Myers Literary Guide:
NERINA SHUTE (1908 - 2004)
According to Bevis Hillier, on whose obituary notice the following is based, Nerina Shute began writing about films in the 1930s along with fellow reviewers Graham Greene and John Betjeman. Shute was predominantly lesbian, but married twice. In 1930, when she was 22, she shocked many by a novel which contained what she archly called an 'ambisex-trous' woman character, while at 84 she wrote a memoir, Passionate Friendships, in which she was candid about her many love affairs.
Shute was born in Prudhoe, Northumberland. Her father, Cameron Shute, was the ne'er-do-well son of a general, Sir Charles Shute, while her racy mother, née Amy Bertha ('Renie') Pepper Stavely, was of a well-to-do Sussex family.
Shute's mother had six husbands in all, of whom Cameron Shute was the second. She wrote a scandalous novel, The Unconscious Bigamist and when Nerina was 12, her mother took her to live in Hollywood, to try to get the novel filmed. In America, Renie bigamously married a chancer, Captain Mallaby, who bought a goldmine. When Cameron Shute came out to California to investigate the scandal, he and his wife lost most of their inheritance in the mine. Nerina was lonely in Hollywood and at 18 she returned to England on her own and became a typist at the Times Book Club, then studio correspondent of Film Weekly. Her best friend at this time was the playwright Aimée Stuart, with whom she 'talked endlessly about free love and homosexuality'.
In 1930 her first novel, Another Man's Poison, was published. Much of it was based on her mother's adventurous life. Rebecca West wrote in the Daily Telegraph, 'Miss Shute writes not so much badly as barbarously ... Yet she is full of talent.' As a result, Shute was asked to write for the Sunday Graphic, in which she was billed as 'The Girl with the Barbarous Touch'. Lord Beaverbrook gave her a job as a reporter on the Express, but on her own admission she was 'useless' in that role, and was sacked after six months.
In an attempt to escape from her homosexuality, she took up with a doctor, 'Charles,' who had been struck off the medical register for conducting illegal abortions. They lived in Liverpool. Shute bought herself a 'wedding ring' at Woolworth's and deluded relatives showered her with wedding presents. Charles taught her about poetry, politics and sex; but there were too many quarrels, and after six months she returned to her old life in London. She applied to be film critic of the Sunday Referee, where she was taken on at £5 a week. She was then the youngest film critic in Fleet Street. Shute was no cineaste, but knew how to hit off an actor in a deft, often slightly malicious, phrase. After three years, she was fired, because she had offended the Gaumont British group, which owned the Sunday Referee.
By now she was the lover of 'Josephine,' a monocle-wearing Roman Catholic who assured her, 'There is nothing in the Bible against lesbians.' Their affair ended in 1936 when Shute married James Wentworth Day, a Tory journalist. With this 'ugly man of considerable charm' she lived in a panelled house in King Street, St James's, went duck-shooting and fox-hunting. But the marriage lasted only a year. She began living with two women, 'Helen' and 'Andy,' respectively a gynaecologist and a dental surgeon. Then war came. In a radio broadcast of 1940, she met Howard Marshall, a broadcaster known as 'the voice of England' for his cosy chats on cricket and other subjects. In 1944, when Marshall, divorced, was home on leave after covering the D-Day landings, they married.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Shute published three historical novels, based on Fanny Burney, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She loved - and continued to love - Howard Marshall, though the marriage ended after she confessed to him, during a row on New Year's Eve, 1953, that she was having an affair with their French maid. Shute's mother was now on her sixth husband, NoŽl Sparrow. To try to distract him from his alcoholism, Shute took him to ballroom dancing lessons. The instructor was Phyllis Haylor, a strikingly good-looking dancing champion. She became the great love of Shute's life. The two women lived near each other in London and took a holiday cottage together. Haylor died in 1981, aged 77. In 1989, Shute was introduced by a friend to the artist Jocelyn Williams who became her lover and, as Shute's long life neared its end, her devoted carer. Shute's books include a memoir of her mother, Come Into The Sunlight (1957) and a history of the relationship between the Royal Family and the Spencers (published in 1986), just before the greatest crisis in that relationship.
As a young woman she had been an ardent socialist, but later became a fervent Conservative. She was such an unwavering defender of Mrs Thatcher that friends wondered if, perhaps, she had a slight crush on her.