Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society

Happy Australia Day to Our Mitties Down Under!

Below is an extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II.

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In a distant corner of the Empire, in the “Land of the Wattle and the Gum”, Sheila Chisholm, a sensitive and imaginative girl with large hazel eyes and a pale, heart-shaped face would take London society by storm. But that would have to wait for two decades; in the meantime she was busy growing up on Wollogoron, the family’s sheep farm where she was enthralled and horrified by the birth of lambs and the bloody reality of the slaughter-house. It was this combination of her tomboy spirit and the conflict of longing to belong in a male-dominated world that would leave its mark on her life.

To display her bravery, Sheila downed an entire bottle of Worcestershire sauce and then challenged her two brothers to do the same. She was a reckless horsewoman, riding her black mare Mariana with deliberate abandon, and laughing at the grooms who warned her she would “break her bloody neck”. Their prediction almost came true when she was thrown and nearly killed after a motor-car – a rare sight on country roads – spooked the horse. “It did not teach me a lesson,” Sheila recalled. “Nothing ever does.” A favourite expression was, “I will put you on your mettle,” which roughly translated meant, “I double dare you.” The dares were, at times dangerous, particularly at Bondi Beach where, along with her best-friend, she enjoyed body surfing and swimming out further than the restricted line. This cavalier attitude lasted until one day, while defying the rules, the water turned crimson when a nearby swimmer lost his leg to a shark. As Sheila put it: “This episode dampened our enthusiasm for showing off.”

Sheila received a private education at Kambala Anglican School for Girls in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was one of the first private schools for girls established in Sydney as debate raged about the ability of young women to handle a male education curriculum. But there was nothing in Sheila’s future that suggested she would put her scholarly training into practice. Her mother, Margaret, warned her that a life of marriage and children beckoned – “Chase and chaste,” she told her.

Before this milestone could be achieved, Sheila’s parents agreed to send her off to Paris and Munich to be “finished”. They even spoke of the possibility of being presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace. It became clear to Sheila that the sort of marriage her mother spoke of would be one that required social mobility. This outlook had been inspired by Margaret’s visit to a famous Chinese astrologer who predicted that Sheila’s stars belonged in the northern hemisphere. Her father declared it “hokum”, and from there-on-in, they referred to their daughter as “the child of fate”.

This fate had gotten off to an uncertain start when, in the summer of 1914, having spent too much time in Paris, Sheila and Margaret missed all three of the presentations at Court. Undeterred, Margaret rented a flat at St. James’s Court, and a whirl of garden parties and summer balls ensued. There was another opportunity to be presented at Buckingham Palace, but in a crowd of famous society hostesses and young aristocrats, it was difficult for Sheila to stand out.

The declaration of war blighted any hopes for a successful season, and with both of her brothers headed for Cairo, Sheila and her mother made the decision to go there, too. Sheila volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, and she found herself as one of the few women among thousands of men, which included aristocrats. Away from her training, there were cruises on the Nile, night-time drives to see the Sphinx by moonlight, and she rode Arab stallions out to the desert to watch the sunset, or at dawn to watch the sunrise. This air of normality gave an illusion of false security, and lively bars and restaurants provided a distraction to the sprawling hospital campus that Cairo had become. It was in a Cairo hospital where Sheila met her future husband, Francis Edward Scudamore St. Clair Erskine, Lord Loughborough, known as “Loughie”. She summed him up on their second encounter:

“Loughie came to tea the next day. He was tall and slim, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes. He was witty and most attractive. I soon began enjoying his company. We read the Brownings. He pursued me relentlessly and I was flattered by his attention. He told me that he had fallen in love with me at first sight. He constantly said: “I love you and you are going to marry me, you will like England and all my friends will adore you.

Admitting he was “wild”, Loughie assured Sheila that with her love “I will be different. I could do great things”. She believed him and was fascinated by him, and seeing how happy they were she thought it must be love. Against her parents disapproval – they feared Loughie’s wayward reputation to be true – Sheila agreed to marry him, telling her mother that she could not “wait six months, wait a year, wait while he goes back and probably gets killed”. And, winning the argument by assuring Margaret her future husband was “sweet” and “fond of animals”, the two were married in Cairo on the 27th of December 1915.

