NOTE: I assume in writing this that many readers are generally familiar with the lives of the Milford family l and of the period covered by this novel in particular. For those who have not heard much about them, this review has some spoilers.
The Milfords of the 20th century, an aristocratic British family with six daughters and a son remain fascinating to us long after the deaths of the original players. In this historical fiction novel, Marie Benedict initially takes us to a time a few years before the start of WWII, as some members of the family increasingly became attracted to the growth of fascism in Germany and Italy. Much of the story is told from Nancy Mitford’s point of view. She was the eldest child and some years older than the other two sisters who are the focus of this novel, Diana and Unity. While this period in the lives of the family was generally known to me, through reading about them in articles and a biography, Benedict’s wonderfully researched telling of the political turns taken by some of the family provides more detail and context to what seems like political madness, but can easily be viewed as a very contemporary tale. She shows how a family with some propensity toward fascist views could spawn activists who worked hard to promote and seek change in British governance toward fascism even after the war commenced.
In 1932, Diana Mitford was still married to the heir to the Guinness fortune, with two young sons and all the material things she could dream of. But her focus was on the very married Sir Oswald Mosley, a well known British fascist who founded the British Union of Fascists. We learn a lot about this organization and Mosley’s work in this novel, including that it was initially funded by Mussolini and later by Hitler. Mosley appeals to Diana’s political and social views. They are lovers and Diana is poised to leave her loving husband for Mosley.
Unity Mitford, Diana’s younger sister, is tall, gawky, socially awkward and devoted to the Nazi cause. Over the next few years, as the political climate becomes more charged, Unity goes to Germany to study language and to essentially stalk Adolph Hitler until she becomes part of his inner circle. Diana in fact leaves her husband and fiercely supports Mosley in his work. Nancy watches with concern as she also seeks to learn more about what her sisters are up to. Their parents, (Muv and Farve) start to align politically with Diana and Unity and even dine with Hitler. Ultimately, Muv continues with her fascist sympathies. Farve rejects them. It destroys their marriage.
When war is declared between Germany and Great Britain, Diana and her husband (Mosley) are incarcerated for treason, albeit with fairly decent treatment. Unity is seriously brain damaged when she attempts suicide and lives her life in her mother’s care.
These bones of the story are well known, but Benedict brings out the feel of the times, taking us to pre-war Germany and the rise of Hitler as well as pre-war England, where many did not see Hitler as their problem or as a threat at all. Benedict gives us a credible sense of how Hitler’s inner circle interacted and where Unity and Diana fit in. Winston Churchill’s wife was Farve’s cousin. The Churchill and Mitford families were close. Benedict brings him into the picture before he becomes prime minister, when his concerns about Hitler’s rise are generally considered overwrought. In Benedict’s story, Churchill connects with Nancy to discuss his concerns about Unity and Diana, seeking soft information from her. This, too gives Benedict a chance to highlight the views of Chamberlain and his accolades who believed England dodged war through appeasement of Hitler. We even get a sense of Adolph Hitler as a “friend” to these British sisters, Unity in particular since she is in Germany more than Britain during most of the mid-1930s.
Benedict is an engaging writer and tells a story so well that it is fresh and riveting, deftly putting us into the minds of the players and the historic events during the ten years or so she covers. This is an interesting and very worthwhile read whether you are a Mitford fan already or new to the family. It taught me a lot. These are fascinating characters brought to life in a memorable, readable way.