Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Wait For Me!


I have been reading Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire for (approximately) forever. I started it the day it arrived, back in September, but a combination of it being too heavy for my bag, and not being able to cope with the idea of finishing it - not to mention that somewhere towards the middle of each month I realise that I've not read the books for either of my book groups, and have six days to do so - mean I only turned the last page earlier this month.

For those of you who won't get to the end of this post - and it will involve whatever the written equivalent of squawking is - I shall mention now that I have a copy to give away. Tell me your favourite autobiography, in the comments, for a chance of winning. This is open worldwide, so pop your name in. For many reasons to do so, dear reader, read on...

The Mitfords have been of great interest to many from their childhood onwards. They skirted around the outside of my consciousness, with Nancy taking occasional leaps forward, until I read the collection of their letters, expertly edited by Charlotte Mosley. Now - and I suspect most of you know this - I am rather besotted by some of the sisters. Unity and Jessica remain outside my affection, but I rather love the rest, and am devoted to Debo. So much so, that I am going to be hugely unprofessional and refer to her as 'Debo' throughout this review.

So, of course, I was delighted when she published her autobiography. Earlier works include collections of articles and musings (Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost) as well as lots of books about her home, Chatsworth, which I haven't read. Those collections I have read, whilst entertaining and joyous, did little to suggest that Debo would be able to sustain a full-length autobiography. How wrong I was to worry.

Perhaps there isn't much that will surprise in Wait For Me! Anybody who has read about the sisters before will find they know many of the anecdotes and stories already. What this book brings to the table is Debo's perspective, and her wonderfully calm way with words. I hadn't noted down any quotations to share, but having just flicked the book open at random, I came across a paragraph beginning thus:
Unity was always the odd one out. She arrived in this world in August 1914 to the sound of troops marching to war and departed it thirty-four years later in tragic circumstances. Larger than life in every way, she could have been model for a ship's figurehead or Boadicea, with her huge navy-blue eyes, perfectly straight nose and fair hair worn in two long plaits. Perhaps because of her teenage diet of mashed potatoes, her teeth were her only bad feature.
Debo hasn't allowed familial closeness to cloud her judgement or provoke over-sentimentality; yet, who but a sister would choose those images and those details? Unity, who later befriended Hitler, and tried to kill herself on the outbreak of WW2, comes alive with these much more prosaic details. It is Debo's complete unflappability which charms me through the account. Nowhere - except, of course, the title - would Debo dream of using an exclamation mark. It would be poor manners to get over-excited about something.

I was worried that Wait For Me! would pall once Debo had left home, and once the sisters were no longer centre stage - but I was wrong. Some of the most moving pages come when Debo describes her husband's alcoholism, or their miscarriages and stillborn children. This isn't done remotely gratuitously, or like those ghastly misery memoirs, but truthfully and unsensationally. And it is evident that Debo is far more interested in the businesslike running of Chatsworth than she in the doings of her sisters in their youths - her enthusiasm is contagious.

Don't worry for my sanity. I am under no delusion that Debo and I could really be friends. My vegetarianism might put paid to that, for a start, let alone our fairly divergent views on hunting. Debo is occasionally unconsciously hilarious - like when, after a chapter devoted to the joys of hunting parties, she writes that 'a fox came in daylight and murdered [chickens] for fun, as these serial destroyers do.' Takes a beetle to know a beetle, Debo, m'dear.

But none of this really seems to matter, and it certainly doesn't stop me adoring Debo and loving her book. Along with the spectacular collection of letters edited by Charlotte Mosley, Wait For Me! is a unique piece of social history, as well as an honest and entertaining personal memoir. The Mitfords are not everyone's cup of tea (my own dear brother has a violent prejudice against them, based not on their Fascism or Communism, but rather Nancy's refusal to use air-mail and their nicknaming of the Queen Mother as 'Cake') - but Debo's book confirms that they are very definitely mine. In a china cup and saucer, naturally, with ginger cake on the side.

33 comments:

  1. Best autobiography I've read in the past couple of years is: "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" by Alexandra Fuller.

    I also am interested in the Mitfords, and am very interested in reading more. Thank you for a great post and a great book suggestion!

