book review, Chatsworth, contrived story, creepy manse, December 1941, Duke of Devonshire, flat characters, historical fiction, historical inaccuracy, Jessica Fellowes, Mitford family, mystery, Pearl Harbor, snobbery, social atmosphere, World War II
Review: The Mitford Secret, by Jessica Fellowes
Minotaur, 2023. 365 pp. $29
It’s late December 1941, and the Luftwaffe is pounding London. Deborah Mitford, daughter in a famous family related by marriage to the duke of Devonshire, arranges a house party at Chatsworth, the ducal estate. Among others, she invites Louisa Sullivan, onetime nursemaid of her childhood, now a private detective in London, and Louisa’s six-year-old daughter, Maisie.
As a guest where once she was a servant, Louisa worries that beyond Deborah and one other Mitford sister, Nancy, the aristocrats will resent her presumption. Louisa’s also missing her husband, Guy, the other half of their detective agency, who must remain in London.
With such a large cast, which includes Fred Astaire’s sister, Adele, and Kathleen Kennedy, sister to future politicians—both women have married Devonshires, or hope to—the mystery takes a while to set up. Then comes a village woman, uninvited, Mrs. Hoole, who insists the bluebloods check “the vestibule” for a vital object.
Sure enough, Louisa leads the charge and unearths a bloodied maidservant’s cap. Mrs. Hoole persuades the Mitfords to let her conduct a séance, during which it’s revealed that a maid was murdered at Chatsworth in 1916. Louisa sets out to investigate.
Neither the Mitfords nor the local constabulary want her to discover anything that might embarrass the family, even after another death occurs. Fellowes creates the social maze of country gentility through which the London commoner wanders, with plenty of “no—and furthermore” to hamper her investigation. The story evokes old tropes: the immense, creepy manse, with more rooms than anyone can count; a séance; an old crime that cries out for justice. But Fellowes does just enough to make this narrative her own.
The author also has a keen eye for domestic detail. By chance, I visited the grounds of Chatsworth a half-century ago but never entered the house. This is part of what I missed:
Louisa was in serious danger of believing she was in an H. G. Wells novel and had been magically transported to Rome in a flying car. Ahead of them was a wide staircase that went up to a gallery, the ornate black and gold of the banister circumnavigating the room as a balcony railing. The floor was black and white chequered marble and a fire blazed in a hearth to the side—which did nothing to prevent the room from feeling freezing cold—and there were columns with marble busts atop.
The American guests aren’t the only ones with star power, for the Mitfords are quite a family. Daughter Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists leader, and sister Unity admires Hitler. Diana’s in prison and Unity’s psychologically disturbed, never left alone, whereas another sister, Jessica, in the United States, is mourning her husband, recently killed in action. Consequently, there are conflicts and divisions within this remarkable clan.
Unfortunately, Fellowes resolutely skims the surface, never getting deeper than the famous names. The characters have only a dominant trait or two and no inner lives to speak of. Louisa has no visible flaw except an impulsive way of asking questions, without which she wouldn’t be a private detective. Clichés like “supercilious sneer” punctuate scenes in which Louisa has tried and failed to elicit information from tight-lipped sources.
But even those shortcomings would matter less if the story made sense; about halfway through, the wheels come off. An RAF officer stationed near Chatsworth somehow allows the family and guests to visit the airfield—they even sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire—and he subsequently warns of a forthcoming air raid, many hours away. Nobody wonders how or why any of this could happen, so when the plot turns on the officer’s words and actions, they’re amazed. Right.
How frustrating to read a mystery, trying to think along with the detective, only to discover that logic doesn’t apply. Forget about placing yourself in the story, wondering how you’d react in a given circumstance, arguably the whole point of reading a novel. There’s nothing to hold onto amid the contrivance.
The historical background, or lack thereof, feels similarly tricked up. At least twice, the narrative refers to “fighting in France” or “men at the front,” phrases from 1916, not December 1941. Fellowes seems not to have heard of Dunkerque or the German occupation of France. A minor point, perhaps, yet telling; she doesn’t seem to have heard of Pearl Harbor, either.
This story begins only ten days after Japan attacked, and by the time the guests gather at Chatsworth, Japanese forces are ripping through Malaya and battering the gates of Singapore, both British possessions. The wheels have come off, for the world at large and the British Empire. But the Mitfords seem to feel nothing about this, nor do their American guests, citizens of a suddenly belligerent nation.
What are we supposed to make of that? Perhaps nothing, for this book is part of a best-selling series, its final volume.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.