The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen in The Montmaray Journals

Working my way through my towers of 1960s research books last week, I finally had an ‘Aha!’ moment – one of those moments when I come across a reference (often a fleeting one, sometimes a mere footnote) to a fascinating real-life event that seems to fit perfectly into my planned story. “Aha!” I cried, clapping my hands in great excitement.1 Ideally, an ‘Aha!’ historical event will involve some bizarre element but not be widely known, because I like the idea of my readers saying to themselves while reading, “I never knew about that! Did that really happen?” On the other hand, it’s helpful (for both me and inquisitive novel readers who want to learn more) if there’s a fair amount of information available about the event. This particular event I’ve discovered appears to fulfil all these conditions, which makes me very happy.

'The Bookworm' by Carl Spitzweg (1850)
The historical novelist may need to read a LOT of books before an ‘Aha!’ moment arrives . . .

Of course, there’s the possibility that this will turn into an ‘Oh no . . .’ moment, which occurs when I dig further into the research, unearth an inconvenient fact and realise that the event is not actually going to fit into my story the way I’d hoped. Sometimes the dates don’t match my planned story; sometimes there’s a complicated backstory to the event that will lead my story somewhere I don’t want it to go. Here are three scenes that didn’t appear in my Montmaray Journals trilogy, due to ‘Oh no . . .’ moments:

1. Fascists Storm the British Embassy in Madrid!

I came across this thrilling tale in the memoirs of Sir Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood. Hoare was a fervent appeaser of Mussolini and Hitler in the years before the Second World War2, and so, not surprisingly, lost his ministerial job when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. Churchill sent Hoare to Spain to keep him out of the way, figuring Hoare couldn’t do too much damage there and might even get along quite well with Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator – maybe even persuade Franco to renounce Hitler. Of course, Franco paid no attention to Hoare whatsoever and continued to co-operate with the Nazis whenever it was in his interests to do so, turning a blind eye when his Falangist supporters, with the help of Nazi agents, attacked the British Embassy:

“The attack had in all respects been methodically planned in the true German manner. It was to begin with the burning of the British staff cars standing outside the Embassy. It was at this point that Spanish forgetfulness frustrated German efficiency. Matches were then very scarce in Madrid, and either no one had a match or no one wished to sacrifice one in a street battle. The cars, therefore, escaped burning though several were seriously damaged by stones.
The next move was an attempt to break into the Embassy. At this point we [Embassy staff] were in a strong position. For not only were we protected by our regular force of British guards, but we had within the precincts sixteen of our escaped prisoners of war who were burning for the chance of a battle with the enemy . . .”

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought to myself, if Toby FitzOsborne, recently escaped from Nazi-occupied France, could be one of those men in the Embassy battling the Fascist invaders! With Veronica fighting beside him, knocking out a few Falangists with a well-aimed chair! Alas, the dates just didn’t work out. The Embassy attack occurred in June, 1941, when Toby was still flying in combat as an RAF fighter pilot and Veronica was working in the Foreign Office in London. Anyway, Hoare was not exactly a reliable memoirist, so I suspect the British response during the Embassy siege was a lot less brave and glorious than he described.

2. Sophie FitzOsborne, Lady War Correspondent

I carefully added some references to Sophie writing newspaper articles in the second Montmaray book, so that once war broke out, I’d be able to turn her into a newspaper reporter and send her overseas, in order to describe lots of important battles. But when I started researching the lives of actual war correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn3, I realised this was never going to work. Sophie just wasn’t tough or experienced enough – no British newspaper editor would ever employ her as a reporter, not even to report on the London Blitz. It wasn’t even likely she’d get a job as a women’s columnist – British newspapers were severely curtailed during the war, as a result of both paper shortages and official censorship, with only essential news being printed. In the end, I decided I preferred her to have a humdrum job during the war, to emphasise that war, for most participants, is the exact opposite of a noble, exhilarating experience. And Sophie did get to write some Food Facts, which were published to help housewives cope with rationing. Also, did you know that Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s wife, worked at the Ministry of Food during the war? I tried to arrange a friendship between Sophie and Eileen, so that Sophie could have a discussion about totalitarianism with Orwell, but unfortunately, the two women worked in different departments.

