Marie Benedict, THE MITFORD AFFAIR: A Novel

Marie Benedict, THE MITFORD AFFAIR: A Novel

Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict about The Mitford Affair, a spellbinding and immersive new book about the notoriously glamorous Mitford sisters and the high-ranking fascist company one of them keeps in the lead-up to World War II. Marie talks about her fascination with the real-life Mitford sisters (the “it” girls of the 1930s) and the way Nazism and Hitler entranced a couple of them (along with many British aristocrats). After analyzing each sister, Marie describes her intense research and drafting process, the struggle of writing about horrific people and belief systems, and the exciting projects she has in the works!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Marie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Mitford Affair.

Marie Benedict: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for having me. As you know, I am a fangirl. To be here and chat with you about my latest is such an enormous treat.

Zibby: You are being so complimentary, which is lovely, but what I was saying before is that what you do is so impressive, especially with this book. You have so many different points of view on the same events a lot of the time, picking up different threads of the same thing with different perspectives as if you’re jumping into different people’s bodies around the same table or something and weaving in so much history and fact and context. I’m like, how is she doing this? It’s really impressive.

Marie: Thank you so much. I will say I didn’t know what I was biting off when I decided to write this one. I usually do stick with the perspective of one historical woman, see her through the important arc of her life and explore her contributions and her struggles. One of the things that fascinated me about Nancy Mitford and the Mitfords in general was the interplay of those sibling relationships. The Mitford sisters, for people who don’t know, were the aristocratic “it” girls in the 1920s and ’30s, each more eccentric, beautiful, brilliant, cuckoo than the next. I felt like exploring the way in which they shaped each other’s personalities and destinies was so fascinating, especially because I’m one of six myself. I have seen play out in my own family, how we become who we are because of, in spite of our siblings. It was an interesting theme for me to explore. Fortunately, we don’t have relationships like these Mitford sisters. We’re much closer and not a lot of strife, but we are definitely experiencing some of the same things these sisters are.

Zibby: I have to say, normally when I read books that I book for the podcast, I don’t go back and read the back cover or anything when I start. I just know it’s coming up. Everything surprises me. Do you know what I mean?

Marie: I do because those back covers sometimes have a lot of spoilers in them.

Zibby: When I was reading your book, I was like, wait a minute, seriously? Now we’re interacting with Hitler. They’re on the stage. This is intersecting with everything. I’m like, wait, but I was feeling really sympathetic towards these characters. Wait, now they’re bad guys. What’s going on here?

Marie: What you’re describing is something I struggled with so much in the book. Without giving away too many spoilers, one of the things that was fascinating about these sisters is that there’s a whole story about them which most people don’t know. People mostly think about them and their lives through the lens of Nancy Mitford, who wrote about them famously in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. People think of them as this idyllic, quirky, English, aristocratic group of sisters. The reality is there was a dark undercurrent to their existence. It very much reflected the dark undercurrent that was going on in Europe at that time in this interwar period. Fascinating in capturing how these otherwise sympathetic, like you said, engaging women suddenly transformed before my eyes. How that happened is something that really fascinated me. Getting into the things that sway people in their beliefs and then how that plays out on a family level was really interesting to me. Sometimes I really struggled with the scenes because, as you know, two of the sisters become enamored of fascism. More than just enamored. They become . Unity, one of the sisters, in particular, was part of Hitler’s inner circle. It was appalling to write him through her eyes. Yet to understand how she came to do what she did and believe what she believed, I had to do that. It was a struggle. I’ll be honest.

Zibby: That was tough. I like how you even have the parents weighing in in such a casual way. You’re like, every so often, Dad would ask Unity to take down the swastikas in the room. It’s just as an aside as if it was a poster of Ralph Macchio or something. Please take that down. We don’t like your Pokémon poster.

