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Mitfords meet Downton: Jessica Fellowes on her new Mitford Murders mysteries

Jessica Fellowes. Photo/Alamy

Mitford Murders writer Jessica Fellowes is right at home in a Roaring 20s pigeonhole with her uncle Julian, of Downton Abbey fame. 

Jessica Fellowes, niece of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford and Conservative peer in the House of Lords, has an accent that wouldn’t be out of place around the rugger-field-sized dining table at Downton. There, the rituals of the high born are enacted under the watchful eye of Carson as Lady Violet deploys her withering barbs like a sort of period Taser. Fellowes is a little bit posh. “Yeah, reasonably,” she agrees, Skyping from what looks like a writer’s attic room at her home in Oxfordshire. “In terms of lineage.”

Lineage. It’s not a word that crops up much in normal conversation but Fellowes works in a field where lineage is all and nothing is very normal. She wrote five handsome companion volumes for her uncle’s series: The World of Downton Abbey, A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey, The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey … The series has ended but the Downton caravan rolls on with a movie still to come. “They’re just finishing filming it now. I think it comes out about this time next year. Very exciting.”

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She’s not involved in the film but the glittering ITV series – it’s been called superior soap, toff erotica, a cultural phenomenon – did become something of a family cottage industry. “Yeah, Julian has gone somewhat beyond a cottage,” she points out. Indeed. More a stately home, possibly, where estate business is kept in the family. Fellowes had worked as a journalist and author. “When Downton began, my agent heard there was a publishing deal being done for a book and she said, ‘You ought to put yourself forward.’ I emailed Julian and said, ‘Would you mind another Fellowes on the project?’ and he very sweetly endorsed it.”

They’d always shared a love of the era. “We’d go off on holiday and talk about these family stories. My grandfather was born in 1912 and I just loved hearing about it. That sent me off reading all the authors of the between-the-wars period.”

The “reasonably” posh niece of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford wrote five books that piggyback on the success of the Downton Abbey.

Not that Fellowes grew up in particularly posh surroundings. “I was brought up in South East London. My parents were bohemians.” Her father, Rory, is a writer and animator. Her late mother was actress Georgina Melville, the cleaning-obsessed Mrs Wilberforce in 80s children’s television classic Metal Mickey. “They were posh rejecters of their upbringing. My dad and Julian were chalk and cheese, really.” Julian was more, well, Downton. That resonated with his niece. “It was a strange form of rebellion from my family to go very strait-laced, like Saffy on Absolutely Fabulous. I can remember once turning the music down and my parents shouting from the next room ‘Turn it back up!’”

As the straight daughter she was a good fit to write about Downton’s anachronistically fast-paced upstairs/downstairs antics, set when conversation among the upper classes took on an anxious air of gnomic prophesy – “The future is no ladies’ maids at all!” It was a time of technological innovation or, as Lord Grantham put it during an unexpected encounter with revolutionary whiteware, “Is this a refrigerator?”

No one really foresaw Downton’s freakish world domination. Nostalgia was never the whole answer. As the Guardian’s Barbara Ellen noted, “… most would think it absurd to yearn for an era when probably the most you could hope for was dying of consumption, aged 19, just after you finished blacking the grate in some toff’s scullery”.

The six Mitford sisters, subjects of Fellowes' book. Photo/Supplied

Downton, which first aired in 2010, was, says Fellowes, what the times demanded. “It was made in the wake of the recession. The last thing anybody thought they would be spending £1 million an episode on was a drama. ITV [had] decided it wanted gritty dramas that reflected all the pain that viewers were going through, but of course, what people wanted was escape.” It evoked simpler times when everybody knew their place, at least until feudal privilege collided with a post-war world transformed by a ratcheting-up of those inevitabilities, death and taxes. “Downton was all about the changing world and this house that stood in the middle of it that had once been as immovable as a rock and is now crumbling.”

Today, Fellowes is embroiled in another escapist enterprise, a series of murder mysteries. Post-Downton, she had bags of research knocking around. She has recycled some of it into The Mitford Murders. She’d never tackled a novel. “I got approached by an editor from Little, Brown and he asked if I’d be interested in writing a vintage crime series that featured the Mitford sisters. I just thought it made perfect sense.”

Very little about the six stranger-than-fiction Mitford sisters makes sense. Nancy was the novelist who spun her family’s oddities into witty fiction. Decca (Jessica) was the communist who ran away to the Spanish Civil War and became a muck-raking journalist in the US. Diana and Unity were proper, unrepentant, sieg-heiling Hitler lovers. They were a handful well before Fellowes gave them a string of fictional murders to help solve.

Unity, left and Diana with Nazi officers. Photo/Getty Images
Fellowes is well located for the task. Oxfordshire is Mitford territory. “It is. We’re about 40 minutes from Asthall Manor. Before we moved here my best friend got married in their old church.” The wedding feast was in the Swan Inn, owned by the youngest Mitford, Deborah, the late Duchess of Devonshire. “Midsomer Murders is filmed near here and Agatha Christie lived nearby.”

There must be something in the water. That might account for the weapons-grade eccentricity of the Mitford parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale (“Muv” and “Farve” in Mitford speak) and their headline-grabbing brood. Deborah once grumbled about an unfriendly critic and his review of Nancy’s Love in a Cold Climate: “Oh dear, freaks and lunatics. Well, never mind,” she wrote. “He disapproves in a governessy way of the idea of my father hunting my sisters with his bloodhounds for fun. What else would he have done it for?”

