Over the course of the smash hit British television drama Downton Abbey‘s six seasons, author Jessica Fellowes produced five official companion books to the series. But in the years since the show ended in 2015, Fellowes shifted her interest from the fictional Crawley family to the real-life aristocratic Mitfords, whose larger-than-life personas rivaled anything imagined by a scriptwriter.
The Mitford family, with its six eccentric daughters and one son, generated scandalous headlines in the 1920s and 1930s — and is still drawing fascination. The strong-headed daughters followed their own paths, each representing a different political or social movement of the tumultuous era during which they came of age.
Eldest sister Nancy was a satirical novelist. Second sister Pamela took up poultry farming. Then came Diana the fascist, Unity the obsessed Hitler-lover, and Jessica the Communist. Finally there was the youngest Deborah, who became a duchess and ran one of the most stately homes in England.
“Nancy wrote about her mother being worn down by six daughters who all had very dominant personalities. Can you imagine living with that? Three times a day — breakfast, lunch and supper — the kind of arguing and teasing and poking. It would just drive you mad,” Fellowes said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from her home in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.
Fellowes decided to turn these notorious siblings into the subject of a series of murder mysteries. The novels have been published in quick succession, with the fourth, “The Mitford Trial,” already available in the UK and dropping in the US on January 19. There will be a total of six novels in the Mitford Murders Mystery series, with each one focusing on a different sister. The latest whodunnit highlights Unity, and also features sole brother Tom, who was a junior attorney before being killed in action in World War II.
Although the books have Mitford in their titles, and the siblings appear throughout, the series’ true protagonist is the fictional Louisa Cannon, who works as a servant in the Mitford household. With a knack for mystery solving and a dream of becoming a policewoman or private investigator, Louisa (with the help of her police detective love interest Guy Sullivan) is the one to crack the crimes.
“When my editor approached me about the concept for the novels, I did agree with him that the Mitford sisters were incredibly compelling as characters… but they are not particularly likeable. I didn’t feel that any reader would be motivated to get through a whole series if it was solely about the Mitford sisters, even with crimes involved,” Fellowes said.
The third in the series, “The Mitford Scandal,” puts the spotlight on leading London socialite Diana. Already married to an heir to the Guinness brewing fortune and the mother of two young children, she fell hard for British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley.
The extremely beautiful and charming Diana seemed to have been truly smitten with Mosley. She left her first husband for him and they married in October 1936 in Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels’s drawing room with Adolf Hitler in attendance. However, her political inclinations were all her own.
“She was genuine in her political beliefs. I don’t think it was all about the fact that she was in love with Oswald Mosley. There was a point where she was more fascist than he was,” said Fellowes, who is the niece of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.
Diana also plays a significant role in the upcoming installment, as the author didn’t feel she could shape an entire book around Unity. Unity was the sister who, overshadowed by her more clever and attractive older sisters, became obsessed with Hitler to the point of stalking him. She eventually caught his eye and made her way into his inner circle. (Perhaps it was preordained, as Unity’s middle name was Valkyrie, and it was said that she was conceived on her parents’ visit to the Canadian town of Swastika.)
Distraught at the outbreak of war between the UK and Germany, the conflicted Unity shot herself in the head in a Munich park on September 3, 1939. She survived the suicide attempt and was cared for at a Munich hospital on Hitler’s tab. She was eventually transferred home to England in frail health and died in May 1948 due to swelling around the bullet that was still lodged in her brain.
“The problem for me was that she was so awful I just didn’t think she had enough weight to carry a whole book by herself,” Fellowes said of the avowedly anti-Semitic Unity.
“She was carving out swastikas from a very early age and being really very hateful. She signed her letters, ‘Heil Hitler.’ She wasn’t just a bit off — she was nasty. So I just didn’t want to do a whole big plot around her. She’s there and it’s important that she is there, and it’s important to understand what she was saying, but… So, I am not returning to her [in the final two novels] in any great detail, I think,” she continued.
Fellowes, 46, is currently working on the series’s fifth novel — featuring Communist sister Jessica — while she is holed up at home during the UK’s latest COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Although Fellowes prefers to keep a positive outlook and looks forward to being vaccinated, she admitted to The Times of Israel that her deafness has presented challenges in a world where everyone wears face masks. Her hearing aids and lip reading skills aren’t cutting it.
“I’ve been doing very badly with these masks. It’s like the sound has been turned down on my hearing aids. I need to take my [10-year-old] son with me and he has to tell me what someone has said,” she shared.
Fortunately, most of the research for the novels can be done by reading books or accessing information online. Fellowes has read Mitford biographies and autobiographies, and the sisters’ letters to one another edited by Charlotte Mosley, Diana’s daughter-in-law. Period memoirs and newspapers have helped the author create plot points based on actual historical events and figures from the 1920s and 1930s.
“You can almost always find the facts to fit your story. In ‘The Mitford Trial,’ a lot of the more outlandish things are rooted in real events… This stuff really happened. It’s crazy… My imagination is quite paltry in comparison,” Fellowes said.
Fellowes told The Times of Israel that writing the third and fourth novels — the ones focused mainly on Diana and Unity — was somewhat challenging because of the dark subjects of fascism and Nazism.
Fellowes said that while she could easily relate to eldest sister and witty writer Nancy (who denounced Diana and supported her internment by British authorities for three years during the war), she had difficulty trying to get inside the heads of Diana and Unity.
“You can’t reason with a racist because their arguments are not reasonable,” she said.
Fellowes noted that casual anti-Semitism existed among Britain’s upper classes during that era, but that once Hitler’s agenda became clear and Jews were being driven out of Germany, most altered their tune. Diana and Unity, however, did not change their minds — even decades later.
“Everyone loved to be behind the door marked ‘Private.’ Diana and Unity were in the inner circle of a place that was horrifying and fascinating millions of people at the time. Maybe that was very attractive, to be close to power. But Diana never retracted any of it. She never said it had been a terrible mistake,” Fellowes said.
“The fact that she wouldn’t change her mind has made her mystifying to me,” she said.
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