Before I picked up this book on a whim in the library, I had no idea who Sheila Chisholm is. There’s not necessarily any reason why I should have – she was a notable figure in British society almost a century ago, but did nothing of particular note that should mean that hers is a household name. But I’ve read a fair amount about this period of history, and about these people, most notably the likes of the Mitfords, who seem to have run in the same circles at the same time. From my reading about that notable family, I certainly recognised a fair number of the names mentioned here, including Diana Cooper and Idina Sackville, as well as the Churchills and the likes of Cecil Beaton, to name but a few.
So I have gone from knowing nothing about this Australian woman who travelled to Europe before the First World War began, and settled in London, to feeling as though I am intimately acquainted with her, such is the depth of research that has gone into writing this biography. She was married three times, to men at varying levels of aristocratic breeding, and had various affairs, including a lengthy relationship with the future King George VI. She was close friends with his brother, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, in his pre-Wallace Simpson days, and ended her life as the wife of an exiled Russian prince.
Though sometimes the writing is a little heavy-handed, it’s obvious that Wainwright found much to admire in this seemingly universally adored and fêted socialite. Written after his editor read one paragraph about Sheila in a biography about the Queen Mother, the level of detail is certainly helped by the unpublished memoir to which the author had access, and the sheer number of letters she seems to have kept from friends and lovers past.
Despite the slight feeling of social justice-inspired unease I have when reading about this amount of wealth being paraded around while people were living in extreme poverty, I can’t help but be fascinated by this period of history, and this group of people. I love to read about how they lived, and how their lives changed throughout the decades as society altered following two world wars. Although this was a library book, I think it may be a rare convert to a purchase, so I can add it to my small collection of books about women who gadded about town in the first half of the 20th century.
Sheila by Robert Wainwright
First published: 2014
Allen & Unwin