Anne Chisholm

Rampant fascism near Henley

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Sherman’s Wife: A Wartime Childhood Among the English Aristocracy

Julia Camoys Stonor

Desert Hearts, pp. 347, £

There can seldom have been a better first sentence in a book by a daughter about her mother: ‘“Heil Hitler!” shouted Mummy as she pushed Daddy down the stairs at Assendon Lodge.’ Even better, the next few lines reveal that the second world war was in progress at the time, Daddy was in uniform, and the author was watching and listening from her hiding place under the said stairs.

Alas, the rest of the book fails to live up to its brilliant opening. This is a pity, because Julia Camoys Stonor has a bloodcurdling tale to tell and a monstrous parent to describe; and apart from taking the lid off her family, she has a serious purpose — to indicate just how strong, in certain pre-war English upper-class circles, sympathy for Hitler and Franco could be. This fact is not, of course, unknown; but with proper editing her book could have filled in another corner of the tapestry and been useful to historians. Repetitive and at times wildly overwritten, it reads, instead, as if it has not been edited at all.

Nevertheless it is quite a story. Julia Stonor’s mother, Jeanne, née Stourton, was a society beauty from a well-connected tribe of Catholic grandees. Jeanne’s flighty mother had an affair with a Spanish aristocrat, Pedro de Zulueta, who was acknowledged to be Jeanne’s father; one of her great-uncles was the Spanish ambassador in London in the 1930s, and another was a cardinal and adviser to two Popes. By her daughter’s account, the dark-haired, volatile Jeanne, with her rapacious appetite for money and sex, her complete disregard for convention, her alarming mendacity and her streak of cruelty, exhibited all the faults the English like to associate with the Spanish; oddly, even the photographs in this book give her the alarming look of a Goya cartoon. She boasted of being an ‘aristo Spanish bastard’ and was much given to shouts of ‘Olé’.

As a mother, Jeanne seems to have been simply appalling. Julia grew up feeling not just unloved but despised, constantly ridiculed for being fat and boring, and for being ‘Sherman’s tedious brat’. Sherman was her mild, browbeaten father, whom Jeanne, according to their daughter, only married because his rich American mother, Mildred (known to her daughter-in-law as ‘Mildew’), had bailed out Stonor Park, the family estate in Oxfordshire, and because the love of her life had just been killed covering the Spanish Civil War (from the Franco side, of course).

Jeanne loathed country life and amused herself by seducing the neighbours, including her husband’s father, then the 5th Baron Camoys, and the local MP. Little Julia was surrounded by ‘guns and uncles’ — even during the war there were frequent house and shooting parties, sustained by Jeanne’s skilful working of the black market in Henley. As a child she was painfully devoted to her red-nailed, chain-smoking, perfumed mother, and would scuttle off to make her another Horse’s Neck (brandy and ginger ale) even though the little gold swastikas dangling from the charm bracelet would make frequent slaps quite painful.

Julia Stonor’s account of upper- class fascism is unrestrained. Her mother’s friends and connections were mostly ragingly right-wing, anti-Semitic and pro-Franco, as upper-class Catholics tended to be, and pillars of the Right Club and the Anglo-German federation. Jeanne always maintained that her lover, Dick Sheepshanks, reporting for Reuters in Spain, was murdered in her presence by the undercover Philby, acting under Russian orders; she enjoyed repeating horror stories about maltreatment of priests by the Republicans. She was also a close friend, and possibly a lover, of Hitler’s social-climbing ambassador, Ribbentrop — and arranged for her honeymoon to be at Ribbentrop’s castle near Berlin, where, as she would often recall, Sherman’s alarm at his surroundings rendered him impotent. Nevertheless, Julia was the eldest of five children.

The trouble is that Julia Stonor, like her mother, goes too far. One example will suffice: it is simply wrong to call Nancy Astor and her son Bill ‘wildly anti-Semitic and openly pro-Nazi’. The Cliveden story is more complicated and more interesting than that. And for all Jeanne’s wickedness — and Julia produces some horrifying tales of intrigue and blackmail, including the suggestion that her mother was responsible for the suicide of Cecil Beaton’s brother Reggie, and strongly implies that she may have poisoned Sherman — she clearly retained both friends and admirers. One wonders, too, at the capacity of a child born in 1939 to recall words spoken during the war.

It has long been no secret that Julia Stonor is at odds with the rest of her family, and this book contains no mention of her brother, the present Lord Camoys, a highly respectable banker and royal servant who lives at Stonor, from where Julia is excluded. This book is unlikely to mend the family feud. It is hard, though, not to sympathise with the bullied and angry little girl who has waited a long time to have her say. She is said to be working on a sequel.