The Mitford Society Loves

As the spring months advance I like to veer away from heavy tomes and keep my reading light. That is to say, none of the novels I have mentioned below are frivolous nor do they lack depth. They are historical fiction and ‘faction’ (fact written as fiction) with engaging prose and fascinating characters. Here are some of my favourites…

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Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne

The fourth instalment of the Clara Vine series. Our heroine, Clara, an actress by trade/a spy by choice, is once again moving at the heart of the Nazi Party. In the previous novels, much of the action takes place on the streets of Berlin on the eve of WW2, and at the Nazi-founded bridal schools. So Jane mixes historical events with a fictional character who also happens to mingle with real-life figures – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, a young JFK, Marlene Dietrich etc (in The Winter Garden, she featured Unity and Diana Mitford). Now it is the summer of 1939 and Clara’s sleuthing takes her to the Faith and Beauty bridal school, where a girl has been murdered. And, on the political front, she must investigate whether or not Germany is planning an alliance with Russia. Not only are Jane Thynne’s novels appealing to those who love the mystery/detective genre but they’re a treat for historians who are fascinated by the pre-WW2 era and the rise of Hitler.

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A Man of Genius by Janet Todd

This novel has inspired me to think of the noun trouvaille, which means something lucky found by chance. It found me by way of a mutual friend of Janet Todd’s, and I am so glad it did. Set in Regency London and Venice, Ann Radcliffe is a woman of independent means: a writer of cheap Gothic fiction, portraying women as victims of narcissistic villains. Soon life begins to imitate art, and she falls under the spell of the poet, Robert James – a madman and self-confessed genius. A psychological portrait of a destructive relationship, set to the backdrop of Venice and the literary world, A Man of Genius is a dazzling novel of the historical fiction genre.

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The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan

Following her successful novel The Girl In The Photograph, Riordan has returned with an equally suspenseful story charting the lives of two women in different eras. In 1878 Harriet Jenner takes a job as a governess at Fenix House but, recovering from a family tragedy, she cannot imagine the hold that the house and the Pembridge family will have over her. Fifty years later, Harriet’s granddaughter Grace finds work at Fenix House and, following in her grandmother’s footsteps, she discovers the secrets and lies buried within the grand house. The Shadow Hour is wonderfully written with a ghostly undertone; Riordan has once again produced a haunting tale.

P.S. You should check out Kate Riordan’s short story The Red Letter, based on characters from The Girl in the Photograph. I hope she develops it into a spin-off story.

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All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

Aside from my love of the aristocracy during the interwar era I am also mad about classic film stars. This was a little different from what I normally read, by way of historical fiction, but it was a nice distraction over the festive season. It details the affair between Loretta Young and Clark Gable, which happened during the filming of Call of the Wild. Based on a true story and an even stranger cover-up during the golden age of Hollywood: Young goes on to have Gable’s child but what unfolds is a plot that would be called far fetched, even onscreen! She goes into hiding and has the baby, a girl, and Gable knows but takes no part in her upbringing. Young herself claims she has adopted the child and she sticks to this story for decades, the truth only revealing itself when her daughter is grown up, and Gable is dead. It was quite camp in places and perhaps veered towards fan fiction, but it was a lot of fun to read and it gives me hope that I can develop a story I have in mind about a real life Hollywood couple. More books like this, please!

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The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

Telling the story of Jean Batten, known as ‘the Garbo of the skies’, Kidman presents her biographical study as historical fiction. From her childhood as a clever girl from a broken home, through her ambition to challenge the male attitudes of the day, Batten rises to become an aviatrix star. Courted by royalty and Hollywood actors, she receives honours and breaks aviation records before falling out of the public gaze. After a series of setbacks, she becomes a recluse and dies in penury in Majorca, where she is buried in a pauper’s grave. A thrilling tale of adventure and heartbreak – Kidman has triumphantly brought this inspirational heroine to life.

In the summer, when I finish my project, I hope to read more American literature. I loved The Boston Girl, and it has inspired me add The Swans of Fifth Avenue and Tiny Little Thing to my TBR wish list. Let me know what you are reading or what you plan to read by tweeting @mitfordsociety.