Marie: You know what? That’s a tremendous analogy because she was a teenage fangirl. We know what we know now, of course, about the fascists and what ultimately happened. They didn’t have the benefit of hindsight there. At the same time, shouldn’t the alarm bells have been ringing for the parents? That becomes a theme in the book. At what point do you intercede? At what point do you pull your teenage daughter out from the clutches of Hitler in Munich and say that that’s, even if you don’t know what his ultimate scheme is, that’s not appropriate? That’s not right. That theme of at what point we act on our beliefs, act on our suspicions is a huge core issue in the book that raises its head ultimately through Nancy and her decision-making but is a big factor earlier on with the parents. You can’t believe it. Yet what was also fascinating to me, and I just touch on it in the book without delving too much, is that this time period, there were so many upper-class English people who sided with Nazism. They saw communism on the horizon. They were more fearful of what communism might do to their estates and their titles. They thought they might stand a better chance at keeping all of that with Hitler. There was a certain amount of sympathy towards him in this upper class, which is something I was not aware of until the book.

Zibby: Me neither. Just when you think you can’t learn any more, you open Marie Benedict’s latest book.

Marie: That was what attracted me to this. There’s been a lot written about the Mitfords. I usually write about unknown women, with the exception, probably, of Agatha Christie. Again, when I choose one of these better-known women, I’m looking at something about them that is secretive and hidden but that is important and helps us kind of switch out that lens through which we look at the past.

Zibby: I have to say, the way you wrote the sister Diana, the older sister — well, she’s not the oldest. Is she the oldest? No.

Marie: Nancy’s the oldest.

Zibby: Nancy’s the oldest. She’s the second oldest. She’s so glamorous. I think I can say this because it’s on the back cover, but I was surprised since I didn’t read the back cover. She’s married to a Guinness heir and sees this cute guy who she is totally in lust with across the room in your opening scene. Then fast-forward. She leaves her husband to be with this guy, but not even to marry him, which in today’s world would be one thing. I had to imagine back then this is like, wait, you’re doing what? This is insane.

Marie: Here she is. She’s considered the most beautiful woman of her generation. She has her pick of men. She picks a golden boy. She picked Bryan Guinness, who’s stunning, kind, adores her beyond measure, has the riches of dreams. Yet he’s not enough for her. There’s something missing. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like he’s too nice, too doting upon her. When she leaves him for Oswald Mosley, who’s married, it’s all over the headlines. Diana has this strange, not just self-awareness, but confidence, an unusual confidence that she lets all of that roll off her as she proceeds down this most unacceptable path. This story was everywhere. The Mitfords were the regular stuff of headlines.

Zibby: Who are the Mitfords today? Are we thinking Gisele and Tom Brady type of thing? Are we thinking Kardashians? Is it more like actual royals? You know what I mean?

Marie: It’s tough because we don’t really have those kind of stratification of society anymore. They’re the stuff of headlines, but yet they’re still on a pedestal. They’re definitely Kardashian-esque in the amount of newspaper coverage there is about them, but the Kardashians are on nobody’s pedestal. That’s not an exact analogy. They were in the headlines so frequently that their mother was famously quoted as saying, “Anytime I see the phrase ‘Peer’s daughter’ in a headline, I know it’s going to be about one of you six.” These three are just three of the six. The other three have their own host of headlines before, during, and after this time period. A direct analogy, I don’t know if there is one, but the level of fame and the amount of press coverage, Kardashian-like, for sure.

Zibby: Maybe it’s like if Princess Kate had a couple siblings.

Marie: Yes. That would be a good one. That would be good because there’s so much access and coverage, but definitely more scandal. If she had a whole bunch of siblings and each one was up to no good, that would be about it.

Zibby: Which would be amazing.

Marie: I would love that. That would be my future stories. Material galore. They’re too buttoned-up. They’re too aware of the media coverage. The thing about the Mitford sisters is that they thought nothing would stick to them. It would all roll off. That’s why they behaved with such complete, I don’t want to say impertinence, but lack of care what other people thought. It does catch up with them in the end. It catches up in my book. It catches up at the hands of someone close to them. Dun, dun, dun.

Zibby: Dun, dun, dun.

Marie: Jinx. Buy me a Coke.

Zibby: I thought it was really interesting, also, how you developed Unity as a character and how we see her as so awkward, and even her random gray teeth. You keep talking about how she doesn’t fit into anything. She’s just always tripping over herself. You see how she finds herself in this cause. I feel like that is something that repeats itself through history all the time, even today, “outcasts” who are searching so hard to find their place of belonging. There’s a movement that is very inclusive of anyone who believes, and so you’re willing to believe anything to feel like you’re a part of something.

