Sheila by Robert Wainwright is the biography of Sheila Chisholm, an Australian later known as Lady Loughborough, Lady Milbanke and Princess Dimitri. Born on her family’s homestead of Wollogorang, two days from Sydney, Sheila met her first husband, Lord Loughborough, while working as a volunteer nurse in Egypt during the First World War. In London, she was an immediate success in society, and remained at the top of social circles in the decades to come. She became Lady Milbanke on her second marriage, and then in later life she married the exiled Prince Dimitri of Russia, ending her days as Princess Dimitri.
Prior to spotting this book in a list of upcoming publications from Allen & Unwin, I had never heard of Sheila Chisholm. This intrigued me, as it was clear from the information given that she was a key member of society during a period which interests me and which I’ve read quite a bit about. Little did I know what a treat I was in for…
Sheila is a fascinating subject. While some may find her life lacking excitement, the time and people which are featured in the biography are exactly what interests me. Her friends and acquaintances are a literal “who’s who” of London society from the 1920s to 1950s. She knew everyone – from the great society hostesses such as Emerald Cunard, to the arts figures such as Cecil Beaton and Chips Channon, right up to the royal family, enjoying a close friendship with Prince Edward and Prince Albert, later Edward VIII and George VI respectively.
It was this friendship which initially caught my eye when reading the information about the book. I could not recall having read about Sheila in the biographies I have read of George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, yet Wainwright writes about Prince Albert’s affair with Sheila prior to his marriage, and during her unhappy marriage to Lord Loughborough. In his Notes, Wainwright quotes a passing mention of Sheila from William Shawcross’s official biography of the Queen Mother. Having searched the index of Sarah Bradford’s excellent biography of George VI, I can find no mention of Sheila under any of her names. This makes me wonder – was there an affair or has Wainwright exaggerated the evidence he has found, perhaps put two and two together and reached five? As Wainwright had access to letters between Sheila and the two princes, as well as Edward and his lover Freda Dudley-Ward, I’m inclined to think he is correct – particularly as Prince Edward was hardly discreet in his letters. It seems that this may be another thing skimmed over by royal biographers.
Sheila’s heyday was in between the two wars, and she was at the peak of London society during this time. Wainwright covers dinner parties, balls, charity events and other occasions where Sheila was present and drew the attention of many of the men present. As an Australian, she was different, and she was always proud of where she came from. She knew absolutely everyone, and frequently put her address book to good use to help charities. She also put it to use to help struggling venues, by getting all her friends to visit which meant it became a place to be seen. This even extended to taking over Ciros, a nightclub which was struggling for business, as a bet to see if she could turns its fortunes around. She succeeded, of course.
Much of the book is devoted to the 1920s and 1930s, which is not surprising as this was when Sheila was at her most active in London society. The 1940s receive less coverage, and the 1950s to her death in 1969 are covered in just a couple of chapters. Like other biographies I have read, Sheila also loses a bit of chronological cohesion in later chapters, as Wainwright covers aspects of her life which spanned several years, before returning to the point at which they started. This is comparable to Shawcross’s coverage of the second half of the Queen Mother’s life. While this style is understandable when you look at the shape of the subjects life, I was a bit disappointed by it in Sheila – I was enjoying the book and felt it could have lasted longer.
Throughout Sheila, Wainwright paints a picture of a genuinely nice person. Sheila is confident, beautiful, popular and intelligent, and moving in the upper echelons of society. Yet while she was aware of this, she didn’t seem to care much for beauty and all that came with it. Wainwright’s main source for this view of Sheila seems to be her own unpublished memoir, so of course it could be possible that she was more modest in her older years when she wrote it, but Wainwright has certainly succeeded in painting a picture of a woman who had everything but let none of it go to her head.
Robert Wainwright is not a writer I have come across before, but Sheila is his eighth book. I enjoyed his writing style, finding it to be eminently readable, and with just the right tone. Sheila is not a stuffy or pompous book, but Wainwright does not employ an overly casual style either – he brings just the right level of authority to his writing to give weight to what he is presenting to his readers, while also maintaining humour and levity to make Sheila a very enjoyable read.
I was delighted by Sheila, the book and the subject – the book is a well-written biography of a fascinating subject, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about someone who was so integral to society during the 1920s and 1930s, yet who I had not come across before. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I would highly recommend Sheila if you have an interest in society or royalty from this period, or if you simply enjoy a captivating biography.
Sheila by Robert Wainwright
Published by Allen & Unwin, February 2014
Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.
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