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The Mitford Affair


The Mitford Affair

Marie Benedict, the bestselling author of historical fiction featuring iconic --- and often ignored --- women in history, turns her keen eye and meticulous research to the famous (and occasionally infamous) Mitford family in THE MITFORD AFFAIR. Cousins of Clementine Churchill (profiled in LADY CLEMENTINE), the Mitford children --- most notably their six daughters --- were aristocrats who became popular among social, literary and political circles during the 1930s and beyond. Here, Benedict focuses on writer Nancy; beautiful, carefree Diana; and young, impressionable Unity.

When we meet this trio, the year is 1932. All of London society has gathered at the sprawling home that Diana shares with her husband, Guinness heir Bryan, for the coming out of Unity. The most (ahem) unique of the Mitford girls, she is more likely to be found cradling her pet rat than dazzling available suitors. Although Unity is meant to be the focus of the night, all eyes are on lovely, sphinxlike Diana, including Nancy’s.

"Dishy, riveting and absorbingly complicated, THE MITFORD AFFAIR is a close and anxiety-fueled look at the darkest hours of the Mitford family and the world at large. It is a spellbinding work of historical fiction from one of the genre’s finest writers."

Nancy knows that she could never compete with Diana’s otherworldly beauty, but she holds her own among her witty, bright friend group, which includes writer Evelyn Waugh. She knows she is this close to an engagement, as soon as her beau realizes that his dalliances with men are “just a phase.” But on the night of Unity’s debut, Nancy notices something different about her gorgeous, glowing sister. While all eyes are trained on Unity, her own are aimed not at her handsome, besotted husband, but on Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists.

In the coming months, Diana divorces her husband --- much to the shock of London society and the shame of her uptight parents --- and becomes enamored not just of Mosley’s romantic persuasions, but of his political beliefs as well. Benedict situates their romance and Diana’s foray into fascism at an interesting point in time. After all, to whom did we compare budding fascists before history made clear the evils of men like Mussolini and Hitler? Without the hindsight of knowledge or the warnings of the past, Diana’s encounters with fascism are intoxicating, made hazy and heady by the sexual underpinnings of her lover and the power she seeks from him. It's not long before Unity joins her.

But where Diana’s interest in fascism is clearly centered on strengthening her bond with Mosley, Unity, long seen as the peculiar sister with few prospects and even fewer friends, becomes almost manic in her support of Mosley. Unaccustomed to being the odd sister out, Nancy, now married to a lazy alcoholic, tries to take part in her sisters’ meetings and gatherings --- the three of them donned in black apparel in support of Mosley’s Blackshirts. But whether it's because she's smarter, more secure or simply less impressed than her sisters, Nancy sees Mosley’s fascism for what it is: an evil power play that has very little to do with improving Britain and much more to do with securing totalitarian rule for him.

As Diana continues cavorting with Mosley, taking greater and greater interest in Hitler and his vision for an “improved” Germany, it is Unity who becomes obsessed with the Führer. She tricks her parents into sending her to a finishing school in Munich where she can learn German and stalk Hitler, decorates her room in swastikas and other propaganda, and dreams of a union between her and the man who she believes will one day lead Germany into glory.

Unity’s interest, along with beautiful Diana’s, does not take long to catch Hitler’s eye. He, too, sees an opportunity: to use the influential, aristocratic (and, it just so happens, Aryan) sisters to draw other British men and women to his cause. Shocked by the obsessive, radical changes she sees in her sisters, Nancy tries to sway them through writing satirical books. But it is not until their cousin’s husband, none other than Winston Churchill, asks her to figure out if her sisters are not just supporting Hitler but perhaps giving him traitorous information that her role in the coming war becomes clear.

Alternating between the perspectives of Nancy, Diana and Unity, Benedict chronicles the next several years in the lives of the Mitfords as fascism takes hold, Hitler and Mussolini come to power, and World War II starts to rear its ugly head. But this is not your average WWII novel, not least of all because it is set before war is even an option. Benedict takes a close look at the interpersonal relationships of sisters as each is drawn into political movements, forced to take sides for and against one another, and make room for themselves in a male-dominated world.

It should come as no surprise that the history is meticulously researched, atmospheric in both scope and detail. But Benedict exemplifies yet another one of her many talents by focusing on three sisters here, rather than a husband and wife, as she has done in so many of her previous books. The relationships between the girls are pure, raw and often laugh-out-loud funny: “Sometimes,” Nancy laments, “I find my sisters incomprehensible. And not only because they are fascists.” The juxtaposition of these warm, familiar bonds and the personal nature of politics carries real weight, and Benedict is not afraid to encourage readers to draw comparisons to today’s political climate, which she makes clear in the book’s back matter.

Dishy, riveting and absorbingly complicated, THE MITFORD AFFAIR is a close and anxiety-fueled look at the darkest hours of the Mitford family and the world at large. It is a spellbinding work of historical fiction from one of the genre’s finest writers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 20, 2023

The Mitford Affair
by Marie Benedict