Like every other Anglophile, I’m breathlessly waiting for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, to give birth to a new royal heir. In the meantime, I’m admiring her common touch–she is, after all, a commoner. This week she made fashion news by wearing a maternity dress costing L17.50 (about $27), off the rack at a chain called Asos. Naturally, thousands have been sold. As far as I can see, she has not put a foot wrong in all the years she’s been Prince William’s main squeeze.
I admire another duchess from an earlier generation, too: Deborah Devonshire. She was born into a family of not-very-rich minor aristocrats, the Mitfords. There were six girls and one boy, and very little money to support them all. Only the son was properly educated; the girls were expected to marry well. They begged to go to school and were put off. They were given London debutante seasons instead. But they were all beautiful, brilliant and creative. So they made their own way in the world.
To make ends meet, Deborah’s mother sold eggs. Her father dreamed of striking gold in Canada. In spite of several trips where he personally dug for gold, it never happened for him. Deborah was the youngest of the family and was considered a little dim as a child. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
In my last post I described how Deborah became Duchess of Devonshire when the heir to the Cavendish title and property was killed in action in World War II, and then the sitting Duke died unexpectedly. The dreaded Death Tax took effect: the authorities demanded millions of pounds, reportedly about 80% of the total value of the inherited estate.
Deborah personally took charge. The Cavendish family seat, Chatsworth, had always welcomed tourists. After all, grand country homes were meant to be seen and admired. Traditionally, the housekeeper conducted tours–for only the right sort of people, of course–and was allowed to keep the resulting tips. Many housekeepers saved enough money to eventually open their own shops. (In Downton Abbey terms, think of Mrs. Hughes discreetly pocketing money from well-to-do tourists). The housekeeper was responsible for vetting the tourists who rang the doorbell. I’m thinking baseball caps, Bermuda shorts and fanny packs would not make it inside.
Anyway, when Deborah took matters in hand, the only facility to welcome tourists was a water tap outside. That tap still exists.
But Deborah decided that people like to buy things, and they like to eat. She created a restaurant and extensive gift shop, now so large and full of delights that it’s a destination in itself. She created a Farm Store (think a very exclusive Whole Foods, with everything in it produced on the grounds of the estate). She created a children’s farm, where city kids can learn how their food is produced. She oversaw a huge renovation of the grand house. She created placards describing the house’s treasures. She began formally charging admission and hiring staff to guide tourists. She created guidebooks and eventually audioguides, with help from historians and art experts. She wrote about a dozen books, about the property and about her colorful life.
Today, a visit to Chatsworth can keep a visitor happy for an entire day. One of my purchases at the gift shop on my last visit was a wonderful book all about the Mitford sisters, The Sisters by Mary Lovell. Reading it is a fascinating history lesson.
At age 93, Deborah still presides–pretty much as CEO–over the thriving enterprise she created, starting at a time when all seemed lost for the noble Cavendish family. Let’s hear it for duchesses with good sense and a common touch!