3. The Spy, The Cryptographer and The Poet

During the war, the Special Operations Executive sent Allied agents into occupied Europe, with the agents communicating using codes that were initially based on well-known poems. Unfortunately, these poem ciphers were very easy for the Nazis to break. Leo Marks, a British cryptographer in charge of SOE agent codes, made a number of changes to ensure the codes were more secure, including using original poems. Aha! I thought. Maybe Sophie and her friend Rupert, with their flair for poetry, could meet to write poems for Leo Marks! Unfortunately, introducing another real-life character and his complicated backstory would have made my book even longer than it already was (that is, far too long), so that plot line was dropped. However, I did manage to sneak in a reference to Leo Marks – the Colonel mentions an anonymous friend who is “one of our best cryptographers” but has failed to decipher a sample of Kernetin, the FitzOsborne family code.

Incidentally, Leo Marks was the son of Ben Marks, one of the owners of Marks and Co, the famous bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road – and an employee of that bookshop just happens to be related, in a very tangential way, to that exciting thing I discovered in my 1960s research. Aha! The plot thickens . . .
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  1. Probably only historical novelists would describe this sort of discovery as ‘greatly exciting’.
  2. For example, in March, 1939, after the Nazis had invaded Czechoslovakia, Hoare stated that he remained optimistic that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would become “eternal benefactors of the human race”.
  3. I was also tempted to have Veronica meet Martha Gellhorn’s close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, during the First Lady’s visit to England in 1942, because I figured those two would have a very interesting discussion. But there were just too many other events going on in the plot at that time.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

YA author Simmone Howell, who recently taught a course on writing for young readers, has written a series of blog posts about aspects such as character, structure, voice and place, and why you probably won’t be able to make a living from your writing, with lots of useful links.

Over at The Paris Review there’s an interesting interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and then Knopf, who edited books by Jessica Mitford, John Le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing and many other writers. He discusses the role of the editor and publisher (“you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor . . .You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill”) and how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years.

Something I’ve been pondering lately is the distinction between ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ fiction (mostly because I’ve just finished writing a book that falls somewhere in the middle of those two publishing categories), so I was pleased to see this article about the topic at Publishers Weekly (especially as it mentions A Brief History of Montmaray – thank you, Meghan from BookPeople in Austin, Texas!). Other interesting blog posts I’ve come across include Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask, Where are the books for 13-year-olds? and Middle grade saved my life (the last written by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the wonderful Penderwicks books).

Finally, I’m tickled that the Montmaray books have appeared on TV Tropes. For those who haven’t encountered TV Tropes before, it’s an enormous and quite addictive website devoted to discussing the tropes (that is, the stereotypes, clichés and overused ideas) in popular TV shows, movies and books. Tropes identified in the Montmaray books include Micro Monarchy and (slightly spoilery) Kissing Cousins and Never Found the Body. But come on, TV Tropers, you’ve missed a few! What about Ace Pilot, British Stuffiness, Everything’s Better with Llamas, I Was Beaten by a Girl and Upper Class Twit? And I’ve always thought of the Colonel as a bit of an Agent Peacock . . .

Scones – The Definitive Version

The good thing about having a blog devoted to books is that you can write about absolutely any topic you like, knowing there will be a book about it, or at least a book containing some references to it. This is why I’m able to direct your attention to this article on the correct way to eat scones, knowing it is a perfectly valid literary topic, because several of my own books mention people making and/or eating scones.

I’m afraid Tony Naylor gets off to a bad start when he claims the word ‘scone’ rhymes with ‘cone’, when of course, it rhymes with ‘gone’. He seems to think only Hyacinth Bucket types pronounce it as ‘skon’, which seems the wrong way round to me – surely the pseudo-posh pronunciation is a drawled-out ‘skohhhn’? Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are able to put Mr Naylor right in the comments section of his article. And he gets everything else right, explaining that scones should never, ever contain fruit1 or be dusted with icing sugar or sullied with a blob of disgusting clotted cream. I was interested to read that he believes the (fresh, whipped) cream should go on first, then the jam, rather than the other way round, on the grounds of both aesthetics and taste (“by plopping the jam on top you allow its flavour to shine through . . . I assume it is something to do with fat coating your mouth first, and inhibiting your tastebuds”). Wouldn’t the jam fall off? It probably depends on how much cream and jam you use. I should conduct a scientific experiment to investigate this important issue. Although it seems this scone eater has decided to have a bet each way, with jam above and below the cream:

A scone with jam and cream and even more jam
A scone with jam and cream and even more jam. Creative Commons Licensed image by Foowee.

