This is a strange book and I’m not sure I want to recommend it. The book is set in the years leading up to the Second World War and beyond, and revolves around the central characters of three sisters Phyllis, Patricia and Nina of whom Phyllis is the most significant being the narrator. She is also in prison for much of the novel and her crime is being an activist in the British fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Mosley. I think that the premise of the book is that she and husband have come back from a colonial life abroad and are trying to settle back into English upper-middle-class life. Her sister Nina is involved with jolly fitness camps and a movement which appears to be against the onset of war and very British. Phyllis and her husband, Hugh, get drawn into this organisation with her working locally in Sussex and him eventually supporting the central office in London.
The whole impression of the movement is that it is rather fun with camps, meetings and friendly chaps, cadets who are a bit like Boy Scouts and so on, and it is popular with women who are at a slightly loose end. The leader is certainly part of the attraction with his abilities at public speaking and his evident charm. Phyllis clearly likes her involvement and the British Union of Fascists provides some respite from aged parents and social climbing in Sussex.
Then, in May 1940 she finds herself interned, first in Holloway and then in the Isle of Man for membership of a banned organisation. The time spent in Holloway Prison is initially bleak but the good natures of the internees make it less intolerable. The internment on the Isle of Man for the rest of the war including living in a boarding house, no bombing raids and conjugal visits is more than a lot of people at the time would have felt she deserved. She is finally let out, no longer has she quite the same relationship with her sisters but maintains her interest in fascism and her admiration for Mosley.
What is going on here? This seems to be a sanitised version of the rise of the British Union and the role of women within it. Unlike other European fascist groups it is estimated that up to 25% of the membership were women and that begs the question why. I think the traditional answer is that they were drawn to authoritarian men in boots for whom women were women and men were men and certainly Oswald Mosley was a charismatic figure in the book and in other records. It is worth noting that he actually had a very unsavoury record where women were concerned claiming to have had sex with his first wife’s sister and I think her mother or her aunt as well! However, it might be argued, the book is trying to set the record straight and explain how some of these fascist women were not stridently in favour of dictatorship and anti-Semitism but simply trying to find their way in a new world.
What I find hard to stomach is the notion that Phyllis is so innocent. She mentions how she hears about a little trouble in the East End and notes how a few of the speakers blame little cliques of bankers and the occasional Jewish group for the ills of the world. She must be very blinkered! They have a newspaper in the house every day but maybe she doesn’t read it. Other records suggest that some of the women in the British Union were the most fervent anti-Semites chanting offensive slogans at meetings. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between it is hard to buy the notion of Phyllis as so unknowing.
To make this work, the British Union also has to be made to seem fairly innocuous in its policies. That’s hard to believe given the record of its leader’s speeches, the uniforms, the parades and the rhetoric. Certainly, the British public had no time for them and the Union lost every election it contested.
There’s another thing. This is a story about three sisters and so inevitably it compares with the Mitford sisters involvement in fascism and their hero worship of Hitler. They were not ignorant about what was going on and there is little to be said in defence of them. Maybe the book wants to suggest that they were not all bad either.
I’ve got nothing against redressing the balance in history even in fiction, and there has been a lot of interest from feminist writers in the role of women in British fascism as if it can somehow be sometimes defended. I’m not sure it can and I’m not sure about the intellectual honesty of a book like this. In its defence, I should also say that the book is well written and observed with some nice detail.
Is it a cautionary tale for our own times? It could be at a time when the right and fascist tendencies are in the ascendancy across Europe but don’t think it makes that case. In the end, I don’t think I liked Phyllis very much and she clung to her beliefs and attended meetings after the war. I don’t think the level of discussion at those meetings would have been apologetic to Jews and welcoming to immigrants either.
(I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Penguin Random House. The book was published in June 2018)