According to one of her neighbours in Stoneborough Court on East Budleigh Road, Gwendoline Croysdale (1898-1985), known by her friends as Gwen, was "still tall, elegant and well dressed in her later years." As one would only expect on seeing portraits of this beautiful socialite by fashionable 1920s painters and photographers. I found myself comparing them with Naomi Watts' screen performance of the unfaithful wife in The Painted Veil, forced by her husband as a punishment for her infidelity to accompany him to a cholera-struck backwater of British colonial China.
Depending on your point of view, Gwen Croysdale, also known at various stages of her life as Mrs Gunn and Lady Whinney, could be described as unlucky rather than unfaithful. Some might call her predatory, with an appetite for wealthy husbands of whom she notched up four. Yet both women may be seen to have gained a kind of redemption by the end of their lives. While the Painted Veil wife finds an inner peace by working with nuns to help poor Chinese children Mrs Croysdale apparently became the benefactress of a local convent. She even persuaded its curate, Fr Ralph Gardner, to become her spiritual adviser and live-in companion, making him follow her in her 70th year by converting from Christianity to Buddhism.
The daughter of a gunboat captain, she was born Mary Gwendoline Charlotte Hillman and brought up in China - another echo of the film. Her first husband was Guy Stafford Thorne (1882-1917). A solicitor's son from Wolverhampton, he worked as an engineer for the Kwang Tung Electric Supply Company under the Chinese Government; it may well have been in China that he first met Gwen. They married in 1916 and later that year he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was sent to France. Described as a pilot of exceptional skill and technical knowledge he was mentioned in despatches. On 18 March 1917, charged with a special mission, he was flying over Arras when he was attacked by five enemy aeroplanes. Severely wounded, he managed to land his aircraft with his observer behind enemy lines but was captured and died a few hours later.
In the 1930s Gwen earned herself a reputation in the world of dog-shows, specialising naturally enough in the fashionable Pembroke Welsh Corgis. By 1936 the breed had become personal pets of the Royal Family, and is famed today for being the preferred breed of Queen Elizabeth II.
Later in life, Gwen moved from the Home Counties to Axminster, Devon.
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