We live in a demotic age. How is it therefore that by the beginning of the 21st century the Duke of Devonshire had become a national institution? If you doubt that fact you need only refer to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s lyrical account of the funeral in this magazine or the hundreds of column inches devoted to His Grace’s passing. There were hardly any sour notes from the commentariat. On the whole the Dutt-Paukers of Marxmount were silent and the new ruling class for once forbore to spin.
It is not explanation enough to say that Devonshire was a kind and generous man with a witty turn of phrase and a Whiggish sense of style. He was indeed all of that and more. He had a beautiful and witty wife with the self-confidence and charm to complement him and at times to outshine him as the public face of the family ‘firm’. He possessed the courage to admit the considerable difficulties of his private life to a press and public that he disarmed with his apparently artless frankness. Above all, in spite of his guilt at his unexpected inheritance, he came to enjoy the opportunities the dukedom gave him to do good and to follow his interests. For instance, he enjoyed a party and it was a typically inspired idea to celebrate his golden wedding by asking every other Derbyshire couple doing the same that year to Chatsworth.
If he was Whiggishly equivocal about his party allegiance, he was unwavering and generous in his support for the causes he believed in. I for one shall never forget the immediate and unconditional response from both him and his wife when I impertinently asked them whether they would hold a dinner at Chatsworth to raise money for the ‘No’ Campaign against the Euro. Not only were we, both ‘home team’ and potential donors, entertained in the grandest Chatsworth manner, but all of us were put up for the night as well. That we raised a record sum owed something to the glory of the setting, but much more to the fun our hosts injected into the proceedings.
All of this may help explain why a demotic age welcomed Devonshire to its bosom, but it is not a complete explanation. Could it be that the law of unintended consequences is beginning to bite in Blair’s Britain? Could it be that the public is beginning to realise that instant gratification, a stultifying bureaucracy, a lying government wasting huge sums of our money to produce incompetence and the death of liberty, are killing everything that is good about England? Could it be that, by contrast, they see something precious and eternal in the loyalty, courage and sheer excellence that Chatsworth and its owners bring to the nation? Well, perhaps some do. You must allow those of us who wish it were so to dream on.
It is sad that the author of this short autobiographical memoir did not live to see it published. It is shot through with the self-deprecation and candour that so endeared Devonshire to those who met him. There are jokes, but uncharacteristically few. However, I am glad that the mace-bearer of Buxton was called Light and that the ducal Mayor was able to instruct him to ‘Lead, kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom’. Equally, it is the memoir of a man who was perhaps too blind and too modest to write a full-blown autobiography in his eighties. The result is a book that is a happy contrast to the incontinent efforts of other practitioners. It is a delight, and gives the reader a glimpse of the author’s extraordinary range of interests. However, for this re- view-er, who counts himself as one of his uncritical fans, it is too spare to be entirely satisfying. For the only time in my life I could have wished for a book that was twice as long.