Fellowes achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making life chez Mitfords seem almost normal. “You always have to be slightly careful with period things. You run the risk of getting a bit too silly. I love PG Wodehouse, for example, but most people can’t read him any more. It’s too distant, too much. You can get too distracted by the eccentricity. The eccentricity, for them, was quite normal.”

Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. Photo/Getty

Wodehouse also had an unfortunate penchant for the Third Reich. But none of that arises in the series so far. In the first book, The Mitford Murders, Londoner Louisa Cannon flees a dodgy uncle to become nursery maid for the Mitfords. She teams up with Nancy to solve the murder of a nurse, Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter and namesake of the famous social reformer and founder of modern nursing. The murder is based on a real homicide. Though the case has never been solved, Fellowes’ murderer is also real person. It’s audacious to name a real person, who was never convicted, as a murderer, even in fiction. “I know. I’m pretty convinced of it, to be honest.” She went on evidence from court files that she feels was never properly followed up. “I have to admit I did check if there were any children living. If there had been living family then I wouldn’t have done it. It was a bit … I admit,” she tails off unrepentantly.

The second book in the series, Bright Young Dead, has debutante Pamela Mitford, with Louisa as chaperone, plunging into the post-war, Roaring 20s hedonism of society parties and Soho jazz clubs frequented by the Bright Young Things of the day. Pamela, least outrageous of the Mitfords, must have been a challenge. A poem about the sisters by John Betjeman (who, as a young admirer, proposed several times to Pamela and declared her his favourite of the sisters) ended with the accolade: “Miss Pamela, most rural of them all.” Dull? Fellowes won’t hear of it. “I don’t think she’s ordinary. She’s less exuberant than the others, but I decided that she was the ballast of the family, the rock that kept them all together. I don’t think she was terribly happy later, sadly. She married a very difficult, very clever man and then she finished her life with an Italian companion, as they call them.”

The husband was atomic physicist Derek Jackson, who according to biographer Simon Courtauld was a “rampant bisexual” who married six times. The Italian was horsewoman Giuditta Tommasi, with whom Pamela had a liaison that led Decca to declare her sister “a you-know-what-bian”. Never a dull moment.

From left, Unity, Diana and Nancy in 1932. Photo/Getty Images
Fellowes’ books are old school, of the style of the golden age of murder mysteries. But women propel the action. Louisa Cannon is handy in a tight corner, street smart and ambitious. “I get sometimes a little bit frustrated with the current #MeToo conversation that slightly seems to imply that only women today have been strong enough to stand up. Actually, my grandmother and the women I read about weren’t all meek creatures. It was hard to get their voices heard. They didn’t have the support from each other and certainly not from the men. But there were lots of women who bucked the trend. They went to work. They really tried.”

The real challenge will be how she handles Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels’ drawing room. Hitler was guest of honour. Diana was jailed during the war as a dangerous person. Her sister Nancy denounced her. She and Decca spent most of their lives on “non-speakers”.

Then there’s Unity, friend of Hitler, who shot herself in the head after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. She survived for a few years with brain damage. Whatever will Fellowes do with those two? “People are not straight-forwardly bad,” she says diplomatically. “That’s what makes them interesting and complicated characters. There was a lot about them that was perfectly fine, or at least entertaining. I’m sure they could be very generous hosts and look very elegant and all the rest of it.

Unity’s return to England in 1940 after she shot herself in the head in Germany. Photo/Getty Images

“Personally, I can’t get past the politics. Too much for me.” On the other hand, “I didn’t want anyone thinking, ‘Oh, they’re just crazy, they’re just mad.’” She might need good luck with that. Diana lived to be 93. “She was saying things that were just bonkers all the way through into the 1980s.” There was her infamous Desert Island Discs radio interview. She fondly recalled Hitler’s charisma, his mesmeric blue eyes. Asked about the murder of six million Jews, she haughtily replied, “Oh, no. I don’t think it was that many.”

And Unity? “She is difficult because I think there were mental-health issues there, shall we say. She was obsessed with Hitler in a way that was quite odd, even given that it was Hitler. She was conceived in a place called Swastika in Canada and christened Unity Valkyrie.” You couldn’t make it up. “I think I’m probably going to combine Unity with Tom in a book,” muses Fellowes. Tom, the only Mitford boy, was killed in action during World War II. A double tragedy, then.

Fellowes’ own family have had their share of tragedy. Their story may be the basis of another project. “There’s a memoir I’m thinking about doing.” Her mother had multiple sclerosis throughout her childhood and then developed Pick’s disease – frontotemporal dementia – when Fellowes was 18. “She died 12 years later. I partly would like to write the memoir because there’s a lot more conversation about dementia – there wasn’t any then – and also partly to honour her because she was great. So I’d like to set it down.”

Meanwhile, there are four more Mitford mysteries. Does she worry about getting pigeonholed in that time and place? “I haven’t worried about it, to be honest. I feel I’m so lucky to be able to earn a living like this. By the time I’ve got to the end of six books, if I’m allowed to do all six, I and the world will be ready for me to do something different and that will be okay. But I’ll probably always return in some fashion to the 1920s and 1930s,” she says. “I’m quite happy in this particular pigeonhole.”

Bright Young Dead, by Jessica Fellowes (Little, Brown, $34.99).

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.