The Last of the Just

With the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire last week and Lady Soames a few months ago, England is a much poorer place without them.

I knew both ladies rather well but most importantly I enjoyed their company and admired their humility, a rare characteristic of people from their privileged background.

Mary Soames I once interviewed, whereas Debo, as she was known to her friends, I failed to do so. Instead I interviewed her sister Diana, and later on her husband in April 1993 at their London home in Chesterfield Street for the Oldie. I found him to be congenial, a true English gentleman with a disarming honesty. I did not want the interview to end, for I enjoyed being in his presence and was struck by his down-to-earth view of the world. He had none of the patrician arrogance of his class. On the contrary, he showed the kind of humility normally associated with great sages as they delve into the incomprehensible.

The following vignette appeared in the Daily Telegraph under the heading ‘Peerless’:

It seems there are occasional bleak moments at Chatsworth, seat of the Duke of Devonshire. Interviewed by Naim Attallah in the Oldie magazine, he announces he could rub along quite well without a handle.

Devonshire, asked about the future of the House of Lords, says he would be sorry to see it go, ‘although I wouldn’t in the least mind losing my title and being called Andrew Cavendish. I mind very much if my possessions were taken away, but my title, no’. Attallah proceeded to ask Devonshire if he gets on well with his son. ‘I get on very well with my son… He also gets on well with his mother and stands up to her too, more than I do.’ Is the Duchess ‘a strong character’? Devonshire replied: ‘That would be an understatement.’

The Duke seems to have been on good form. At one point he told Attallah that ‘when I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what. Now my idea of heaven…is to sit in the hall at Brooks’s having China tea’. 

There was no question he refused to answer. His honesty came to the fore when I suggested that his image had been rather tarnished a few years earlier when he revealed, in the Old Bailey witness box, a side of his private life that at the time many people would have considered rather disreputable. He replied that being in the witness box and speaking on oath was a salutary experience, ‘and it was very painful for my family. The only consolation was that I didn’t attempt to lie. My private life isn’t all it might be, but it would only make it worse to lie about it’. At this point I asked him if he ever repented. Again he was forthright: ‘I find repentance very difficult, particularly if you are aware that you may do the same thing again…one has to be very careful of repentance.’

Years later his wife, the formidable Debo, told me that the interview I conducted with the Duke was the best he ever gave. I was flattered and surprised, for I thought she might have minded my intrusive questions about his private life. In fact she seemed relaxed about it. She rose even higher in my estimation and we occasionally corresponded. With her sister Diana and her other Mitford siblings, she belonged to an aristocratic family that has become something of a legend.

With the death of Debo one could easily say that the Last of the Just has departed and robbed us of an era where eccentricity and savoir faire had an enthralling effect on our society.

Their reunion in a different place will be another thrilling story to tell.

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