Is it a bad thing, do you think, that I can name all the members of the Mitford family, from left to right, without checking to see who is who? Does that mean that I’m “obsessed”… to use an on-line cliché which I abhor?
|Unity, Tom, Debo, Diana, Decca, Nancy, and Pamela Mitford.|
Is it weird that when I visited historic Chatsworth House in Derbyshire last fall, despite the beauty and grandeur of the house and gardens, I was most excited by the memorabilia connected to the late Dowager Duchess, Deborah Mitford as was?
But then again I’ve been fascinated with the Mitford family for years. I adore the fiction of Nancy Mitford. I’ve spent many days happily lost in the memoirs written by several of the sisters, the slew of biographies about them, and even a couple of the many compilations of letters written by them to each other or to their friends.
So, I was tickled to death when a couple of new books that deal with the Mitford clan, if only peripherally, came across my radar. “Wonderful,” I thought gleefully, “Here was a way to while away many happy hours while still house bound with the evil shingles virus.”
Ha. Well, at least I was fifty percent right. I loved one. Hated the other. Let me explain.
First, the bad news. I absolutely hated The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellowes. I wanted to love this book. I felt I was duty bound to love it. It’s a mystery with a Mitford connection. And it’s written by Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian Fellowes, author of the screenplay for Gosford Park, and the novels Snobs and Past Imperfect, which I enjoyed. His latest novel Belgravia was a bit of a disappointment, but I forgave him because he did give us all those wonderful seasons of Downton Abbey.
Sigh. I should have known better. I did know better, in fact. I resisted reading this book when it first came out. But after having read one book loosely connected to the Mitfords this month, my guard was down. What can I say? I should have continued to resist.
I hate to totally pan a book, but this one deserves it. Amateurishly written, I should say over-written, it had too much unnecessary telling, redundant description, and stilted dialogue. If Jessica Fellowes had been a student in my high school creative writing course, I’d have gone at it with a red pen. Pronto. I’m not sure why someone didn’t do that, actually.
The plot is clumsy at best. There’s too much melodrama. I don’t feel any sympathy for the main character Louisa because I don’t believe her plight is convincing. Impoverished daughter of a London washerwoman who must earn her living, okay. But layered on top of that situation, she’s manipulated into pick pocketing and possibly even worse by an evil uncle whom she must escape. I wasn’t buying it. I kept thinking of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I mean, the evil uncle even has a faithful dog who responds to a snap of his fingers and lays at his feet in backstreet pubs while the uncle gets blotto. Is it just me, or does that remind anyone else of Bill Sikes?
Historical fiction is a difficult genre to do really well, so I give Fellowes kudos for trying. She clearly did research, just not enough to enable her to recreate the time period of the early 1920s convincingly. Nor has she brought to life the Mitford family.
|Mitford family at Swinbrook, 1929. source|
Desperate Louisa has escaped her life in London by becoming a nursery maid to the Mitford family. Sixteen year old Nancy Mitford becomes her ally and together they become girl sleuths, trying to fictionally solve the real life murder of Florence Nightingale Shore. The rest of the Mitford family is scenery, or “paper dolls” as one reviewer puts it. And even Nancy doesn’t ring true. As another reviewer on Good Reads says: “Anyone who can make the famously eccentric Mitford family appear so dull and boring deserves some sort of reverse commendation.” Ha. I agree. Still, there are quite a few readers on the same site who disagree. You can read all their comments here.
I had a difficult time finding any published reviews of this book. One short review in the Globe and Mail seems to think the biggest draw would be for Downton Abbey fans, although aside from the setting being an English country house, the link is tenuous. Another mentions the “ready-made markets” for the novel among fans of Golden Age mysteries, Downton Abbey, and the Mitford sisters. And marketing is just what the title, in fact the whole premise, of this book seems to be. To me, anyway. Just part of what Decca Mitford decried as “the Mitford industry,” cashing in on the Mitford name. For someone who loves the fiction of that period, as well as many of the wonderful books that the “Mitford industry” has spawned, Fellowes has committed a heinous crime against historical fiction… and against Mitford-mania.
So back to the library this book will go. Unfinished. But all has not been lost. I had one more book to go.
Luckily for me, I devoured Cressida Connolly’s After the Party.
