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Deborah Mitford: Wait For Me!


Wait For Me!

Author: Deborah Mitford
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Dozens of books have been written about Britain’s six famed Mitford sisters—their memoirs, biographies, collected letters, Nancy Mitford’s fictionalizations of their family life—that Deborah Mitford’s memoir Wait For Me! contains little new information, in spite of the value of extreme hindsight. (She’s 90 years old.) “I have always voted Conservative and would never do otherwise,” the 11th duchess of Devonshire proclaims. “I was not interested in Communism or Fascism—I had had too much of them in my childhood.” It’s clear, then that her take on the story of an oft-lurid family, will be a pointedly conservative, burnished one.

So many stories from Jessica Mitford’s 1960 memoir Hons And Rebels are either retold identically or offered with pointedly different information that the book acts in part as an attempt to restore some traditional (or archaic) respect for the Mitfords as a respectable pillar of British life. This involves, among other things, explaining why Deborah didn’t object more to her sisters’ dalliances with fascism (Unity moved to Germany; Diana took up with British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley); she responds by reprinting a remarkably innocuous version of her family’s tea party with Hitler in 1937. She noted his “flat was all in brown and white, really rather ugly & quite plain.” When he rang for tea service and no one came, her main remembrance is feeling “at home” when learning “that a small domestic nuisance like a broken bell could happen even to a head of state.”

That’s a characteristic euphemistic nicening-up of the more outré aspects of the Mitford saga. Deborah’s memoirs are amusing on their own occasional merits: She specializes in anecdotes about aristocratic British eccentrics (noting in passing a man who pretended to be a fish while his butler cast lures into the bathtub, so he could evaluate their effectiveness) and the few still-untold bits of family lore. Of her later, more settled years, there are fun tales about everyone who passed through, from drunken Evelyn Waugh to the Prince of Wales.

Eventually, though, Deborah sets about enumerating her many achievements in estate conservation, charity work, and hunting, often in terms resembling press releases (“the Country Fair not only makes a major financial contribution to the upkeep of Chatsworth but also creates an immeasurable dollop of goodwill between Chatsworth and its public”) or company newsletters (“Alan Shimwell was invaluable, carrying boxes of trays from the car park till the string nearly cut off his fingers”). The only common thread between her memoirs and some equally expansive thank-you notes are the grumbled asides about how everything was better in the past: “the newspaper was a proper size in those days” is a typical representation. Mitfordites (or simply lovers of 20th-century British society/literary gossip) will have to make their peace with the vast amounts of literary deadwood to get what they came for.