An unbiased portrait of a human being held up for scrutiny by the world
Not so long ago, I went to Cinema City in Norwich to see ‘The King’s Speech’, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. I enjoyed the film, and its wider context of British history; I have to say that before seeing it, the events surrounding the abdication of King Edward VIII had never really crossed my mind before. I didn’t recall the abdication being mentioned a great deal when we studied the events leading up to the Second World War at school – so I had no idea how much Edward’s actions – both before and after he met Wallis Simpson – had affected the role of the monarchy, or Britain’s readiness for war.
Since then I have delved into a number of books from the library on the subject, such as Wheeler-Bennet’s ‘King George VI: His Life and Reign’ and ‘Battle Royal: Edward VIII & George VI, Brother Against Brother’ by Kirsty McLeod. Books such as these were informative on the role Wallis played in the abdication, but all seemed to repeat the same negative phrases about her without much factual basis. I also read ‘The Darkness of Wallis Simpson’, a short story in a collection by Rose Tremain. Here was something else – the end of Wallis’ life in isolation and obscurity – the first thing I had read that treated her like a human being rather than a two-dimensional villain. It was shortly after this, in 2011, that Anne Sebba’s biography of ‘That Woman’ was published. I was one of the many jostling to get hold of a copy on the long reservation lists at the library!
Once I began reading it I was impressed by the research done by Sebba; it seemed she had taken great pains to uncover the real facts of Wallis’ life, noting and eliminating the gossip and hearsay along the way. The book benefits from the study and insightful comparison of a wide range of first and second-hand sources – not just the recent discovery of Wallis’ letters to her ex-husband Ernest, but diary extracts, witness accounts, government and royal memos, transcripts of telephone conversations, Wallis’ jewellery collection, film footage, US and UK newspapers and memoirs written by friends. Sebba gives an un-biased account of Wallis – not excusing her actions or denouncing them, but giving reasoned evidence for how and why Wallis gained the reputation she did, giving a picture of the Duchess as the flawed, yet surprising, contradictory character that she was. Sebba paints a vivid picture of the time period that the Duke and Duchess lived in, relating their actions to events happening around them and how they were judged according to the public values of the time. The book does not just uncover the truth behind the ‘love-story’ of Edward and Wallis, but encompasses world politics, history, family bonds, financial affairs, psychoanalysis, royal protocol and even British law. Yet the book remains incredibly readable, with a good sense of pace and humour. The story still has all the elements of scandal and intrigue, sex and money, greed and loss. I had no idea I had absorbed so much information until discussing it afterwards!
Would definitely recommend to anyone interested in the many faces of Wallis – whether Warfield, Spencer, Simpson or Windsor. Fact is often stranger than fiction!