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  2. You know I love the Mitfords (I can't like Decca but I'm rather fond of poor Unity) and I'm terribly, terribly excited about this book! My copy is on its way from the publisher (its very, very slow way most frustratingly) and I'm haunting the post office, desperate for its arrival! It sounds so delightful that I know I'll enjoy it.

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  3. Wait for Me! is on my wish list so thanks for this opportunity.

    Favorite autobiography is a tough question. I mostly ready biographies so it was a bit of a challenge. But after perusing my book case I've come up with a winner: Beryl Markham's West with the Night. After thumbing through it I find I will need to read it again--it is an elegant piece. Thanks, Simon!

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  4. I do not know whether this will count but the Diary of Anne Frank was for me a moving/accurate autobiography.

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  5. Of course, I love anything any Mitford has written about herself &/or family - but, my favorite autobiography is hard to choose. I seem to collect autobiographies, letters, diaries, and such - my favorite reading(!). I consider VW's diaries & letters to represent her autobiography.

    But, another favorite of mine is MFK Fisher - her writings are practically all autobiographical - but, which one to choose?? I found I really liked her with the first book I read of hers - Long Ago in France and I also liked A Life in Letters. Well, enough already...

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  6. I want to read this so badly! Just read my first Nancy novel but have read other nonfiction bits by and about the sisters. The eccentricities of the youngest are a story in the own right for sure.

    My favorite autobiography is Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence followed by Boy by Roald Dahl.

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  7. I think my favourite autobiography is Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. It's absolutely wonderful.

    I love the Mitfords, I really must read more about them.

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  8. First off, KIM! I can't believe you picked mine (West with the Night)!!...Which leads me to second place "Merry Hall" by Beverley Nichols...

    Now on to the Mitfords. I do find Unity and Jessica to be my least favorite sisters as well. I've also developed a strange obsession with Tom, and dream of writing a book about him. Maybe it's the little we know of him. I'll of course have bang on Chatsworth's front gate in the pouring rain, taken in by the Devs and scour the archives with Debo in the morning-room where she will then decide to adopt me...

    I've gotten myself carried away again...

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  9. The best biography I have read is Ian Kershaw's 2 volume biography of Hitler. It is well-written, incisive, and does not fall into any of the obvious traps dealing with the problematic man that was Hitler and his even more problematic relationship to the German people and to the Nazi elite. As a runner up, I would point to Morris's Theodore Rex, the sequel to which, Colonel Roosevelt, I am currently reading.

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  10. What a hard question! I read a lot of autobigraphy/biography. One that I more recently enjoyed was Julie Andrews, Home, about her early life.

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  11. I like to think that things like Simone de Beauvoir's La Force de l'Âge, the lastest autobiography I read, would come to mind in this instance, but I have to admit I can now only think of Tamara Karsavina's Theatre Street. It probably is because she writes about all the things I know and adore, the Vaganova school I have been lucky enough to see from the inside, and then of course Diaghilev's troupe and London.

    Hurray to Karsavina. Also, it offers glimpses of the everyday character and idiosyncrasies of such great men and women as were involved in the Ballets Russes any the Marinski.

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  12. Oh those Mitfords... I have to confess that I am utterly fascinated by all of them. I just gave away a copy of Mary S. Lovells "The Mitford Girls" as a christmas present for my roommate.

    But my all time favorite autobiography is Dian Fosseys "Gorillas in the Mist". I have read it as a child and was deeply impressed by this strange woman. Ever since that book I wanted to become a biologist myself. And now nearly twenty years later I am finally there, preparing for my very own journey to africa. YAY!

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  13. Hurrah for the Mitfords! As for autobiographies, I loved Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth".

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  14. This has been my Christmas reading! I have to say that I found the frist part (dealing with their childhood with which I was familiar from Hons and Rebels), and the latter part (dealing with Chatsworth) the most interesting

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  15. Autobiographies and memoirs and diaries of 20th century women are tofu and drink to me, and I know Debo's will be no exception when it arrives (either from the local library or Stuck in a Book, as the fates decree).

    Favourite? While I AM partial to Decca Mitford, and have often reread Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict, the jewel in the crown of autobiographies for me (like Shelf) is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (followed by her other Testaments) and have long owned and loved the excellent miniseries as well (which I believe has recently been reissued on DVD).