Anyway, I wish this article had existed a few years ago, when the North American edition of A Brief History of Montmaray was being prepared, because then I could have directed my American editor towards it and saved myself a lot of time. She was confused by the manuscript’s references to ‘scones’ because in the United States, they do not have scones. Tragic, isn’t it? We eventually established that the U.S. equivalent is the ‘biscuit’, a small, round, bread-like cake made with baking soda, although I think that’s regarded as a savoury food, something to eat with a main meal, like a bread roll? (All of my knowledge of American biscuits comes from American novelists, mostly Anne Tyler. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ruth makes “beaten biscuits genuinely beat on a stump with the back of an ax”, while Evie in A Slipping-Down Life visits her former housekeeper to find out how to make biscuits with bacon drippings. Actually, now I think of it, there’s a recipe for buttermilk biscuits in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, too. Are biscuits a Southern food?) This led to an editorial discussion about what Australians mean by ‘biscuit’, which is the equivalent of an American ‘cookie’, although we do have chocolate-chip cookies2. The notion of Sophie FitzOsborne baking ‘oat biscuits’ was so baffling to the Americans that I took it out of the American edition altogether (it was ‘oat cakes’ originally, but even my Australian editor was perplexed by that). And then I learned what a strawberry shortcake is, and that it has nothing to do with shortbread. Remember the Strawberry Shortcake doll craze of the 1980s? I think there were even some Strawberry Shortcake books. See, everything is related to books.

Strawberry shortcake
A strawberry shortcake. Creative Commons Licensed image by Stuart Spivack.

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  1. The exception is the pumpkin scone, which should be served with butter, rather than jam and cream.
  2. But Anzac biscuits are definitely biscuits and not cookies, despite the views of some baked-goods manufacturers.

‘The Montmaray Journals’ Optioned For Film and Television

I’m happy to announce that the film and television rights to The Montmaray Journals have been optioned by an independent US production company. Here’s a statement from producer Lucy Butler:

Book One: 'A Brief History of Montmaray'

“Roommates Entertainment is excited to have optioned Michelle Cooper’s trilogy of novels entitled ‘The Montmaray Journals’ including ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. We feel passionately that the journey of the young, soul searching and strong female protagonist, Sophie, forging her way in life in the era of WW2, will not only be dramatic, visual, informational but upmost inspirational, and will be a magnet for the audiences young and old.”

Having a book optioned is merely the first step in what is usually a long and convoluted journey from the page to the big (or small) screen. However, Lucy’s enthusiasm for the Montmaray books and her understanding of their historical and cultural background convinced me that she would be the right person for the job, and I’m hopeful that any film or television series that results will be true to the spirit of the books. I wish the production team all the best as they get started on this project, and I’ll keep you posted about any further developments.

Some Literary Exhibitions

I haven’t actually visited any of these exhibitions (yet), but they sound interesting and they’re all book-related.
'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum

Firstly, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an exhibition to accompany Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, The Oopsatoreum. The book, about one of Australia’s most fearless (fictional) inventors, features actual objects from the Powerhouse collection, which are on display. There’s also “a magic lantern show, a working printing press and three spaces where you can draw, write, make or build”. The exhibition runs until the 6th of October.

A short walk away is the University of Sydney, which is showing a collection of the art of Jeffrey Smart, curated by his friend, the writer David Malouf, and including some of Smart’s final letters. It’s at the University Art Gallery until the 7th of March. While you’re there, pop across the quadrangle to the Nicholson Museum to see the giant LEGO Acropolis and try to spot the little LEGO Agatha Christie in the crowd.

Finally, to Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria has an exhibition of images and garments, entitled Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, showing until the 2nd of March. Steichen, the chief photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938, produced portraits of a number of Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and these are being exhibited alongside Art Deco fashion, including dresses by Chanel and Vionnet. Cool, you say, but what does this have to do with books? Well, among the photographs is his striking 1932 portrait of actress Loretta Young, which featured on the cover of this book:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition

Montmaray Book Giveaway Winners

'The FitzOsbornes at War' title=

Thank you to everyone who shared some favourite book titles with us over the past fortnight. As always, there are lots of interesting recommended reads, and I’ve made a note of all of them in my book journal. Big congratulations to Kirsty, Alex and Hilde, who have each won a Montmaray book.

Thanks also to the American Ambassador to Montmaray for her continuing efforts to promote Montmaray. (By the way, Your Excellency, you’re allowed to resign your ambassadorial post whenever you like. Especially if you get a better offer from some other fictional kingdom. Narnia, say, or . . . actually, I can’t think of any others right now. But they probably offer better pay and working conditions.)