Marie: That is Unity in a nutshell, gray teeth and all. This is a girl who brings her pet rat, Ratular, to balls. She’s so insecure. Like you said, she doesn’t even fit in with her sisters. Her sisters are these celebrated beauties. She is an attractive girl, if you look at pictures, but she never has the self-confidence that her siblings do. They’re merciless to each other, those siblings. They’re like a feral pack of dogs out in the countryside on an estate. The parents don’t send them to school. They have occasional tutors. They’re basically left to raise themselves. They could be very cruel to one another. They had occasional support systems and private languages and secrets and good stuff, but there’s also a lot of very difficult hazing behavior. The other ones kind of rose up, but Unity, it created a hole inside her that, exactly as you said, that this really extreme political group filled for her. What she didn’t see is that they were using her too. On her end, it was all one-sided. She loved Hitler. She loved what he was doing. She became swept up in this cause. They embraced her with open arms. She thought she’d arrived. Finally, someone was loving her for her. Yet the sad part of it, of course, is that it was all part of a propaganda campaign. As I mentioned, there was this faction of English society that accepted the Nazis, that welcomed them. Hitler and his propaganda team wanted to foster that. Wow, if two of the Mitford sisters, the aristocratic “it” girls, cousins to Churchill, if they liked us, there’s nothing wrong with us. It was their way of kind of smoothing over the bad press in those early days in the leadup to World War II, but Unity couldn’t see that. She didn’t want to hear it.

Diana, on the other hand, knew it and exploited it for her own purposes. When you look at these two sisters and the way in which they become wrapped up in Nazism, not just fascism, but Nazism, it’s for very different reasons with very different levels of awareness and intentionality and, in my mind, varying degrees of awfulness. Unity’s awful in her own way, and so is Diana, but there’s a part of Unity, even at the end, you can’t help but pity because of why she’s attracted to it. Diana, I don’t know. I don’t know about you, but I have a very different feeling about Diana. What’s fascinating, too, is — these sisters were famous. I do a ton of research, and so I’ve watched a bazillion video clips and read a million memoirs. They wrote their own stories over and over, which were arguably not totally trustworthy. There’s a video interview of Diana much later in life. Still beautiful. She’s in her sixties or seventies. Stunning. To listen to her talk with that extremely upper-class accent and describe these events, that’s where I got the Diana that’s in the pages of this book, the chilling Diana that’s in the pages of this book. She is a singular creature, and a scary one.

Zibby: Wow. Then you have Nancy, who’s the Nora Ephron of the family, essentially.

Marie: parallel. I’m going to have to use that. That is exactly Nancy. She’s funny, self-deprecating, biting. She could be really mean. Yet she attracted this group of social beings. She was celebrated. Yet things didn’t always go so well for Nancy. She was trying to find her own way. She felt very strongly, the neglect of her parents, probably in a way that her other siblings didn’t. As the oldest, she was often alone. She could watch what was happening beneath her. That really stayed with her, at least my version of Nancy. I write fictional versions of real people. I’m not saying she was totally sympathetic either. That’s for sure. There were lots of times I wanted to shake her and say, what are you doing? Her biting wit and her eventual moral compass do kick into play there, thankfully for all of us. Who knows? Looking at this story and looking at the legacy of these women, I was looking at the possible really traumatic legacy that could’ve happened, a legacy that I think did, but really, we aren’t aware of. At the core of that is the risks that — when you look at a huge historical event like World War II, the way it could’ve played out and how it could’ve played out, there are so many what-ifs that we often aren’t aware of that we are very beholden to today, things that didn’t happen, people that we aren’t aware that played a role in that. It’s hard to say that without giving it away.

Zibby: Don’t give it away.

Marie: Here’s what I’m saying. You know.

Zibby: Enough bad stuff did happen, though.

Marie: Horrible.

Zibby: I’m joking. Beyond horrific. It was crazy to see this different side of things, honestly, the backstage of the whole thing.

