business—a commercial farm and one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Britain.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about Chatsworth is the way it continues to function as a private house. One can’t exactly call this kind of splendor homey, but Chatsworth, as revived and remade by Her Grace, feels almost that way, reflecting the humor and warmth of a down-to-earth duchess. Her ironic touches are everywhere—in the Elvis memorabilia mixed in among the Gainsboroughs and ormolu, and in the “Dowager Duchess of Devonshire free range eggs” for sale in the gift shop: It’s an egg carton containing half a dozen cakes of goat’s-milk soap made on the farm.

The duchess receives me upstairs in what is known as the blue drawing room, home to an enormous painting by John Singer Sargent and a couple of the Freuds. Also present are two of her cousins, Julia Budworth and Madeau Stewart. Budworth, who with her husband owns The Ladymagazine, tells us about a book she’s been working on about someone she has determined was a high-level German spy in the British Foreign Office. The duchess tells me a bit about her late husband, Andrew, the 11th duke of Devonshire, who died last year, and his passion for books. We also discuss the new movie version of Pride and Prejudice, filmed at Chatsworth, which stands in for Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s residence.

For lunch, we adjourn into the enormous dining room. As we chat, a full-length 17th-century portrait in a gilt frame opens at the knee and through it emerges a butler bearing a tray. The duchess explains that bisecting Gen. Monk was the only way to make what had been a drawing room work as the dining room when she redecorated in the 1950s. The menu is all from the farm. In keeping with the theme of Hogarthian cuisine, the main course is a braised tongue of beef.

Over a delicious pear tart with clotted cream, conversation turns to the Mitford sisters. The six girls were raised in the country by a succession of nannies and governesses. Never sent to school by their crusty and reactionary father, who did not see why it was necessary, they communicated with each other in a private language known as Honnish. This fairy-tale upbringing was immortalized by the oldest sister, Nancy, in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Only the second sister, Pamela, failed to become famous or notorious. The third, Diana, married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and went to prison with him. The fourth, Unity, adored Hitler and attempted suicide when the war broke out. No. 5, Jessica, was a Communist whose first husband fought in the Spanish Civil War—she went on to live in California and write The American Way of Death. Deborah, the youngest, was known as the beauty, and married Andrew Devonshire at 19. When Andrew’s older brother (who was married to John F. Kennedy’s sister) was killed in World War II, Debo became a duchess-in-waiting, and after her husband inherited Chatsworth in 1950, she turned it into her life’s work.

Her grace tells me that she’s been reading through the letters the sisters wrote to each other over the years, which have been edited but won’t be published for a few more years. Nancy is the most famous as a letter writer—her inspired correspondence with Evelyn Waugh (whom Debo also knew) has been published. But she tells me that other sisters were amusing and voluminous correspondents throughout their lives as well, despite their extraordinary political conflicts.

After lunch (brandy and cigars declined), the dowager duchess leads me through the tapestry gallery and hands me over to Charles Noble, the archivist and librarian, who has agreed to show me a few of the treasures. A continuous archive that has suffered no losses over the better part of five centuries, Chatsworth is truly a treasure house, with far better records of what has gone on there than, say, the state of New York has for a shorter period. Here, for instance, is one of the lesson books Thomas Hobbes wrote for his young charges when he was a tutor in residence in the 1670s. When I’m done looking at that, Noble passes me the original manuscript of one of Hobbes’ books.

We move on to the library, the grandest of several in the house, with its gilded ceiling, velvet curtains, and huge cases filled with the jewels of English literature and history. Noble pulls down some of the incunabula, early printed books from the 15th century. A couple of dozen Caxtons and the four Shakespeare folios went to the Huntington Library in California to pay death duties after the eighth duke died in 1908. But what’s left is really not bad—the four elephant folios of Audubon’s Birds of America, an Aldine of Petrarch made for a Medici princess, and 25 Groliers, which are the most beautiful and famous bindings from the 16th century. Jane Austen firsts are displayed in the famous sculpture room.

The late duke collected botanical books and the works of Winston Churchill and P.G. Wodehouse, among other areas, and was assisted by John Saumarez Smith of Heywood Hill Bookshop on London’s Curzon Street, where Nancy Mitford worked during World War II. Smith, a beloved literary guide to his largely upper-class clientele, also helped the duke establish a Heywood Hill literary prize, which continues to be awarded every year for “a distinguished literary career.” This became a significant occupation for an aristocrat who described his entire life as “a battle against indolence.” In his later years, when he was no longer able to travel to his castle in Ireland, the duke also had Smith’s help in assembling an “Irish” library.

As Charles Noble shows me these books, I’m struck by the poignancy of a collection without its collectors. Unlike paintings or period rooms, books can’t really be enjoyed by the visitors who roam Chatsworth, because they have to be examined to be appreciated, and they are too fragile and valuable to be handled. They become very expensive furniture. It will be up to the 12th duke, who is expected to move into Chatsworth with his family next year, to make the books, as well as the house, his own.