Sphere | 2019 (26 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1928 and Louisa Cannon, once a nursery maid to the infamous and beautiful Mitford sisters, has failed to make a living out of service. She’s a woman with a past and it will not stop getting in the way of her plans. But when Diana Mitford, just 18 years-old, marries wealthy heir Bryan Guinness, Louisa is made an offer she can’t refuse. She takes a job as Diana’s lady’s maid, accompanying the newly wed couple on their honeymoon to Paris, Venice and back to Mayfair.
And what a glamorous time they have, existing in a whirlwind of parties, glamorous friends and hedonism. Until 1930 when one of their party is found dead in Paris. When another dies, Louisa suspects there is a murderer in their midst. Once more Louisa will play sleuth and she knows just the detective to help her.
The Mitford Scandal is the third novel in Jessica Fellowes’ series of novels to feature the infamous Mitfords and their servant (and part time amateur detective) Louisa Cannon, who exists in such a strange place – almost a friend, but never quite, and only really when it suits Diana. I’m sorry to say that this is the first of the novel’s I’ve read. This didn’t matter at all. I soon caught up. But now I’ve bought the previous two books. I really want to know more about Louisa’s past and about the background to this extraordinary family. Of course, this novel reaches the early 1930s and that adds a new foreboding as Diana Mitford meets Lord Oswald Mosley for the first time, as the shadows descend over Europe once more.
The Mitford Scandal is a delicious read! It’s light but it’s also truly immersive. Jessica Fellowes, like her father (the creator of Downton Abbey), knows so well how to bring a character to life, to put them into a 1920s’ drawing room, club, restaurant or ballroom. The prose and dialogue dance along and put me straight into the heart of this glamorous, decadent and superficial world. But it’s not all lightness – there is a murderer at work. And then there are the first signs of the rise of fascism. All is not well in Diana Mitford’s world, whatever she may think, and her flaws are drawn as clearly as her beauty and charm.
Through Louisa we are given an upstairs, downstairs side to things, which is undoubtedly appealing. It also allows just a little scrutiny into the shallowness and depravity of high society, as servants scuttle around to do their bidding while also marvelling at the beautiful dresses of their mistresses as well as the frequent famous faces. Diana’s party schedule is exhausting! But the servants who have to look after her work even longer hours.
There is a police procedural of sorts going on as well, although it must be said that DS Guy Sullivan is not the sharpest tool in the box, nor the most morally sound. But the focus here is on the Mitfords, their circle of friends and Louisa.
These are not people especially easy to warm to, even Louisa. Diana is impossible to like. But this supports the feeling that life is here an act and many have secrets, for one reason or another. They are dictated to by class, connections and money (or the lack of it). But they are always fascinating. I’m familiar with the Mitford’s home in Asthall and I discovered their graves when strolling around their beautiful local church. And so I was drawn to this novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am hooked! I can’t wait to find out what happens next as we travel deeper into the 1930s but I’m also looking forward to going back to the beginning. Jessica Fellowes is an excellent guide to high society and its bright young things during an irresistible period of history.