The marriage between a Lord and an Australian girl was a break from the norm of titled men marrying musical-hall charmers and American heiresses. An Australian newspaper noted: “Now it appears they are marrying on the keep-it-in-the-Empire principle.” The happiness was short-lived when, on the morning after the wedding, Loughie attended a race meeting and lost a month’s pay as well as the cheques given by guests as wedding presents. Like his father, the Earl of Rosslyn, he was hopelessly weak-willed, a gambler and an alcoholic. He became immortalised as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. Sheila’s new father-in-law told her: “My son has no idea of money, as you will no doubt realise only too soon, if you have not already done so. Has he told you how often I have paid for his debts?” She smiled and said nothing. “Head high,” she told herself. “Walk very tall.” They returned to England to wait out the war.

England was a strange place for Sheila. She found the rigid customs of the country-house cold and uninviting. The guests intimidated her, especially when at dinner Lord Birkenhead asked how many children she had. “None,” Sheila replied.
“You should be ashamed of yourself; a young, strong, healthy, beautiful woman like you. How long have you been married?”
“Four months.”
“Oh…er…I’m sorry. Well, when you do have a child take my tip and have a twilight sleep.”
In time, Sheila bore Loughie two sons – an heir and a spare – and having given up on trying to reform his wastrel ways, she sought solace in a glittering social life.

When Sheila befriended Freda Dudley Ward, mistress of Edward the Prince of Wales, she was introduced to the inner-circle of Royalty, and the upper-echelon of high society. She was paired off with Prince Albert (later King George VI), known to friends as “Bertie”, and the foursome nicknamed themselves “The Four Dos”. Sheila and Bertie’s clandestine affair reached the attention of King George V, and he ordered his son to end it at once. Bertie obliged and was rewarded the Dukedom of York and a plump fiancée in the shape of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The 1920s barged in, ushering out the sleepy social niceties of Edwardian England. The heartbreak of war and the tragic loss of young men was masked by a new era of decadence. It was an exciting time to be young, beautiful and titled, and Sheila was no exception. Turning her attention to the popular celebrities of the day, Sheila began an affair with the most famous film star in the world, Rudolph Valentino. In London to promote his latest picture, The Eagle, crowds of women flocked to him wherever he went, but it was Sheila’s nonchalance that attracted him. She paraded Valentino around high society, giving dinner parties in his honour and introducing him to London’s nightlife. And, when he returned to Hollywood she followed him. Valentino gave Sheila his lucky gold bracelet, which she wore on her upper-arm, and when he died aged thirty-one in 1926, she believed it was because she had taken his luck.

For the last two years of their marriage, Sheila and Loughie had been estranged. After initiating divorce proceedings in 1926, she suddenly had a change of heart, and remembering how Loughie had made her laugh, she considered calling it off. The Earl of Rosslyn, anxious for the couple to remain married (if in name only), hurried to the court to order the judge to stop their appeal. Worried about this unexpected intervention, Sheila’s solicitor advised her to play the part of “the pathetic, ill-treated little wife”. She borrowed her nursery-maid’s grey coat, skirt and felt hat, and she wore no makeup. Satisfied with the outcome, she remarked: “I certainly looked pathetic.” When it came to swearing on the Bible, Sheila removed a glove and was alarmed to notice she had forgotten to remove her red nail polish. All was well, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the men in the courtroom appeared not to notice her manicured nails.

Before their estrangement, Sheila had tried to help Loughie overcome his demons. They moved to Australia in 1923, but things did not improve. “I had persuaded my husband to have a cure for drink, which he did, but when he came out of the home he was not better at all. Life for me was intolerable. Finally I asked the trustees and his father to meet, and they agreed that it was intolerable and that I should have a house for myself and the children…I have not lived with my husband as his wife since January 1924.” And reflecting on how their marriage soured after the first few months, Sheila confessed: “My husband drank and gambled and got into terrible trouble. He was horrid and abusive to me and drank terribly. It seemed to get worse each year.”

The hearing lasted twenty minutes, and a few weeks later a decree nisi was granted. “I was free – what a strange feeling. I decided that never, never again would I marry anyone, and hummed to myself ‘Wedding Bells are all Bunk’.”

Wedding bells chimed twice more for Sheila. She went on to marry the baronet Sir John “Buffles” Milbanke, known as “the boxing baronet” from whom she was widowed in 1947. Having run a successful travel business in Fortnum & Mason, she remained single until 1954. At the age of fifty-nine she married the exiled Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich of Russia. Their marriage lasted until Sheila’s death in 1969.

