Imagine the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice gone horribly wrong and you’ll have some idea of the famous Mitford girls. Replace Mr Darcy with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of fascists through most of the 1930s, and the tableau is complete.
David Litchfield focuses on the Honourable Unity Valkyrie Mitford, fifth of seven children, and her lifelong fascination with fascism. As a child, Unity and her sister Jessica divided their shared room with a line of c
halk. Jessica decorated her side with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Unity decorated her side with the symbols of fascism. What may have started as a childish game turned to deadly earnest in adulthood, as Jessica ran away to the Spanish Civil War while Unity travelled to Germany where she developed a close friendship with Adolf Hitler.
In his biography of Unity, David Litchfield presents a stark portrait of Unity herself, and uses her as a window into the fascist sympathies of the English upper class in the 1930s. He peers behind the popular conception of the Mitfords, defined by girlish high jinks related by their sister Nancy in her satirical novels. Unity Mitford was more than a rather giddy ‘bright young thing’ – as the daughter of a baron, she was too upper class to be called a ‘flapper’ – who was swept up by Hitler’s personal charisma. She was a nasty piece of work who revelled in the persecution of Germany’s Jews, adding her own petty torments when the opportunity arose.
While it’s an eminently readable biography, I’m only giving it three stars because I had some concerns about its fact checking. At one point, it named Austen Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1919, when he was in fact Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s a minor slip that makes no difference to the thrust of the biography, but inevitably made me wonder how many mistakes I didn’t notice in areas I’m less familiar with.
Nor is it explained why it is subtitled The uncensored biography of Unity Mitford. It begs the question of who would be likely to censor a biography of her published in 2013, and how Litchfield evaded them. I’m inclined to be charitable and assume it was imposed by a publisher who didn’t think the title Hitler’s Valkyrie was quite sensational enough.
Another area where I felt it fell slightly short of its mark was in trying to use Unity Mitford as a starting point to explore Hitler’s psychology. It’s a subject that has been generating much heat and very little light since he first came to prominence. Unity was intimate with Hitler, albeit probably not as sexually as she would have wished, but Litchfield tells us far more about her uncomplicated idolatry than about the man himself. Nor does he discuss the possibility that her attraction for Hitler may have been as political as it was personal. She was a member of a prominent aristocratic family and sister-in-law of Britain’s leading fascist. She appeared in Germany, already besotted with him, at a time when he was nurturing hopes of aristocratic fascists binding Britain into an alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union.
If Hitler spent less time with her in the year before Britain and Germany went to war, it may have been less that he was losing interest in her charms, as Litchfield suggests, than because he had given up on building bridges to the British aristocracy.
Any well-written account of history invites its reader to speculate beyond its text, so such ruminations are as much an endorsement of Hitler’s Valkyrie as a criticism. It remains an engaging read and a story of a woman who intrigues in an entirely different way to that she would have wished.