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The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

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Of all the Mitford eccentricities, it is Unity’s obsession with Adolf Hitler that lingers longest in the national consciousness. Even now, the story of the young British aristocrat who followed Hitler to Germany and eventually attempted death rather than leave him, is the most memorable of all the sisters’ stories. So it’s interesting to note that Unity caused just as much amazement among the men in Hitler’s circle as she did among any of her compatriots.

The arrival of Unity, and later Diana, in Nazi Germany provoked deep suspicion among the men at the top of Hitler’s hierarchy. Himmler, Goebbels and Goering all failed to understand why the Führer was so taken with these two upper-class English girls, and they suspected that their Führer’s judgment was fatally swayed by them.

When I was writing The Winter Garden, the second of my novels featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo-German actress in pre-war Berlin, I was keen to explore the way in which the Mitfords managed to discomfort those at the very top of the regime. The novel is set in 1937, a time when Hitler still held out the possibility that some Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany could be formed that would allow him to proceed with extending the German Lebensrum eastwards. In the Autumn of that year the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor and his new wife Wallis Simpson chose Nazi Germany, of all places, for their honeymoon – a choice which left the British government fit to be tied. British Embassy officials in Berlin were instructed that they were not to offer the ex-King anything at all “not even a cocktail sausage”, but the Nazis stepped in to fill the gap, rolling out the red carpet at Friedrichstrasse station and providing the Duke with a packed schedule of opera evenings, factory visits and other PR opportunities for the Third Reich. The fact that Unity and Diana should be in Germany around the same time as the royal couple made it the perfect backdrop for the novel’s spy mission and murder.

Of all the Nazi ministers, it was Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, who was closest to Diana and Unity, largely through the friendship between his wife Magda and Diana. The Goebbels had even lent Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley the use of their Berlin home for their wedding in 1936, with the reception held at the family’s country villa in Schwanenwerder, a short drive away through the Grunewald, where the newly-weds were presented with the complete works of Goethe, and the Goebbels children attended carrying posies of flowers. The following year, in 1937, Diana made another visit to Germany, soliciting funds for a Fascist radio station to be set up in Heligoland, and in between watching Mickey Mouse with the Führer at the Reich Chancellery, she again met up with the Goebbels.

In the end, Joseph Goebbels decided that the Mosleys were a busted flush, and should receive no more Third Reich funding. Yet for the Nazis, Diana and Unity remained an enigma. Were the British ruling-classes really like that, or were the Mitfords eccentric one-offs? Although Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s unhappy wife, was friendly with Diana, Goebbels himself was far less seduced. In his diaries of the time he questions whether the Mitfords truly “spring from the soul of the British people”. It mattered, because if the sisters could be considered true representatives of the English ruling-class, then it meant that Hitler’s dreams of an alliance with Great Britain might be fulfilled. In The Winter Garden there is a scene in which Clara Vine, who as well as an actress is a British agent, is quizzed by Goebbels about the precise nature of the Mitfords. Clara fills him in on some of Unity’s eccentricities, including the fact that she was given to greeting English shopkeepers with the Nazi salute, that she had brought her pet snake to Germany with her, and that a live rat sometimes travelled in her handbag. The bourgeois Goebbels was, in fiction as well as in reality, predictably appalled.

Himmler, the pathological head of the Gestapo, did not concern himself so much with social nuances. As far as he was concerned a woman like Unity was a security risk, and he had her tailed by an SS agent who would follow her round, disguised as a photographer. Even when Unity wrote a piece for a National Socialist newspaper about why she was learning to shoot so that she could kill Jews, Himmler still had his suspicions. Unity’s home-made storm-trooper outfit also failed to sway him.

The feelings of the other Nazi power couple, the Goerings, were equally cool. Unity had eyes only for Hitler so Hermann Goering took little interest. Emmy Goering, a former actress, would refer to Unity as “Mitfahrt” meaning the travelling companion, and made cruel jokes about her ankles.

