Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society is a beautiful book. I was bedazzled by the cover alone (a painting by Cecil Beaton), and this was before examining the interior contents. Don’t be fooled, I was warned by a fellow friend who is an old pro at reviewing, and I agreed with his sentiments, a clever cover can be enough to induce a kind of euphoria as one opens the book. Having read the book cover to cover I can now smugly add that the interior was as lovely as the cover. I have read reviews of Sheila, most notably Selina Hasting’s in The Spectator which, being a fellow biographer, I wonder if she feels any sense of camaraderie towards those in her field? I say this because she pin points the misuse of certain titles, and as this is The Mitford Society I shall highlight ‘Lady Diana Mosley’. To me, it was no big deal, titles are iffy at best, and poring over the facts of Sheila’s life, which had slipped into the murky waters of oblivion, I was more than willing to overlook this slip of the peerage to marvel at what the author had found.
Wainwright astonishes in his findings of Sheila. I admit, given her three separate titles: Lady Loughborough, Lady Milbanke and Princess Dimitri, I have probably read about her in the vast volumes of letters and biographies and have never taken any interest. And now I realise her name is a footnote at best in these pieces of correspondence. By his own admittance, Wainwright credits his commissioning editor with the discovery of Sheila. This perception for noticing a potential subject for a biography is as cleverly honed as a ruthless talent scout’s eye for the next big thing. So, as Wainwright explains in his book, he turned amateur detective and exhausted the corners of the globe and every book imaginable to find enough evidence to construct a story. This appeals to me, and I find it inspiring as I am on a similar mission to find information on Jean Barbara Ainsworth, Viscountess Massereene (peeress, style icon and renowned ghost expert) and her beautiful daughter the Hon. Diana Skeffington who died in 1930 at the age of 21.
The introduction of Sheila is very fitting and is written in a light, interview style. I love the asides between her and her third husband, Prince Dimitri, especially when she speaks of the rich. ‘They don’t pay…’ From this introduction we are transported to Sheila’s girlhood in the Australian outback, and I must add Wainwright has sourced the most charming photograph of the sixteen year old Sheila Chilsholm on the day the ranch was sold: she’s in slacks, little Edwardian boots and shirt, under which her waist is corseted to what might be sixteen inches. It is a fitting photograph to illustrate the many layers of Sheila: traditional, modern, and all too often, a muse.
That is not to say Sheila’s life was entirely superficial, she was no stranger to heartbreak. Her first husband, Lord Loughborough (us Mitford fans will recognize the family name St. Clair Erskine) whom she met whilst working as a nurse in Cairo during WW1. He drank too much, gambled too much and squandered his fortune. They were divorced and Sheila married Lord Milbanke ‘the boxing baronet’. Her eldest son died in the war, and Loughborough, the father of her children, died shortly after. In between she befriended Rudolph Valentino who, as we know, died at 31. Wainwright has included intriguing letters sent to Sheila by the princes Edward and Bertie; both were in love with her. For a time her best friend was Freda Dudley Ward who is historically remembered as the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. Bertie wanted to marry Sheila but his father, King George V convinced him otherwise with the luring of a title – the Dukedom of York – and a fiance, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. I suppose, given the scorn directed towards Wallis Simpson, Sheila had a lucky escape.
Aside from her royal connections and fascinating friends, Sheila turned her hand to business and convinced Fortnum and Mason to allow her to set up shop at a tiny counter in their department store. From there she founded the Milbanke travel agency, and without a head for accounts she managed to generate a healthy turnover of £5,000,000. Also, no stranger to celebrity endorsement, Sheila accepted a payment from American cosmetic giant, Ponds, to feature her gorgeous face on their advertising posters.
To my knowledge some critics have chastised Wainwright for writing too extensively on the people who surrounded Sheila. It is no bad thing, I say. As with the understanding of a person – often troubled – the do-gooders of society try to analyse its upbringing, often pinpointing its surroundings which contributed to such hooliganism. Wainwright is no different, to understand Sheila we must understand her place in society and what would have motivated her. And with this eye for detail he has single-handedly revived an icon, who otherwise, would have remained hidden in the vaults of time.
If you treat yourself to one biography make sure it is this one!