Hitler’s English Girlfriend: The Story of Unity Mitford, David Rehak, Amberley, 2012.
**Sorry for another negative post. I seem to have encountered some lemons lately.
I found Hitler’s English Girlfriend in the biography section at the library and thought the title was very strange, but being a die-hard Mitford tragic, I decided to borrow the book and give it a whirl. How bad could it be?
The answer to that question turns out to be, ‘VERY, VERY bad.’ It is so bad, in fact, that I laughed myself sick on several occasions. It is SO BAD that I could not tear my eyes away from the page, because, oh dear, the level of badness just kept increasing. It is actually SO VERY BAD that it is almost ‘good’, in a postmodern, farcical kind of way. The sad thing, though, is that I think readers are supposed to take this book seriously and believe that it is a ‘creative non-fiction’ treatment of Unity Mitford’s life. So, as I see it, there is a big problem involved with having this total load of cobblers floating about in the universe and appearing unexpectedly on library shelves. Although I would not usually write anything about a book such as this, I feel that I need to, just in case anyone else reads it and takes it seriously.
Unity Mitford was indeed fascinated by, and obsessed with, Hitler. This does not necessarily make her an evil woman, because a great many English aristocrats were Hitler supporters in the years leading up to World War II. Although casual anti-Semitism become dangerously virulent in Germany, I doubt many British people guessed that Hitler and his crew of psychopaths would actually follow through with their rhetoric and commit wide-spread genocide. I think that Unity Mitford was totally misguided and probably more than a bit stupid, however, I do not think she deserves to be treated in the completely simplistic and superficial way as she is in this fictional account of her life.
The Mitfords had an interesting family dynamic – the sisters were extremely strong personalities and had complex and intense relationships with one another. Unity and Jessica, who formed a clique within the family, ended up holding completely opposite political viewpoints: Jessica became a communist and Unity a fascist – and I cannot help but think that their childhood relationship had a lot to do with the way in which they both adhered so strongly to their chosen positions. In addition to this childhood rivalry, Diana, the most beautiful Mitford sister, ended up chucking over her rich and safe husband and throwing in her lot with Oswald Mosely, so what a coup it would have been for Unity, who was attractive but not startlingly beautiful like Diana, if she could garner the special attention of Hitler himself. I think that Unity was probably fairly naive and had no clue what she was getting herself into. I think she was like a child showing off to her family – look at me, look at me – and although Hitler was taken with Unity’s Aryan good looks and her upper-echelon family connections, she was never his ‘girlfriend’.
Besides the fallacious re-telling of Unity’s story, the writing itself made me laugh out loud:
The Mitfords lived in a huge and imposing stone country mansion called Asthall Manor, next to the church graveyard. There were also a number of farms about the place.
Jessica and unity, two little girls in puberty, strolling, running, and dancing among the churchyard tombs – picture it.
A farmer came around the corner of the church carrying a cute baby lamb folded in his arms.
‘She’s lovely!’ exclaimed Jessica.
The farmer smiled. ‘I’ll let you have her if you like,’ he said.
‘Oh will you? Oh that’s grand! Thank you, thank you!’
‘Her name’s Miranda,’ said the farmer.
Unity stared on with envious eyes. Why should she get it and not me? she thought to herself. Her eyes were normally a sparkling bright blue, but yes, that moment they were tinted green with envy.
The very next day, Unity fell at her father’s feet in the sitting room as he was reading the newspaper, astonishing him with her plea, ‘Oh papa, I want a goat! Please let me have it, oh please do let me have it!’
She promptly got one.
She didn’t want to imitate her sister and get a lamb, so she opted for the goat instead. Perhaps in a way it was a sign of her rebelliousness, since goats are often though of as a symbol of the Devil, while the lamb symbolises Jesus Christ (pp.18-19).
Here is Unity going to a dance, after she has shot herself in the head and, only in Rehak’s imagination, miraculously recovered:
Unity was seen boarding a rowboat to head across to mainland Mull for an evening of dance with Neil the boatman.
‘My, you are a big strapping woman,’ said Neil flirtingly as Unity hopped aboard.
She laughed at his remark. ‘I’m strong too. Would you like me to row?’
Despite being a tall and clumsy and slightly brain-damaged woman, Unity put her mind to it and danced very well that night. She was in a great mood.
‘I think you Scottish people are frightfully lucky for being able to wear the kilt,’ she said to Neil with a wink as they waltzed and reeled together.
The other people there were friendly to her and it turned out to be an exceptionally fun night that she would never forget (p.151).
And here is Unity, fully repentant, of course:
Untiy’s devotion to Hitler had destroyed her life and cost her almost all her friends. Hitlerism fucked her up, and had a destructive influence on her whole life. She lived to regret it – what an error of judgement, what a waste. But by then it was too late. Mankind would not forgive her, but would a loving and forgiving God? (p.153).
OK. Unity Mitford actually incurred significant brain damage when she shot herself in the head upon learning that England and Germany were at war. She never recovered enough to dance and flirt with boatmen. No, Unity Mitford was left confused, childlike, barely able to speak, and given to exhibiting difficult behaviours. Her mother took her to live on a remote Scottish island because she and Unity’s father had separated due to their political differences, and because Lord Redesdale could not stand to see his daughter so sadly diminished.
Apart from the egregious and fanciful writing in this book, there is also stark inaccuracy, as is evidenced by this paragraph:
Lord Redesdale didn’t like his daughters’ support of Nazism and communism, but as a passive and mild-mannered individual, he left it alone. He certainly didn’t dare challenge Unity, fond father that he was (p.38).
In fact, Lord Redesdale was one of the most eccentric, irrascible and belligerent of men. His bad temper was legendary and he was far from indulgent with his children. Before the war he and the girls’ mother were supporters of fascism, and he had extreme right-wing ideas and was openly anti-Semitic. When war broke out he recanted his fascist views, but Lady Redesdale remained a Nazi sympathiser and the couple ended up separating over the issue. It seems to me that the author has taken the bare bones of Unity Mitford’s life and constructed a fantasy that is just so ridiculous that all I could do was wonder why anyone would write such utter nonsense. Perhaps it is intended as a warning to young people about the dangers of anti-Semitism, but really, the entire book is just too ridiculous. There is another book about Unity Mitford, Hitler’s Valkyrie, which is equally as ridiculous and best avoided.
Poor Unity. She was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, and her parents christened her Unity Valkyrie. Sometimes I wonder if there really is something in the notion of destiny, and at other times I think that maybe Lear was on to something when he says, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport’ (King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37). But, in reality, I guess that all people make unhelpful choices, and karma just gets us all in the end.