Also, the paperback edition of The FitzOsbornes at War1 is out now in North America. Very exciting!

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  1. I’m pretty sure the book cover’s not as green and fuzzy as my picture suggests. Although maybe that’s a marketing strategy . . .
    PERSON BROWSING IN BOOKSHOP: Hey, look at this weird book! Why is it all green and fuzzy? Hmm . . . Kirkus says on the cover that it’s “absorbing, compelling and unforgettable.” I must buy this book at once!
    RANDOM HOUSE MARKETING PERSON HIDING BEHIND SHELVES: Rubs hands with glee. Places another green, fuzzy copy of ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’ on shelf.

The Great Big Montmaray Book Giveaway

The paperback edition of The FitzOsbornes at War comes out in North America in two weeks, so I thought I’d hold a Montmaray giveaway to celebrate.

A stack of Montmaray books

Would you like to win one of the Montmaray books pictured above? If so, leave a comment below telling us about one of your favourite books, one that you’d like to recommend to other readers. You can write as much or as little as you want about the book. It can be any sort of book at all (although, ideally, it will be a book we haven’t heard much about, one that you think deserves more appreciation). I’ll choose three comments at random, and those three comment-writers can then let me know which Montmaray book they’d like me to send them. Of course, you may have read all the Montmaray books already, but perhaps you borrowed them from the library and would like your own, personally signed, copy? Or perhaps you’d like to give one to a friend?

Conditions of entry:

1. This is an international giveaway. Anyone can enter.

2. Make sure the email address you enter on the comment form is a valid one that you check regularly, so I can contact you if you win. No one will be able to see your email address except me, and I won’t show it to anyone else. Please don’t include your real residential or postal address anywhere in the comment. However, it would be nice if you mentioned which country you live in, because I’m curious about who reads this blog.

3. The three winners will be chosen at random, unless there are three or fewer comments – in which case, it won’t be random and all will win prizes.

4. Each winner can choose one of the Montmaray hardcovers or paperbacks pictured above, or one of the CD audiobooks of either A Brief History of Montmaray or The FitzOsbornes in Exile (not pictured above, but they do exist). See my book page for a list of the available books and audiobooks. Please note that I have lots of the North American editions, but not so many of the early Australian books. I’ll try to give each winner his or her first choice of book, but if all three winners want, say, an Australian first edition of A Brief History of Montmaray, then whoever emails me back first will get their first choice and the others might have to choose a different Montmaray book.

5. Entries close at 9:00 am Eastern Daylight Time in the US on the 8th of October, 2013, which is when the Ember paperback edition of The FitzOsbornes at War goes on sale in North America. The three giveaway winners will be emailed then, and I will post off the winners’ books as soon as possible after that.

6. This contest and/or promotion is not sponsored or authorised by Random House Australia. Random House Australia bears no legal liability in connection with this contest and/or promotion.

Off you go – recommend a book for us in the comments below. Good luck!

The Cats of Montmaray (Plus, Les Chats Du Château)

I know this blog has been rather Montmaray-heavy lately, and I will get back to my usual (non-Montmaravian) book ramblings soon, but I just had to share this with you. Ellie Maish, a very talented teenage artist, has created an amazing picture book based on A Brief History of Montmaray as a school project. Ellie has kindly allowed me to post some of the pictures from her book, The Cats of Montmaray, here. And yes, the Montmaravians are all portrayed as cats. Here are a few of the characters:

'The Cats of Montmaray' by Ellie Maish p.4

Don’t you love spiky John-Cat and worshipful Rebecca-Cat? And how Simon-Cat and Veronica-Cat are pointedly looking in opposite directions?

Here’s a scene in the Great Hall featuring the Fabergé egg:

'The Cats of Montmaray' by Ellie Maish p. 11

All the castle scenes are beautifully realised in collage form, but I particularly liked the ornate Gold Room. Whatever you do, don’t flop on the bed:

'The Cats of Montmaray' by Ellie Maish p. 15

There’s plenty of action and adventure, too. On this page, Sophie-Cat is horrified by the sight of the dead . . . well, he’s not actually a dead Nazi in this book. He’s an evil hawk, with two-inch-long talons and a sharp beak that could easily carry off a defenceless cat. He still ends up dead under a rug, though:

'The Cats of Montmaray' by Ellie Maish p. 25

Isn’t it great? Thanks, Ellie.

In other Montmaravian news, a French university student who translated A Brief History of Montmaray as part of her studies has sent me the translation, and I am very impressed. Mind you, I can’t actually read French, but the text looks so much more elegant in French than it does in English. I am having lots of fun reading about “Carlos, notre chien d’eau portugais” and “les pigeons voyageurs” and, of course, “les chats du château”.

Montmaravian Miscellanea

Kate Forsyth very kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, so I wrote one about books similar to the Montmaray Journals. Even though I’ve mentioned many of those books before, that post is worth visiting for the fabulous book cover images Kate has found, especially that vintage edition of The Pursuit of Love, with its titillating tagline (“Now Linda’s respectable uncles were sure it was true . . . THEIR NIECE WAS A KEPT WOMAN!”).

There’s also an interview with me on Kate’s blog, plus she’s written a lovely review of the Montmaray books. As Kate explains, she was one of the first people to read the manuscript of A Brief History of Montmaray. This wasn’t because I knew her, but because my editor at Random House had worked with her and thought Kate might enjoy the story. Kate’s comments about the manuscript made me jump up and down with glee (KATE FORSYTH had read my book! And liked it!) and a quote from her subsequently appeared on the front cover of the first edition of the book:

'A Brief History of Montmaray', first Australian edition

Thank you, Kate.

By the way, that cover for A Brief History of Montmaray is one of my favourite Montmaray covers, partly because of the beautiful shades of blue and the tall purple grass, and partly because it’s the only one that shows all three Montmaravian princesses. (What do you mean, you can’t see Henry? There she is, standing on the castle wall!)

Meet The Mitfords

Last week, I was at the library and noticed a new book about Nancy Mitford, this one about her relationship with French politician and diplomat, Gaston Palewski. I opened the book to a random page and not only recognised the anecdote being related, but knew at once where the quotes had come from. At that moment, I realised I’d read far too many books about the Mitfords and didn’t need to read another one. But then I considered that perhaps readers of this blog might be interested in some of the Mitford-related books I’ve read. Hence this post.

The Mitfords were what Wikipedia1 accurately calls “a minor aristocratic English family”. None of the famous Mitford sisters, with the possible exception of Jessica, ever had any effect whatsoever on political events or world history. They are mostly remembered because they were rich, good-looking, opinionated aristocrats who knew a lot of famous and influential people during a fascinating period of history. More importantly, they were writers, so we have detailed records of their thoughts, observations and jokes. But I ought to introduce the Mitford siblings properly, so here they are:

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy Mitford1. Nancy (1904 – 1973) was the author of the wonderful comic novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several other novels and biographies, and numerous essays and newspaper articles. She was unhappily married to Peter Rodd, but the love of her life was Gaston Palewski and she moved to France to be with him after the Second World War. There are several published collections of her letters, including The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Life in A Cold Climate by Laura Thompson is a fairly good biography of Nancy, provided you can cope with the biographer’s prose style (sample sentence: “Yet there is a quality to her voice, as she lingers on their paradisiacal images, that reveals what was always there, and what constitutes so great a part of her appeal: the yearning soul within the sophisticate’s carapace: the imagination that can take illusion and make it into something real.” Oh, how Laura Thompson loves colons! And also, hates feminists. But then, so did Nancy.)

2. Pamela (1907 – 1994) was married to physicist and RAF pilot Derek Jackson, but she divorced him to spend the rest of her life with female ‘companions’. Not that you’ll ever hear a Mitford sister using the word ‘lesbian’ to describe Pamela. Pamela seemed the most sensible and practical of the sisters, and enjoyed breeding poultry and cooking elaborate meals.

3. Thomas (1909 – 1945) was the only boy and the heir to the title, and seems to have been adored by everyone. At school (Eton, naturally), he was the lover of Hamish St Clair-Erskine (to whom Nancy was once, disastrously, engaged) and James Lees-Milne, although Tom seemed to have preferred women in later life. He joined the British army and was killed in Burma during the war, having refused to fight against the Nazis in Germany.

'Diana Mosley' by Anne de Courcy4. Diana (1910 – 2003) was the beauty of the family. She married Bryan Guinness at the age of eighteen, but dumped him when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She married Mosley in Berlin in 1936, at a ceremony at which Adolf Hitler was the guest of honour, then she and Mosley were imprisoned without trial in Britain for several years during the war. After the war, she supported Mosley’s various unsuccessful attempts to re-enter politics and they hung out with other rich Fascists. Anne de Courcy’s biography, Diana Mosley, provides a good account of Diana’s life, although it’s a rather biased one (“I came to love Diana Mosley,” gushes the biographer in her introduction, while also describing Diana, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as “the cleverest of the six Mitford sisters”). Diana also wrote a self-serving autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, which is interesting due to the sheer, gobsmacking awfulness of her opinions. Hitler, according to Diana, was a lovely man and the Holocaust wasn’t his fault at all. No, it was due to “World Jewry” and their “virulent attacks upon all things German and their insistent calls for trade boycotts, military encirclement and even war”. Also, the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated, and anyway, Stalin and Mao killed far more people. She also spends a lot of time boasting about her social life (“At Mona Bismarck’s Paris Christmas dinner parties, I was always put next to the Duke [of Windsor]”) and going on about Mosley’s “brilliance”, and, with an apparent lack of irony, writes of her enemies, “This is typical of many people who reject truth in even the most trivial matters if it conflicts with a prejudice”.

5. Unity (1914 – 1948) was the one who was obsessed with Hitler and shot herself in the head when war broke out. A lot of her attention-seeking behaviour seems to have been due to a childish desire to shock people, but she was in her twenties when she met Hitler, surely old enough to know better. Was she emotionally or intellectually immature, or simply caught up in the political excitement of the 1930s? Her biography, Unity Mitford: A Quest, by David Pryce-Jones, doesn’t really help to answer this question. The biographer has clearly done a lot of research, interviewing more than two hundred of her acquaintances, but the result is a very dull and disorganised account of her life, with little attempt at analysis. I really can’t recommend this book (unless, of course, you happen to be writing a novel that includes Unity as a character).

6. Jessica (1917 – 1996) ran away as a teenager to the Spanish Civil War with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s Communist nephew. A lot of very sad things happened in her personal life – her baby daughter died of measles, Esmond was killed in action during the war, her elder son died at the age of ten – but these are all glossed over in her memoir, Hons and Rebels, because Mitfords were brought up to put on a brave face in public. Jessica married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, and the two of them were active members of the American Communist Party and passionate civil rights campaigners. Jessica also wrote a number of books based on her investigative journalism, including exposés of the American funeral industry and prison system. Bonus fact: J. K. Rowling so admired Jessica Mitford that she named her daughter after Jessica.

7. Deborah (1920 – ) married Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire, and then she turned Chatsworth, the Devonshire family home, into a thriving business and tourist attraction. She also had terrible things happen in her life – three of her children died at birth, and her husband turned out to be a philandering alcoholic – but as Charlotte Mosley observed, Deborah was a Mitford, and therefore used to hiding her “vulnerability behind a lightly worn armour of flippancy and self-deprecation”. Deborah is usually portrayed as the apolitical Mitford, but is a proud Tory, was close to Diana, and “adored” Mosley. She has written several books about Chatsworth and her life, the most recent of which is Wait For Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.

'The Mitford Girls' by Mary S. LovellThere have also been a number of books about the whole Mitford family. I think the best, most balanced, family history is The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, although it’s been a while since I read it. There’s also The House of Mitford, by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness, or, as Hermione Granger would call it, A Highly Biased and Selective History of the Mitfords. The authors are Diana’s son and grand-daughter, so Diana is portrayed as a saint and Jessica as the devil incarnate. It also starts with a very long and boring section about the Mitford sisters’ ancestors. Still, it includes a lot of fascinating family photos that you won’t find in other books. However, my favourite Mitford-related book would have to be The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Yes, she’s Diana’s daughter-in-law and she seems to have done some very selective editing when it comes to Diana’s letters from the 1930s, but she has also done an excellent job of writing introductions and explanatory footnotes (which is vital, when the letter writers use as many nicknames as the Mitfords do) and of arranging all the correspondence in a way that makes sense. To quote J.K. Rowling again, “The story of the extraordinary Mitford sisters has never been told as well as they tell it themselves”.

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  1. Wikipedia once noted in its ‘Mitfords in Popular Culture’ section that “Unity Mitford appears as a minor character in the last two books of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals trilogy”, but this sentence has now disappeared. Wikipedia also fails to mention the most famous popular culture reference to the Mitford sisters – that is, Narcissa, Bellatrix and Andromeda Black in the Harry Potter books, who bear a strong resemblance to Diana, Unity and Jessica Mitford.