Sunday, 11 May 2014

Book Review: Sheila

In recent years, stories centering around British royal history in the early 20th Century have been popular, with a particular focus on Princes Edward ("David") and Albert ("Bertie").  We've had films such as 'The King's Speech', and books written on Wallis Simpson, the divorcee that Edward scandalously abdicated for.

It's therefore easy to think that we already know the whole story, with all of the tangled love affairs and their inevitable conflicts with the duty to the throne.  Imagine my surprise then to learn of a whole new chapter in the brothers' story that I never knew existed!

Sheila book review

The story begins in Australia of all places, and one of the central characters in this new-to-me chapter is a spirited and beautiful woman named Sheila Chisholm.  Born the daughter of a bloodstock owner, and growing up riding, hunting and swimming fearlessly in shark-infested waters, she accompanies her mother on a life-changing trip to Europe as WWI breaks out.  In Egypt, working as a volunteer nurse, she meets Lord "Loughie" Loughborough, and so begins the series of events that catapult her into the highest social circles.

I don't want to give too much away in case you don't know the story, but Sheila and her bosom friend Freda Dudley Ward, both married women, are soon making up 'The 4 Dos' with Princes Edward and Albert, tearing up the town with them at countless parties and balls.  This frivolity is all set in great contrast against the failing marriages of both women, where gambling, violence and other very real problems seem insurmountable.

The book isn't just about Sheila's part in the Princes' lives - her story leaves them behind and goes on to new social circles, new husbands, and twists of fate that lead her around the world.  Each part of the story is more remarkable than the last, and left me with a real impression of the strength of character that Sheila must have had.  Although noted for her beauty, from looking at photographs and reading about her, it's clear that she had "something else", a captivating quality.  (Not unlike Wallis Simpson perhaps)

The centre of the book is filled with wonderful photographs from Sheila's life, from her childhood, through Royal encounters, to her subsequent marriages, and beyond.  Painted by Cecil Beaton and Simon Elwes, she was also muse to celebrity photographers.  Well written without being obtrusive in style, Wainwright makes this easy to read and follow, and makes use of sources such as letters, so that it all feels very evidence-based.  I don't always like celebrity biographies, and it's a credit to Wainwright's approach that Sheila's story never feels sensationalised.

I happened to spot a book 'Letters From a Prince' in a charity shop recently that shares letters written from Edward to Freda and will be keen to read that book at some point also.  (Their romance even appeared in a storyline in Downtown Abbey, but I hadn't realised it was based on a real relationship!)

Utterly fascinating, I couldn't put "Sheila" down - I would recommend this to anyone interested in 20th century history, or those that just like to read about interesting lives.

'Sheila' by Robert Wainwright is out now from Allen and Unwin.  I was sent a copy of the book for review, but as always, my views are my own!


  1. Riveting and very wonderfully written review. Though I've heard references to this sordid story in passing here and there, I wasn't aware of just how big a deal it was, nor that a book had been written on it. My interest is thoroughly piqued and I will be adding it to my reading wishlist as once.

    ♥ Jessica

  2. Sounds like a very interesting book. I haven't read books about British royalty, but as a princessy girl I love all royalties so I guess I'd have awesome time reading books about them.
    I have a few books unfinished, but I never seem to find time or interest to finish them. It's just that on the computer you have "too much to do" when in reality you really don't have anything important or fun stuff :D So I guess I'm just lazy, but I actually like reading books a lot. My mum had found a real vintage book from 1948, about the three Musketeers and I wish I could read it, but I guess I need to finish my other books before that.

  3. This books sounds really good!! You had me at several husbands…I love anything with a good scandal.
    Thanks for the review pretty girl!!

  4. The book cover looks appealing.

  5. That sounds fascinating.

  6. I love historic true stories. I usually like to gravitate toward memoirs but they way you talk about this books it definitely sounds like an amazing story! What an interesting life Sheila Chisholm lived! I will be adding this to my to-read list. :) Also, I love your picture of the book next to your cup of tea. Looks like an ideal way to spend a few quiet hours!

  7. I love a good book.n and this one is right up my alley. I will definitely be checking this out. What a neat look into the past. I had never heard of her either and now I want to know more!


  8. Oooh this sounds fab, I shall have to track down a copy! x


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