“Downton Abbey” expert Jessica Fellowes (she’s the author of five official companion books) turns an eye to a different headline-making family in her historical debut, The Mitford Murders. Based on the true story of the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore (the goddaughter of the famous war nurse), The Mitford Murders follows Louisa Cannon, the newest young employee at the Mitford’s manor, as she navigates their high-profile world. But when Louisa and 16-year-old Nancy Mitford find themselves at the crime scene of Florence’s murder, their lives begin to spiral out of control.
In a Behind the Book feature, Fellowes dishes on exactly what drew her to the drama-plagued Mitford sisters, the influence “Downton Abbey” had on her story and more.
As a young girl, seeing my uncle Julian was always a treat. He was my father’s younger brother and, until I was 16, unmarried and without a child of his own. We used to go on holidays to Majorca and the South of France together to stay with friends of his who had children, but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company. Julian was never less than a fount of amusing stories, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the anecdotes about our family that he had collected, mostly from his own elderly aunts. My grandfather was born in 1912 and though he was an only child, his father had several sisters and it was these women who told Julian of a dying Edwardian age, with all its extraordinary snobberies and customs, as well as of the challenges and tragedies of a life lived during and after World War I.
It was these stories that we later saw in “Downton Abbey,” which Julian created and wrote for six seasons. I was lucky enough to become a part of the “Downton” world when I wrote the official companion books, which told not only the story of how the series was made but also sought to explain something of the historical context that inspired so many of the characters and plots. I had grown up working for newspapers as well as the iconic Country Life magazine, which taught me a lot about life inside the great houses of Britain. And all the while, Julian and I had continued to talk and share stories, leading me to the writers of the between-the-wars period: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mitford.
When I had finished the five “Downton Abbey” books, I knew I wanted to write a novel next and I knew I wanted it to be set in the 1920s—a time that I am both familiar with and endlessly fascinated by. By an extraordinary piece of luck, I was approached by editor Ed Wood at Little, Brown, who asked me if I would consider writing a series of Golden Age-style mysteries featuring the Mitford sisters.
Of course, I knew their legend well—six sisters who grew up in Oxfordshire, England, who each came of age during the 1920s and 1930s. Between them, they represent everything that was compelling, glamorous, political and even appalling about that time: Nancy the satirical novelist; Pamela the countrywoman; Diana the fascist; Unity, who fell in love with Hitler; Decca the communist; and Debo, who became the Duchess of Devonshire and ran one of Britain’s grandest houses. We had the idea for a series, with each book focusing on one of the sisters at a key moment in their lives. I knew I wanted a pair of fictional protagonists who could appear in every book, taking us in and out of every room both upstairs and downstairs, so I created Louisa Cannon, a nursery maid for the Mitfords, and her (sort-of) love interest, policeman Guy Sullivan.
A few weeks after I had started planning the first novel, Ed sent me a newspaper article online about a murder in January 1920 that had never been solved. Could this, he wondered, be our first crime? This was the tragic murder of Florence Nightingale Shore. She was brave, having worked in both the Boer War and World War I, yet only two months after she was demobilized, she was attacked on a train and left for dead.
When I realized that there was a possible connection between Florence and the Mitfords, I knew this was the perfect crime. The inquest records had been destroyed but there were numerous newspaper reports of what had been, at the time, a famous and shocking murder. I was also able to trace details of her will, find photographs of her lodgings and look up the details of her family ancestry as well as those of her close relatives and friends. All of which led me closer to what, I believe, is a likely solution to her terrible death. Alongside Guy’s investigations is always the bright and irascible Nancy, whose predilection for story-telling and close observations are of invaluable help to him. Louisa, too, becomes drawn into the crime and discovers her own talent for problem-solving. For the next book, Bright Young Dead, I’m writing about Pamela Mitford and another real-life criminal. But it’s the smaller details of the world then that continue to fascinate me, and I hope that I can get that across to the readers in a way that feels real and relevant. That, for me, is the privilege of my work.