Marie: Also fascinating, the way in which, and I don’t know that this is so true today, but the way in which high society and governmental leaders overlapped. Those upper echelons of society were also the leaders of society. They were one and the same. These girls, who had nothing to recommend them other than their titles and their looks and their own wits, were able to literally claw to the epicenter of the leadup to World War II. That kind of access and influence, it really blows the mind. Yet it really, really happened.

Zibby: Wow. How did you go about writing this whole thing? Did you have piles of research? Did you divide by character? How did you attack this project?

Marie: That’s a great question. If you had seen my desk at that time, a hot, hot mess of unorganized piles. I love my original source material. My god, there’s no shortage of it with the Mitfords. You always want something in their own hand, letters, journals. There’s tons of those. They wrote to each other constantly. Most of their letters are public. The sisters, unlike anyone else I’ve ever written about, almost every single one of them wrote their own memoir or multiple memoirs or essays. In Nancy’s case, she also wrote two fiction books during this time period, which are little-known, Wigs on the Green and Pigeon Pie, which are exact mirrors of what was going on in her life. Really, it was about reading all of that, creating a million timelines. As you said, sometimes I’m literally looking at exactly the same event through all three sets of their eyes. Making timelines and then stepping back and writing and having all that material at hand to draw on as I went to each of their perspectives for those scenes, it was very tricky because I wanted to show the reader the way the world looked through their eyes without repeating the same scene over and over again. It was tricky. It was rewarding.

It was also, as I said earlier, sometimes really tough because some of the interactions these characters have with leaders of the Nazi party, unsavory characters in the British government and society, they were almost unpalatable. Yet I felt like in order to go through this exercise, I needed to do that. I myself wanted to understand how people made their own political decisions, how they found groups and affiliations. I kind of had always thought that people started with a political belief. In fact, what I think after writing this book is that people are attracted to political beliefs because of personal things. One of the themes in the book is that the political is very personal. I felt like I needed to go through the personal for each of those characters to understand how they arrived at their political belief systems, some of which were unfathomable to me. It helped me understand society then. Not that it made me sympathetic to a lot of the choices, but it helped me understand it in society today, of course.

Zibby: I feel like there’s so many parallels. It’s frightening, the movements and the groups and conviction. It’s just very easy to fall into things and not look around and say, wait a minute, what exactly is going on here? Where is this leading? I feel like there’s a lot of undercurrents at the moment.

Marie: That was my intention, to draw those parallels in the way in which we ignore the unsavory parts because the rest suit us. The Mitford parents are great examples of that. So are the sisters as well. They started off having one very specific belief system and completely flip-flop because it suited certain personal gains. That was interesting to watch as well, the way in which the peripheral players got swept up and changed their views for personal reasons and ignored some of the really awful stuff that was going on that they did know about. They knew what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany. They knew. Yet time and time again, that was mischaracterized. That was glossed over. That was swept under the rug. It’s so awful to watch that happen. Yet I felt like I needed to do it.

Zibby: You finished this book. Now what do you have coming up? What are you working on? Do you have a similarly disorganized desk about something else?

Marie: I’m looking at this, at the bad stuff. You only see the clean side. I have another book coming out in June. It’s my next cowritten book with Victoria Christopher Murray, my cowriter, my wonderful sister and partner from The Personal Librarian. That book is the story of the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and someone who should be as well-known as Eleanor Roosevelt but generally isn’t, Mary McLeod Bethune. She was the fifteenth child in a family. She was the first born free. She was self-educated, founded a college in Florida, a current HBCU, Bethune-Cookman. She rose up to become, during her lifetime, one of the most famous Black advocates. She and Eleanor became BFFs in the 1920s before Eleanor was the first lady or the first lady of New York, even, at a time of segregation when you couldn’t even find a place to go get a cup of coffee. Then these two women worked behind the scenes to really form the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. People just don’t even know. It was so hard to find source material for this story because I really feel like their friendship has hardly been examined at all. It’s a really important one that we benefit from today. That’s out in June.

Zibby: That’s so soon. I didn’t even realize. That’s around the corner.

Marie: I know. I’m just turning in my book for next year.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What is that?