Connolly’s novel is set, initially, in 1938, in the lead-up to World War II, during the rise of Oswald Mosley, second husband to the third Mitford sister Diana, and leader of Britian’s fascist party. Connolly’s main character Phyllis Forrester and her husband Hugh return to England after many years abroad, and try to settle back into life at home again. Hugh is at loose ends, not being suited to retirement, and Phyllis, who chaffs at staying with her sister Patricia while they wait for their house to be ready, casts about trying to entertain her two children in the weeks before they start school.
|Oswald Mosley head of the British Union of Fascists. 1936 source|
Phyllis’s sister Nina suggests that Phyllis might like to help out at a sort of summer camp run by Nina and her husband, and that both children might enjoy the fun to be had as “youth campers.” After all, besides the lectures and classes, there’s sea bathing, and campfires, and cool uniforms for the children. Ha. Turns out, Nina and her husband are very active in Oswald Mosley’s growing fascist movement, and the camp is a “smokescreen for promoting fascist ideology.” But Phyllis is drawn in, partly by talk of how Mosley, their esteemed leader is the only man to be able to broker peace with the Germans and bring England back to its former “greatness.” And partly by her own ennui, her ignorance of events in her own country, and her utter willingness to be persuaded. But when a tragedy occurs, and shortly afterward Phyllis and her husband, who has begun to be very active in the movement himself, are arrested and detained at Holloway prison in London, without charges and for an indeterminate term of imprisonment, things get serious.
The plot of the novel begins in 1979, many years after Phyllis has been released from prison, and consists of Phyllis’s recollection of events as described to an unnamed interviewer, who, one supposes, is writing a book about Mosley and his movement. Connolly moves back and forth between Phyllis’s musings, and flashbacks to the earlier events. It’s a structure that works really well, and adds to the reader’s continued interest. I won’t say suspense because it’s not that sort of book. We wonder what will transpire; we’re drawn into Phyllis’s life before her imprisonment, the lives of her upper class family and friends, as well as her life in prison, and the lives of her fellow detainees. But it’s not so much plot as it is character development, and Connolly’s impeccable recreation of this period in history, that make the book fascinating. I enjoyed Connolly’s novel most for its wonderful depiction of a time and circumstance which I’d not fully explored, with the exception of reading Diana Mitford-Mosley’s biography, as well as its depiction of the rank and file Mosley supporters, secretaries and factory workers, whose lives were devastated by their political beliefs.
Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford are peripheral characters in the novel. Mosley appears at the camp, and is referenced as the “Great Leader.” And Lady Mosley is mentioned as a fellow detainee at Holloway prison, since the Mosleys were themselves famously detained for two years during the war.
Interestingly, while Diana Mosley’s politics lead to rifts between her and her sisters Nancy and Decca, her mother and her other siblings continued to be a help to her throughout her imprisonment and after. Even though she became “the most hated woman in England for a time,” she remained their beloved daughter and sister. The fictional Phyllis Forrester is not so lucky.
In her review of Cressida Connolly’s novel in The Spectator, Mika Ross-Southall cautions that despite the character Phyllis stumbling blindly into a world she does not comprehend, “carelessness is not too remote from complicity,” as Phyllis learns to her detriment. I would add that Connolly’s character shows us the dangers of NOT being well informed in a complex and troubled time. A lesson from which we can all benefit.
Okay. Enough already. I’ve spent three days writing this post. Much of the time buried in my Mitford books, re-reading some of Debo’s memoir Counting My Chickens about life at Chatsworth, then some of her autobiography Wait for Me, then getting lost in various on-line articles, old pictures, obituaries, you name it. Time to come out from my rabbit hole. Or rabbit warren, more like.
I will say that, while I’ve been writing, I began to have second thoughts that my rant about the Fellowes’ book might be over the top. In reading her bibliography at the back of her novel she lists many of the Mitford books which I read myself, “heartily” recommending Nancy’s early fiction. And I thought, she can’t be all bad if she’s a fan of Love in a Cold Climate. Can she? Maybe she’s a really nice person. Still. Art has to stand on its own, doesn’t it?
So, in the pursuit of truth, I went back and tried to read a bit more of the book.
Oh my goodness. I’m rolling my eyes as I write this. I was right the first time. That book is painful.
|Me at Chatsworth, October 2017.|
Now, time for you to weigh in, my bookish friends.
Have you read either of these books? Any opinions you want to share? If you’re a Mitford-maniac like me, any books you want to recommend? I’m always up for anything even tangentially related to the Mitford family?