I love the covers of this series of novels by Jessica Fellowes! The blue here is gorgeous! All art deco, beautiful, vibrant. Not unlike the eponymous Mitford sisters around whom the novels revolve.
This is the third outing for Louisa Cannon, previously nursery nurse to the younger Mitford sisters and friend to Nancy Mitford in The Mitford Murders and Bright, Young Dead. In this episode, she is lady’s maid to the middle sister Diana. And I really wanted to love it, I did want to love it… but I couldn’t.
I have to say, I don’t know why the family continue to employ Louisa. Everywhere she goes in this novel, death follows. It is the Jessica Fletcher effect!
In 1928, she – Louisa Cannon, not Jessica Fletcher – is employed by the Guinness family as a maid for a party where Diana’s relationship with Bryan Guinness blossoms, and a fellow maid dies; she is employed by Diana as a lady’s maid and accompanies her to Paris on her honeymoon in 1929 and, whilst there, their friend Shaun Mulloney dies; they holiday in Venice in 1930 and another friend, Clara Fischer dies, in Louisa’s room; back in London, Louisa discover the body of yet another friend, Kate Mulloney, Shaun’s wife. Tragic accidents, drug withdrawals, overdoses, allergic reactions, suicides. Nothing more than coincidence, surely? Surely? Are we dropping into Midsomer en route?
The relationship between the Mitfords and Louisa is a problem for me: distant and professional, friendly and on the same terms. It felt terribly forced at times. If I am being generous, perhaps that reflects the breaking down of social barriers in the interbellum period as characters strive to break out of conventional roles. Perhaps. And there are other touches of that sort of contextual detail: Louisa had applied unsuccessfully to become a police officer, but had felt empowered enough to apply; Mary Conlon, nee Moon, was a police constable who nearly had to relinquish her job on becoming married and had little to no chance of escaping the uniform and into CID; Louisa’s right to vote was touched upon, albeit somewhat pressured by the Mitfords on how to vote.
But this is, perhaps too generous: that relationship – those relationships with the different Mitfords – just felt awkward.
There are three more sisters to go in the family and I would like to see the series progress further because we are creeping inevitably and inexorably closer to World War Two: in this novel, the Mitford brother Tom is in Germany sympathising with Nazis; Diana has met Oswald Mosley – whom, historically she goes on to have and affair with and marry; and looking further ahead, Unity’s obsession with Hitler should be on the horizon. Watching the family – which thus far have been very close – disintegrate and split over the politics could be fascinating. Potentially.
Nor has Fellowes lost her secondary protagonist, the lovely and earnest and self-effacing too-cautious-for-his-own-good Guy Sullivan. His feelings for Louisa has survived the years despite her physical distance and silence and lack of reciprocation, despite the protestations of love in her point-of-view chapters which she never voices. Despite his meeting and getting engaged to another woman. Without spoilers, their feelings do take a step forward in this book. We have a kiss. And it is quite tender. But ends terribly awkwardly.
The pace of this book is slow – almost glacial – covering 1928 to 1932 and, consequently, there’s very little tension within the novel. It is, like Murder, She Wrote or Midsomer Murders, very cosy and unthreatening. And there is nothing wrong with that! At times, it hits the spot perfectly!
My biggest gripe was actually some of the writing came across as rather clumsy and clunky when it came to ending chapters on cliffhangers. If we take a couple of examples, perhaps
“Oh Lord,” said Diana, pulling a face, “I do hope she’s not a bad omen.”
“I’m sure she’s not,” said Louisa.
But she was wrong.
So that was the first time that Louisa – and Diana – heard the term Nazi. It would not, of course, be the last.
In the hands of a different – a better – writer, that sort of obtrusive narrative comment could be stylish and effective. Dickens does it wonderfully; Fellowes doesn’t.
Will I keep an eye out for the other books in the series? Yes, I probably will pick them up, and probably fill in the gaps with Bright Young Dead when time permits. Because they are light and comfortable and cosy. As winter closes in and we light fires and close the curtains, these novels fit. But I’ll not be attaching any urgency to them.