Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield – a likable poet with no shame

An intelligent biography of fame-hungry Viscountess Powerscourt by Penny Perrick

Sheila Wingfield in Bermuda during the second World War

Sheila Wingfield in Bermuda during the second World War

 

This book, much like its subject, is an oddity. In spite of her impressive CV, Penny Perrick was someone I’d never heard of. As was Sheila Wingfield, although Powerscourt, of which she was the last viscountess, is somewhere I know well – a walk through Powerscourt’s gardens in Co Wicklow is an annual treat for my family.

Wingfield was a fascinating woman, and Perrick presents her with a skilful combination of unbiased precision and real affection. It’s clear Perrick genuinely admires Wingfield’s poetry, yet she presents us with a deeply flawed individual who, above all else, wanted to be famous.

Believing herself to be one of the great poets of her age, Wingfield went to incredible lengths to achieve recognition. Perrick recounts the time Wingfield used praise offered by WB Yeats in a private letter as a covering quotation for her first collection, without his permission.

The torture and strife poetry caused Wingfield, mentally and physically, is addictive reading

What makes Wingfield so thoroughly likable is the fact that, in spite of her gushing apologies and claims of ignorance at the time, as soon as Yeats died, she continued using the quotation on her covers for decades to come. Her shamelessness is breathtaking, and Perrick relays her ballsy antics with wry respect.

There’s something unpolished in Perrick’s writing style that proves both disarming and comforting. It gives the book a fresh feeling, as though someone with an awful lot of knowledge and a genuine love for her subject is offering an informative, off-the-cuff lecture.

This is a deceptively intelligent book, never inaccessible, showing exceptional empathetic understanding. There are endless interesting anecdotes, as well as a thorough overview of life in Ireland in the turbulent 20th century (most obviously focusing on the sad decimation of so many of Ireland’s big houses).

At the heart of it all, there’s Wingfield, who, above all else, lived and breathed poetry. The torture and strife it caused her, mentally and physically, is addictive reading for anyone who struggles with the fine balance of trying to make art and trying to live well.

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