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The Mitford Society Loves…

“Christmas cards are such a nightmare to me. I have dozens from totally unknown people, in some cases bearing photographs of their totally unknown faces. But I forget people very soon so this means nothing and I can see from their fervid messages that once we have been very intimate.” – Nancy Mitford

The traditions of the festive season did not charm Nancy. The exchanging of gifts was headache inducing, crossing the Channel to visit the loved ones – too grim to bear – and the custom of writing and receiving cards proved a burden for the French Lady Writer. Although she delighted in sending her godchildren presents of exotic things, such as gilded trinkets and fur mufflers, Nancy was not as gracious when she received a gift she disliked. Perhaps the best example springs from her childhood, when an unsuspecting Diana presented to her a small, neatly wrapped present. Nancy opened the present, and, without a sideways glance, she hurled it into the fire. ‘I appreciated her honestly,’ Diana remarked. The collection of books below should please even the grumpiest of recipients. What are we saying? Books please everyone!

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Robert Wainwright’s elegant biography of Sheila Chisholm should charm those who revel in the era of the Mitfords and disgraced royals. Lovely to look at and heavily illustrated, this book – available in hardback (as pictured) or in paperback – would make the perfect gift.

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If you enjoy gazing at beautiful things and wish to make an impression on the recipient then Claudia Renton’s dazzling biography of the Wyndham Girls – Mary, Madeleine and Pamela – is just the ticket.

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This sophisticated detective novel centres around a glamorous actress-by-day/ spy-by-night working undercover in the Third Reich. The menacing plot features Hitler and Goebbels, and a cameo from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unity and Diana flit in and out, giving the sinister undertones a touch of Mitford Tease.

 

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Truly a presentation piece, this index of great women’s obituaries doubles as a motivational book when one is indulging in the non-U habit of feeling sorry for oneself. With an array of profiles, this book will certainly cross the murky divide of all personalities. It looks great on a bookshelf, too!
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A memoir of the best kind, this zippy book is written in a friendly and engaging way. As the daughter of the Duke of Rutland and niece of Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Ursula’s memoir recalls an era that we can only dream of.

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Because we seem to get a lot of books about women here at Mitford HQ it’s only fair that we select a biography with that of a male subject. Not only for Swinbrook Sewers, this lengthy study on Laurie Lee is a treasure trove of a biography.
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Written as historical fiction, the plot revolves around the doomed love affair between Dorothy Richardson, member of the famed Bloomsbury set and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells. Stylishly written, this atmospheric book is a quick read.

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Inspired by the Russian fairytale, The Snow Child is a modern fairytale for adults and cynics alike. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, the book paints a vivid portrait of the cruelties of nature, the isolation in winter and the heartache of a childless couple. A cozy, winter read.

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This lovely set of Margaret Kennedy books have been re-issued by Vintage Books. As witty as a Nancy Mitford novel, this trio was deemed quite naughty in their day. Devilishly witty, Kennedy’s efforts remain as fresh and funny today as they were over eighty years ago.

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Thinking ahead, there is nothing like buying the first novel of the New Year. Tessa Arlen’s debut novel (Jan. 2015) combines the things that we Mitties love: mystery, scandal, wit and a spectacular stately home. The prose at times is pure Mitfordesque, and having read a preview copy, The Mitford Society is proud to endorse Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.

The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

Competition courtesy of Allen & Unwin

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Allen & Unwin are offering one lucky Mitty the chance to win a signed copy of Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society. Simply click here to visit The Mitford Society’s facebook, click ‘like’ and ‘share’ to be in with a chance. The competition ends on Sunday 23rd February at midnight. Winner will be selected at random. It couldn’t be easier!

 

Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society: part two

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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.

Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society: part one

imagesSheila 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.

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Photographed by Madame Yevonde, 1935

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.

A familiar sight: Sheila photographed for The Sketch

A familiar sight: Sheila photographed for The Sketch

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.

Wearing Valentino's chain bracelet which he believed brought him luck. He died shortly after gifting it to her, and she felt she had taken his luck.

Wearing Valentino’s chain bracelet which he believed brought him luck. He died shortly after gifting it to her, and she felt she had taken his luck.

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.

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Sheila the loving mother. Photo by Carl Court/Rosslyn Family Estate

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!