Perhaps one reason we are so interested in the story of the pro-Hitler Mitfords is because they are rare English examples of a phenomenon that was all too well-known in Germany – the fascination with the Führer. It was a fascination that afflicted women in particular. Each year Hitler received many thousands of fan letters and daily offers from women to bear his children. Every birthday and Christmas an avalanche of cakes as well as embroidered cushions, gloves, and other clothes were sent in. In more eye-catching evidence of devotion, there were incidences when women waiting for Hitler’s car to approach would tear open their blouses to bear their breasts as he passed. Others threw themselves at his car, attempting to do themselves some injury in the hope that the Führer himself would emerge to comfort them.

Hitler, in turn, did not underestimate the importance of women to maintaining the Nazi state. He said: “In my Germany, the mother is the most important citizen.” And he recognized that it was women, not men, who were central in passing on the ideology of the Third Reich to their children. Thus, women attending the National Socialist Bride Schools, which feature in The Winter Garden, were taught a special prayer to say to their future children, in which the words “Our Führer” replaced “Our Father”. They were also instructed to tell fairy stories with the correct, Nazi ideology, which was all about racial consciousness. In the National Socialist Cinderella, for example, the Prince rejects the Ugly Sisters not on aesthetic grounds, but because they are Slavs.

Ultimately, Goebbels’ question about the Mitford sisters – do they spring from the soul of the British people? – was an acute one. Not because they typified the views of the ruling class, but because despite their political differences Unity, Diana, and the others did embody a profoundly British quality. The ability to hold polarized beliefs, while retaining an underlying affection for each other. To thumb their noses at convention. To see each other’s point of view, even while despising it. In their eccentricity, imagination, humour and originality they epitomized Englishness. Goebbels should have paid more attention.

The Winter Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela in 1961 and grew up with her parents and two brothers in London. After school in Hampton, she spent a year working at the Old Vic Theatre before reading English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She joined the BBC as a production trainee, but after a few years succumbed to a hankering for Fleet Street and moved to The Sunday Times. Jane spent many cheerful years at The Daily Telegraph as media correspondent, but her single most exciting moment in that time was getting a publishing contract for her first novel. Her novels have been translated into French, German and Italian. Black Roses will be published in France by J.C Lattes in 2014 and the second in the Clara Vine series, The Winter Garden, in 2015. The third in the Clara Vine series, A War Of Flowers, was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in November 2014. It will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in 2015.

As well as writing books, Jane is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for numerous British magazines and newspapers, and also appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4.

She is married to the writer Philip Kerr and they live with their three children in London.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. II

The Mitford Society Loves…

“Christmas cards are such a nightmare to me. I have dozens from totally unknown people, in some cases bearing photographs of their totally unknown faces. But I forget people very soon so this means nothing and I can see from their fervid messages that once we have been very intimate.” – Nancy Mitford

The traditions of the festive season did not charm Nancy. The exchanging of gifts was headache inducing, crossing the Channel to visit the loved ones – too grim to bear – and the custom of writing and receiving cards proved a burden for the French Lady Writer. Although she delighted in sending her godchildren presents of exotic things, such as gilded trinkets and fur mufflers, Nancy was not as gracious when she received a gift she disliked. Perhaps the best example springs from her childhood, when an unsuspecting Diana presented to her a small, neatly wrapped present. Nancy opened the present, and, without a sideways glance, she hurled it into the fire. ‘I appreciated her honestly,’ Diana remarked. The collection of books below should please even the grumpiest of recipients. What are we saying? Books please everyone!

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Robert Wainwright’s elegant biography of Sheila Chisholm should charm those who revel in the era of the Mitfords and disgraced royals. Lovely to look at and heavily illustrated, this book – available in hardback (as pictured) or in paperback – would make the perfect gift.

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If you enjoy gazing at beautiful things and wish to make an impression on the recipient then Claudia Renton’s dazzling biography of the Wyndham Girls – Mary, Madeleine and Pamela – is just the ticket.

