The Mitford Affair, Marie Benedict’s most recent work of historical fiction, covers the entangled relationship of the famous — and infamous — Mitford family in the 1930s. Told through Nancy, Diana, and Unity Mitford’s eyes, it traces the reluctant heroism of one sister and the downfall of the others into fascism.
The Mitford family has always been fascinating in the same way a car accident or burning building is. Even though you know it’s horrible, you can’t look away. For those unfamiliar, the bare bones version is this: the daughters of an aristocratic British family were raised in an environment that was odd and insular, even for their time and class. Most of them had no formal education, and their main source of companionship was each other, leading to a unique closeness and tension between them that lasted all of their lives. The adults produced by this childhood were completely unpredictable, and vastly different — ranging the political spectrum from a communist who fled her noble family and moved to America, to some who fully embraced fascism. When I say “fully embraced,” I don’t mean that they held bad opinions, I mean that they were close personal friends of Hitler, and were truly awful people. Part of the enduring interest in the family is seeing how the same upbringing and political climate can result in such diametrically opposed individuals.
The Mitford Affair’s centerpiece is the story of Nancy’s growth from someone who doesn’t really care about politics to a woman with a loathing of fascism. As she realizes the depth of everything happening around her, she comes to realize what she can do to counter the horrible things her sisters are trying to make happen. I liked how her inner turmoil was shown — there’s definitely some denial of how bad things could be, and it’s a realistic and accurate depiction of Nancy’s inner struggle to turn on her family.
The Nancy-focused chapters were so successful, and the later ones had such a great tension, that I wish the author had devoted the entire book to her perspective, and given her more of an active role. While it may not reflect the historical reality, I think leeway could have been taken to show Nancy taking initiative in gathering evidence on her sisters. As things ramp up, there are a few good moments where she overhears Diana or Unity, and is able to make connections to decipher what they’re talking about. Those were the strongest parts of the book, and part of the appeal to me in checking this book out. based on its summary.
Unfortunately, it’s at least 2/3 of the way through before we get to that main selling point. To reach it, we need to endure dozens of pages from the point of view of Nancy’s most vile sisters. It was disappointing to read this book, thinking it would focus on Nancy using her closeness to her family to aid in the war effort, only to have to read so much about Unity and Diana from their perspectives. Benedict clearly has difficulties getting into Unity’s headspace (which says good things about her as a person!), but it’s extremely difficult to read the chapters set in her point of view. It’s also unnecessary— Nancy’s point of view/story could have carried the book, and if other sibling points of view were needed, there were other options in Deborah and Jessica.
Overall, I think The Mitford Affair can be skipped for anyone who isn’t a Mitford family obsessive or Benedict completionist.