Book Reviews

Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield

By Penny Perrick

The Lilliput Press

Review by Anne Sebba, The Jewish Chronicle

review something to hideBetrayal : France, The Arabs, and the Jews by David Pryce-Jones, Encounter Books New York

In June, 1954, the Parents’ Association of the Zion schools in Dublin – established in 1931 to provide an education for Jewish Children – was honoured by an address from Viscountess Powerscourt. It was the sort of occasional duty that a Chief Commissioner of the Irish Girl Guides – a job that went with the ancient and illustrious title – had to expect. But whatever the Viscountess said in her speech, and no record of it has survived, the subject of Jewish education was unlikely to have been raised. Nor would the audience have known that this once beautiful aristocrat, nee Miss Sheila Beddington, was herself half Jewish, that her cousins included the Jewish literary figures, Violet Schiff and Ada Leverson, and that her grandfather was born Alfred Henry Moses.

As a famous rhyme of the day put it, the Moses Beddingtons “changed their names but not their noses.” The family en masse had taken a new name, that of a Surrey village, which could hardly have sounded more quintessentially English.

In 1932 Sheila married Mervyn (Pat), 9th Viscount Powerscourt. But even though she had an Irish mother, Ethel Mulock from the Bog of Allen, marrying into the Irish Protestant Ascendancy made Sheila feel neither wholly Irish nor wholly English and in no way Jewish. When her children wanted to discover their roots she hid photographs, denied that the Beddingtons had been Jewish “in any way or form” in recent generations and encouraged her son to research his Irish origins instead. But this strong desire throughout her life to hide her Jewish ancestry was only one of the difficulties faced by Sheila in her long and painful life. Since childhood she felt alienated from her roots, a sensation heightened by her warring parents who made her feel split into two halves which never quite made a whole. It’s an extraordinary life told by the novelist Penny Perrick with sensitivity and elan. But it’s such a painful and troubled life that it’s hard to feel sympathy and I am slightly ashamed at having found it so compulsively readable. Sheila Wingfield emerges as a demanding hypochondriac and self-destructive fantasist requiring constant adulation.

She travelled with thirty suitcases, went shopping in an ambulance, boasted of having had eighty operations and wrote cruel and probably untrue accounts of her husband’s philistine attitude towards her literary friends. She spent her last years in a pink painted hotel apartment in Switzerland. Perrick believes that a sense of apartness, of something disconnected, may have been what gave her poetry its elliptical quality and originality, but played havoc with her life. Her passionate commitment to living her life as a poet was won at the cost not only of her family but of her own health. Her pain was real yet doctors were never able to find a physical cause. Try as she might to be fair – and Perrick has at least rescued the work of a neglected poet, including a selection of her work at the end of the book – the occasional acts of kindness to her children always seem to have had a caveat. Her frequent generosity was marred by acts of meanness and parsimony. It is hard to escape concluding that she was an appalling mother and an awkward and demanding friend.

Towards the end of her life, Sheila was introduced to David Pryce-Jones, then a young writer with the sort of impeccable literary pedigree that appealed to her. She appointed him her literary executor and he and his wife Clarissa visited Sheila in Switzerland and were the occasional recipients of her largesse.

More than once in the 1980’s Sheila warned her children about how dangerous the world had become once again. “There is a lot of neo-fascism around now… alas that Hitlerism is no longer dead,” she wrote to her younger son, Guy, in California. It’s a view loudly echoed by David Pryce-Jones in his extended essay, Betrayal, a shocking indictment of French foreign policy based on detailed research in the archives of the French Foreign ministry (Quai D’Orsay). Pryce-Jones argues that the long standing pro-Arab and anti-Israel line is so entrenched that any diplomat who dares question it faces punishment. He accuses France of betraying its own proud humanistic heritage by its constant support of the Muslim world. The country has had disastrous double standards in its attitude to Arabs and Jews in France and the recent anti-Jewish outrages as well as Muslim rioting in Paris are, he argues, a direct result of France’s Arab policy and its “ingrained opposition to Israel in matters petty or significant.” What Pryce-Jones thinks about France and its behaviour towards Israel is clear. I would love to know more about his views of Sheila Wingfield, Viscountess Powerscourt, and her complex relationship with her Jewish identity.

Anne Sebba’s new biography Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother is published by John Murray in September 2007