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This sophisticated detective novel centres around a glamorous actress-by-day/ spy-by-night working undercover in the Third Reich. The menacing plot features Hitler and Goebbels, and a cameo from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unity and Diana flit in and out, giving the sinister undertones a touch of Mitford Tease.

 

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Truly a presentation piece, this index of great women’s obituaries doubles as a motivational book when one is indulging in the non-U habit of feeling sorry for oneself. With an array of profiles, this book will certainly cross the murky divide of all personalities. It looks great on a bookshelf, too!
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A memoir of the best kind, this zippy book is written in a friendly and engaging way. As the daughter of the Duke of Rutland and niece of Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Ursula’s memoir recalls an era that we can only dream of.

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Because we seem to get a lot of books about women here at Mitford HQ it’s only fair that we select a biography with that of a male subject. Not only for Swinbrook Sewers, this lengthy study on Laurie Lee is a treasure trove of a biography.
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Written as historical fiction, the plot revolves around the doomed love affair between Dorothy Richardson, member of the famed Bloomsbury set and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells. Stylishly written, this atmospheric book is a quick read.

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Inspired by the Russian fairytale, The Snow Child is a modern fairytale for adults and cynics alike. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, the book paints a vivid portrait of the cruelties of nature, the isolation in winter and the heartache of a childless couple. A cozy, winter read.

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This lovely set of Margaret Kennedy books have been re-issued by Vintage Books. As witty as a Nancy Mitford novel, this trio was deemed quite naughty in their day. Devilishly witty, Kennedy’s efforts remain as fresh and funny today as they were over eighty years ago.

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Thinking ahead, there is nothing like buying the first novel of the New Year. Tessa Arlen’s debut novel (Jan. 2015) combines the things that we Mitties love: mystery, scandal, wit and a spectacular stately home. The prose at times is pure Mitfordesque, and having read a preview copy, The Mitford Society is proud to endorse Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.

The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

The Winter Garden part two

An Interview with Jane Thynne

Why did you choose to portray the Nazi bridal schools as a work of fiction as opposed to writing a biography on the bizarre ritual?

Probably because I love writing fiction! I came across the bride schools when I was researching my first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses, and I was looking closely at the lives of women under the Third Reich. I subsequently visited Schwanenwerder Island, where the Berlin bride school was based, and as soon as I saw it was just a few doors down from the Goebbels villa, an idea was born.

How did you gather your research for The Winter Garden?

Newspapers and women’s magazines of the time are very useful. There’s not much written about the bride schools, but for some reason photographs of young women exercising in gym slips seemed to be immensely popular with newspaper editors. I have also read a library full of non-fiction about Nazi Germany.

What inspired you to include Diana and Unity Mitford in the book?

How could I not! As soon as I began writing about an Anglo-German actress in 1930s Berlin, I knew the Mitfords would come into it. They are a huge interest for me – I’ve read everything all of them have written. The idea of the Germans trying to grapple with these eccentric upper class women and wondering if all English people were the same was just too funny for words. But that conflict also encapsulates something very deep about WWII, which was the Nazi regime’s fatal failure to understand British core values.

As a writer of mainstream novels, do you sense the market is becoming a lot more open to historical fiction which incorporates popular culture and figures from the inter-war era rather than expecting such topics to feature only in biography and academic books? (i.e. Z: A Novel and Mrs. Hemingway).

Definitely. The use of real people is very much in vogue, probably because readers like to feel they have learned something as well as being entertained. For this reason, I think writers bear a heavy responsibility to get the facts right when using historical characters. With the Nazi women, I was lucky because many of them wrote memoirs, letters and diaries. With the Mitfords, of course, it’s all there.

 Do you find this genre gives you a lot more freedom to manipulate (real life) characters and situations to accommodate your plot?

History is the furniture of my fiction, and I while would never move the furniture, it’s fine to look down the back of the sofa. I never alter historical events, and I feel pretty strongly that you shouldn’t. Even though it goes under the guise of fiction, people are going to take your historical background as fact, so you need to respect that. In the same way, with characters, I’ve always tried to use things they actually said. Goebbels diaries have been immensely helpful in that regard.