Marie: It’s currently called — we’ll see if the title sticks; you know how that goes — The Archaeologist. It’s about Lady Evelyn Herbert, who was the real-life daughter of the fifth Lord Carnarvon — or Carnarvon; I can’t pronounce it — who owned Highclere Castle, which was really Downton Abbey. He was an archaeologist, founded all these excavations in the 1920s. She was an archaeologist as well. Together, along with the now-famous Howard Carter, they uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. There’s a whole additional story about the real pharaoh that they were looking for, which was a woman. We examine a whole other part of ancient historical women, the quest to find them, why and how they were erased from the past, and the role that she plays that no one knows in all of that.

Zibby: Gosh, you have so much going on. That’s awesome. It’s really great.

Marie: I’m not running an empire as well.

Zibby: Oh, stop. No, stop it. Stop, stop.

Marie: I can spin a few plates. I’m very, very fortunate to do what I do. I feel a huge responsibility towards the women I write about.

Zibby: How do you even pick? Who’s coming up after that? Do you just have a list on your bulletin board?

Marie: I literally have a list. There’s probably fifty, seventy-five women on it. Any one of them — if you make the list, you’ve met my rubric. You have done something magnificent that we still benefit from today. You’ve grappled with an issue that’s really modern in tone and in nature, so readers today can relate to it. Then the way I select from that is what speaks to me. If I’m personally dealing with an issue, I might be attracted to one woman’s story over another. If something is really timely, happening in our society, and it really ties in with a particular woman’s story, I might choose her. Sometimes I pick one, and I don’t know why. As I’m writing it, I figure it out. Writing is processing our own struggles in humanity. Sometimes it’s by writing that I’m actually processing all that too. Sometimes I don’t know until the end. There’s no shortage of women. Just a shortage of time.

Zibby: You know what you should do in your spare time? Do a children’s book with all the women. Have a picture of the women. Then say issue that they’re dealing with, how it relates — just what you were saying. Issue they’re grappling with, how it relates to today.

Marie: Okay, next project. I like that. My books are not — certainly, readers as young as middle school could enjoy them. There’s nothing really scandalous or inappropriate in them, but they’re often dealing with issues that might not be exciting for middle schoolers or high schoolers. The core accomplishment and issue is one that they should know about. I did two events in the past couple weeks. One was for a high school, specifically, the biology department. I talked about Rosalind Franklin, who I wrote about in Her Hidden Genius, who discovered DNA and had that discovery taken from her by two men, Watson and Crick, who won the Nobel Prize. At another school, I talked about Carnegie’s Maid, which is a book I wrote that’s really about Pittsburgh and Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy. I was talking to younger readers really close up and personal. You’re right. Those stories do resonate. Those histories do.

Zibby: Maybe it’s not a children’s book. I’m going back on myself. Maybe it is more of like — but I still see this as an illustrated book. It could be called What Would You Do? Then pose it as a dilemma for the reader in each one.

Marie: I like that. This is spoken like a publisher. You’re right because that’s how I look at the women, as a lens through which we’re dealing with an issue or a topic or recognition, which is so often taken from women. I love that.

Zibby: For this book, it could be, what would you do if two of your sisters were suddenly siding with the bad guys? What would you do? It could even be quizzes. Would you intervene? I don’t know. It’s just an interesting way to get the history.

Marie: You’re right, like those books — I loved them when we were growing up. I can’t remember what they’re called.

Zibby: Choose Your Own Adventure.

Marie: Choose Your Own Adventure. As you choose, you can see the way historical events fall one way or the other. You really get to see the implication of decisions. I love that.

Zibby: It could be fun.

Marie: You just opened up a whole Pandora’s box for me. I love that.

Zibby: You go work on that. I’m going to go back to my life.

Marie: Now that you’ve left me with this huge new idea, thank you. I didn’t expect that today. I want to say thank you so much for reading The Mitford Affair, for chatting with me about it, and for doing all you do.

Zibby: It was good. I really learned a lot. I found it so interesting. I love learning. It was great. Thank you.

Marie Benedict, THE MITFORD AFFAIR: A Novel

THE MITFORD AFFAIR: A Novel by Marie Benedict

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts