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Author Talk: January 20, 2023

Probing the torrid political climate in the lead-up to World War II and the ways that seemingly sensible people can be sucked into radical action, THE MITFORD AFFAIR follows novelist Nancy Mitford's valiant efforts to stop the Nazis from taking over Great Britain, and the complicated choices she must make between the personal and the political. In this interview, Marie Benedict talks about why she decided to take a certain degree of liberty with this true story and add more action to it; the kinds of sources she consulted in order to learn more about the Mitford sisters and their world; which sister she found the most challenging to write about and understand; and why she believes that loyalty must have its limits.

Question: It’s clear that despite her own beliefs, Nancy found it very difficult to act against her sisters, especially before the outbreak of war. When writing a character like Nancy, are you ever tempted to add more fiction or push her into a more active role than she took in real life?

Marie Benedict: Yes! In actuality, while the record reflects that Nancy did report about her sister’s activities to MI5 and that report played a role in Diana’s incarceration, I was not able to locate documentation that Nancy engaged in the more active spying activities that I depicted in the book, although she must have been collecting information on her sister’s whereabouts and companions informally for years, particularly as the political landscape shifted. Consequently, I did add more action than I was able to verify in the record, in part because I found Diana and Unity’s behavior so unbelievably appalling and Nancy’s inaction in those earlier years difficult to fathom, aside from the obvious internal conflict. That said, hindsight is 20-20, and of course, Nancy would not have been privy to everything we know now. But still! However, I didn’t want to stray too far from what the record reflects, and the book reflects that compromise.

Q: What kinds of sources did you consult to learn about the Mitford sisters and their world? When looking at writing they published more broadly, like Nancy’s books or Unity’s articles, does the intended audience change the way you interpret their perspectives?

MB: In some ways, the Mitford sisters are the best chroniclers of their own histories and the most crucial sources, even though there are myriad books written by others about them. Between them, they’ve penned many books and countless shorter pieces --- a mix of biographies about each other, biographies about others, autobiographies, nonfiction on a variety of topics, articles and, of course, Nancy’s famous semi-autobiographical post–World War II novels, THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE, and her less famous novels as well. Each of these books, in its own way, shares a different slice of the Mitford sisters’ lives. That said, given the sisters’ penchant for larger-than-life tales and the way their writings shifted depending on the nature of their audiences, those writings need to be taken with a grain of salt --- and often, I found myself turning to their actual letters to one another as a rich and engrossing source of information about them.

Q: Diana and Unity seem to get involved with fascism largely to further other agendas in their personal lives. Can we divorce our politics from our personal lives? Should we?

MB: In part, the way that politics and political figures affected the Mitfords and their relationships with one another drew me to this part of their history; it is so very timely in some ways. The further I delved into the almost unbelievable manner in which Diana and Unity became fascinated, even obsessed, with fascism, the clearer it became that, for these two sisters, politics was intensely personal. This notion, in fact, is a theme in Nancy’s writings. And the more I considered it --- the more I examined the world around me through that lens --- the truer it seemed to be for most people. Did people really land on a political belief system first and build a worldview around it as I’d sort of always thought, or did they have a personal worldview and select a political perspective based on it? I began to wonder. Throughout the writing of this book and beyond, I’ve speculated as to whether it’s even possible to divorce the personal from the political, and I haven’t yet arrived at an answer.

Q: Unity’s suicide attempts drastically altered Nancy’s perspective. Do you think she would have been so willing to assist Churchill without seeing consequences that hit so close to home?

MB: As I was investigating Nancy’s life and her sisters’ actions while building this story, I found Nancy’s inability to act for so long --- knowing what she knew --- so frustrating! But then I thought about my own siblings, and I realized that it would take something truly momentous for me to put them and their futures at risk by reporting any questionable activities to the authorities (not that they engage in questionable activities, mind you!). I am not surprised that it took the nearly fatal suicide attempt by Unity to push Nancy to act against Diana, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find Nancy’s passivity disheartening. I do think that, even if Unity hadn’t taken that drastic, terrible act of shooting herself, Nancy would have eventually disclosed Diana’s plans as the war progressed and the scope and scale of Hitler’s evil revealed itself. I hope so, anyway.

Q: Between the three sisters, did you have a favorite perspective to write? Who was the most difficult to understand from the inside out?

MB: Without question, I found Unity’s point of view the most challenging to comprehend and write about. Even without the benefit of hindsight, I wondered how she could possibly be intrigued by a politician as odious and evil as Hitler! I found it extremely difficult to look at him and the Nazis through Unity’s eyes and see anything other than wickedness. But as often happens while writing historical fiction, I have to remind myself that she didn’t know all that we know. Even still, I found it incredibly difficult to adopt her mindset, no matter how fictional. I probably enjoyed writing Nancy’s story the most, although there was something appallingly compelling about stepping into Diana’s world. But boy, was I happy to step out of it!

Q: One of the big questions throughout the book is: To whom do we owe our loyalty? Do you think there is a way to remain loyal to someone without supporting their ideas and ambitions?

MB: Loyalty must have its limits, I think, particularly if remaining loyal to someone will put others --- particularly large numbers of others --- at risk of harm. Of course, we all have to draw our own lines around our loyalty to those individuals and institutions holding very different beliefs from our own and acting upon those beliefs. I think that, in THE MITFORD AFFAIR, Diana crossed Nancy’s line when her actions (and inaction) nearly killed Unity --- and Nancy realized that many, many more people might be similarly impacted if Diana’s plans reached fruition. But, of course, as the book posits: How well can we really know someone’s beliefs and decisions? How certain do we have to be before we put aside our loyalty?

Q: What’s next for you and your writing?

MB: I hope to continue excavating from the past the most important and fascinating women of history --- women whose stories deserve to be told and legacies celebrated --- until such novels are no longer necessary because both modern and historical women are no longer in the shadows.