Review: The Mitford Affair

I’m fascinated by biographical/historical fiction. What interests me most about these novels is the complicated challenges they present. They have to meet all the usual requirements for successful historical fiction: an intriguing story peopled with engaging characters and supported by true-to-period details of settings, dress, food, slang, and lifestyle. But biographical/historical fiction has the additional responsibility of being true, more or less, to the lives of its real-life people. This usually means a major research commitment, especially if the real people are well known. Hence (to my mind) the additional challenges, especially when the real people are central characters in the fiction. I’m always interested in these questions: Does the writer choose to work within the life-limits of her characters’ experiences and personality? Or does she change people and circumstance to fit the story outline she has in mind?

Which brings me to Marie Benedict’s latest novel, The Mitford Affair. The book tells the story of four Mitford sisters: the famous and infamous Nancy, Diana, Unity, and Jessica, daughters of a declining aristocratic family who vie for places in British political, literary, and social circles in the two decades between the World Wars. Nancy, a successful novelist, is unhappily unmarried, then unhappily married. Diana, to her family’s dismay, becomes involved in a scandalous and adulterous love affair with the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosely. Unity creates even greater scandal through her quite public and unrestrained admiration for the Nazi cult in Germany and her passionate obsession with Adolph Hitler—even rumored to be his mistress. Younger sister Decca commits herself to the communist cause, but it is Diana and Unity who demand most of our attention. As war looms and these two sisters become deeply involved in dangerous fascist and Nazi activities, Nancy becomes more and more uncomfortable with their choices, until she is finally faced with a brutal choice. Should she share what she knows with Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and a cousin-by-marriage? Can she really “steer the course of the world’s future,” as Churchill tells her? At what cost to her sisters?

Benedict has chosen to portray a difficult assortment of characters, allegiances, and alliances in a difficult period. Diana’s and Unity’s self-destructive fascination with and need for powerful men makes it hard to sympathize with the two women. Nancy’s smug, “uppity” skepticism and her failure to actively intervene with her sisters while at the same time satirizing them in her fiction is understandable but unattractive. The tumult and chaos of the political environment may be hard for some to sort out. It takes a reader with a certain amount of historical knowledge and interest to work through these unpleasant people and their complicated stories to a conclusion that is fraught with personal and political ambiguities. The book ends, literally, with a question mark, as Nancy–unsure of her own motivations–tries to understand her choices.

I enjoyed this novel. The physical settings are detailed, interesting, and accurate. The costumes tell us exactly what we need to know about the wearers. The use of first-person narration for Nancy helps to anchor the story’s moral center for us, such as it is. The dialogue sparkles and the events have a compelling logic from beginning to end. Most of all, I admire the novelist for tackling such a difficult subject, for living with its challenges long enough to fashion a story that is fundamentally true to the real people she’s writing about. Benedict does confess to inventing Nancy’s spying episode (the machinery that precipitates the final action), but as she says in “A Conversation with the Author,” she has refused to stray far from the historical record. Writers of fiction can find this kind of self-imposed discipline either difficult or impossible. Benedict manages it here with style, grace, and creative ingenuity.

The Mitford Affair illuminates the labyrinthine social and political milieu of pre-WW2 England and Germany and the lives of people whose loyalties were tested by competing political ideas. As well, it asks us to think hard about the rifts in our families in an era when our own divisive politics threaten to pull us apart. Recommended for readers who enjoy a reading challenge and want to learn more about England and Europe between the wars.

And while we’re on the subject of difficult characters: I’ve recently finished another novel I want to share with you. Wendy Holden’s The Duchess, about Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American woman who married the former Edward VIII of England. I’ll post a review of it sometime soon. In the meantime, if you’d like to comment, please join the conversation below.

18 comments on “Review: The Mitford Affair

  1. No, I hadn’t! Thanks for the tip, Evetta–I just snatched the first one. I see this is a time-limited series (6 books, up to 1941). That’s smart: the series concludes before Diana goes to jail as a subversive. The author, Jessica Fellowes, also wrote the Companion to Downton Abbey. (She is the niece of the DA’s creator.) So she knows the period very well. I’m curious to see how she deals with these formidable characters.

  2. Have you come across the Mitford sisters mystery series by Jessica Fellows?

    Entertaining! Try one.

  3. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. Being of a certain age and British born I remember the interest of the sisters and their lives well after WW.11.
    It was often the University educated and upper class young people who became interested in Hitler and his ideas, as War loomed in Europe the idealistic of them thought it would change the world for the better. Sadly we know now that was not the case.

  4. That’s what I love about the best historical fiction, Barbara: it compels us to learn more, to fill in the historical context, go beyond the book. Not just a quick entertainment and then forgotten.

  5. I just finished reading The Mitford Affair this evening. I found the story to be fascinating. I had never heard of the Mitford sisters. Now I have been doing some online reading to see what happened to each of them. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention.

  6. Interesting how many of us have read one or two of the sisters, or a biography of them. As a group, they give us such an interesting look into the complicated political life of Britain before WW2.

  7. I like the title of her collection of short pieces: Counting My Chickens . . . And Other Home Thoughts. Have to smile at one reviewer, who writes: “Reading the duchess is a bit like visiting an old aunt: you swallow the dreary bits politely, knowing there will be a few delightful morsels when you least expect them.” 🙂

  8. I think I’ll pair the review of The Duchess with a review of The Woman Before Wallis (Bryn Turnbull), which I’m reading now–so it’ll be a while.

  9. Have requested this from the library. I’ve read a bit about the sisters, and I read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death a long time ago. I’m very interested to read this book.

  10. I’ve read a lot about the Mitford sisters. Deborah, who became the Duchess of Devonshire,
    is my favorite. At the end of her autobiography she wrote that other people thought her growing up was strange, but it was the only life she knew.

  11. I’m the same as Maryellen-I read “The Sisters” & it was fascinating to read about these women, who aren’t really cozy to get to know. They are all complicated & diverse, coming from an interesting background. I’m excited to read the Benedict book, as I’ve enjoyed other novels by her. Also, I read Holden’s “The Duchess” last year & found that to be a fascinating view of the much-maligned Wallis Simpson. Can’t wait to read your review!

  12. I read the first book, The Last Hours. (On the Black Death, mid 1300s, for fans of late medieval fiction).

  13. Have you read any Minette Walters? I read her two books about the plague and it was fascinating. Especially since we were in a pandemic when I read them.

  14. I haven’t read this novel yet, but a few years ago I read the 611 page biography “The Sisters, The Saga of the Mitford Family” by Mary S Lovell. I was on the edge of my chair the whole time. I had heard excerpts on my way to work on NPR and jotted down the info to order the book (still on my shelf). I couldn’t believe this wasn’t a mini series or a well know and referred to family! Their lives (all the sisters) almost seem unreal, like someone had to make all this up. I can’t wait to read this novel, too.

  15. You choose your words so well! Everything you write gracefully breathes out rational thought, and your books have quiet charm and humour— and it’s all very refreshing.

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