What do you know about the Duchess of Windsor? Probably you think you know quite a lot. Certainly the story of the King's Abdication in 1936 has been the subject of so many tv and movie variants that we all have our version of the story. I myself want most of all now to read GONE WITH THE WINDSORS by fellow History Girl Laurie Graham. The interest of the world peaks from time to time, and, for example, when the Duchess's jewels were put up for auction, images of gem-studded flamingos and the like filled the newspapers. The tale of a world well lost for love, the received wisdom about an American gold-digger determined to worm her way on to the throne of Britain are hard to shake in many people's minds.
Anne Sebba, an experienced biographer and also a very good writer, has taken this narrative and through a great deal of research and access to many new documents, including the Duchess's own letters has presented us with a person who's altogether more complicated. She married twice, determined from a very young age not be be poor. Her first (very unhappy) marriage was to a naval officer called Earl Winfield Spencer and she was only 20 when she married him. Ernest Simpson to whom History has given the role of complaisant husband and well-known cuckold, was someone to whom Wallis remained attached in many ways even after she'd begun a relationship with the Prince of Wales. Sebba quotes from letters written by Wallis herself which provide good evidence for the assertion that she was far less keen on Edward than he was on her. She had no wish actually to be Queen and the impetus for the Abdication came both from Edward and also, much more interestingly, from the Establishment which on the face of it were not backward in condemning Wallis as a divorced harpy with an eye to the main chance.
And this was the reason: the Abdication was a consummation devoutly to be wished for political reasons. Edward was far too friendly with Hitler, Mussolini and their cronies and was deemed likely to turn Britain into a Fascist realm if he became King. He was also thought of as practically certifiable by many people and his brother Bertie, later to become George VI, was regarded as much better suited to be a monarch. So, it was to preserve the future of the monarchy that the liaison was outwardly discouraged but tacitly not in the least disapproved of.
The very last page of all in the paperback edition shows a headline from the Daily Express which reads "I am willing to withdraw if such an action would solve the problem." So in this account of Wallis's life, we feel we are getting a glimpse into the motivations of someone who's not in the least what we've been expecting. Sebba is very good at giving us as much medical information as she can. She catalogues the reactions of doctors at Wallis's birth, for instance, where her gender alignment gave some cause for concern. And of course, Sebba deals sensitively with the end of the Duchess's days, under the hawk eye of the lawyer, Suzanne Blum. It's a desperately sad and lonely end and whatever one's feelings about Wallis, it's tragic to think of her wasting away, no more than skin and bone, all alone in that huge house in Paris. I do recommend this book to anyone interested in the period, both for its new insights and also for its intelligent and clear-eyed look at someone who, whatever you think of her, was both a star and conscious of being one. Wallis was, for instance, miffed to have been knocked off the front pages of newspapers by Marilyn Monroe and demanded to know who this person was, who was in the process of attracting to herself so much media attention. It's a fascinating story, very well told.