 Can you describe your journey to publication with the Clara Vine series?

I was lucky in that Black Roses was picked up very quickly by the wonderful Suzanne Baboneau at Simon & Schuster. When I told her I wanted to write a series, she commissioned more. Clara Vine has now sold to America, Canada and France, as well as to TV.

 Will there be a sequel?

A War of Flowers, set around the 1938 Munich crisis, comes out next year.

And last but not least: who is your favourite Mitford girl?

It has to be Nancy. She is both hilarious and subtle with a keen sense of the ridiculous that has been the hallmark of English novelists from Jane Austen and Dickens to P.G Wodehouse.

 

The Winter Garden ~ part one

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Berlin, 1937. The city radiates glamour and ambition. But danger lurks in every shadow… Anna Hansen, a bride-to-be, is a pupil at one of Hitler’s notorious Nazi Bride Schools, where young women are schooled on the art of being an SS officer’s wife. Then, one night, she is brutally murdered and left in the gardens of the school. Her death will be hushed up and her life forgotten. Clara Vine is an actress at Berlin’s famous Ufa studios by day and an undercover British Intelligence agent by night. She knew Anna and is disturbed by news of her death. She cannot understand why someone would want to cover it up, but she soon discovers that Anna’s murder is linked to a far more ominous secret. With the newly abdicated Edward VIII and his wife Wallis set to arrive in Berlin, and the Mitford sisters dazzling on the social scene, Clara must work in the darkness to find the truth and send it back to London. It is a dangerous path she treads, and it will take everything she has to survive…

This is the first spy novel I’ve ever read and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The Winter Garden incorporates a lot of the elements which I adore in a good book – mystery, scandal, sinister characters all held together by a facade of glamour. The biggest thrill for me, and I know this will be true for other Mitford fans, is the appearance of Diana and Unity:

Unity’s awkward woodenness only served to emphasize the beauty of her sister Diana, who was four years older, smaller by a head and exquisitely dressed in cream Dior, with milky blonde hair and eyes of bright, hostile blue. The two had the same broad brow and high cheekbones, but the features which produced Diana’s loveliness were cast more coarsely in Unity. Looking at the two sisters together made one wonder how birth could fashion such different outcomes from identical raw materials.

Diana and Unity feature throughout the story, appearing as two outsiders imposing on the sinister underworld of the Goebbels’ villa at Schwanenwerder. Aside from the Mitfords, the Goebbels and various Nazis appearing throughout, the story is, in fact, fiction. It’s a clever book, the second of the Clara Vine series (the first was Black Roses – another must read), which uses the historical accuracy of 1930s Berlin and the bridal schools (more about that soon) to motivate its fictional character, the actress by day, spy by night, Clara Vine.

The various layers running through The Winter Garden keeps the pace upbeat and it never palls. Clara, our heroine, walks a delicate tightrope, combining the ultimate balancing act of mingling with the Nazi officers wives, reporting their conversations to the British Embassy and passing on gossip to Joseph Goebbels which might be useful to him. Underneath her cool exterior Clara conceals her own dangerous secret: she is part Jewish.

The book begins with the murder of Clara’s friend, Anna Hansen – a journalist and student of the Nazi Bride School, located on Schwanenwerder, where the Goebbels’ have their villa. Until recently the details of Himmler’s notorious bridal schools weren’t common knowledge. Jane Thynne, much in the vein of Clara Vine, has unearthed a dark secret from the past. And using such a vice to open the book adds to the story’s mystique – after all, for the reader this is a new angle to every day life in Nazi Germany. Clara sets out on a quest to discover why Anna Hansen was murdered, and why the cover up of her death has reached the heights of the Nazi Party. But Clara soon realises that her own survival is at risk.

You can read more about the bridal schools by clicking here.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela and educated in London. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and joined the BBC as a journalist. She has also worked at the Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, as well as numerous British magazines. She appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4. She is married to the writer Philip Kerr. They have three children and live in London.

Click here for our interview with Jane Thynne