Tag Archives: 1930s

The Mitford Trial by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2020 (5 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Mitford Trial by Jessica FellowesIt is 1933 and, with the rise of Hitler in Germany, fascism is beginning to become fashionable among British high society. Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is on the ascendancy and his most ardent admirer is Diana Guinness, formerly Diana Mitford, who is not going to let her marriage, or his own dalliances, get in the way of attaching herself to him permanently. Diana’s younger sister, Unity, on the other hand, has a schoolgirl’s obsession with Adolf Hitler.

As if to clear their heads, their despairing mother plans to take her daughters on a luxury cruise to Italy. She needs somebody reliable to keep an eye on them. Louisa Cannon, the Mitfords’ former maid and companion is the obvious choice. Even though she has just married DI Guy Sullivan, Louisa feels she has no choice, especially when a strange man approaches her and suggests it would be in the interests of her country if she should spy on the Mitfords and any Germans that they might have contact with onboard. It all sounds deeply mysterious and intriguing but, when one of the passengers is found dead in his cabin, it also becomes extremely dangerous.

I am a huge fan of this series, of Louisa, of the mysteries that she solves, and of the intrigue, glamour and danger that surrounds the Mitford sisters, all brought to life in these novels. I live very close to where the sisters grew up and have been to events in their home, eaten in their local pub and visited their graves. They are fascinating, not necessarily always in a good way, and they reveal so much about the nature of the times in which they lived – in society but also on its fringes, where scandal can be found. Louisa is a bridge between normality and these unusual women. She is the one who can get to the heart of the matter, with or without the help of her rather bumbling detective friend and now husband, Guy Sullivan.

The Mitford Trial is the fourth in the series and you can certainly read it without having read the others. I read the first novel, The Mitford Murders, not that long ago and, as a result, immediately devoured the following two books. The stories stand alone with each of the books generally focusing on a sister. In The Mitford Trial it’s now the time to learn more about Unity, possibly the most notorious of them all (which is saying something when you consider the story of Diana). And so, if you’ve read them all, you’ll have more of a feel for their relationships and also for that between Louisa and Guy. I must admit, though, that this is possibly of less interest to me. I have still to be convinced that Guy actually knows what he’s doing.

This latest novel is different in that it is mostly set away from London and Oxfordshire. Most of the drama is set aboard the Princess Alice, a ship that carries such a strange bunch of crew and passengers to Italy. There is intrigue of every kind just as there is also the shadow of something sinister – there are spies at work, on every side. And while Diana and Unity see only glamour and excitement in the appearance of Nazis on the ship, many others don’t.

The Mitford Trial is an entertaining tale of glamour, spies and murder. It has that Agatha Christie type feel to it as our murder suspects are few in number and confined within the ship. The historical detail is marvellous and so too is its mood as we enter that dark period of 20th century history. I can’t wait to see where Jessica Fellowes takes us next as Diana and Unity become even more deeply involved with fascism, Germany and with Hitler himself.

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead, now renamed The Mitford Affair)
The Mitford Scandal

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (Pb 17 October) | 471p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Glittering Hour by Iona GreyIt is 1936 and young Alice, just 9 years old, has been sent to live with her grandparents and governess at Blackwood Park while her parents sail to Burma on business. Alice is a quiet child, self-sufficient and missing her mother Selina terribly. Her grandparents keep their distance while her governess is far too interested in what is going in the outside world to fuss about a small, lonely girl. Alice’s only friend is Polly, once her mother’s maid and now returned to the house just to look after Alice. It is to the two of them that Selina writes long letters, full of love, giving Alice the clues to a treasure hunt which will lead her to objects and places so precious to Selina and so significant to Alice in ways that she has yet to learn.

And so we discover the great love affair of Selina and the struggling artist Lawrence Weston during the glorious summer and autumn of 1925, a time when Selina was the brightest of all of London’s Bright Young People, and the light that radiated from her drew Lawrence to her like a moth to a flame. The Great War casts a long shadow. Selina mourns her brother. Everyone has lost someone, while many of the men who came back have not returned whole. Love is something to be treasured, perhaps especially because it is forbidden and must be kept secret. It’s time for Alice to discover the truth.

I heard such wonderful things about The Glittering Hour on Twitter and I knew I had to read it immediately and so I did. I am drawn to novels set in the 1920s and 1930s, these years of glamour and decadence (for the rich), sandwiched between times of such terrible sadness. The premise of the novel is wonderful and Iona Grey delivers on it perfectly. This is a beautifully written novel, so evocative of the times in which it is set, and the author does such an astonishing thing in bringing both the child Alice and the adult Selina to life. As the story moves between the two and between the two different years, I was spellbound.

I loved everything about this novel. I really enjoyed watching Alice explore Blackwood Park, discovering her mother’s secrets there, seeking out clues to her life in the house and gardens, helped by Polly and the gardener, ignored by her grandparents and governess. Alice is a child so in need of love, counting the days until her mother will return to her. The heart of the book, though, belongs to Selina, Alice’s mother, and a woman so full of love who has to make the most difficult decisions because she is so afraid of losing more people close to her. It’s a joy reading about her exploits, especially those involving Lawrence, including those infamous treasure hunts that frequently featured in the newspapers of the day. Selina is a gorgeous person and I loved her instantly.

The Glittering Hour is a novel about love but it’s also about loss and, when it hits you, it is heart wrenching. I cried a great deal, while loving every word that I was reading. The Glittering Hour is a gorgeous novel. It’s romantic and sentimental, it’s also deeply conscious of the legacy of war on these times and on these young people. I was riveted to it. I’m looking forward very much indeed to reading Iona Grey’s earlier novel Letters to the Lost. I have no doubt it will be just as enchanting.

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy