New in paperback: “Wait for Me,” by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire

October 18, 2011

The six Mitford sisters have kept tabloids and biographers busy for decades. Dubbed by Vogue as “the most spectacular sister act of the twentieth century,” this sorority of beautiful and talented British aristocrats stirred controversy with their writings, politics and bedfellows. Numerous memoirs, published letters and semi-autobiographical novels have helped fuel the Mitford mystique. (Even J.K. Rowling named her daughter, Jessica, after a Mitford.) It is onto this crowded stage that the youngest and only surviving Mitford sibling, Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, enters with her own version of events in the aptly titled Wait for Me! (Picador, $18).

Mitford’s book is billed as her memoirs, and it lives up to that old-fashioned term: an autobiography by a woman of note, writing for posterity rather than bestsellerdom. Mitford recalls a happy childhood full of innocent antics: coining nicknames (Mitford’s parents called her Stubby because of her short legs), communicating in an invented language, learning to drive stick shift at age 9. Mitford’s disapproval of modern ways is never far from the surface: “I read now about the necessity of self-esteem in children. We would have been impossibly pleased with ourselves had we been indulged with such a thing.” She is especially nostalgic for English country life, a tradition she fostered for years while overseeing Chatsworth, a grand estate that is said to have been the inspiration for “Pride & Prejudice.” Mitford helped transform the property into a popular tourist attraction and has written about it extensively in previous books.

It would be difficult for any book about the Mitfords to be dull, no matter how dutiful its purpose. And “Wait for Me!” does not disappoint. (A partial index of famous names might read: Hitler, tea with, 83-84; JFK, dancing with, 90; Johnson, Lady Bird, in a Jacuzzi with, 241.) And while Mitford’s tone is steely, she nonetheless unleashes some zingers — “Evelyn Waugh was a difficult guest and when he drank too much he was impossible,” she dishes — and amusing vignettes. Unable to find a suitable flower arrangement when entertaining Oscar de la Renta, she fashioned centerpieces out of live poultry nestled in china baskets instead. “Our efforts had the desired effect,” she deadpans; for de la Renta’s next visit, she decorated the table with live piglets in glass boxes. Mitford, now 91, was mocked by her older, more provocative sisters as a bore, but in “Wait for Me!” she displays her own brand of rebelliousness and devilish humor.

From our previous reviews:

In The Warmth of Other Suns (Vintage, $16.95), winner of a 2010 National Book Critics Circle award, Isabel Wilkerson “puts a different face on what is known as the Great Migration . . . the flight of 6 million Southern blacks to the North between 1915 and 1970,” wrote Paula J. Giddings, who called the book “extraordinary and evocative.”

Must You Go? (Anchor, $16), an “enchanting memoir” by Antonia Fraser, widow of the playwright Harold Pinter, is “a homage, not just to their love but to their time and work together,” according to Carolyn See.

1939: Countdown to War (Penguin, $14) is an “exceptionally lucid, concise and authoritative book,” by Richard Overy, that examines the decisions and events that led to World War II, according to Jonathan Yardley.

Bill Bryson’s “books follow the natural wave patterns of his own curiosity, but they answer the questions that have always, or maybe never, been rustling at the back of your brain,” wrote Louis Bayard. That holds true in his latest work, At Home (Anchor, $15.95), an examination of “how Western civilization created domesticity — how houses became homes and people went about the fraught business of ‘getting comfortable.’ ” 

Set in a Dublin Catholic school “whose social dynamics make ‘Lord of the Flies’ seem like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ” Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber, $16) is a “dazzling,” darkly comic novel by Paul Murray that offers a fresh take on the idea “that we never really outgrow being lovesick, awkward, bullying children,” wrote Jess Walter.

Wolf (Basic, $17.99), by James L. Haley, is a “sharply focused biography” of Jack London that “recaptures the breadth of London’s achievements and the intricacies of his personality,” according to Wendy Smith.

Krug reviews paperbacks for The Post every month.

Nora Krug is a Book World editor and a MisFits columnist.
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