    Thanks for asking. I'm getting a lot of intriguing suggestions from the other comments.

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  16. Yes, I'm another one who is fascinated by the Mitfords. Favourite autobiography is very difficult - slightly cheating perhaps as 3 books rather than 1 and not strictly autobiographical but how about Noel Streatfeild's Vicarage books.

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  17. Oh, I would love to win the book! I adore all things Mitford.

    My favorite autobio? It's impossible to pick just one, but if I must, it's A Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

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  18. An absolute delight from beginning to end and definitely a favourite read this year.

    I can't help but think of her as 'Debo' either. Wonderful review, Simon!

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  19. Does Hilda Bernstein's The World That Was Ours count as autobiography? Maybe political memoir would be more accurate -anyway, it's completely riveting.

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  20. As mentioned in a few comments above, it's been quite hard for me to think of my favourite autobiography, but I think that it would have to be Agatha Christie's - my first literary crush and an author still dear to me.

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  21. This book sounds really interesting, as I have only read Nancy's novels so far.
    The biography I have enjoyed most is the first one I read - my sister bought it at a jumble sale when I was a teenager. It was published in 1947, and is 'Blue Tapestry' by Vera Laughton Mathhews - the head of the Wrens during the war. She was a housewife when the Admiralty asked her to set up the Wrens in 1939, and ended up with 100,000 women under her command, who ran large parts of the land-based Navy. Not racy by modern standards, and a lot of information was still classified, but still an amazing story.

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  22. I really liked Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. Folks who have never heard of her are in for a real treat. Among other things, she virtually created the country we now know as Iraq. Check this one out!
    I've been waiting for "Wait for Me" to come out in paper!

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  23. My favourite autobiography is "The Joy of the Snow" by Elizabeth Goudge, closely followed by "Time to Be in Earnest" by P.D.James. I should love to read "Wait For Me!" - thank you for the opportunity to win a copy.

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  24. An all time fave for me is 'No minor chords' by Andre Previn. It was fascinating to find out about the young composer's time in Hollywood and all the stars he met and it was surprisingly funny too.

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  25. Ironically, given your comments on hunting, my favorite autobiography is Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man"--not for the hunting, which makes me cringe, but for the glimpse of the world before modern warfare changed it, and us, forever. I also love "Testament of Youth" and "Good-bye to All That."
    I've long loved the Mitfords, and "squeed" when, in the course of my work, I had the opportunity to catalogue a binding done for their grandfather Bertram, which I've written about here.

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  26. I'm not sure if it counts as an autobiography or as a religious book with autobiographical elements, but The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris is probably top of my list. If that doesn't count, then Spring Comes Barefoot by Sister Felicity, a Franciscan.

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  27. I can't believe I didn't think of this one: "Time to Be in Earnest" by P.D.James [Thanks, Gill!]

    Lives of authors & artists intrigue me the most - & how their work fit into their everyday lives.

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  28. My favourite is To the Is-land, by Janet Frame. And I do love the Mitfords (must admit Decca is my favourite though).

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  29. Best autobiography, Toast by Nigel Slater

    Thanks

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  30. Well, I have loved the various books Dodie Smith wrote (Look back with Love et al) but Valerie Grove has used those autobiographies to produce a wonderful book: Dear Dodie The Life of Dodie Smith.

    Such an enjoyable book for those who have read I capture the Castle and The hundred and one dalmatians etc

    Happy New Year

    Sue

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  31. Your review really sparked my interest in reading "Wait For Me!".

    As for a favorite biography or memoir, mine is Doris Lessing's "Under My Skin".

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  32. Grew up loving the Mitfords and have read many biographies, etc. of the family.

    As for best biography - that is really hard and I have to go with May Sarton's Journal of Solitude even though it only covers a small portion of her life.

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  33. I think my favorite autobiography is West with the Night by Beryl Markham. I have the illustrated edition which is just beautiful. The writing is so good, I read it slowly because I didn't want it to end. . . maybe this would be a good year for a reread! And yes, please enter me in the drawing -- I'd love to read more about the Mitfords.

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