Marie Benedict’s The Mitford Affair is a fictionalized account of the infamous Mitford family, focusing primarily on the years leading up to and during the Second World War. While the novel does discuss all six of the Mitford children, it concentrates on three primary characters – the scandalous Diana, whose adulterous affair with a fascist provided endless fodder for the gossip rags; Unity, whose adoration of Hitler led her to make some rather disturbing life choices and Nancy, whose satirical novels captured the agony and ecstasy of living in the spotlight alongside two such flamboyant characters.
They were dubbed The Bright Young Things by the tabloid press. A group of fantastically privileged unconventional aristocrats and socialites, their youthful exploits both entertained and horrified the masses. Nancy Mitford loves being a part of this exuberant group, whose members admire her sharp, barbed wit – a feature of her personality her parents find rather irritating. Diana, Nancy’s sister, is the star of their clique, the belle of every ball. Having married extremely well, Diana is fabulously wealthy as well as breathtakingly beautiful, and she revels in the limelight. Unity, one of the younger Mitford sisters, is awkward, rather plain, and tremendously loyal to Diana. We meet up with them at a gala hosted by Diana, an extravagant affair to launch Unity into society. We learn rather quickly that this glittering, decadent scene is about to be replaced by a far darker, more dangerous spectacle.
Shortly after the party, Diana files for divorce and makes public her affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF (British Union of Fascists). She becomes his most ardent follower and encourages her sister Unity to join as well. Unity quickly becomes a fanatic for the cause, going so far as to move to Munich, hoping for a chance to meet Hitler. She succeeds and is able to introduce him to Diana.
Meanwhile, Nancy marries the alcoholic Peter Rodd and becomes increasingly skeptical of her sister’s adoration of Mosley and his political leanings. As she watches her siblings lose their souls to the fascist movement, she takes pen to paper to write Wigs on the Green, a satire of Mosley and his beliefs in the hopes she can free her family members from his influence. She infuriates them instead. With the ladies estranged and war looming, what will happen to the Mitford family?
The technical aspects of this book are incredibly well done. The prose is clear and precise, and the author has a knack for describing the setting that really puts you into the time and place her characters occupy. I truly felt submerged in the text.
The characterization is distinctive and consistent. Ms. Benedict captures the essence of family and how we are both individuals within our little clans but also how our togetherness provides a level of uniformity. For example, Nancy relies on her wit, Diana on her charm, and Unity on her sheer doggedness to relate to other people. Watching them manipulate outsiders as well as each other using these various techniques is intriguing and really showcases their unique personalities. On the other hand, all three women are shown as somewhat man crazy – Nancy is engaged for years to Hamish, never realizing he is gay, and rebounds to Peter from what seems like desperation to marry when Hamish finally breaks up with her. Diana is so determined to make a success of her relationship with Mosley that she puts up with his endless affairs, is devoted to his cause, and breezes through ostracization, jail time, and scandal just to be with him, while Unity turns her interest in fascism into a complete obsession with Hitler. She literally stalks the man, appearing at his favorite eateries and other places just so he will notice her. All three are depicted as intelligent, but their weakness seems to be their relationship with whatever significant other they have chosen. The acerbic Nancy was looking for a foil for her clever, droll party persona and only slowly realized that being a party animal, the very thing she had loved about him, is what made Peter into an alcoholic, something she very much didn’t love. Diana wanted someone ambitious as her leading man, not just someone who could complement or even enhance her social glitter on the society pages but someone who could push her onto an even bigger stage and give her meaning and purpose. She embraces the horror that is fascism once she finds the man she thinks can help her. Unity was a born hanger-on, someone who longed for reflected glory, and Hitler, as the most pivotal persona of that era, gave her that. It’s brilliant how the text shows the many layers of our characters vis à vis their relationships.
The plot is also well done. This story is a slice of life – we don’t delve deeply into who the Mitford women were, growing up, or any pivotal events of the past but watch as they maneuver the years immediately prior to and during the early portions of WWII. The author keeps her lens tightly on the three sisters and their interactions and reactions during the key happenings of that time, allowing her to examine them in depth rather than overwhelming the reader with breadth and scope.
However, while I appreciated the craftsmanship, I didn’t much like the product itself. In a character-driven tale such as this, it is important to have the denizens of your story be either fascinating or likable – and our heroines are neither. I certainly couldn’t empathize with women who fell in love with completely horrible people and didn’t care a whit for those they harmed in the bargain. This meant that at times (most of the time) I found reading about Diana and Unity difficult and unpleasant. Nancy didn’t fare much better. In this particular work, she seems almost passive, as though she is someone who is more an observer in life than a player. That’s certainly true of a lot of writers, so that is understandable, but in this case, that means that the two characters driving the narrative are Nazis. And not the kind questioning the whole thing but the kind who fully embraced the doctrines (especially anti-semitism) and ideologies of that way of life. Nancy does eventually take a stand against them but in a way that was far too small for my tastes. Spending hours of time enmeshed in fascism is not my idea of fun.
All of that made this a tough book to grade. The author gets a B+ for technique (her pacing is a bit off, or she would have had an A), but the subject matter and enjoyability are at a C-. I wound up giving The Mitford Affair a C, knowing that for some it will come in at a higher grade while for others, two of the heroines will make the text so abhorrent it will come in much lower.
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