The life and the legend of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor is the stuff of tabloid gold headlines. She was the woman who beguiled a king enough for him to give up his throne, despite the fact that she was middle aged, twice divorced and not considered beautiful. A gold digger who set out to capture the heart of a weak and vulnerable man, some consider that Wallis actually saved the throne by saving Britain from someone who would’ve been a disastrous King, one with Nazi sympathising tendencies who had to be sent away to the far reaches of the Bahamas during World War Two. But, in a new novel, written by Wendy Holden and published by Welbeck, we see Wallis before the King, and find out something about the woman behind the legend.
The Duchess is the story of Wallis in the years leading up to the abdication. We first meet her when she is newly married to the kind and gentle Ernest Simpson. Ernest is a fellow American, and Wallis seems to love her kindly husband, but is incapable of having a sexual relationship with him due to the abuse she received during her first marriage. Her marriage to Ernest is full of promise, with a move to London and a new home. But it is clear early on that Wallis wants the finer things in life,like an introduction into high society, something Ernest’s much older sister could offer, but seems reluctant to do. The Simpsons are the poor relations, but eventually a lunch date is offered and Wallis is introduced to society photographer Cecil Beaton, and through him, meets the Morgan sisters, Gloria and Thelma. Thelma, aka Lady Furness, is the current mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Wallis and Ernest get an invitation to Fort Belvedere, the Prince’s weekend getaway home. The future of the Royal house of Windsor would never be the same again.
Wendy Holden does so well to make the characters flesh and blood people, and creates a Wallis that elicits both sympathy and frustration. You feel for her loneliness in London, her lack of a role in life, and her initial treatment from the circle she wishes to be part of. But while Holden may have made Wallis seem less the gold digger of legend, and more a woman of great warmth and charm, it still has to be said that she still comes across as the ultimate social climber, one who constantly puts her own husband second whilst jumping to the whims of first Lady Furness, and then the Prince. The Simpson’s really cant afford to be part of this circle financially, and Ernest is never comfortable, but still Wallis plods on, eventually into the Prince’s bed, but still believing she will go back to Ernest when Edward becomes King.
Other characters bring tension into the story, not least the Duchess of York, aka the Queen Mother. The Crown has shown that she was not the saintly character often portrayed, and The Duchess continues this theme, showing her to be snobbish, unfriendly, and possibly deeply jealous woman, who never gave Wallis a chance at friendship.
If you love The Crown, and want to reappraise Wallis Simpson for yourself, then The Duchess is a super absorbing read that you will devour. For me, it didn’t change my views on Wallis, she was a complicated woman who seemed to be unsure of what she really wanted in life, until the decision was made for her.