Deborah Cavendish (nee Freeman-Mitford), Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died earlier this week at the age of 94.
Evelyn Waugh and she were friends, though they were not nearly as close to him as were her older sisters Nancy and Diana. They met in 1942 at a Christmas party where Waugh unfortunately made rather a fool of himself. Deborah was impressed at this first meeting with the “phenomenal amount of drink that [Waugh] consumed, and as I was still shocked by drunkenness, I kept my distance.” She also recalled that Waugh poured a bottle of Chartreuse over his head and then walked about repeatedly intoning that his hair was covered in gum. Her assessment of Waugh was that he could be charming early in the evening: “He wanted to be friends and was full of compliments, but they turned to insults before you knew where you were. The cleverness came through but so did the criticisms; everything was wrong including me.” Deborah said that after the war Waugh made up for his bad behavior by buying her a hat from Paris.
Waugh was later a guest at her house on the Chatsworth estate where he complained that a chamberpot in his room had not been emptied. In her memoir Wait for Me!, (p. 145) Deborah described Waugh as a “difficult guest” who seemed to try to find fault with everything, including “the wine, his bedroom, the outlook and, judging by his behavior, the other guests too.” The full chamberpot was his coup de grâce and was announced “with a look of triumph on his face.” Deborah said she never knew whether his claims were true but she was doubtful, because he “did not bring the evidence with him.” Waugh later wrote to Nancy Mitford in 1962 that he knew he was being a bore during his visit but had behaved badly “because she had turned on the television at dinner.”
Another anecdote from her Memoirs recounted a gift that Waugh had sent her. Waugh, knowing that Deborah was not a great reader, sent her a copy of his biography of Roman Catholic cleric Ronald Knox, assuring her in his inscription that her Protestant sensibilities would not be offended. After unwrapping the parcel and feeling rather pleased with herself, she found that the pages of the book were all blank.
In her later years, Deborah also tried her hand at writing, but her output was never going to rival the works of her older sisters, Nancy, Diana and Jessica, who made successful careers as authors. In addition to publishing her memoirs in 2010, Deborah wrote about her experiences at Chatsworth which she managed to turn from a losing operation into a successful business venture by marketing its farm produce and promoting it as a major tourist attraction.
Her sisters predeceased her, as did her brother, Tom, who was killed in World War II.