When love turns history on its head

Review: Vivien Horler

The Duchess, by Wendy Holden (Welbeck/ Jonathan Ball)

There are certain news stories where we get the bare bones of what’s going on, but long to know the intimate details, what the people involved said to each other, how they felt – the inside story. (Well, I do.)

The whole matter of the abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII in 1936 is a case in point. My mother, who was a 12-year-old living in Cornwall at the time, never forgave Wallis Simpson for what she did to the royal family, and she wasn’t the only one.

From everyday people to the press, the government and the aristocracy, people felt Wallis Simpson had led their beloved king astray, and deprived them of the monarch they had come to expect. Not only that, Edward’s “selfishness” in choosing love over duty – for he was also vilified – meant his ill-equipped, stammering brother Bertie, who became King George VI, had to step up and face a task neither he nor his family had wanted or prepared for.

A modern generation might wonder – if they care at all – what all the fuss was about. Why couldn’t Edward just have married Wallis and be done? Well, she was twice divorced, for a start, and the king was head of the Church of England, which didn’t recognise divorce. And it didn’t help that she was an American (although many British aristocrats had married American heiresses, including Winston Churchill’s father).

An option was that the couple enter into a morganatic marriage, which would mean while Edward would remain king, his wife would not become queen, and nor would any children be in line to inherit the throne. But the government was against this, as were the Dominions – South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Eire – which made their opinions known.

The whole business was an enormous news story at the time, and the number of books that have been written about it in subsequent years shows there is still appetite for it. And if you think people wouldn’t care today, you’d be wrong. You only have to think of the vilification in the British press of the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle – another American divorcee and black to boot – to know that public opinion has not changed that much in the past 80-plus years.

What author Wendy Holden has done here is taken the basic known facts and written the inside story as it could well have played out. In her acknowledgements, she says that the more she researched the duchess’s life, “the more I started to question the traditional idea of her as a heartless gold-digger who schemed to be Queen of England”.

She adds: “The Wallis that emerges from sources such as her amusing autobiography The Heart has its Reasons, her private letters to Edward and contemporary diarists such as Chips Channon and Diana Cooper is lively, funny, kind, unpretentious and, as the Abdication crisis gathers momentum, increasingly appalled at the situation in which she finds herself. I realised there was enough evidence for a novel presenting her from an entirely new angle.”

And this is what she has done. Her novel opens during Wallis’s honeymoon after her wedding to Ernest Simpson, the heir to a minor and somewhat unprofitable shipping company.

Ernest was kind, loyal, decent and affectionate, and after Wallis’s marriage to the abusive  alcoholic Win Spencer, she was deeply grateful to him. But according to this novel, she never actually consummated the marriage.

Shortly after the wedding, Simpson is sent to run the company’s London office, and Wallis, who is a great admirer of the British aristocracy, of pomp and ceremony and wealth, hopes she will get to meet some interesting people.

After a shaky start, she does. Ernest has a sister in London who does charity work with other society ladies, and through this connection Wallis begins to move in smarter circles. She is stylish, and catches the eye of Cecil Beaton, couturier to the upper classes.

Through Beaton she meets Thelma, Viscountess Furness, also an American and married to Marmaduke, Viscount Furness. Thelma’s claim to fame is that she is the long-time mistress of the Prince of Wales.

An invitation to the Fort, Edward’s miniature castle in Windsor Great Park, follows – and the rest is history.

Interspersed with the chapters on the development of the relationship between Wallis and Edward – David as he was known to his family and friends – are accounts of Wallis returning to England in 1972 for the first time since 1936 to attend David’s funeral. Because although David was never really welcome back in England during his lifetime, in death he was reunited with his family and buried at Windsor, not far from the grave of Queen Victoria. (So, after her death in 1986 , was the duchess.)

If there is a villain in this novel, it is Queen Elizabeth, Bertie’s wife and later the beloved Queen Mother. It is known she was implacably against Wallis after the abdication, blaming her for thrusting her own little family into the royal limelight, but The Duchess indicates that Elizabeth was icy towards Wallis from the first time they met.

I found this novel utterly absorbing – and believable. I think my mum was wrong.



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