I’m still feeling quite bedazzled by Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society and I hope you enjoy this interview with the author Robert Wainwright. Thanks to those Mitties who sent in questions!
For those in The Mitford Society who haven’t read the book what inspired you to write about Sheila and when were you confident you had enough material to fill a book?
There were a few sentences in William Shawcross’s official biography of the Queen Mother which mentioned King George V’s demand that Bertie give up the Australian. A colleague of mine told me about it and suggested I have a look to see if we knew anything more about Sheila Loughborough. There was a brief mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography but nothing more. So it became a challenge to me to uncover her story. I didn’t sign the publishing contract for six months, until I was convinced that there was enough information to produce a book.
Was it easy finding your source material and what steps did you take in sourcing the info?
I have been a journalist for more than 30 years and this search was undoubtedly the hardest I have done. All of her contemporaries are long dead. Needle in a haystack doesn’t do it justice. I bought 60 or more books, mostly biographies, simply to retrieve a line or two that mentioned her, visited archives in Edinburgh, Cambridge and London as well as getting access to the University of Texas where there were wartime letters she had sent to a friend. The only way of putting together a timeline was trawling through the British newspaper archive at Collindale as well as online archives for newspapers and magazines in the US, Australia and India. It was only at the end of the project that I was given access to her unpublished memoir which gave her a voice but leaves many questions unanswered.
Did anyone object to your using the letters from Princes Edward and Bertie? On the same note, did you come up against any objections as far as letters etc were concerned when writing the book?
No-one knew that I had seen them. They were in a box in the Scottish Archives, neatly folded among personal papers and clearly treasured. A Eureka moment. There is clearly other correspondence held at Windsor but they are regarded as private and therefore I was not given access.
When you had finally gathered enough info to construct a story how easy was it to piece together?
It was a giant jigsaw that had to be constructed and reconstructed as I checked material to try and be as accurate as possible. I am a journalist first and felt it very important that the book was a work of supported fact. I did not want to blur the boundaries with fiction and felt that it was better to leave a gap rather than fill it with assumption or worse.
I am now intrigued by Sheila’s unpublished memoir, following the success of your biography do you think it will be published?
I doubt the memoir will be published because it is unfinished and written over probably two decades. There is some beautiful writing in those pages but she was overly discreet and tended to downplay and even ignored aspects of her life that we would find intriguing. There are few people who can truly write their own biographies without censoring themselves.
Some reviews have found Sheila to be a frivolous product of the inter-war era. I thought she was an inspiring person. In your own words what makes Sheila a likeable heroine?
In spite of her obvious beauty she was understated. How many women of that time would have allowed themselves to be photographed in a glass jar or in their pyjamas on a windswept hill, let alone with her hair in spikes like Robert Smith from The Cure? I like her independent spirit and the ability to speak her mind, I love her sense of duty, either working for charity or as a volunteer nurse and the late life decision to become one of London’s first businesswomen. When you strip away the glamour, it is the story of an ordinary woman dealing with extraordinary issues: two wars and a depression, rearing children in a failed marriage, the death of a son and two husbands and always with her family forever on the other side of the world.
Do you have any future projects lined up?
Yes. An adventure story of the same era that is begging to be told for the first time.
And last but not least, since this is The Mitford Society who is your favourite Mitford girl?
I suppose I’d have to say Nancy. Although younger, she was a great friend of Sheila’s.